Thursday 28 November 2013

The Joy of the Gospel

In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis lays out a vision for his pontificate, much as John Paul II did in Redemptor Hominis (although the latter was an encyclical and the former is an Apostolic Exhortation).

It begins with a call to joy through a renewed encounter with the risen Lord. It includes a reiteration of John Paul’s appeal for help in transforming the papacy itself—a “conversion of the papacy” and of the “central structures of the universal Church”, all of which “need to hear the call to pastoral conversion” (n. 32). He clarifies many of the remarks he has made in interviews since the election, which have been widely misinterpreted. Sections 34 to 39 are particularly helpful, where he speaks of the “hierarchy of truths” (citing St Thomas Aquinas and Vatican II) and the priority of the virtue of mercy.

The Pope also points out that theology, doctrine, and pastoral practice (and the way they are expressed) continue to develop. “For those who long for a monolithic body of doctrine guarded by all and leaving no room for nuance, this might appear as undesirable and leading to confusion. But in fact such variety serves to bring out and develop different facets of the inexhaustible riches of the Gospel” (nn. 40-41).

In this brief summary of some of the main points of the Exhortation, which does not claim to cover everything of importance, I will begin by mentioning some of the most controversial.

Social Teaching
A number of paragraphs are devoted to economic, social, and political issues. This is not a social encyclical (see n. 184) and therefore the treatment must be somewhat cursory, but the basic outlines are clear. Francis condemns the “throw-away culture”, a culture of exclusion, and the idea that wealth will “trickle down” to the poor from the rich (it sometimes does, but hardly enough), the idolatry of money, the obsession with consumption, the accumulation of debt, and the spread of corruption, calling for a financial reform based on a firm grasp of ethics (nn. 53-59). “We can no longer trust in the unseen
forces and the invisible hand of the market. Growth in justice requires more than economic growth, while presupposing such growth: it requires decisions, programmes, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality” (n. 204).

He points out that inequality and unbridled consumerism corrode the social fabric and lead to violence (nn. 59-60). The hope for peace, however, lies in the human heart unified by the Holy Spirit: “If hearts are shattered in thousands of pieces, it is not easy to create authentic peace in society” (n. 229). He speaks of the way ideas and ideologies mask and distort reality (n. 231-33). Connected with this is the importance of the local and the small (n. 235)—Francis elevates the polyhedron over the sphere, because the sphere implies an erosion of differences, whereas the polyhedron (with its multitude of facets) preserves the distinctiveness of many social, cultural, and economic elements (n. 236).

In another section he speaks of our role in the defence of unborn human life (n. 213-214)—“a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development”—and as custodians of nature (n. 215). With regard to the latter, he writes, “Thanks to our bodies, God has joined us so closely to the world around us that we can feel the desertification of the soil almost as a physical ailment, and the extinction of a species as a painful disfigurement. Let us not leave in our wake a swath of destruction and death which will affect our own lives and those of future generations.”

Evangelization of Culture
The Exhortation is about "a new phase of evangelization", and the above themes are situated within this context. In a similar way he mentions the integration of faith and reason, faith and science (nn. 242-43, and see also nn. 132-34). If reason arrives at a conclusion it cannot refute, faith cannot contradict it. Nevertheless scientists often exceed their competence in making statements that cannot be proved. Ecumenical dialogue between Christians is also “an indispensable path to evangelization” (n. 246) through an “exchange of gifts” sown by the Holy Spirit. “If we really believe in the abundantly free working of the Holy Spirit, we can learn so much from one another!” (n. 246).

Francis also reaffirms the Church’s teaching on other religions (nn. 247-53), with an emphasis on Judaism and Islam. “Non-Christians, by God’s gracious initiative, when they are faithful to their own consciences, can live ‘justified by the grace of God’, and thus be ‘associated to the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ’.” Some commentators have seen this as going further than the teaching of the Second Vatican Council in Nostra Aetate or later clarifications such as Dominus Iesus, but he is saying only that God’s grace can work outside the Church, and can justify those whose rejection of Christianity is non-culpable. This "associates" them with the paschal mystery; but it still means that no one is saved except through the sacrifice of Christ (and these are members of the Church even if they are unaware of the fact).

What is interesting, and does perhaps go slightly further than previous teaching, is what he says next—that “due to the sacramental dimension of sanctifying grace, God’s working in them tends to produce signs and rites, sacred expressions which in turn bring others to a communitarian experience of journeying towards God. While these lack the meaning and efficacy of the sacraments instituted by Christ, they can be channels which the Holy Spirit raises up in order to liberate non-Christians from atheistic immanentism or from purely individual religious experiences” (n. 254). This suggests that the actual forms projected by these other religions—their rites and practices—have a sacred quality, in the sense that they lead whole communities in the direction of God. Francis is careful to distinguish these rites from sacraments, but he calls them “channels” for the Holy Spirit. They lack the "efficacy"of the sacraments, because they can only lead us "in the direction of God", not bring us all the way. They can liberate from atheism and individualism, but whether we are also "saved" more comprehensively (from death and sin) depends on God.

