'The Incredulity of Saint Thomas' by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Via Wikimedia Commons

The Primacy of Joy

On the fifth anniversary of the election of Pope Francis, we offer an annotated reading of Evangelii Gaudium to help grasp the essence his "programmatic text" and today's task for all men and women.
Stefano Alberto

Pope Francis has often described Evangelii Gaudium as the “programmatic text” of his pontificate, asking all of the faithful to read, meditate on, and assimilate its content. Therefore, now that five years have passed since his election, as we seek to understand how he is changing the Church and how is asking each of us to change, it’s worth reviewing the key points of the text. Looking at all its components will allow us to appreciate the Pope’s outlook of deep faith, his fidelity to Church teaching and Tradition and, at the same time, the novelty of an approach that is able to account for the seriousness of the challenges we face in this time of “epochal change.” This is the best response both to those who have expressed difficulties with what they see as a doctrinal “weakness” in the Pope’s teachings as well as those who downplay their significance, limiting their impact to a few sociological or political consequences.

The Apostolic Exhortation, which was published on November 24, 2013, was the fruit of the work at the XIII Ordinary Synod of Bishops convened by Benedict XVI, which took place in Rome in October 2012 on the theme “The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith.” The text incorporates many of the contributions of the synod fathers, interpreting them in the light of the Council–especially Lumen Gentium and Dei Verbum–and the teachings of Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI.

The real heart of the document is contained right in the opening sentence: “The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew.”

From the beginning, there is a clear invitation to every Christian, “everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since ‘no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord’ […]. God never tires of forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy.”

Joy flows forth from the encounter with Christ, who manifests God’s infinite love for us. This is the true nature of Christianity. In a rather significant statement, Francis cites the opening of Pope Benedict XVI’s first Encyclical in the opening paragraphs: “I never tire of repeating those words of Benedict XVI which take us to the very heart of the Gospel: ‘Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction’ (Deus Caritas Est, 1).”

“Thanks solely to this encounter–or renewed encounter–with God’s love, which blossoms into an enriching friendship, we are liberated from our narrowness and self-absorption. We become fully human when we become more than human, when we let God bring us beyond ourselves in order to attain the fullest truth of our being. Here we find the source and inspiration of all our efforts at evangelization. For if we have received the love which restores meaning to our lives, how can we fail to share that love with others?”

It would be a mistake to consider a Christian’s mission a heroic personal responsibility, “For it is first and foremost the Lord’s work, surpassing anything which we can see and understand. Jesus is ‘the first and greatest evangelizer’ (Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, 7). In every activity of evangelization, the primacy always belongs to God.”

And if everyone “has the right to receive the Gospel,” then Christians have “the duty to proclaim the Gospel without excluding anyone. 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. It is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but ‘by attraction,’” Francis reminds us, citing Benedict XVI’s famous speech in Aparecida in 2007. John Paul II, too, “asked us to recognize that ‘there must be no lessening of the impetus to preach the Gospel’ to those who are far from Christ, ‘because this is the first task of the Church’ (Redemptoris Missio, 34).”

Following this, Francis proposes a few directives for the missionary activities of the Church, divided into five chapters.

The reform of the Church in her missionary outreach
(Chapter I, §§ 20-49)

Francis immediately introduces one of the themes most dear to him. A Church that obeys Jesus’s missionary mandate is a “Church which goes forth”; in other words, “a community of missionary disciples who take the first step, who are involved and supportive, who bear fruit and rejoice. An evangelizing community knows that the Lord has taken the initiative, he has loved us first (cf. 1 Jn 4:19), and therefore we can move forward, boldly take the initiative, go out to others, seek those who have fallen away […]. Such a community has an endless desire to show mercy, the fruit of its own experience of the power of the Father’s infinite mercy.”

All this requires a deep and continual conversion, an “openness to a constant self-renewal born of fidelity to Jesus Christ,” from the last to be baptized up to the Pope, and this applies to our way of communicating the Gospel message, as well. “Pastoral ministry in a missionary style is not obsessed with the disjointed transmission of a multitude of doctrines to be insistently imposed. […] The message has to concentrate on the essentials, on what is most beautiful, most grand, most appealing and at the same time most necessary.”

