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Pope Francis gives us a blueprint for his pontificate [News analysis]

November 26, 2013

[News Analysis by CWN Editor Phil Lawler]

With his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis gives the world not only a guide to the “new evangelization” but also an outline of his plans for Church reform—the program for his pontificate.

Evangelii Gaudium [“The Joy of the Gospel”], released to the public on November 26, is a lengthy document, in which the Holy Father does his utmost to scan the entire field of Church missionary activity from every perspective. But he continually returns to a few central themes.

Evangelization, the Pope insists, is the very essence of the Church’s mission. The drive to share the Good News of the Gospel is fueled—as the title of this apostolic exhortation suggests—by the joy that believers find in their faith. Today, the Church must convey that joy to a troubled world.

As he makes this argument, Pope Francis also gives readers a clear sense of how he intends to approach his task of bringing reform to the Vatican, and promoting constructive change in the universal Church. His plan is to encourage a new sense of urgency, to pare down bureaucratic structures and attitudes. In a sentence that encapsulates his approach to reform, he writes: “Pastoral ministry in a missionary key seeks to abandon the complacent attitude that says: “We have always done it this way.”

Father Roger Landry, a Massachusetts pastor and gifted preacher, captured the message nicely, I think, when he said: “Pope Francis says that the fundamental reform the Church needs is from one of self-preservation of Church structures to a permanent state of mission.”

A hybrid text

Evangelii Gaudium is not the first major written work of this pontificate; Pope Francis has already given us Lumen Fidei. But as the Holy Father readily acknowledged, Pope Benedict XVI began the drafting of that encyclical, and the final product was a sort of hybrid, reflecting the work of both current of former Pontiffs. Evangelii Gaudium, on the other hand, is entirely the work of Pope Francis.

Nevertheless this papal document is a hybrid in another sense. Ordinarily an apostolic exhortation summarizes the themes that have emerged from discussions at a meeting of the Synod of Bishops. Evangelii Gaudium grew out of the October 2012 session of the Synod, which was devoted to the new evangelization. But Pope Francis, newly installed on Peter’s throne, said that he wanted to place the recommendations of the Synod in a broader framework.

The result is, unfortunately, a very long document. No doubt the Pontiff was presented with a summary of the themes that arose in the Synod discussions, and did his best to incorporate them all. At times that effort led the Pontiff to stray from his main focus, or to circle back to subjects that he had already discussed. The sheer length of the resulting text (222 pages, in the version released by the Vatican) will discourage many readers.

However, readers who take the time to read this apostolic exhortation—or even the opening passages, which provide a good sense of the Pope’s overall message—will be rewarded. Pope Francis can write with great energy, and the text is liberally sprinkled with short, highly quotable passages. (To illustrate, I have reproduced a few of those passages below.)

The writing style of Pope Francis is very different from that of his immediate predecessors. I feel confident in saying (although I have not made an exhaustive search) that this is the first papal document in which the official English translation contains the word “sourpusses.”

Transforming the Church

Introducing the papal document at a press conference in Rome, Archbishop Rino Fisichella, the president of the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization, said: “Pope Francis offers this document to the Church as a map and guide to her pastoral mission in the near future.” In other words, the apostolic exhortation sets forth the Pope’s plans for this pontificate. Indeed the title of the first chapter, “The Church’s Missionary Transformation,” could almost be taken as this Pope’s goal for the Church he leads.

“There are ecclesial structures which can hamper efforts at evangelization,” Pope Francis writes; “yet even good structures are only helpful when there is a life constantly driving, sustaining and assessing them.” He is determined to streamline the organization of the Church in order to stimulate, rather than retard, apostolic activity.

In those plans for reform, the Pope explicitly recognizes the need to decentralize. The Vatican, he says, exists to help diocesan bishops, not to control them. He proposes a greater role for episcopal conferences, to stimulate efforts at the national level rather than always looking to Rome. “Excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church’s life and missionary outreach,” the Pope writes.

The papacy itself should be reformed, Pope Francis continues, in the hope of stimulating ecumenical unity. He cites the desire of Blessed John Paul II to find a way of exercising the Petrine ministry that would preserve papal primacy while allowing full scope for the authority of diocesan bishops. “We have made little progress in this regard,” Pope Francis laments.

The heart of the message

The bulk of Evangelii Gaudium is devoted to the challenge of evangelization. Pope Francis provides a rich variety of useful suggestions for pastors and for lay people who wish to share their faith. In what may be the most detailed, practical section of the document, he focuses at length—“somewhat meticulously,” as he himself puts it—on how priests should prepare their homilies.

But here too, the Pope continually returns to a few main themes. He stresses that the faith is spread not by human efforts but by God’s grace. Faith is a gift, he writes, and “whenever we take a step towards Jesus, we come to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms.”

While he encourages energetic efforts to spread the Gospel message, the Pope is scornful of efforts to “circle the wagons” and preserve the institutional prestige of the Church. He is critical of any Catholic who “would rather be the general of a defeated army than a mere private in a unit which continues to fight.”

The recurring theme of the Pope’s advice is that effective evangelization springs from a joyous recognition of God’s gratuitous gift of Himself. The Christians who convey the faith effectively, he writes, are those who convey that sense of joy. “Instead of seeming to impose new obligations, they should appear as people who wish to share their joy, who point to a horizon of beauty and who invite others to a delicious banquet.”


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  • Posted by: unum - Nov. 27, 2013 6:34 AM ET USA

    Phil, Thanks for the helpful overview. I was moved by, “Instead of seeming to impose new obligations, they should appear as people who wish to share their joy, who point to a horizon of beauty and who invite others to a delicious banquet.” Words to live by!