Evangelii Gaudium: 
The Joy of the Gospel

Apostolic Exhortation of Pope Francis I

The document  is available on-line http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/francesco/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20131124_evangelii-gaudium_en.html, in a more aesthetically pleasing pdf Download version on the Vatican web-site (LH column under ‘Focus’) (http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/francesco/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20131124_evangelii-gaudium_en.pdf ), and in hard copy.

 

1. First (and last) impressions

I do not usually rave about a Vatican document, but it is hard to hold back joy here. Evangelii Gaudium is a wonderful and inspiring document, full of enthusiasm, challenge, truth, love and joy (cf. 5: ‘Our Christian joy drinks of [Jesus’s] brimming heart’ (all references to paragraph numbers)). Title, content and tone are all correlated. On this path, the Pope could soon find himself with a real army of ‘Followers’!

It is almost impossible to think of such a document coming out of the Church of England. So much of our literature is over-measured, cautious, bland or politically correct with abstract bureaucratese, hedged about with reservations and qualifications, in order to ensure that no one from this or that wing of the Church might be affected (or infected). This document is simply exciting - a text to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest, not only because it is so full of scriptural references itself, but because it routinely directs us to Gospel themes found (!) throughout the whole of Scripture. It is certainly not the work of a committee; it is heart-felt, open, human, deep. Look at the first eight paragraphs: so full of joy – and of biblical references.

Of course, one could play a kind of ‘Gospel’ source-critical game, and posit a series of separate sources: the Charismatic source (C) which quotes Scripture freely, speaks of ‘Jesus’ and ‘the Lord Jesus’ all the time, urges ‘Spirit-filled Evangelization’ and wants to ‘light a fire in the heart of the world (261, 271); the Evangelical source (E) which regularly uses the adjective …er… ‘evangelical’, speaks untiringly of ‘the Gospel’ and  ‘friendship with Jesus’, calls for ‘missionary conversion’, and says that ‘We are all missionary disciples’ (119); and the Liberal Catholic source (LC) which refers less to Scripture and speaks more of ‘the primacy’ and ‘dignity of the human person’ (55, 218), and attacks the ‘idolatry of money’, the widespread tyranny, corruption and greed of a ‘socioeconomic system’ that ‘is unjust at its root’ (55-59). There might even be two ‘M’ sources: mystical (‘mystagogical catechesis’, 163), and Marian (the Marian coda, 284-8), the latter disguising some internal dissonances.

But of course, this is precisely the point: a Catholic Pope holds to and is held by ‘the totality and integrity of the Gospel’ (237), ‘the entire Gospel’ which is (Otto Betz!) about the kingdom of God (180), ‘making the kingdom of God present in our world’ (176; cf. NT Wright!) in a way that the Church of England only seems to be able to do through a motley crew of  fragmented traditions (or factions). Similarly, the way in which some newspapers highlighted either the Pope’s searing critique of capitalism, or some exploratory remarks about the scope of salvation, simply illustrate that many people cannot read the document as a whole, but simply pick out a strand that will sell papers. I hope that this review-article offers a more comprehensive view of the Exhortation, which might in turn help recall us both to the ‘Joy of the Gospel’, and to its ‘breadth and length and height and depth’ (Col. 3: 18).

In fact, the ordering of materials suggests a chiastic pattern at work in the style of N T Wright’s brilliant chiastic outline for his Paul and the Faithfulness of God, thus:

A. Introduction:                                                                                            A1. Coda: Mary, Mother
The Joy of the Gospel                                                                                  of Evangelization

B. Ch. I: The Church’s                                                       B1. Ch V: Spirit-Filled
Missionary Transformation                                             Evangelizers

C. Ch. II: Amid the Crisis of                  C1. Ch IV: The Social Dimension
Communal Commitment                        of Evangelization

D. Ch. III: The Proclamation
of the Gospel

 

Within two brief book-ends, Chapter I’s opening thesis on The Church’s Missionary Transformation matches Chapter V (Spirit-Filled Evangelizers), with the political and social aspects of the Church’s missionary vocation held within those theological parameters in Chapters II and IV, while the central Chapter III focuses more specifically on the Church’s practice of Evangelization. Critique and attack are literally held in the embrace of the arms of the Gospel, since this is specifically an ‘anti-idealist’ document which urges practice and deeds (231-3).

