Going Deeper

7 Jan

Pope as CatechistAfter a Christmas hiatus, it is time to continue our overview of Pope Francis’ apostolic letter on the new evangelization (Evangelii Gaudium, or “GE”).

When most people think of “evangelization,” they think of the initial proclamation of the Gospel (the technical term is “kerygma”), that invites people to a new relationship with Christ.

Yet, as Pope Francis points out, when Christ sent out His apostles as missionaries, He gave them this instruction: “Teach them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). The Holy Father sees in this instruction the need for ongoing formation and maturation, what we traditionally call “catechesis” (GE 160), which is part of the larger process of evangelization.

For those of us familiar with CCD and School of Religion programs, we must admit that sometimes we think of catechesis as primarily intellectual formation—a “class” that one has to attend. Yet the Holy Father is clear that catechesis is not primarily doctrinal, but about growing in grace and virtue (GE 161), recognizing that it is always the Lord who initiates the process (GE 162).

Pope Francis acknowledges the normative role of Church teaching on catechesis (GE 163), but offers further reflections that are significant for our time. One point of emphasis is the heart of the Gospel, the kerygma, which is both Trinitarian and Christ-centered. Just because it comes “first” doesn’t mean it can be forgotten later (GE 164). Rather, all catechesis must continually circle back to the heart of the message, which means that God’s saving love must be stressed ahead of religious and moral obligations (GE 165).

Pope Francis emphasizes the role of mystagogic catechesis, which is catechesis that is liturgical and involves the entire community (EG 166). This is just one more way that the Pope is emphasizing the need for catechetical formation that affects the entire person (not just a “head trip”) and one’s environment or culture. Like Pope Benedict, Pope Francis emphasizes the role of beauty in catechesis, including new forms or modes of beauty that are meaningful to today’s seekers (cf. EG 167). Catechesis also has a moral component, and the Holy Father decidedly prefers a joyful, positive approach that presents the moral life as the quest for authentic wisdom, self-fulfillment, and enrichment (EG 168)

Perhaps the most striking insight that the Holy Father gives us in this section is his call that all members of the Church be initiated in the “art of accompaniment” (EG 169), which in some ways reminds me of some of the writings of Blessed John Paul II, especially Crossing the Threshold of Hope.  This simply means that the Church needs people who can help lead others closer to God (EG 170). Those who serve as spiritual mentors must be good listeners (EG 171), fostering spiritual growth and the development of virtues in a spirit of patience and compassion (EG 171-72). Also, spiritual accompaniment isn’t an end in itself, but is part of the Church’s never-ending mission to bring the Gospel to the world. As the Holy Father says, “Missionary disciples accompany missionary disciples” (EG 173).

Pope Francis ends this section of the apostolic exhortation by stressing that Sacred Scripture is at the heart of all Church activity (EG 174). The Church evangelizes only to the extent she continually allows herself to be evangelized through the ministry of the Word. For that reason, the Pope invites all believers to become intimately familiar with Scripture, which he calls a “sublime treasure” (EG 175).

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