December 6, 2013


‘The Joy of the Gospel’

Last week, we reported that Pope Francis wrote a 50,000-word apostolic exhortation called “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”), released on Nov. 26. That’s about 224 pages in book form, so it gives us a lot to contemplate.

Basically, though, Pope Francis is stressing that we must evangelize by emphasizing and practicing, in the first words of the document, “the joy of the Gospel [that] fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus.”

We can’t do that if we’re always severe, the pope said. “An evangelizer must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral.” The Gospel is the Good News about Jesus, so it should be proclaimed joyfully.

That means that we must emphasize the positive, whenever possible, and not get bogged down in arguments about so-called social issues. That doesn’t mean, though, that we must ignore those issues, and the Holy Father doesn’t. “A human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development,” he wrote.

Here in the United States, the Church must defend its teachings about those social issues. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) mandate—requiring Church-related institutions to provide employee health coverage that includes abortifacients, contraception and sterilization—was thrust upon the Church.

And the current highly organized campaign for redefining traditional marriage to include same-sex couples requires the Church to defend its teaching that, although homosexuals must not be discriminated against, they also have no right to change the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman.

Engaging in those battles, although necessary, is not going to attract more people, especially the young, to the Church. That’s why Pope Francis says, “I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them.”

Jesus had a love for the poor, and Pope Francis has demonstrated that he has, too. He said before, and he repeats in the exhortation, that the Church “must be poor and for the poor.” Perhaps not enough publicity has been given to all that the Catholic Church does for the poor—locally, nationally and internationally.

People can be attracted to the Church by witnessing the ways it serves the poor. This doesn’t mean just handouts, the pope said. “It means working to eliminate the structural causes of poverty and to promote the integral development of the poor. This means education, access to health care and, above all, employment.”

Some challenges in today’s world can be seen from the subtitles in the pope’s exhortation—no to an economy of exclusion, no to the new idolatry of money, no to a financial system which rules rather than serves, no to the inequality which spawns violence.

Pope Francis also laments the divisions among Catholics. Under the heading “No to warring among ourselves,” he says, “Some are even no longer content to live as part of the greater Church community but stoke a spirit of exclusivity, creating an ‘inner circle.’ Instead of belonging to the whole Church in all its rich variety, they belong to this or that group which thinks itself different or special.”

Perhaps surprisingly, the pope devotes 25 paragraphs to the preaching of the homily. He wrote, “The homily is the touchstone for judging a pastor’s closeness and ability to communicate to his people. We know that the faithful attach great importance to it, and that both they and their ordained ministers suffer because of homilies: the laity from having to listen to them and the clergy from having to preach them! It is sad that this is the case.”

He then gives suggestions for better homilies, based on careful study of the Scriptures and respect for the principle of brevity. It strikes us that preachers could profit by emulating Pope Francis in this regard.

The pope often stresses the importance of mercy when it comes to sexual morality, and he does so again in this exhortation. He warns against overemphasizing certain teachings at the expense of more essential truths.

There’s a great deal more in this exhortation, but the basic message is that we must respond joyfully to the God of love proclaimed by the Gospels.

—John F. Fink

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