2. Overview and range of emphases

Technically, it is not a Papal Encyclical, and so is not a piece of dogmatic theology. It is the Pope’s own response to the request of the October 2012 Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops (14) that he write on the theme of The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith. That he has managed to do so in a way that is bursting with life and vision is testimony to the fact that it is not only his public persona that is so winsome, but also his total integrated synthesis (143) of theology, experience and faith, and of the analytical skills he brings to all the topics he writes on. It is the vision of a respected teaching authority and ministry; it is precisely an Apostolic Exhortation.

The first line, for instance, offers the first of multiple repetitions of the name of ‘Jesus’ and the theme of ‘encounter’. Such repetitions bring joy, not the awkward embarrassment that so dogs some current Christian publicity; for Pope Francis is no sentimentalist, but keeps insisting that this ‘synthesis’ is grounded not in an ideology, but in a person. Reading such words, I breathe a smile of agreement. It is such a contrast to so many generalised ‘Christian’ centres, events and pronouncements that seem studiously to avoid mentioning the name of Jesus, for fear of giving offence or appearing exclusive. They address ‘body, mind and spirit’, or ‘peace and the environment’, or ‘the human spirit’. But this Pope is rooted in Christ, and will have none of that anxiety: ‘Christ, risen and glorified, is the wellspring of our hope’ (275).

There are, as one might expect, repeated references to his predecessors (Paul VI, John XXIII, John Paul II, Benedict XVI), not only in their own right, but also because he wishes his readers to know that he is not departing from the tradition, but wishes to be seen to be basing what he says on what he himself has received from and through them. Quotations from the Saints, from Vatican II, the Puebla Document of 1979, and the various General Conferences of the Latin American and Caribbean Bishops, present us with an alive, alert, involved, Pope who is not only, like his immediate predecessor, a thinker and a theologian, but also a missiologist, a social, political, psychological and spiritual analyst, and a visionary. Here are some of his emphases.

A Trinitarian theological analysis and exposition:

  • ‘The Gospel, radiant with the glory of Christ’s cross’ (5, 10, 11, and passim):
  • ‘the God who revealed his immense love in the crucified and risen Christ’ (11)
  • ‘the beauty of the saving love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ who died and rose from the dead’ (36)
  • ‘the mark of Christ, incarnate, crucified and risen’ (95) is key.

Missionary convictions, experience and theology, derived from 20th century Protestant and Catholic missionary writing and from the practice of Liberation Theology:

  • ‘Communion and mission are profoundly interconnected’ (23; John Paul II)
  • ‘I dream of a “missionary option”, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything’ (27)
  • the church is called to a ‘missionary impulse’ (48)
  • ‘A facile syncretism would ultimately be a totalitarian gesture on the part of those who would ignore greater values of which they are not the masters’ (251).

Socio-economic and political analysis feeding his critique of ‘a deified market’ (56):

  • ‘A spiritual “desertification”’ (86) of the soul corresponding to a literal ‘desertification of the soil’ ((215)
  • Conflict provokes the danger of people who have lost their bearings ‘project[ing] onto institutions their own confusion and dissatisfaction’ (227)
  • [C]ontempt (of religion) is ‘due to the myopia of a certain rationalism’ (256)

Psychological analysis of human nature born of the combination of his experience of life, and of his life as a Jesuit rooted in the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius:

  • ‘…the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart… Many… end up resentful, angry and listless’ (2)
  • Our “technological society has succeeded in multiplying occasions of pleasure, yet has found it very difficult to engender joy” (7; Pope Paul VI )
  • (one of the more serious temptations) ‘is a defeatism which turns us into querulous and disillusioned pessimists, “sourpusses”’ (85)
  • A devastating critique of ‘spiritual worldliness’ that exposes ‘a tremendous corruption disguised as a good’ (93-97)
  • ‘[L]ack of deep spirituality <which> turns into pessimism, fatalism, and mistrust’ (275)

Specific Catholic concerns:

  • ‘I am conscious of the need to promote a sound “decentralization”’ (16)
  • ‘I … must think about the conversion of the papacy’ (32)
  • We need ‘an authentic Christian humanism’ (68)
  • ‘The Church cannot be expected to change her position on [abortion]’ (213-4)

Rich personal experience:

