Chapter One of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation on evangelization (Evangelii Gaudium, or “GE”) is entitled “The Church’s Missionary Transformation.” What the Holy Father seems to be talking about here is not only a new way of thinking about the Church, but also a new way of being the Church. Yet such newness is not about “novelty,” but rather about an interior conversion that leads to a renewed commitment to the Lord’s invitation to bring the “joy” of the Gospel to all people (EG 23).
Here are four points that I took away from this chapter:
(1) The Role of the Church. We’ve heard for decades now that the Church exists to evangelize. Pope Francis amplifies this point and emphatically adds what the Church does not exist to do. Namely, the Church cannot be about “self-preservation” (EG 27), “defensiveness” (EG 45), “security” (EG 49), or “mere administration” (EG 25).
The Gospel not only calls individuals out of their personal comfort zones, but it does the same for the Church on every level. The Church has to reexamine all she does through the lens of whether she is being faithful to her missionary mandate. Pope Francis flat out says that “we have always done it this way” (EG 33) can no longer be our approach. Instead, he envisions a “bold and creative” (EG 33) Church that is committed to pastoral discernment, purification, and reform (EG 30).
He notes that the parish has an ongoing role in the life of the Church, but that presupposes that the parish is in contact with the lives of its people, and that it “encourages and trains its members to be evangelizers” (EG 28). At the same time, the Holy Father insists that the parish must not become “a useless structure out of touch with people or a self-absorbed group made up of a chosen few” (EG 28).
(2) Get to the Point. Some may have difficulty with (or conversely, draw the wrong conclusions from) the Pope’s discussion of the “hierarchy of truths” (EG 31), his concern about an over-emphasis on unspecified “secondary aspects” of the Church’s moral teaching (EG 34 and following), and his openness to “nuance” in our understanding of doctrine (EG 40). Yet the Pope is not denying the importance of accepting the totality of Catholic teaching. He affirms that “all revealed truths derive from the same divine source and are to be believed with the same faith” (EG 36). So what is he getting at?
Basically, the Holy Father insists that we lead with the core of the Gospel message, in all its beauty, attractiveness, and simplicity. We must bear witness above all to “the saving love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ who died and rose from the dead” (EG 36). Everyone should know that “the Gospel invites us to respond to the love of God who saves us, to see God in others, and to go forth from ourselves to seek the good of others” (EG 39). Evangelization doesn’t end there (that’s why we have “catechesis”), but sometimes we forget that it must always begin there.
(3) Don’t Obsess About the Weeds. Pope Francis says that in the presence of weeds (human failings, sins, setbacks, etc.) we must “not grumble or overreact” (EG 24) or otherwise distort the Church’s message of mercy. I think he is telling the Church to keep the big picture of saving souls in mind (EG 43). Customs and practices that no longer help the process may need to go. Similarly, the Church should not burden the faithful with excessive precepts and rules (EG 43).
He talks about keeping the doors of the church open—not just literally, but also in the sense that all feel welcome and that the sacraments be available to all as “a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” (EG 47). “Conservatives” may wonder if this applies to the openly defiant politicians who nonetheless present themselves for Communion, while “liberals” may have to rethink withholding sacraments from homeschoolers who bypass their sacramental programs. We’ll see what ramifications all this will have. But clearly the Holy Father says we must be “facilitators” rather than “arbiters” of grace (EG 47), recognizing that the Church must always be merciful and patient toward those who are struggling in their journey of faith (EG 44-45).
(4) Go Forth! The chapter begins and ends with a clear exhortation to embrace in our daily lives the Church’s perennial mission to go forth and make disciples. The Pope is not into “armchair evangelization.” He wants us all to be ministers of the “joy of the Gospel,” recognizing that God’s Word is “unpredictable” and awesome in its power to save (EG 22). He stresses that the Church has, in a sense, a “preferential option for the poor” even in her evangelization efforts. Surely this will be a theme to which the Pope will return later in the apostolic exhortation.
For my money, the most compelling words of the chapter are found at the end of the chapter: “If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light, and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life” (EG 49).
How can we remain complacent in the face of this godly challenge?