Updated: Oct 31
When a Synod of Bishops event has been completed, typically the current Pope takes the deliberations and recommendations and writes an Apostolic Exhortation, turning the fruit of that Synod into a teaching moment for the Church and the world. So, I was not surprised when Pope Francis published his first Apostolic Exhortation, Gaudium Evangelii ("The Joy of the Gospel") in 2013, as a follow-up to the 2012 Synod of Bishops gathering on "The New Evangelization," and I paid special attention to it, because this was Pope Francis’ first major publication of his own thinking. Although a few months earlier he published his first encyclical Lumen Fidei ("The Light of Faith"), he publicly acknowledged that much of it had already been written by his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, prior to Francis becoming pope. This Apostolic Exhortation would be his own, and I was hoping to get a sense of what Francis envisioned for the Church and world. I remember reading it and thinking: "Yes! He is articulating what I have tried to promote for 33 years (at that time) as a priest.” As counter-intuitive as it may sound, evangelization is not first and foremost about getting 'others' to believe what we believe. It is first about we who are Christians, how we have embraced the good news in all aspects of our lives, being joyful missionary disciples in all that we do, so that others are attracted to that joy and the life that leads to that joy, yet recognizing that if others do not embrace the gospel as we do, we do not assume they are outside of God’s saving grace.
Right near the beginning of the exhortation Pope Francis says: "Christians have the duty to proclaim the Gospel without excluding anyone. Instead of seeming to impose new obligations, they should appear as people who wish to share their joy, who point to a horizon of beauty and who invite others to a delicious banquet. It is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but 'by attraction.'" (#14). That is a strong statement. We do not proselytize but grow 'by attraction.' We are not to come across as first imposing new obligations. We point to a horizon that is hopeful, beautiful, and is evident in our lives. We are on the same journey together with all humanity. We have a treasure we want to share, but it is not that others have nothing. We are to be evangelical (“living the life of the gospel”), but that does not mean we impose on others “the truth,” as though God’s grace works only through the Church or only through Christians. The implications roll on and on. For me, the questions to be asked are these: Do we see the world in a binary way—saved and unsaved—and we who are the saved have to show others where they are misguided? Or, do we see salvation as a gift that we have been offered but never fully possess in this life’s journey, letting others see both how that gift has transformed us and how we still struggle to embrace it, offering it to others not as a judgment on them but as a treasured gift?
At the heart of Pope Francis’ teaching is a core conviction (which I wish was shared by all who profess themselves to be members of the Catholic Church, and certainly by those who have positions of leadership and influence in the Catholic community) that the Holy Spirit spoke clearly and profoundly to the Church at the event we call the Second Vatican Council, calling the Church to a new understanding of itself and how it was to carry out its never-ending mission of offering the gospel of salvation to humanity. The Spirit of God was/is not asking that we discard the past, but is inviting us to a new way of integrating the past into the present, a new way of being the pilgrim People of God in the world.
Thus, when it comes to evangelization, there is no doubt that “the Church exists to evangelize” (words of Pope Paul VI in his 1975 Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, which still is a foundational document for the Church’s understanding of the new evangelization). Evangelization will always be core to its mission. However, we need to find a new way of living and sharing that “Good News.” It appears to me at times that those in the Church who are strongest on promoting evangelization, though they call it the “new evangelization,” do not really embrace the “new” that all the Popes from John XIII on knew to be so vital. They too quickly go back to old models and reduce the gospel to something like this: “God created everything good; humanity sinned and enslaved itself to the devil; Jesus saves us by freeing us from sin and the devil; our mission now is to help save others’ souls so they can go to heaven with us.” There is nothing technically wrong with those statements (although usually way too much emphasis is put on Satan or the devil, but that is for another blog), but there is a lot missing. Such a version of the good news too often quickly and neatly divides the world into that binary “us” versus “not us.” This leads so easily to a lack of humility in ourselves as Christians, a judgment on others because they do not believe or live as we do, and a sin and obligation-centered approach to evangelization that is far from joyful.