  • ‘I understand the grief of people who have to endure great suffering’ (6)
  • ‘…hope born of the loving heart of Jesus Christ’ (183)
  • (Knowing the sufferings of the poor,) ‘we are scandalized’ (191)
  • ‘I have always been distressed at the lot of those who are victims of …human trafficking’ (211)
  • ‘I have myself frequently experienced this’ (i.e. ‘being plunged into the deep and not knowing what we will find’ (280)
  • but most strikingly, and possibly revealing, of all: ‘Our infinite sadness can only be cured by an infinite love’ (265)

Last, but not least, as indicating that lightness of spirit which has already endeared him to so many:

Humour:

  • ‘An evangelizer must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral!’ (10)
  • … ‘the confessional must not be a torture chamber but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy (44).

Entire paragraphs brim with life, acuity and passion, like a gushing fountain (Jn 4:14) – the opening eight paragraphs on joy (1-8), the razor-like surgery of his economic critique (53-56), the privilege of reading Scripture with the prayer, ‘“Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” (146), the way of beauty (167), the poor as a theological category (198), abortion: ‘it is not “progressive” to try to resolve problems by eliminating human life’ (214).

Several sub-headings themselves are vibrant, thrilling, alive: ‘Charisms at the service of a communion which evangelises’ (130); ‘Words which set hearts on fire’ (142); ‘Personal encounter with the saving love of Jesus’ (264); ‘The missionary power of intercessory prayer’ (281).

With these sketches and hints at his approaches and skills, we turn, rather more substantively, to look at each of the Chapters of the Exhortation in turn.

3. Analysis of the Chapters

Introduction: The Joy of the Gospel (1-18)

The opening paragraphs are simply stunning. The powerful emphasis on joy is not only peppered with a bouquet of biblical quotations, but also redolent of Julius Schiewind’s delightful 1956 Die Freude der Busse (The Joy of Repentance), and is also patently more tightly linked to the central Gospel themes – one might say, at this time of the year: Christmas themes – of joy, and of the Good News of the Gospel. The reader is drawn into the presence of an unaffected and contagious joy, which could even provide a verbatim text for proclamation at a Christmas service:

  • ‘I invite all Christians…to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly every day.’ (3)

The second sub-heading – The delightful and comforting joy of evangelizing (9-13) –  illustrates well how an opening theme, completely lacking in apology or affectation, is picked up again at the end, where the Pope speaks of the privilege of being bearers of ‘the most beautiful message that this world can offer’ (277). This is a truly heart-warming, evocative, wonderful, biblical ‘Prologue’.

Chapter I: The Church’s Missionary Transformation (19-49)

At issue in the first chapter is the theme of conversion right across the board – ‘missionary conversion’ (25, 30), ecclesial conversion (26), and, in order to confront any temptations to “ecclesial introversion” (27) with ‘an authentic evangelical spirit’ (using evangelical in its initial biblical sense of that which relates to the Gospel, and not to a particular church tradition), ‘a conversion of the papacy’ (32).  ‘The Gospel joy’, he not only says but exemplifies, ‘is a missionary joy’ (21). ‘Evangelizers…take on the “smell of the sheep”’ (24), and ‘Evangelization with joy becomes beauty in the liturgy’ (24). The very fact that he speaks so much about the Gospel in all its fullness (i.e. not ‘concentrating only on part of the Gospel’ (29)) is a rebuke to us in England.

His concern, reminiscent of Luther’s critique of humanity as incurvatus in se (turned in on itself) is for ‘A Church which goes forth’ [scil. ‘out of itself’].He does not want a Church concerned with being at the centre which ends up by being caught up in a web of obsession and procedures (‘obsession’ is a key-word in his writing) (49). Rather, he is looking for a Church which is positively and engagingly shaped by its faithfulness to Jesus Christ and the Gospel rather than negatively afraid of ‘going astray’ (49). That is to say, in terms of spiritual perception of its identity, the church is the church of Jesus Christ, not any kind of political protest movement.

It is a brief first chapter, but one full of themes which seep through the whole text.

Chapter II: Amid the Crisis of Communal Commitment (50-109)

This rather cautious and general title is perhaps deliberately chosen in order to conceal from the reader the knife that is about to be used in the forthcoming analysis.

