In one of the last sections of his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), Pope Francis poses what would appear to be a rhetorical question: "The primary reason for evangelizing is the love of Jesus which we have received, the experience of salvation which urges us to ever greater love of him. What kind of love would not feel the need to speak of the beloved, to point him out, to make him known?" But here is the problem: the question is not rhetorical. Rather it hits the reader in the gut. "If we do not feel an intense desire to share this love, we need to pray insistently that he will once more touch our hearts." The question thus challenges our existence, our very way of living Christianity and our reasons for doing so. Indeed it synthesizes the entire document, which urges us to proclaim the Gospel and to evangelize ourselves, our friends and colleagues, our culture and the entire world.
The exhortation, released in late 2013, was precisely what I needed to awaken me from my stupor. I required this swift kick to jolt me out of my usual way of doing things, perceiving the Church, critiquing the positions of others, living friendships or justifying my approaches. There is something special about Francis' ability to cut to the quick and call us to simplicity, authenticity and love.
The whole exercise of reading the Pope's document was disconcerting to say the least. So much so that I find it trite to summarize this text. I'd be reducing it by virtue of even trying to do that. Don't believe anyone who summarizes it for you as a first reaction. The text is unsettling, and if your first inclination is to explain it, or to point to which references the Holy Father uses or to which political or economic system he is excoriating or upholding, or to see if the Pope has taken an orthodox position on life matters, then you know what? You haven't allowed yourself to be unsettled by this text. Better still, upset. The Pope's message turns our world upside down.
No one can claim to be unaffected by Francis' message. How often have we talked about poverty and not gone out to listen to a beggar? How often have we said we have no time for the lonely because we are doing other important things for the Church? How often have we taken the moral high ground in a debate with a non-believer without considering our interlocutor's humanity? Or spent endless hours perfecting some inane pastoral plan, not realizing that we are simply hemming ourselves into a tiny universe that touches no one? The Pope does not accuse us in a moralistic way. Rather, he asks us these questions in the same way he asks himself: as a fellow traveller.
Francis knows that it is difficult for a Christian to grow up and operate in our postmodern, consumerist culture. "The individualism of our postmodern and globalized era favours a lifestyle which weakens the development and stability of personal relationships and distorts family bonds." Moreover, a "lack of opportunity for dialogue in families, the influence of the communications media, a relativistic subjectivism, unbridled consumerism," a lack of pastoral care for the poor, and unwelcoming institutions make it truly difficult for the individual to cope with the world and everyday reality. So how does Francis respond to this dilemma? He solicits our freedom. Francis "invites" us to renew our personal encounter with Christ or at least to have the openness to allow Christ to touch us. This encounter, in turn, allows us to rejoice, fills us with a gladness otherwise impossible. There is thus no room for sadness in a Christian, even if some Christians' "lives seem like Lent without Easter."
So what must we do? "We constantly have to broaden our horizons and see the greater good which will benefit us all." In other words we need a sense of the whole. Our little universe is not the big picture. Francis reminds us that the world, reality, is much bigger than that view. Which means we have to pull up our sleeves and go out there to meet the world. He appeals to our olfactory sense: "Evangelizers thus take on the 'smell of the sheep.'" Ordained ministers and pastoral workers "can make present the fragrance of Christ's closeness." How? Through the "'art of accompaniment' which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other." Have you ever read a more striking description of Christian charity?
Thus our pet project, our conversation with a lonely person on her deathbed, lending our ear and giving alms to a beggar — all of these things do have a value and dignity inasmuch as their point of reference is Christ, our Lover. "The model," Francis writes, "is the polyhedron, which reflects the convergence of all its parts, each of which preserves its distinctiveness. And the beauty is that the 'whole is greater than the part, but it is also greater than the sum of its parts.'" Our tiny act of charity has an infinite significance because with His intervention it miraculously incarnates God's Mystery, that whole, that "greater than the sum."
The simplicity of Francis' message is disarming. We can't hide behind philosophical ideas, theological niceties, defending orthodoxy or social activism. "Realities are greater than ideas," he reminds us. "This principle has to do with incarnation of the word and its being put into practice." Thus he keeps bringing us back to Christ. Do my actions, disposition, desires, gestures, work, administrative plans or sermons spring from an affection for Christ, a memory of my Beloved, like John who remembered encountering Him at the fourth hour ("the believer is one who remembers," he writes)? Or is the starting point my paltry view of the world?
Perhaps what is most striking about Francis' approach is that he draws us willy-nilly into the world of Christian paradox. He asks us to have an authentic love for the poor and to concretely help our brothers and sisters who suffer the ravages of dis-ease, poverty or old age, yet he dismisses activism as a mere projection of that small world we create for ourselves. "Our commitment does not consist exclusively in activities or programs of promotion and assistance; what the Holy Spirit mobilizes is not an unruly activism, but above all an attentiveness which considers the other 'in a certain sense as one with ourselves.'"
