“Catholic scholars have taken the dynamite of the Church, have wrapped it up in nice phraseology, placed it in an hermetic container and sat on the lid. It is about time to blow the lid off so the Catholic Church may again become the dominant social dynamic force." – Peter Maurin, co-founder with Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Movement
With his new document, the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium —The Joy of the Gospel—Pope Francis continues to captivate the world with his radical Gospel message and his vision of Church renewal.
Commentators have been especially receptive towards two of the Pope’s main themes: his scathing criticism of unrestrained capitalism and economic injustice, and his program for Church reform, especially decentralizing Church authority.
But the secular media in particular has missed what is the driving force behind the Pope’s call for justice in the world and renewal in the Church—evangelization. Or, as the subtitle of the document states: “…the proclamation of the Gospel in today’s world.”
From day one of his election, the secular world—including liberal Catholics dissatisfied with the Pope’s predecessors—has been so enthralled by the Pope’s humble manner, frugal lifestyle, ecumenical gestures, and outreach to the outcast, that they’ve missed the missionary zeal that pervades every aspect of his life, and every page of Evangelii Gaudium. They’ve averted their eyes from the fact that it is Pope Francis’ evangelizing faith that makes him special—and so human—like his namesake St. Francis. It’s the Pope’s faith in Jesus Christ that gives him a heart for the poor, and the zeal to reform the Church. And he wants to share his faith in Jesus Christ with every man, woman and child on earth.
Like the ancient story of the chicken and the egg, it’s impossible to separate Pope Francis’ desire to do good works—help the poor, reach the outcast, enhance the dignity of the women, and so on—from his strong faith and his desire to not only preach the Gospel, but build Christ’s kingdom here on earth—a goal explicitly proclaimed throughout the documents issued from the Second Vatican Council held in the early 1960s. Here is one example from the opening of the council decree Ad Gentes, On the Missionary Activity of the Church:
“In the present state of affairs, out of which there is arising a new situation for mankind, the Church, being the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matt. 5:13-14), is more urgently called upon to save and renew every creature, that all things may be restored in Christ and all men may constitute one family in Him and one people of God.”
For Pope Francis, a Church that is burdened by bureaucracy and corruption, lukewarm in its faith, and silent about how “the least among us” are mistreated, is betraying Jesus Christ. Only a poor and missionary Church that models Christ’s sacrificial love can be a credible witness to the Gospel.
In Evangelii Gaudium, the Pope calls Catholics to renew the Church by embracing Christ’s cross, in joy and hope, working for the good of the world. This is how the early Christians spread the faith. Their mutual love led Romans to observe: “See how they love one another.” Their commitment to the truth of Jesus Christ, even to the point of martyrdom, made them effective missionaries. Here is one of several passages in
Evangelii Gaudium that expresses the Pope’s missionary spirit:
When Pope Francis says in Evangelii Gaudium that “[i]t is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but ‘by attraction,’” that does contradict or reduce the urgency of the Church’s world-historical mission. Since Vatican II, the Church has had a deeper understanding of human freedom and its role in salvation history. Spreading the Gospel by appealing to each person’s freedom—by example and through respectful dialogue—is what makes Evangelii Gaudium beautiful instead of frightening. It’s about proposing, not imposing. It gives new meaning to Christ’s explanation of his mission: “And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself." (John 12:32)
A Church that is humble and poor is no less zealous in proclaiming the world-historical mission of Jesus Christ. That’s why it’s no surprise that Evangelii Gaudium was issued on November 25, the Feast of Christ the King, a solemnity established by Pope Pius XI in 1925 to make clear to the rising atheistic powers of the time that Christians owed their primary allegiance to Christ.
In his Christ the King homily, Pope Francis, in continuity with his predecessors, called Christians to recognize that “Jesus is the centre of creation; and so the attitude demanded of us as true believers is that of recognizing and accepting in our lives the centrality of Jesus Christ, in our thoughts, in our words and in our works. When this centre is lost, when it is replaced by something else, only harm can result for everything around us and for ourselves.”
“Christ,” he concluded, “is the centre of the history of the human race and of every man and woman.”
The Pope’s faith in the reality of Jesus Christ was reflected in his interview with the atheist Eugenio Scalfari, when he said “…there is no Catholic God, there is God and I believe in Jesus Christ, his incarnation.” In other words, his faith is not a matter of subjective belief, but of real knowledge, based on the fact of God’s presence in human history.
When we really believe in the objective truth of our faith—that God exists and is objectively present in the universe, in history, in the Church, and in the hearts of every human person—we’re free to love without judgment, and dialogue without fear, because truth’s existence doesn’t depend on us. We’re called to teach and defend the truth—as Pope Francis has done unequivocally on doctrine—but to love and accept people unconditionally. The state of a person’s conscience is a mystery that can only be judged by God. Our job is to follow Christ, carry his cross, and witness to his love.
It is this certitude that God “marches triumphantly in history with those who ‘are called and chosen and faithful’ (Rev 17:14).  which permeates Evangelii Gaudium, and gives it an almost martial tone:
Evangelii Gaudium contains the Pope’s marching orders to the members of the Church, issued with an astonishing pastoral specificity. It’s a 50,000-word strategic plan for delivering on Christ’s Great Commission: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations … teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you." (Matthew 28:19-20)
No one should be scandalized by military analogies. Remember, the Pope took the name of St. Francis, and he is a Jesuit, an order founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola.
What did St. Francis and St. Ignatius have in common? They were both soldiers before their conversions, and they founded the two most aggressive evangelizing orders in the history of the Church.
Likewise, Jorge Bergoglio’s leadership skills and pastoral genius have been evident throughout his life. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he extended the Church’s influence into the slums of that city, sending out priests to live among the people, and launching a numerous apostolic projects. His “management by walking around”—traveling throughout the city by foot and public transit—kept him close to his flock. By the time he left the archdiocese, it’s said that fifty percent of the residents had met him. During the conclave, Bergoglio’s incisive critique of the Church and its pastoral difficulties won the cardinals over. Within just a few weeks of his election, he had begun to reverse the world’s negative perception of the Church, and begun a reform of corrupt and inefficient Church structures.
With Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis puts the fruits of his pastoral experience at the service of the Church and the world. He sets the tone with a brilliantly succinct opening statement:
Then he ends by setting forth his purpose:
He then proceeds, in the second paragraph, to diagnose the world’s joyless condition—and the remedy:
And he extends an invitation to believers to renew their faith in Christ, rooted in the joy that comes from God’s love and forgiveness…
… and receive the strength necessary to evangelize the world:
Throughout the exhortation, he gives advice and correction on various pastoral challenges.
Our faith should sustain us in difficulties:
Why long-term change is better than short-term fixes:
The importance of translating ideas into action based on reality:
Why prayer should always be connected to works:
His “locker room speech” for when the going gets tough:
During the conclave Vatican commentator John Allen made a prescient observation. He said that Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI had provided a solid theological foundation for the Church’s New Evangelization. It was now time for a Pope who knew how to translate their work into action. With Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis has given us his plan to do that. It may finally be time to “blow the dynamite” of the Church.