I’ve been a little surprised by how many times I have read comments about Pope Francis’s Evangelii Gaudium in recent weeks that start out something like this: “I have to admit, I’ve never read a papal encyclical the whole way through. I usually skim them and rely on what’s reported about their contents in the Catholic Press. But boy, once I got started on Evangelii Gaudium, I could not stop. It was the first one I really read all the way through.”
This has come not just from regular lay folks, who would not be expected to pore over church documents, but “professional Catholics” who know a lot about what’s in these documents. (Not that I much blame them, I suppose; these things are typically not exactly beach reading.)
So let me start out — in honesty and, if possible, humility — like this: I have read, over the last 20 years or so, a lot of papal documents: old ones and new ones; encyclicals, apostolic letters, apostolic exhortations; front to back, opening greeting to concluding blessing. Dozens and dozens of them. I have studied them, written about them, prayed with them, taught from them. I have done this mainly out of a fascination and a deep appreciation of the role of the magisterium in articulating, proclaiming, and defending the Gospel of Jesus.
Don’t get me wrong: I fully realize that these documents are not Spirit-breathed like we would say the Bible is, that encyclicals are a fairly new genre on the landscape of church history, and that there is plenty in them that reflects the times in which they were written or the limitations of the popes who signed them as much as the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Still, they are an important way that the church of God has proclaimed the Good News — sometimes in compelling or beautiful or influential ways — to the people of a given time, and in some ways, to the ages.
I have sometimes been deeply moved and inspired by reading these documents. I have distinct memories, for example, of reading through Paul VI’s Evangelii Nuntiandi, John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae, and also his Tertio Millennio Adveniente with a palpable excitement, inspiration, and — it would not be exaggerating to say — awe. I have read others with great disappointment and frustration; Pope Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate, for example, offers important and challenging teaching in prose that is unsatisfying and at times impenetrable, and John Paul II’s Ordinatio Sacerdotalis is disappointing for its uncharacteristic (of JP2) failure to offer a thorough and compelling explanation for the reasons behind its teaching. Mostly, though, they are sometimes interesting, sometimes boring, often dry.
All this to say: I have read a lot of papal documents, and there is no papal document quite like Pope Francis’s Evangelii Gaudium.
There are, admittedly, a few moments where EG is overly verbose and dense. What the heck was Francis thinking when he came up with that line about “self-absorbed promethean neopalagianism” (n. 94)? He makes in that paragraph a powerful and important point that is probably obscured by the prose.
But far more often, EG is personal, simple, and even downright lyrical. There’s this, for example:
This is why I want a Church which is poor and for the poor. They have much to teach us. Not only do they share in the sensus fidei, but in their difficulties they know the suffering Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them. The new evangelization is an invitation to acknowledge the saving power at work in their lives and to put them at the centre of the Church’s pilgrim way. We are called to find Christ in them, to lend our voice to their causes, but also to be their friends, to listen to them, to speak for them and to embrace the mysterious wisdom which God wishes to share with us through them. (n. 198)
Thanks to our bodies, God has joined us so closely to the world around us that we can feel the desertification of the soil almost as a physical ailment, and the extinction of a species as a painful disfigurement. (n. 215)
And good heavens, this:
We love this magnificent planet on which God has put us, and we love the human family which dwells here, with all its tragedies and struggles, its hopes and aspirations, its strengths and weaknesses. The earth is our common home and all of us are brothers and sisters. (n. 183)
And one more:
We have a treasure of life and love which cannot deceive, and a message which cannot mislead or disappoint. It penetrates to the depths of our hearts, sustaining and ennobling us. It is a truth which is never out of date because it reaches that part of us which nothing else can reach. Our infinite sadness can only be cured by an infinite love. (n. 265)
For those who might be uncomfortable with the church’s social teaching and wonder why the church can’t just stay out of politics and economics and stick to helping me save my own soul — and we have seen many such comments in the media, both secular and Catholic, since this document’s appearance — EG offers an answer that is crisp and clear: “The kerygma has a clear social content: at the very heart of the Gospel is life in community and engagement with others” (n. 177). Not a peripheral matter, not distinct from the real concerns of the foundational Christian doctrines, and not the unfortunate hobby of misguided liberals: life in community is at the very heart of the Gospel. “Our redemption has a social dimension” (n. 178). The Catholic faith is “the Gospel of fraternity and justice!” (n. 179). “God wants his children to be happy in this world too” and forthat reason “Christian conversion demands reviewing especially those areas and aspects of life related to the social order” (n. 182).
It is true that there’s very little in this encyclical that has not been said before by Pope Benedict, Pope John Paul II, Pope Paul VI, Pope John XXIII, Pope Leo XIII, Blaise Pascal, St. John Chrysostom, St. Augustine, Jesus, St. Paul, Jeremiah, or Amos (to name just a few that I thought of repeatedly while reading). But he says it in a fresh, vibrant, and down-to-earth way that is made even more compelling and effective by his own personal actions and ministerial “style.”
There will be more to say about EG later, no doubt. For now a word of deep appreciation and thanksgiving. Also a prayer that its words sink more deeply into my own heart and marrow. I would be a changed person if they did.