In order immediately to outflank any potential criticism from his would-be detractors, (e.g. that he is a ‘political Pope’), he begins by denying that what we want is ‘a purely sociological analysis’ (50). Rather, what we need (using Ignatian language) is an ‘evangelical discernment’, even though he soon heads into a detailed socio-economic critique of the excluding power of ‘the market’. He exposes the current economic Darwinianism of ‘the survival of the fittest’ (53), the ‘crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system’ (54), the deadening affects of the culture of prosperity, ‘the idolatry of money’ (55), and the ‘tyranny … corruption and self-serving tax evasion’ of a ‘thirst for power and possessions [that] knows no limits’ (56). The Pope’s language of ‘a deified market’ here combines both St Paul’s repeated inclusion of the critical carnal sin of greed (pleonexia) in his lists of vices, and also that of the ‘powers and principalities’ ( that infiltrate all earthly powers and rulers.

It is true that there are fewest scriptural references in this chapter, but, in a form of an (unacknowledged) Barthian ‘No!’, he lists aspect after aspect of the contemporary absolutization of the marketplace (57) which are functionally godless and ‘unjust … at root’:  the toleration of evil, ‘inordinate consumption’ and ‘unbridled consumerism’ (59-60). He astutely notes that the combined cults of ‘subjective truth’ and of individualism militate against the possibility of common plans for the corporate good (61), revealing that individualism is not merely a matter of some philosophical or existential choice, but one that fragments a society in favour of the richer; and that supposed freedom of trade, while being ‘economically advanced’, is ‘ethically debilitated’ (62). The moral ‘relativistic subjectivism’ of secularist rationalism privileges the absolute rights of individuals and ends up encouraging ‘unbridled consumerism’ and privatizing the world (63-4, 67, 70). The language is incandescent.

But in this trenchant critique of the a-human values of trade, he also recognises the effect that this has on the church. A series of ills lead to debilitation: ‘concentration on administering the sacraments apart from any other form of evangelization’ (63), the distortion of family life (67), scepticism and cynicism with regard to the church’s message (79); relativism, paralysis and acedia, ‘a defeatism which turns us into querulous and disillusioned pessimists, “sourpusses”’, and the isolation which takes the form of ‘a spiritual consumerism tailored to one’s own unhealthy individualism’ (ouch! - 80-9). In a few graphic lines:

‘And so the biggest threat of all gradually takes shape: “the gray pragmatism of the daily life of the Church, in which all appears to proceed normally, while in reality faith is wearing down and degenerating into small-mindedness” (Ratzinger!). A tomb psychology thus develops and slowly transforms Christians into mummies in a museum (my italics) (83).

It is at this point of pain that the Pope begins a section which focuses sharply on an insidious ‘spiritual worldliness’, which may be seen in an ‘ostentatious preoccupation for the liturgy’, or which ‘lurks behind a fascination with social and political gain … or an obsession (there’s that word again!) with programmes of self-help and self-realization’, which ‘can also translate into a concern to be seen, into a social life full of appearances, meetings, dinners and receptions’. A double criticism is operating: first, theologically: ‘the mark of Christ, incarnate, crucified and risen, is not present’; and second, psychologically: ‘Evangelical fervour is replaced by the empty pleasure of complacency and self-indulgence’ (95). In the previous paragraph:

A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying’ (94).

Those who are ‘obsessed by appearances’ and ‘neither learn from their sins nor are … genuinely open to forgiveness’ are suffering from a ‘tremendous corruption disguised as a good’ (97). The same sharp scalpel with which he excoriated the market earlier he is now wielding on the ways in which the Church demise and disfigures Christ.

Neither cast down, nor destroyed (cf. 2 Cor. 4:9), he wants to see a still ‘more incisive female presence in the Church’ (103), he recognises the work of the Holy Spirit in young people’s movements, and he loves the sight (‘it is beautiful to see’) of ‘“street preachers” joyfully bringing Jesus (there’s that word again!) to every street!’ (106).

 Chapter III: The Proclamation of the Gospel (110-175)

This chapter now forms the actual, chiastic and practical centre of the Exhortation. The tone is still strong and vivid, but its concerns are those of the variety of ways in which the Church actually proclaims the Gospel. The analysis and critique of the previous chapter lead back again to the central Gospel themes of the Introduction.