Here, Pope Francis reiterates the Council’s clarification regarding the “hierarchy” of truth in Catholic doctrine, including her moral teaching: “All revealed truths derive from the same divine source and are to be believed with the same faith, yet some of them are more important for giving direct expression to the heart of the Gospel. In this basic core, what shines forth is the beauty of the saving love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ who died and rose from the dead.

The Gospel, the Pope underlines, invites us first and foremost to “respond to the God of love who saves us […]. Under no circumstance can this invitation be obscured! All of the virtues are at the service of this response of love. If this invitation does not radiate forcefully and attractively, the edifice of the Church’s moral teaching risks becoming a house of cards, and this is our greatest risk.” We can never lose the realism of acknowledging that this proclamation is incarnated within human limits: “Today’s vast and rapid cultural changes demand that we constantly seek ways of expressing unchanging truths in a language which brings out their abiding newness […]. With the holy intent of communicating the truth about God and humanity, we sometimes give them a false god or a human ideal which is not really Christian. In this way, we hold fast to a formulation while failing to convey its substance. This is the greatest danger.”

Consequently, a Church “which goes forth” is a Church with its doors wide open. “Everyone can share in some way in the life of the Church; everyone can be part of the community, nor should the doors of the sacraments be closed for simply any reason. This is especially true of the sacrament which is itself ‘the door:’ Baptism […]. If the whole Church takes up this missionary impulse, she has to go forth to everyone without exception.”

This leads up to one of the most famous passages in the document: “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”

The context in which we live: challenges and temptations
(Chapter II, §§ 52-110)

What should be the true outlook of a Christian on “the context in which we all have to live and work,” without falling into a diagnostic overload or sociological reductionism?

We are living through “an epochal change, a turning-point in history,” the Pope asserts, and, while acknowledging the success and progress that has contributed to people’s well-being in various realms; we still cannot forget that “the majority of our contemporaries are barely living from day to day, with dire consequences.”

Here, his denouncement of society takes on weight, like that of an Old Testament prophet, in response to certain grave situations and often anonymous new forms of power. He states a clear “no” to a number of phenomena. Above all, “no” to an economy of exclusion: “Such an economy kills. […] Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded.” Then, a “no” to the new idolatry of money (“The current financial crisis can make us overlook the fact that it originated in a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person!”), to “a financial system which rules rather than serves,” and to “the inequality that generates violence.

Among other challenges the Church must face in carrying out her mission, Francis highlights attacks on religious freedom and new instances of persecution against Christians: “This not only harms the Church but the fabric of society as a whole.” Furthermore, “The process of secularization tends to reduce the faith and the Church to the sphere of the private and personal […]. [It’s a] form of moral relativism that is joined, not without inconsistency, to a belief in the absolute rights of individuals. In this view, the Church is perceived as promoting a particular prejudice and as interfering with individual freedom.”

As sons and daughters of their time, Christians are influenced by the dominant culture just as their contemporaries are. Consequently, the way they live and act is conditioned by certain temptations. And “so the biggest threat of all gradually takes shape: ‘the gray pragmatism of the daily life of the Church, in which all appears to proceed normally, while in reality faith is wearing down and degenerating into small-mindedness’ (Ratzinger).”

We cannot, however, give in to a “sterile pessimism,” but rather must continually rediscover the “new relationships brought by Christ.” The Christian ideal “will always be a summons to overcome suspicion, habitual mistrust, fear of losing our privacy, all the defensive attitudes which today’s world imposes on us […]. The Gospel tells us constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction […]. The Son of God, by becoming flesh, summoned us to the revolution of tenderness.” Today’s challenge is not so much atheism but “the need to respond adequately to many people’s thirst for God, lest they try to satisfy it with alienating solutions or with a disembodied Jesus who demands nothing of us with regard to others.”

Otherwise, giving in to the spiritual worldliness that “hides behind the appearance of piety and even love for the Church,” will lead to “seeking ‘one’s own interests, not those of Jesus Christ’ (Phil 2:21).”

Pope Francis delineates two of the forms this worldliness takes: the attraction of Gnosticism, “a purely subjective faith whose only interest is a certain experience or a set of ideas and bits of information which are meant to console and enlighten, but which ultimately keep one imprisoned”; and the “self-absorbed promethean neopelagianism of those who ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules […]. In neither case is one really concerned about Jesus Christ or others.”

