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The New Apostolic Exhortation: Bothersome in more ways than one!

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 26, 2013

There is only so much one can say about Pope Francis’ new apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), before we come up against the fact that this is a post-synodal text from which only a relatively few people are going to benefit. As with the other exhortations of this type over the years, the vast bulk of it is occupied with putting in some sort of order nearly every insight offered at the Synod of Bishops which occasioned the document. For this reason, it often seems that the main benefit is going to be for each individual participant who scans through the document until his eyes eagerly alight on the little point that can be attributed to himself.

This is an unfortunate result of the established synodal pattern, which begins with a working document, unfolds through a long discussion among a representative sampling of the world’s bishops, and culminates in an apostolic exhortation summarizing what, if anything, has been gained. One sympathizes with Pope Francis in this, for not only did he inherit this particular synod, but he has also expressed his determination to reform the entire process.

Still, the Pope’s own voice emerges clearly here and there. If you want to gain the main thrust of Pope Francis’ call to evangelization without laboriously reading an over-long and inevitably disjointed document, I recommend reading Chapter One (“The Church’s Missionary Transformation”) and Chapter Five (“Spirit-Filled Evangelizers”). These are the first and last chapters, in which the Pope is saying pretty much what he wants to say. The middle chapters are occupied by what amounts to a summary of all the diverse points raised at the Synod. The Pope does not explain this, and sometimes his unique voice is heard, but in general, it is very obviously a simple exercise in accumulation.

Even when Francis seems to be emphasizing something fairly dear to his own heart, the numerous intermediate points are touched only lightly and without any particular analytical rigor. The center of the document thus becomes the occasion for tossing in the proverbial kitchen sink, canvassing both the spiritual and the sociological dimensions of the Christian life along with the major obstacles to it in our own time, and covering everything from how to prepare a good homily to the implementation of Catholic social teaching. Again, this is no cause for discontent, still less for alarm: All the post-synodal exhortations are like this.

Renewal and Evangelization

Different commentators will find different favorite quotations, and they will also be struck by different overall impressions. But I came away from Evangelii Gaudium with a considerable reinforcement of one aspect of the New Evangelization which has been growing clearer the more we reflect on it: Evangelization and Renewal are becoming nearly synonymous terms.

This is hardly surprising, for the Gospel is obviously the root of the Catholic Faith. Insofar as we are renewed in that faith, we will share the Gospel; insofar as we are moved to share the Gospel, we will find that our faith has been renewed. The two go hand in hand; one is a mirror of the other. And what we see in the various documents issued on this topic is that a thorough exhortation to evangelization always requires a review of the wellsprings and habits of the Christian life, just as any discussion of authentic renewal leads directly to a willingness to share the Faith with others.

Interestingly, I had just read my own bishop’s local contribution on this topic the night before Evangelii Gaudium was released. Bishop Paul Loverde of Arlington, Virginia issued his own pastoral letter on the New Evangelization, entitled Go Forth with Hearts on Fire, available both online and in a useful and attractive booklet, which was sent to every registered Catholic in the diocese. More tightly focused than the post-synodal exhortation, Go Forth with Hearts on Fire is very much intended to be used as a combination handbook for personal renewal and effective evangelization. It roots evangelization firmly in a sound spiritual life.

I find it significant that evangelization and renewal are now so closely linked, as I believe this tells us something about the slow maturation of Catholic reform over the past few decades. As I have frequently stated, it has been a hard slog and there is still a long way to go. But the coupling of these concepts is in itself a substantial demonstration that we have come a very long way in the right direction. The fact that so many within the Church are ready to think seriously about evangelization in the context of our own secularized lives and our own secularized culture is, I think, a harbinger of Spring.

One Spiritual Nugget

To return to the Pope’s exhortation, however, I was particularly impressed by one of the simplest sentences in it, though I want to emphasize that this sentence presupposes that we are talking about the sharing of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Here it is: “Evangelization consists mostly of patience and disregard for the constraints of time.” How true in practice this proves to be! So often what prevents us from effectively reaching out to another is our refusal to drop what we are “doing”, and to truly “be for” that person, when their receptivity may be greater than we assume. Francis goes on to explain:

Faithful to the Lord’s gift, [an evangelizing community] also bears fruit. An evangelizing community is always concerned with fruit, because the Lord wants her to be fruitful. It cares for the grain and does not grow impatient at the weeds. The sower, when he sees weeds sprouting among the grain does not grumble or overreact. He or she finds a way to let the word take flesh in a particular situation and bear fruits of new life, however imperfect or incomplete these may appear. [24]

“The disciple is ready to put his or her whole life on the line, even to the point of martyrdom, in bearing witness to Jesus Christ,” Francis writes, “yet the goal is not to make enemies but to see God’s word accepted and its capacity for liberation and renewal revealed.” And he is quite right in singling out “patience and the disregard for the constraints of time”. After all, most of us are not called upon to sacrifice our lives, but our time. We do not like being interrupted in our own private plan of life. We are far too busy. We regard it as a dreadful bother.

And there’s the rub. It is just that simple. We are called by Our Lord and Savior…to be bothered.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: koinonia - Nov. 27, 2013 8:06 AM ET USA

    I have found in personal experience that some of the most intriguing conversations with some of the most intriguing individuals have been initiated by "bothering" to initiate conversation when the effort to do so seemed excessive or too time-consuming. Out of the mutual silence emerged envigorating conversation. A realization of our commonality as sojourners in this world again made possible by eliciting conversation in the face of awkward silence- embracing the challenge "to be bothered."

  • Posted by: - Nov. 27, 2013 12:27 AM ET USA

    We also have to accept that we may not necessarily see the fruit of our evangelization. However, we can take comfort in the promise that nothing will be wasted (John 6). Every outreach that was spurned, every program that appeared to fail, every word that seemed to fall on deaf ears, when offered for the glory of God, is never forgotten by The Lord. Every crumb, every tear that falls to the ground will be gathered up by God at the end of time. Heaven is where God shows us the fruits of our labors.