Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Joy of the Gospel

Pope Francis' newly issued Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium is officially his response to the 2012 Synod on the New Evangelization. It is that, to be sure, but it is much, much more. Repeating some of the themes and phrases familiar already from his famous interview and from his homilies and other utterances, EG is in effect an outline of his program for his papacy. Maybe even more than a program, it might better be called his "I have a dream" document. In fact, amid all the inevitable technical and theological language such documents demand, he actually uses the "dream" image: I dream of a “missionary option”, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation. [27]

Popes typically issue a first encyclical that summarizes and sets the tone for their papacy (at least as envisaged at that moment). But this Pope's first encyclical was actually his predecessor's last one. So the post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation became Pope Francis' vehicle for expressing his programatic ideas and plans. And this particularApostolic Exhortation is plenty long and takes time to read - and even more to digest -  despite his own sensitivity to a perceived contemporary aversion to documents.   I am aware that nowadays documents do not arouse the same interest as in the past and that they are quickly forgotten. Nevertheless, I want to emphasize that what I am trying to express here has a programmatic significance and important consequences. I hope that all communities will devote the necessary effort to advancing along the path of a pastoral and missionary conversion which cannot leave things as they presently are. “Mere administration” can no longer be enough. Throughout the world, let us be “permanently in a state of mission”. [25]

Because of its length - and the seriousness of its substance - I must defer significant commentary until after the holiday. A few preliminary points are worth mentioning now, however. 

Initial media coverage - while for the most part positive - has tended to highlight the media's predictable preoccupations. Thus, we learn from the  media that the Exhortation reaffirms the Church's teaching on the evil of abortion and the impossibility of ordaining women to the priesthood. But, of course, this is only news for those who mistakenly believe such teachings are subject to change. It is clear that the Pope is not preoccupied with endlessly restating Church doctrine. He has immediate pastoral priorities of the life and mission of the Church he wants to focus on. But, of course, if he neglected to mention those doctrinal matters, the media care so much about, the media would obsessively infer some sort of change. Hence the need to repeat them - a repetition that the media then emphasizes rather than emphasizing the substance of the document.

That said, it is clear - even from the media coverage - that this is a very personal document , written very much in Francis's distinctive style, and that it is written to challenge the Church to look outside itself and its recent ad intra preoccupations, so as to be simultaneously more missionary and more merciful. It is, after all, a document about evangelization, which inherently requires outreach and recalibrating one's pastoral methods and activities to make such outreach possible and effective. (Hence, an interesting emphasis on the improvement of preaching). In keeping with the Pope's consistently expressed priorities, outreach to the poor plays an important part, including a critique of capitalist economics and globalization (no surprise to anyone who has ever paid any serious attention to traditional Church teaching on such matters).  There is also a renewed emphasis on the need for internal Church reform in the form of some degree of decentralization, although what that might actually mean in practice is much less clear. (But the Pope does seem to be positively disposed toward the contributions of national Bishops' Conferences.)

A lot to think about this holiday weekend and in this holiday season, which is itself the pre-eminent season of joy and the time when the secular world is likely most receptive to the good news of the Christian story.

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