All people are searching for the Ultimate Good, which is God. Pope Francis has just exhorted us to joyfully bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to every person.
“The man who knocks on the door of the brothel is looking for God.” –G.K. Chesterton
The Holy Spirit is afoot in powerful and insistent ways. Yesterday Pope Francis publicly released his first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”). An “apostolic exhortation” is a special genre of papal writing in which the pope encourages the faithful to undertake a certain activity; unlike an “encyclical,” an apostolic exhortation does not define Church doctrine. In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis encourages the faithful, energized by the Year of Faith just concluded, to take up with renewed intensity the work of the “New Evangelization.”
“The great danger in today’s world,” proclaims Francis at the beginning of the exhortation, “pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience.” In brief, we live in the midst of a great spiritual malaise, and the task of the New Evangelization is to treat this illness with the joy of Christ. Indeed, an encounter with the very person of Jesus Christ–not with an idea, philosophy, or political program–is the point and purpose of the New Evangelization.
This past Sunday, on the Feast of Christ the King, the bishop of the Arlington Diocese here in Northern Virginia where I live, Most Rev. Paul S. Loverde, released his own pastoral letter on the New Evangelization: "Go Forth with Hearts on Fire." It is a lovely and inspiring document, beautifully produced as well, in which Bishop Loverde also expresses alarm concerning our culture’s spiritual malaise. He observes that when he was ordained a priest just ten days after the close of the Second Vatican Council, “2 in 10 marriages ended in divorce. Abortion was illegal. Fewer than 300,000 Americans were incarcerated.” But by contrast today, “2 in 10 pregnancies end in abortion, over 1 million annually…4 in 10 marriages end in divorce…marriage and the family are in the process of being redefined…and one in 31 adult Americans is in prison or on probation.”
Our pastors are exhorting us to step forward and address our culture’s needs with greater urgency. A significant part of this task is the task of listening. I have not had time so far to do more than skim Evangelii Gaudium, but one section of the document immediately caught my attention, and struck me as particularly imbued with the spirit and tone of Pope Francis. It’s a section entitled “An ear to the people.” At this point in the exhortation Francis is talking about homiletics. He stresses the need for the priest “to keep his ear to the people and discover what it is that the faithful need to hear.” This act of deep, loving listening allows the priest to make a real connection to the hopes, aspirations and sufferings of his people. Then, in a marvelous sentence, Pope Francis remarks:
“Let us keep in mind that we should never respond to questions that nobody asks.”
I love that line. Though Francis’s words in this context are primarily directed at priests delivering their homilies in the context of Mass, they can apply, more generally, to all of us who seek to communicate the truth of God to others. The New Evangelization is about spreading the Word. Yet this spreading of the Word must be undertaken in a way that allows that Word to be the answer to a question already burning in the hearts and minds of those who hear it.
Which brings us to the man you’ve been waiting for: the man going into the brothel. Chesterton’s bon mot takes us aback because it is a paradox. Obviously, the man going into the brothel is not looking for God; he’s looking for the pleasures of the brothel. But this is true only on the level of the man’s deliberate intention. On a deeper level, at the very core of his heart’s longing, he’s looking for God. He may be a card-carrying atheist. He may spend his days trying to disabuse religious believers of their mythical notions. But evangelization, new or old, presupposes the fact that this man going into the brothel, along with every other human being, naturally desires a fulfillment that can only be perfectly found in Christ.