This enables us to find a place for other religions in the economy of salvation, not simply to dismiss them as an elaborate form of “invincible ignorance”. They may even be seen as a helpful provocation to Christians. “The same Spirit everywhere brings forth various forms of practical wisdom which help people to bear suffering and to live in greater peace and harmony. As Christians, we can also benefit from these treasures built up over many centuries, which can help us better to live our own beliefs.” Here the Pope speaks again of social dialogue, including the fundamental right to religious freedom, which includes the right to manifest those beliefs in public life, not just privately.

The Pope speaks of the dangers of what has come to be known as fundamentalism (n. 250), and the need for mutual respect and genuine reciprocity. “We Christians should embrace with affection and respect Muslim immigrants to our countries in the same way that we hope and ask to be received and respected in countries of Islamic tradition. I ask and I humbly entreat those countries to grant Christians freedom to worship and to practice their faith, in light of the freedom which followers of Islam enjoy in Western countries! Faced with disconcerting episodes of violent fundamentalism, our respect for true followers of Islam should lead us to avoid hateful generalizations, for authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence” (n. 253).

The Pope’s statements on social dialogue as an essential element of evangelization even incorporate people of no particular belief. “As believers, we also feel close to those who do not consider themselves part of any religious tradition, yet sincerely seek the truth, goodness and beauty which we believe have their highest expression and source in God. We consider them as precious allies in the commitment to defending human dignity, in building peaceful coexistence between peoples and in protecting creation” (n. 257).

The Way of Beauty
The central section of the Exhortation, Chapter 3, contains rich instructions on the methods and spirit of Christian evangelization—the “proclamation of the Gospel”—and the role of the Holy Spirit therein. He begins with an ecclesiology, describing the Church as a People of God animated by the Spirit and incorporating diverse cultural expressions. The presence of the Spirit gives the People “an instinct of faith—sensus fidei—which helps them to discern what is truly of God…. a certain connaturality with divine realities, and a wisdom which enables them to grasp those realities intuitively, even when they lack the wherewithal to give them precise expression” (n. 119). The missionary activity of the People finds expression not only in the “preaching” of the Gospel to those we met, but in popular piety, and in both cases is driven by the presence of the Holy Spirit (n. 122), who distributes the many diverse charisms in the Church (n. 132).

A substantial section is devoted to the art of the homily. Here the Pope reminds us that the Church is more than a People; she is a Mother (n. 139, cf. nn. 103-104), who “preaches in the same way that a mother speaks to her child, knowing that the child trusts that what she is teaching is for his or her benefit, for children know that they are loved”. The “mother tongue” of the Church is a kind of music that she sings to us—the music of the Gospel (n. 141). The Spirit sets hearts afire, evoking our desire for “the Father who awaits us in glory” (n. 144).

From preaching, the Pope goes on to discuss the way we can understand the Word of God more deeply—through study, by living the faith, and lectio divina. This leads into a discussion of catechesis (n. 163ff), including mystagogy (n. 166), which has been neglected in recent years—and the “way of beauty”. Lest we should think that this refers simply to the use of prettier artworks in our churches, he adds: “This has nothing to do with fostering an aesthetic relativism which would downplay the inseparable bond between truth, goodness and beauty, but rather a renewed esteem for beauty as a means of touching the human heart and enabling the truth and goodness of the Risen Christ to radiate within it” (n. 167).

The essence of evangelization lies in our relationship with the other, the neighbour. He is the “sacred ground” before whom we remove our sandals (n. 169), listening with utmost patience in order to accompany him spiritually. “In other words, the organic unity of the virtues always and necessarily exists in habitu, even though forms of conditioning can hinder the operations of those virtuous habits. Hence the need for ‘a pedagogy which will introduce people step by step to the full appropriation of the mystery’” (n. 171).

The Four Pillars
Because evangelization concerns the building up of a supernatural society, the Pope then returns to the social dimension of the Gospel; specifically, “the inclusion of the poor in society, and second, peace and social dialogue” (n. 185). This means “working to eliminate the structural causes of poverty and to promote the integral development of the poor, as well as small daily acts of solidarity in meeting the real needs which we encounter” (n. 188). The Pope believes that “openness to the transcendent can bring about a new political and economic mindset which would help to break down the wall of separation between the economy and the common good of society” (n. 205).
“Economy, as the very word indicates, should be the art of achieving a fitting management of our common home, which is the world as a whole. Each meaningful economic decision made in one part of the world has repercussions everywhere else; consequently, no government can act without regard for shared responsibility. Indeed, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find local solutions for enormous global problems which overwhelm local politics with difficulties to resolve. If we really want to achieve a healthy world economy, what is needed at this juncture of history is a more efficient way of interacting which, with due regard for the sovereignty of each nation, ensures the economic well-being of all countries, not just of a few” (n. 206).
Francis describes four pillars on which the Church’s social doctrine rests. “Progress in building a people in peace, justice and fraternity depends on four principles related to constant tensions present in every social reality” (n. 221).