We see at once again the fearless Christological tenor of the writing. Quoting Pope John Paul II in a way that resonates harmonically with some of the candid statements of Archbishop Justin, para. 110 is crystal clear: ‘“there can be no true evangelization without the explicit proclamation of Jesus as Lord”, and without “the primacy of the proclamation of Jesus Christ in all evangelizing work”’.  I suspect that many in the church in England, and in the Church of England would demur at such forthright speech, and prefer more ‘hidden’ and ‘implicit’ forms of evangelization. But, in this opening paragraph of the chapter, Pope Francis proceeds without apology, “[P]atient and progressive preaching of the saving death and resurrection of Jesus Christ must be your absolute priority”.

This chapter investigates what in other circles would be called ‘every-member ministry’ (first sub-heading I: ‘The Entire People of God Proclaims the Gospel’; 111-134), preaching (‘The Homily; 135-144), ‘Preparing to preach’ (145-159) and Growth in(to) Christ (‘Evangelization and the Deeper Understanding of the Kerygma’; 160-175). Several interesting and unexpected points emerge in these paragraphs.

Firstly, the Pope stresses both the ‘people of many faces’ that constitutes the Church (115-118), and, noting that ‘Christianity does not have simply one cultural expression’ (116), affirms (with Pope John Paul II) “the beauty of [the Church’s] varied face” in a way that reveals new aspects of its life. Drawing on the insights of Roman Catholic missiological studies and practice over the past half-century, he affirms the ‘transcultural’ content of the Gospel, and insists that, if we fall into a ‘needless hallowing of our own culture’, we can show ‘more fanaticism than true evangelizing zeal’ (117).

In the next section, headed ‘We are all missionary disciples’ (some of which (!) could come straight out of the pages of the Evangelical Alliance), he declares we are ‘missionary disciples’ (120), called to offer ‘an explicit witness to the saving love of the Lord’ (121), while being obliged to take seriously ‘the evangelizing power of popular piety’ (122). ‘Anyone who has truly experienced God’s saving love does not need much time or lengthy training to go out’ (102). ‘[W]e need to approach [this reality] with the gaze of the Good Shepherd, who seeks not to judge but to love’ (compare this anti-judgemental stance with ‘making us harsh judges’ in para. 49).

In the next section on ‘The Homily’, he has some strong words on preparation for and the purpose of preaching. What matters is an ‘encounter with God’s word’ (135). Preaching brings ‘a mediation of the grace which Christ pours out during the celebration’ (138); its task is to find ‘words which set hearts on fire’ (142ff.), and is a ‘heart-to-heart communication ‘that ‘possesses a quasi-sacramental character’ (142). The gnomic utterance in para. 143 – ‘[The challenge of an inculturated preaching consists in proclaiming a synthesis, not ideas or detached values.] Where your synthesis is, there lies your heart.’ – remains mysterious despite its obvious weight, and despite its clear connection to the elements of proclamation and inculturation. Later (268): ‘Mission is at once a passion for Jesus and a passion for his people’.

He is very precise in the guidance – and rebuke – he offers on preaching: ‘A preacher who does not prepare is not “spiritual”; he is dishonest and irresponsible with the gifts he has received’ (145). A preacher must ‘refus[e] to offer others a product of poor quality’ (156). Nota bene! ‘Reverence for truth’ (146ff.) in engaging with Scripture requires priorities of time, patience and dedication; ‘we need to let ourselves be penetrated by that word which will also penetrate others’ (150). A sharp quip also cautions against ‘trendiness’: ‘Nor is it fitting to talk about the latest news in order to awaken people’s interest; we have television programmes for that’ (155!!).

Three other practical themes conclude this chapter. First, in ‘spiritual reading’, which is not distinct from the literal sense of Scripture, we should ask, “Lord, what does this text say to me?’ With the wisdom of his own Ignatian training, he observes that ‘when we make an effort to listen to the Lord, temptations usually arise’ (153), and that ‘preparation for preaching becomes an exercise in evangelical discernment’(154).

There follows, secondly, a most beautiful paragraph (167) on the theme of beauty. ‘Every form of catechesis would do well to attend to the “way of beauty” (via pulchritudinis)… Every expression of true beauty can be acknowledged as a path leading to an encounter with the Lord Jesus’ (note that language again!). And ‘we must be bold enough to discover new signs…different forms of beauty, [even] unconventional modes of beauty.’ We are not to be ‘dour judges’ (that phrase for the third time; cf. 125, 49), but ‘joyful messengers’ (168).

