Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis’ recent apostolic exhortation, sets a tone and direction for Catholics the world over. The document is a breath of fresh air after the closed and vaguely malevolent papacy of Benedict XVI.
Here is a rundown of Francis’ ideas: a new chapter of evangelization—check; the evils of consumerism and the pursuit of material goods—check; a call to renew the joy of faith, even in crisis—check; the need to serve the poor—check; revamping the Church’s rituals, methods, language and structure—check; a revitalization of parishes and schools—check; the need for Catholics to be bold and creative in thought and action—check; the call to remember Church history, Aquinas, Vatican II, etc.—check; the exhortation to abandon our throw-away culture and global indifference to the plight of others—check; the call to recognize laity as central to the Church’s mission—check; the recognition of the importance of women in the Church, although not important enough to be ordained priests—check; the need to find common ground between science and theology—check; how to write and deliver an effective homily—check; recognize the dignity of each human life, increase dialogue with other faiths, avoid judgment, cultivate humility, find a contemplative spirit—check, check, check, check, check.
This is Francis’ first exhortation since he took office. It is a profoundly humanistic and modern document. If he is true to his word here, his papacy will be a transformative one, but he will need to bring along the old guard Catholics, or quietly retire them and send them down the path with Benedict XVI. (History may record his resignation as the greatest act of his papacy.)
It is difficult to take Francis’ social teaching with the elephant in the room: the molestation scandal that has plagued the Church and embroiled it in legal and criminal proceedings. How he deals with this blight on the Church going forward will define his time in the Vatican. To successfully evangelize, people must fully trust the messenger. Among the faithful and in the eyes of the world, that trust has been shattered and not much has been done to rebuild it. In fact, what little that has been done was mandated by legal threats and challenges, not willingly by the Church itself. This is not a position of transparency or reformation. For the Church it has been all defense and no contrition beyond token words.
With Evangelii Gaudium, the actions implied, the promised reforms, offer tantalizing clues to how Catholicism may restore its dynamic presence in the world. Already, Francis has launched reforms of the Curia and Vatican bank. He has quietly pushed out stale administrators and hardliners in favor of his own team. He has advocated a ministry to the poor and downtrodden, a shout-out to the liberation theology of Latin America from where he originates. “I want a Church which is poor and for the poor,” he writes in the exhortation. These are positive, encouraging signs.
What is most powerful in Evangelii Gaudium is the language: imagistic, philosophical, poetic, metaphysical. It is all there in the text, the blueprint for the future. Catholics must “maintain a spirit of joy in the midst of a task so demanding and challenging that it engages our entire life,” he tells us.
“We need to remember that all religious teaching ultimately has to be reflected in the teacher’s way of life,” Francis writes. All teaching, secular and religious, must reflect the life of the teacher, as it did for Jesus and Socrates.
Francis as cultural critic: “In the prevailing culture, priority is given to the outward, the immediate, the visible, the quick, the superficial and the provisional.”
Francis the prophet: “…to read the signs of the times it is helpful to listen to young people and the elderly.” He also crosses borders: “…cultural diversity is not a threat to Church unity,” and it may in fact be the key to survival.
There is much to love in this novel-length apostolic exhortation. Of course, this is not all Francis’ doing. He is responding to the Synod of Bishops that took place before his election. Still, he manages to put his unique stamp on the results of this Synod, since the exhortation always serves as a summary and commentary on the discussions of this papal advisory group. He outlines the formidable challenges facing the Catholic Church as the 21st century continues to unfold. He is not going to rest on the power of the papal throne. From all appearances, he is a man of action, and an active, forward-thinking pope is what Catholics need to keep the faith relevant and dynamic in a changing world.