He has expressed elsewhere his concern that we often speak out ideologically in the defence of life, yet he unambiguously emphasizes the Church's desire "to care with particular love and concern" for the "unborn children, the most defenceless and innocent among us," and notes that the Church is frequently ridiculed for defending their lives, and that "attempts are made to present her position as ideological, obscurantist and conservative." So is the Holy Father speaking out of both sides of his mouth? Absolutely not! And neither is he encouraging us to find a correct balance between speaking out on abortion and other issues. Rather, the balance comes about in the degree to which the criterion for defending life is the only reasonable one — not morals, not ethics, not conservative or traditional values, but the person of Christ Himself, as He comes alive in the Gospel and reaches us 2,000 years later.
Indeed our encounter with Christ is the only possibility for evangelization in the world. Perhaps Pope Francis is discreetly asking if we Christians have consciously considered the fact that Christ loved us first. For what can explain our lack of evangelical thrust? "How good it is to stand before a crucifix, or on our knees before the Blessed Sacrament, and simply to be in his presence!" he exclaims. Is he speaking about pietism or affection? "How much good it does us when He once more touches our lives and impels us to share His new life! What then happens is that 'we speak of what we have seen and heard' (1 John 1:3)." The mission, the announcement of the Gospel has nothing to do with activism and everything to do with the necessity to announce to others what has happened to me — not an idea or an ideology or a project — but what has happened. Without the experience of being loved, the awareness that He has loved us, is it possible to explain that something has happened to us?
This is the heart of the exhortation and the heart of the Christian experience. It's not by chance that Francis recalls Benedict's words: "Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction." This encounter with an event points to a happening, not to ideas or morals. And everything changes as a result.
In that sense, Francis' letter is a witness to what has happened to him and in him. When he tells preachers that they need to reach people to communicate the Christian experience and even use imagery as an effective tool, he's not talking ideas but about his experience in action. Try to read more than a few paragraphs of this document without bumping into some striking imagery: an encounter blossoming, evangelizers taking on the smell of sheep, the confessional as a torture chamber, the Church as a tool house, the excluded as the leftovers, a caravan of solidarity, the Church as a museum piece, those who plan meticulously just like defeated generals, the homily as entertainment. The images keep coming at us to help us understand Francis' message with greater immediacy.
What is perhaps the most significant characteristic of this letter is that Francis reaches us. We can't easily draw back or fake our response to his solicitation. And maybe that is the reason why he can get away with statements that his predecessors would never have gotten away with. He is unequivocal in his condemnation of abortion, but no one is pointing this out. He uses that word that was anathema for the last half-century: inculturation. Can you believe it? He exhorts us Christians to inculturate our culture, whether it is a post-Christian, atheist or even Christian culture. He upholds diversity yet says that all cultures can gain through Christian inculturation. He clearly states that we're not talking about inculturating our own or other societies with European ways but with a distinctly Christian culture. And how will this be done? Evangelization will not take place by discussing ideas around a conference table ad infinitum but through a lived experience, by participating in the life of the Church, not a virtual institution but a "fleshy" Church that upholds beauty, lives a carnal presence that includes "genuine forms of popular religiosity." Francis insists a great deal on the need for these simple religious forms that some might find embarrassing. He sees them as an expression of a life and thus a fact that others can see. And this popular religiosity must never be confused with an individualistic piety that has no place for the other. Rather, Francis looks to a Church that wishes to reach out to the farthest recesses of the world and proclaim to all the salvific message of Christ made Man. Nothing less than that.
It's as if Francis does not want to get bogged down in old debates, including those between traditionalists and progressives in the Church. He wants the Church to be delivered from that (here goes another image) "tomb psychology [that] develops and slowly transforms Christians into mummies in a museum." The only hope is to keep our eyes fixed on the essential. And the essential, he reminds us again and again, is a fact that we have encountered.
Evangelii Gaudium —The Joy of the Gospel — will be-come a milestone in the life of the Church. It signals to us what has changed with Francis' pontificate. The Japanese Catholic writer Shusaku Endo used to refer to his country as a swamp where Chris-tianity had difficulty taking root. And this swamp image could just as easily be applied to these last 30 years in sectors of the Church where Catholics of various perspectives seemed to be mired in endless debates. Significant issues might have been at stake, but the battles were often petty and acrimonious and uncharitable. With this letter, Francis seems to have signalled that the debates are over, we have much more significant issues, or better still the one burning issue: Have we encountered Christ, and if so, are we communicating Him to the world? If not, then we are not believers "who remember."
Evangelii Gaudium is a must read if we wish to be helped to live the missionary thrust in a true way that leaves us uncomfortable but more joyful than we can possibly imagine. It is truly — and let me use an image — a breath of fresh air.