(1) The first is that “time is greater than space”. This means we can work slowly but surely, without being obsessed with immediate results” (n. 223). “Giving priority to time means being concerned about initiating processes rather than possessing spaces” (n. 223).

(2) The second is that “unity prevails over conflict”. The peacemaker is often the one who faces the conflict head on, and finds unity on a higher plane (n. 228). “The message of peace is not about a negotiated settlement but rather the conviction that the unity brought by the Spirit can harmonize every diversity. It overcomes every conflict by creating a new and promising synthesis. Diversity is a beautiful thing when it can constantly enter into a process of reconciliation and seal a sort of cultural covenant resulting in a ‘reconciled diversity’” (n. 230).

(3) “Realities are more important than ideas”—a principle based on the central mystery of our faith: the incarnation of the Word. In our weakness and foolishness, we mask reality with “angelic forms of purity, dictatorships of relativism, empty rhetoric, objectives more ideal than real, brands of ahistorical fundamentalism, ethical systems bereft of kindness, intellectual discourse bereft of wisdom” (n. 231). “Ideas disconnected from realities give rise to ineffectual forms of idealism and nominalism, capable at most of classifying and defining, but certainly not calling to action. What calls us to action are realities illuminated by reason. Formal nominalism has to give way to harmonious objectivity. Otherwise, the truth is manipulated, cosmetics take the place of real care for our bodies” (n. 232).

(4) “The whole is greater than the part.” Here the Pope is speaking about the “tension between globalization and localization” (n. 234). Both are needed, but the local must not be reduced to a “museum of local folklore”. “The whole is greater than the part, but it is also greater than the sum of its parts…. We need to sink our roots deeper into the fertile soil and history of our native place, which is a gift of God. We can work on a small scale, in our own neighbourhood, but with a larger perspective” (n. 235). It is here that the Pope affirms the polyhedron over the sphere as an image of unified diversity.

The Holy Spirit in the New Evangelization
Jesus wants us to “proclaim the good news not only with words, but above all by a life transfigured by God’s presence” (n. 259). That means we must be transfigured by the Holy Spirit, and that is the theme of the final chapter of the Exhortation.

“What is needed is the ability to cultivate an interior space which can give a Christian meaning to commitment and activity” (n. 262). An “interior space”—precisely the action of the Holy Spirit, who opens in us the “secret room” where we can pray to the Father, and from which we can go out to renew the face of the earth. Evangelization depends upon having a “contemplative spirit” (n. 264), an openness to God at the centre of each soul.

This is the same as to say that it depends on friendship with Jesus, on living with him, and knowing him. Pope Francis is concerned to give the Church a new understanding of the reasons for evangelization. Why do we proclaim the Gospel? The reason is actually very simple. “We have a treasure of life and love which cannot deceive, and a message which cannot mislead or disappoint. It penetrates to the depths of our hearts, sustaining and ennobling us. It is a truth which is never out of date because it reaches that part of us which nothing else can reach. Our infinite sadness can only be cured by an infinite love” (n. 265).

This truth is a Presence that does not disappoint—in whom and with whom we devote ourselves entirely to the praise of the Father. But in that life of praise we are not seeking to escape the “maelstrom of human misfortune” (n. 270). That would be nothing but a “slow suicide” (n. 272). Instead, we throw ourselves into the life of Christ. “We have to regard ourselves as sealed, even branded, by this mission of bringing light, blessing, enlivening, raising up, healing and freeing” (n. 273). As a result, “our lives become wonderfully complicated and we experience intensely what it is to be a people, to be part of a people” (n. 270). For every human being is “the object of God’s infinite tenderness, and he himself is present in their lives” (n. 274).

The Resurrection is an “irresistible force”. “ Each day in our world beauty is born anew, it rises transformed through the storms of history” (n. 276). “No single act of love for God will be lost, no generous effort is meaningless, no painful endurance is wasted…. It may be that the Lord uses our sacrifices to shower blessings in another part of the world which we will never visit. The Holy Spirit works as he wills, when he wills and where he wills; we entrust ourselves without pretending to see striking results. We know only that our commitment is necessary. Let us learn to rest in the tenderness of the arms of the Father amid our creative and generous commitment” (n. 279).

The New Evangelization is inspired by the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit comes into our lives through the prayer of the Blessed Virgin Mary at the heart of the Church. She is the gift of Jesus to each one of us. “At the foot of the cross, at the supreme hour of the new creation, Christ led us to Mary. He brought us to her because he did not want us to journey without a mother, and our people read in this maternal image all the mysteries of the Gospel. The Lord did not want to leave the Church without this icon of womanhood” (n. 285).

“Contemplating Mary, we realize that she who praised God for ‘bringing down the mighty from their thrones’ and ‘sending the rich away empty’ (Luke 1:52-53) is also the one who brings a homely warmth to our pursuit of justice. She is also the one who carefully keeps ‘all these things, pondering them in her heart’ (Luke 2:19)” (n. 288). It is in Mary—the heart, icon, and mother of the Church—that action and contemplation are united into a single dynamic force, and evangelization, the road to God’s kingdom, comes into being.

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