I am amazed at times in conversations with people who are convinced they are in good shape with God (baptized, go to confession, attend Mass, give to charity, etc.) and think that others who are not Christian, though living good lives, have no chance for eternal communion with God, because they do not believe as we do. Do we really think, for example by an accident of being born into a practicing Christian’s family, that God would definitely include us in God’s plan of salvation but exclude others because they were born into a Hindu, Muslim, or even atheist’s family and grew up with a different understanding of who God is? On the flip side, do we really think we are living a fully Christ-centered life or are somehow living a better moral life than those who are not Christian, simply because we have Christian beliefs?
In turn, evangelization too easily becomes apologetics, spending its energy on defending some understanding of Catholic life or faith, but doing so in a way that focuses on proving others wrong rather than on opening up in new ways the beauty of our faith tradition. It is as though some still want to live in the counter-Reformation era of the 16th century or the anti-Modernism era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. That is not new evangelization but old and to be discarded, or at least radically changed, something that the Second Vatican Council tried to point out. When Vatican II called baptized members of other Christian Churches and communities “brothers and sisters in Christ” rather than “heretics,” it should have become clear that the tired anti-Protestant apologetics of the past needed to be discarded. When the Council issued a unique “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” it was signaling that the knee-jerk response which judges the modern world as automatically contrary to the gospel was no longer viable.
How, then, should we engage in the “new evangelization”? First and always to keep in mind the recognition that we Christians and specifically we Catholics have failed to fully live the gospel life ourselves. To recognize that when we are not joyful disciples, we cannot be missionaries of the good news to others. We too often condemn and harp on all the things that are wrong with others or in the world and do not see the need for conversion in our own lives. We fail to see the amazing gracious presence of God at work in people who have different beliefs than we do or in Christians who do not live the way we think they should. We think of evangelization as something we have and others do not rather than as a gift we have been given, which we humbly offer to others.
Lest some think that this is only Pope Francis’ understanding about the Church and its mission, please note that there is a footnote connected to that quote above from Gaudium Evangelii , which refers to a homily that Pope Benedict gave in 2007 and is perhaps even more striking: "The Church considers herself the disciple and missionary of this Love: missionary only insofar as she is a disciple, capable of being attracted constantly and with renewed wonder by the God who has loved us and who loves us first (cf. 1 Jn 4:10). The Church does not engage in proselytism. Instead, she grows by “attraction”: just as Christ “draws all to himself” by the power of his love, culminating in the sacrifice of the Cross, so the Church fulfils her mission to the extent that, in union with Christ, she accomplishes every one of her works in spiritual and practical imitation of the love of her Lord." We are missionary only if we are capable of being disciples ourselves, again and again attracted to the beauty and joy (yes even in the midst of disappointment and suffering) of the gospel, a beauty and joy that is Love of God.
That is the new evangelization! Joyful disciples who fall in love with God again and again; who find in life’s challenges and sufferings a joy of sharing more deeply in Christ’s life; who first witness to others not of their errors or our superior truth but of a life that makes no sense to us except through faith; and who appreciate that the Spirit of God is much larger than the Church and so are very supportive of the truth-seeking journeys others are on, even if they do not at this time intersect with our beliefs. The most recent gathering of hundreds of thousands of youth and their mentors in Portugal for World Youth Day is a wonderful example of that joyful energy spilling forth, witnessing to the treasure of the gospel as it has been passed on in the Catholic tradition. I guarantee that there were youth there who span the entire spectrum of humanity, no matter how we look at it—class, race, gender, gender-identity, sexuality, education, ethnicity, even religion. And the evangelization that occurred was not primarily by those who are living perfect lives or by the speakers and leaders invited to give major talks on Catholic teaching or doctrine. No, the evangelization, the new evangelization, was the witness of the whole group that the gospel was vital to them, had a power to move them, energized them to witness to its beauty and joy.
Given the above, why is it, then, that a number of our parishes come across not as joyful but dour? As places where not all are welcome but only those who self-identify as “fully Catholic”? Where homilies too often are moralistic and sin-centered rather than a witness to the treasure and beauty of the Word of God? Let’s allow the gospel to truly be good news, and our witnessing to that gospel be new, applying it to our own lives first and foremost, then humbly inviting others to see the joyful gift that the gospel is to us, even in the midst of our struggling to live it.