Evangelizing Church

11 Dec

Pope Francis 4As we well know, our Holy Father chose as his patron and model St. Francis, who is known for the statement, perhaps apocryphal, that we should “preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary use words.” While there is some wisdom in that statement, we cannot conclude (or perhaps rationalize) that words aren’t important in the work of evangelization. In fact, they are usually necessary!

Pope Francis surely thinks so. He opens chapter three of his apostolic exhortation on “the joy of the Gospel” (Evangelii Gaudium, “EG”) with the statement (quoting Blessing John Paul II) that “there can be no true evangelization without the explicit proclamation of Jesus and Lord, and without the primacy of the proclamation of Jesus Christ in all evangelizing work” (EG 110). He says that our “absolute priority” must be “the joyful, patient, and progressive preaching of the saving death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

In today’s installment of our series on Evangelii Gaudium, we will unpack the first half of the chapter on the proclamation of the Gospel (EG 111-34), in which the Pope focuses on the role of all Catholics in the work of evangelization. He reminds us that evangelization is the work of the entire Church, understood as the pilgrim People of God (EG 111). Now, it may be daunting to hear that we are personally called to be on the front lines of the Church’s mission to bring the joy of the Gospel to all people, but the Holy Father quickly adds a few crucially important considerations:

  • It’s not about our own efforts, but about allowing God’s grace to work through us, so that the Church may be the sacrament of the salvation God offers the world (EG 112). Grace always comes first!
  • Drawing on a key emphasis of Vatican II, Pope Francis says that we are saved not as isolated individuals, but as a family (EG 113). The Church is our home, and all are welcome to share our joy.
  • As Church, we are have the dignity of being leaven in the world, offering hope, mercy, and encouragement to all (EG 114).

The Holy Father spends a considerable amount of time talking about “culture,” which has to do with “the lifestyle of a given society, the specific way its members relate to one another, to others, and to God” (EG 115). Grace presupposes and builds upon culture, and at the same time culture gives flesh to the faith. The Holy Father stresses that “Christianity does not have simply one cultural expression” (EG 116). He especially points out that European Christianity at a particular moment in history does not exhaust the richness and possibilities of our faith (EG 118). He does not see “cultural diversity” as a threat to Church unity or Catholic orthodoxy, but rather as a telltale sign of the Church’s vitality. After all, unity is not the same as uniformity (EG 117).

Perhaps the “heart” of this section of the apostolic exhortation is the Holy Father’s insistence that we become not mere missionaries and not mere disciples, but “missionary disciples” (EG 120). He challenges all of us, right now, in the present moment, to be agents of the new evangelization. He says we can’t be “passive observers” so as to leave the work of evangelization to so-called ”professionals” (EG 120). He doesn’t deny that we need to mature in the faith through ongoing catechesis, but nonetheless we should not “postpone” evangelization until some later time (EG 121).

One way that the Gospel gets “inculturated” is through expressions of popular piety and devotion (EG 122).  The Pope affirms things such as taking children on pilgrimages, fingering the Rosary, lighting candles, praying before a crucifix and other simple yet profound expressions of the Holy Spirit at work in individual hearts and in our culture (EG 123-26).

The Pope also discusses the person-to-person dimension of evangelization, even in the midst of conversations with strangers (EG 127). In paragraph 128, he describes how we can share our faith in dialogue with others. Some of the adjectives he uses are “respectful,” “gentle,” “humble,” and “willing to learn.” We can’t lose sight of the fundamental message: the personal love of God who became man, who gave Himself up for us, who is living and who is offering us His friendship and salvation.  When the circumstances are right, he encourages us to pray with people and to remember that we don’t have to have “fixed formulations” memorized in order to communicate our faith (EG 129).

He encourages us to be open to various charisms or gifts of the Holy Spirit, which build up the entire Church (EG 130). We seek the Holy Spirit to build unity amidst our diversity and to heal divisions. We ask for the Spirit’s grace to be open to differences that at times can be “uncomfortable” (EG 131).

The Holy Father promotes apologetics in the work of evangelization—perhaps not so much in the traditional sense of responding to Protestant arguments, but in the sense of putting reason and the sciences at the service of evangelization (EG 132). In that regard, Pope Francis is very supportive of the work of theologians, yet he does remind them that theology exists for the purpose of evangelization (EG 133). He ends this section with a brief mention of Catholic universities and schools, which combine education with the explicit proclamation of the Gospel, so as to foster the evangelization of culture (EG 134).

In the next post, we will turn to what Pope Francis has to say about the role of the Sunday homily in the work of evangelization!

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