The Church as the totality of the people of God that evangelizes the world
(Chapter III, §§ 111-176)

The Pope dedicates a section to evangelization and to the Church, which “is more than an organic and hierarchical institution; she is first and foremost a people advancing on its pilgrim way towards God.” He writes, “The salvation which God offers us is the work of his mercy. No human efforts, however good they may be, can enable us to merit so great a gift […]. Benedict XVI put it nicely at the beginning of the Synod’s reflections: ‘It is important always to know that the first word, the true initiative, the true activity comes from God and only by inserting ourselves into the divine initiative, only by begging for this divine initiative, shall we too be able to become–with him and in him–evangelizers.’”

This salvation “which God has wrought, and the Church joyfully proclaims, is for everyone.” Because of this, “The Church must be a place of mercy freely given, where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live the good life of the Gospel.”

Francis then invites us to a continual rediscovery of the significance of Baptism for our lives: “In virtue of their baptism, all the members of the People of God have become missionary disciples […]. Every Christian is a missionary to the extent that he or she has encountered the love of God in Christ Jesus.” The experience of the encounter with Christ is communicated person-to-person in the course of life, through new encounters every day. The Holy Spirit enriches the Church working within the hearts of all who are baptized and through the gift of different charisms at the service of a communion which evangelizes. “They are not an inheritance, safely secured and entrusted to a small group for safekeeping; rather they are gifts of the Spirit integrated into the body of the Church, drawn to the center which is Christ and then channeled into an evangelizing impulse.”

According to Francis, it is fundamental that proclaiming Christ means showing “that to believe in and to follow him is not only something right and true, but also something beautiful, capable of filling life with new splendor and profound joy.”

The social dimension of evangelization
(Chapter IV, §§ 177-261)

Pope Francis opens with the consideration that the proclamation of the Gospel “has a clear social content: at the very heart of the Gospel is life in community and engagement with others. The content of the first proclamation has an immediate moral implication centered on charity.” Later, he writes, “No one can demand that religion should be relegated to the inner sanctum of personal life. […] An authentic faith–which is never comfortable or completely personal–always involves a deep desire to change the world.”

He focuses on two major issues that seem to be fundamental at this moment in history: the inclusion of the poor in society, and peace and social dialogue.

1. The inclusion of the poor in society. Our concern for integral development of those most abandoned by our society flows “from our faith in Christ, who became poor, and was always close to the poor and the outcast,” and he immediately reminds us that, “God’s heart has a special place for the poor, so much so that he himself ‘became poor’ (2 Cor 8:9).” And further: “The entire history of our redemption is marked by the presence of the poor. Salvation came to us from the ‘yes’ uttered by a lowly maiden from a small town on the fringes of a great empire […]. He assured those burdened by sorrow and crushed by poverty that God has a special place for them in his heart: ‘Blessed are you poor, yours is the kingdom of God’ (Lk 6:20); he made himself one of them: ‘I was hungry and you gave me food to eat,’ and he taught them that mercy towards all of these is the key to heaven.”

This leads to a crucial observation: “For the Church, the option for the poor is primarily a theological category rather than a cultural, sociological, political or philosophical one. God shows the poor ‘his first mercy’ (John Paul II).” This divine preference “has consequences for the faith life of all Christians, since we are called to have ‘this mind… which was in Jesus Christ’ (Phil 2:5). Inspired by this, the Church has made an option for the poor which is understood as a ‘special form of primacy in the exercise of Christian charity’ […]. 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. […] 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.”

This attention should also be directed toward new forms of poverty “in which we are called to recognize the suffering Christ”: “the homeless, the addicted, refugees, indigenous peoples, the elderly who are increasingly isolated and abandoned, […] migrants […], unborn children, the most defenceless and innocent among us.” The dignity “of each human person and the pursuit of the common good,” Francis reminds us, “are concerns which ought to shape all of politics,” a realm that, though “often denigrated, remains a lofty vocation and one of the highest forms of charity, inasmuch as it seeks the common good.”