Thirdly, the brief section on Spiritual Direction he calls ‘personal accompaniment’ has some particularly profound words. This is not an exercise in ‘morbid curiosity’, but, as an expression of the ‘fragrance of Christ’s closeness and his personal gaze’, we ‘remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other’ (169). Critically, though – and this is so rarely said that it needs broadcasting loud and clear – ‘Genuine spiritual accompaniment always begins and flourishes in the context of service to the mission of evangelization’ (173). That is to say: spiritual direction is not a, or the, path to self-absorption, nor a magic fix to producing a sense of my own well-being (earlier, 99) but a call to conversion and to becoming (120) a ‘missionary disciple’.

Rooting all of this in the word of God, the chapter ends on a brief crescendo: ‘All evangelization is based on that word…The sacred Scriptures are the very source of evangelization’; and even though not all will agree that ‘we have long since moved beyond that old contraposition between word and sacrament’ (itself a statement only made possible since the rinascimento of Vatican II), the emphatic rooting of the Gospel in the word of God is crystal clear. The word of God is at the heart.

Chapter IV: The Social Dimension of Evangelisation (176-258)

The fourth major chapter, the longest in the document, now heads back again to the contexts and the ways in which the Church relates to the world around it. This is where he correctly connects the preaching of the Gospel with the making present of the kingdom of God as the Spirit brings new life to dessicated lives (176, 180). Having previously stated that the papal magisterium should not be expected ‘to offer a definitive or complete word on every question which affects the Church and the world (16), he makes the further extraordinarily un-magisterial statement that ‘neither the Pope nor the Church have a monopoly on the interpretation of social realities or the proposal of solutions to contemporary problems’ (184). Breath-taking humility!

That said, he nails his colours very firmly to the mast of the cries of the poor (with ample Old Testament quotations, and to ‘the decision to restore to the poor what belongs to them’ (quoting St John Chrysostom; 187-9). New Testament verses show how its writers clearly called early believers to offer ‘a prophetic counter-cultural resistance to the self-centred hedonism of paganism’ (193). So ‘Why complicate something so simple?... Why cloud something so simple?’ (194). The problem is that if we ourselves get caught up in the ‘limitless possibilities for consumption and distraction… [t]his leads to a kind of alienation at every level’ (196), and we are unable to be of help. This is where he most explicitly says that ‘the option for the poor is primarily a theological category rather than a cultural, sociological, political or philosophical one’; ‘I want a Church which is poor and for the poor’ (198).

This, too, is where he again points to the ‘unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market’, where remedies can be a new poison (204). ‘I am interested only in helping those who are in thrall to an individualistic, indifferent and self-centred mentality’ (208; back to Ch. II). It is here that he defends utterly the right of the unborn child, as the supreme example of the vulnerable. ‘This defence of unborn life is closely linked to the defence of each and every other human right…It is not “progressive” to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life’ (213-4).

The anti-idealist aspect of the Exhortation begins to come out even more clearly from para. 231ff.: ‘Realities are more important than ideas’. This is an anti-Enlightenment stance, which insists (like Jesus, Paul and James) that deeds are the proof of words. ‘Ideas disconnected from realities give rise to ineffectual forms of idealism and nominalism’ (232; here is the philosopher-theologian at work!). ‘This calls for rejecting the various means of masking reality: angelic forms of purity, dictatorships of relativism, empty rhetoric…brands of ahistorical fundamentalism (231). Engagement is unavoidable: with science in a respectful ‘synthesis’ (cf. 143 again!) of faith and reason; with Orthodoxy’s own particular gifts of ‘episcopal collegiality and… synodality’ (246), and (NB) with Judaism as the prime dialogue partner (247-9).

True ‘interreligious dialogue’ involves rejecting forms of fundamentalism, facile syncretism, hateful generalisations, and in particular – in relating to Islam – mutual and reciprocal guarantees of religious freedom (250-253). Pope Francis also includes demands for ‘a healthy pluralism… which genuinely respects differences and values them as such’, without the concomitant privatisation which he earlier inveighed against (61), and without new forms of discrimination and authoritarianism emerging (255). This is a very specific appeal to the increasingly two-faced secular states of the West, which permit religious freedom as private activity while covertly rendering it publicly impotent (255-6), and is a further finely-honed knife-thrust concerning truth.

