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Let the New Evangelization Begin


Jeffrey Bruno

Angelo Matera - published on 12/01/13

If Bl. John Paul II and Benedict XVI set the theological groundwork for the new evangelization, Pope Francis is implementing it. Are you ready to evangelize the world?

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:

“Divinely sent to the nations of the world to be unto them "a universal sacrament of salvation," the Church, driven by the inner necessity of her own catholicity, and obeying the mandate of her Founder (Mark 16:16), strives ever to proclaim the Gospel to all men. The Apostles themselves, on whom the Church was founded, following in the footsteps of Christ, "preached the word of truth and begot churches."It is the duty of their successors to make this task endure "so that the word of God may run and be glorified (2 Thess. 3:1) and the kingdom of God be proclaimed and established throughout the world.

“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:

“The good news is the joy of the Father who desires that none of his little ones be lost, the joy of the Good Shepherd who finds the lost sheep and brings it back to the flock. The Gospel is the leaven which causes the dough to rise and the city on the hill whose light illumines all peoples. The Gospel has an intrinsic principle of totality: it will always remain good news until it has been proclaimed to all people, until it has healed and strengthened every aspect of humanity, until it has brought all men and women together at table in God’s kingdom…” (237)

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). [278] which permeates Evangelii Gaudium, and gives it an almost martial tone:

“Nobody can go off to battle unless he is fully convinced of victory beforehand. If we start without confidence, we have already lost half the battle and we bury our talents. While painfully aware of our own frailties, we have to march on without giving in, keeping in mind what the Lord said to Saint Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9).” (85)

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:

“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.”

Then he ends by setting forth his purpose:

“In this Exhortation I wish to encourage the Christian faithful to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by this joy, while pointing out new paths for the Church’s journey in years to come.”

He then proceeds, in the second paragraph, to diagnose the world’s joyless condition—and the remedy:

“The great danger in today’s world, 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. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ.”

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…

“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; 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”.  The Lord does not disappoint those who take this risk; whenever we take a step towards Jesus, we come to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms. Now is the time to say to Jesus: “Lord, I have let myself be deceived; in a thousand ways I have shunned your love, yet here I am once more, to renew my covenant with you. I need you. Save me once again, Lord, take me once more into your redeeming embrace”. How good it feels to come back to him whenever we are lost! Let me say this once more: God never tires of forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy. Christ, who told us to forgive one another “seventy times seven” ( Mt 18:22) has given us his example: he has forgiven us seventy times seven. Time and time again he bears us on his shoulders. No one can strip us of the dignity bestowed upon us by this boundless and unfailing love. With a tenderness which never disappoints, but is always capable of restoring our joy, he makes it possible for us to lift up our heads and to start anew. Let us not flee from the resurrection of Jesus, let us never give up, come what will. May nothing inspire more than his life, which impels us onwards!”

… and receive the strength necessary to evangelize the world:

“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?”

Throughout the exhortation, he gives advice and correction on various pastoral challenges.

Our faith should sustain us in difficulties:

“…I realize of course that joy is not expressed the same way at all times in life, especially at moments of great difficulty. Joy adapts and changes, but it always endures, even as a flicker of light born of our personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved.”

Why long-term change is better than short-term fixes:

“One of the faults which we occasionally observe in sociopolitical activity is that spaces and power are preferred to time and processes. Giving priority to space means madly attempting to keep everything together in the present, trying to possess all the spaces of power and of self-assertion; it is to crystallize processes and presume to hold them back. Giving priority to time means being concerned about initiating processes rather than possessing spaces. Time governs spaces, illumines them and makes them links in a constantly expanding chain, with no possibility of return. What we need, then, is to give priority to actions  which generate new processes in society and engage other persons and groups who can develop them to the point where they bear fruit in significant historical events. Without anxiety, but with clear convictions and tenacity.”

The importance of translating ideas into action based on reality:

“Realities are greater than ideas. This principle has to do with incarnation of the word and its being put into practice … Not to put the word into practice, not to make it reality, is to build on sand, to remain in the realm of pure ideas and to end up in a lifeless and unfruitful self-centeredness and gnosticism.”

Why prayer should always be connected to works:

“The Church urgently needs the deep breath of prayer, and to my great joy groups devoted to prayer and intercession, the prayerful reading of God’s word and the perpetual adoration of the Eucharist are growing at every level of ecclesial life. Even so, “we must reject the temptation to offer a privatized and individualistic spirituality which ill accords with the demands of charity, to say nothing of the implications of the incarnation”. There is always the risk that some moments of prayer can become an excuse for not offering one’s life in mission; a privatized lifestyle can lead Christians to take refuge in some false forms of spirituality.”

His “locker room speech” for when the going gets tough:

“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. It means believing that he marches triumphantly in history with those who “are called and chosen and faithful” (Rev 17:14). Let us believe the Gospel when it tells us that the kingdom of God is already present in this world and is growing, here and there, and in different ways: like the small seed which grows into a great tree (cf. Mt 13:31-32), like the measure of leaven that makes the dough rise (cf. Mt 13:33) and like the good seed that grows amid the weeds (cf. Mt 13, 24-30) and can always pleasantly surprise us. The kingdom is here, it returns, it struggles to flourish anew. 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, for Jesus did not rise in vain. May we never remain on the sidelines of this march of living hope!” (278)

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.

FaithJesus ChristLiturgyPope Benedict XVIPope FrancisPope John Paul II
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