2. The common good and peace in society. “Becoming a people demands […] an ongoing process in which every generation must take part: a slow and arduous effort calling for a desire for integration and a willingness to achieve this through the growth of a peaceful and multifaceted culture of encounter.” To make progress in building a people, the Pope points to “four principles related to constant tensions present in every social reality. These derive from the pillars of the Church’s social doctrine,” and they are like the compass for his “political” thought. They are, in order, “Time is greater than space”; “Unity prevails over conflict”; “Realities are more important than ideas”; and “The whole is greater than the part.”

Evangelization must also include “a path of dialogue.” In particular today, there are three areas of dialogue in which the Church “needs to be present […]: dialogue with states, dialogue with society–including dialogue with cultures and the sciences–and dialogue with other believers who are not part of the Catholic Church.” And the premise behind this dialogue is “respect for religious freedom, viewed as a fundamental human right.”

Evangelizing with the Spirit
(Chapter V, §§ 262-288)

At the end of the Exhortation, Pope Francis returns, with profound, personal notes and an insistence that reflects intense faith, to the most basic foundations of the mission and nature of Christianity. In fact, Christians today are called to look to the one Origin–Christ present–and to the origins of their own history. “We do well to keep in mind the early Christians and our many brothers and sisters throughout history who were filled with joy, unflagging courage and zeal in proclaiming the Gospel. Some people nowadays console themselves by saying that things are not as easy as they used to be, yet we know that the Roman empire was not conducive to the Gospel message, the struggle for justice, or the defense of human dignity. […] Let us not say, then, that things are harder today; they are simply different. But let us learn also from the saints who have gone before us, who confronted the difficulties of their own day.”

The primary motivation behind the witness of Christians in such a difficult context is the personal encounter with the saving love of Jesus: “The primary reason for evangelizing is the love of Jesus which we have received, the experience of salvation which urges us to ever greater love of him. What kind of love would not feel the need to speak of the beloved, to point him out, to make him known?”

Each time we make that discovery of Christ present today, in person, “we become convinced that it is exactly what others need, even though they might not recognize it […]. Sometimes we lose our enthusiasm for mission because we forget that the Gospel responds to our deepest needs, since we were created for what the Gospel offers us: friendship with Jesus and love of our brothers and sisters.”

The point, the Pope observes, is that, “It is impossible to persevere in a fervent evangelization unless we are convinced from personal experience that it is not the same thing to have known Jesus as not to have known him, not the same thing to walk with him as to walk blindly […], to find our peace in him, as not to.” Therefore, “In union with Jesus, we seek what he seeks and we love what he loves. In the end, what we are seeking is the glory of the Father […]. If we wish to commit ourselves fully and perseveringly, we need to leave behind every other motivation. This is our definitive, deepest and greatest motivation, the ultimate reason and meaning behind all we do.”

As we relate to the world around us, we are always called to offer the reasons for our hope, “but not as an enemy who critiques and condemns […]. Benedict XVI has said that ‘closing our eyes to our neighbor also blinds us to God’ (Deus Caritas Est, 16) […]. Whenever our eyes are opened to acknowledge the other, we grow in the light of faith and knowledge of God.”

The deep wellspring of our hope, the Pope reminds us once again, is the risen Christ in all His glory, present here and now: “Christ’s resurrection is not an event of the past; it contains a vital power which has permeated this world. Where all seems to be dead, signs of the resurrection suddenly spring up. It is an irresistible force.” And faith “also means believing in God, believing that he truly loves us, that he is alive, that he is mysteriously capable of intervening, that he does not abandon us and that he brings good out of evil by his power and his infinite creativity. […] Christ’s resurrection everywhere calls forth seeds of that new world; even if they are cut back, they grow again, for the resurrection is already secretly woven into the fabric of this history.”

However, “because we do not always see these seeds growing,” he notes, “we need an interior certainty, a conviction that God is able to act in every situation, even amid apparent setbacks […]. This certainty is often called ‘a sense of mystery.’ It involves knowing with certitude that all those who entrust themselves to God in love will bear good fruit (cf. Jn 15:5). […] We can know quite well that our lives will be fruitful, without claiming to know how, or where, or when. […] We know only that our commitment is necessary.”

Deep down, perhaps this is the most critical point in Pope Francis’s teaching. His words and gestures constantly bring us back here, to this awareness: “Let us learn to rest in the tenderness of the arms of the Father amid our creative and generous commitment. Let us keep marching forward; let us give him everything, allowing him to make our efforts bear fruit in his good time.”