 Chapter V: Spirit-Filled Evangelizers (259-288)

Rounding off the entire chiasm, the theme of the Gospel comes centre-stage again, in language that is as charismatic as anything in the entire document. ‘Spirit-filled evangelizers means evangelizers fearlessly open to the working of the Holy Spirit (259) – to which the Pope’s own infectious joy is signal testimony. Again, here, realities are more important than ideas (231); ‘Mystical notions without a solid social and missionary outreach are of no help to evangelization, nor are dissertations’ (262). For this ‘New Evangelization’, which both the world and the Church need, we need ‘the deep breath of prayer (262), while again and always rejecting ‘a privatized and individualized spirituality which ill accords with the demands of charity, to say nothing of the implications of the incarnation’ (262; Pope John Paul II yet again).

What is required is precisely, now and always, a ‘Personal encounter with the saving love of Jesus’. Could anything be clearer than that?! Could any Church have a more specific ‘mission statement’? That is where this whole document is heading. Just as the Church which engages in evangelization itself needs evangelizing, so the Pope prays, ‘God save us from a worldly Church!’ (97), and invites all his readers ‘to recover a contemplative spirit’, and to allow Jesus to look at us with his ‘gaze of love’ (all 264). So, at the very point at which Pope Francis is becoming most insistent on the practice of evangelization by people filled with the Holy Spirit, he is also calling the Church to ever-deepening contemplation of Jesus (here, too, there is a preponderance of the use of the name ‘Jesus’ (264-270)), and to ‘the missionary power of intercessory prayer’ (281ff.), in entirely genuine and unsentimental ways.

God’s faithful people are called ‘to light a fire in the heart of the world’ (271) in a spirit of ‘missionary joy’ (271, 1). Because ‘the resurrection is already secretly woven into the fabric’ of the universe (278), either that will be the basis of our lives and prayer, or we will be seduced by ‘chronic discontent and a listlessness that parches the soul’ and by self-absorption, and the Gospel will be buried under a pile of excuses (277, 282). Or – in a striking phrase – we will discover that ‘I am a mission on this earth’ (273); we become ‘missionary disciples’, engaging with our world, under the aegis of Christ, risen and glorified’ (275). For this document I am deeply grateful.

There are no expositions of ‘justification by faith’, there are tentative phrases reminiscent of Vatican II about the salvation of those who are ‘faithful to their own consciences’ (254); but at the heart of this wonderful document is the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, crucified, risen, ascended and glorified, who poured out the gift of the Holy Spirit on all flesh to call us to missionary action and contemplation. The Incarnation is too bright a star not to notice – and calls us to offer a ‘Yes!’ like Mary’s.

According to Article XXXVIII of the Book of Common Prayer, ‘the Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this Realm of England’. But when the current Bishop of Rome, together with his immediate predecessors, writes with such personal and evangelical conviction about ‘The Joy of the Gospel’, and with such range, depth, power and precision, and when our own Church often seems like a ship tacking to right and left as the mood suits, we could do much – much – worse than benefiting from this Exhortation. If we can’t write our own inspiring documents, maybe we should read and listen to those who can – particularly when the Pope so clearly understands that salvation and liberation are not co-terminous, and when he can communicate Christian Essentials with such fervour, rather than finickiness. It could even be a good parish discussion document. And it could certainly provide some wonderful quotations for Christmas. I urge much careful sustained reading of Evangelii Gaudium.

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2 Responses to Evangelii Gaudium: 
The Joy of the Gospel

  1. David Runcorn December 19, 2013 at 9:38 am #

    Philip

    Thank you so much for this piece. I dipped into Evangelii Gaudium a few weeks back and found it quite intoxicating. Thank you for setting it in a fuller context and urging me back to it.. Something new is among us isn’t it? And I for one who it is thoroughly infectious.

    • Philip Seddon December 21, 2013 at 7:27 pm #

      Thanks, David. There’s probably not a lot in it that the previous Popes he refers to so respectfully did not say, but it is the tone, the angle and the embrace (literal and metaphorical) that is so moving and compelling – and so Gospel-shaped. And, after all, he’s only just celebrated his 77th birthday… 😉

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