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Sweet and sour in Pope's exhortation


The cover of an English Language publication of 'Evangelii Gaudium' features a smiling Pope in mid-sentence behind a lecternEvangelism and evangelisation are often turn-off words in church conversation. All churches commend the importance of sharing faith with others. But people often identify evangelism with proselytism or spin. And in the Catholic Church evangelisation can be associated with a high rhetoric designed to protect current forms of institutional relationships and practice.

That is a pity because evangelisation focuses on what lies outside, something churches need to do if they are to avoid becoming weary and staid. In his first extended document Evangelii Gaudium Pope Francis offers a welcome fresh take on sharing the Gospel as good news. The document offers no revision of Catholic doctrine and moral teaching; its style and major themes have become familiar in recent months. But its conversational style embodies the kind of change that needs to take place if the Church is effectively to commend the Gospel to others.

The changes commended by the Pope have mainly to do with the Catholic imagination. They involve seeing the heart of the church to lie in the relationships with those outside it. But if those relationships are to be fruitful the governance and priorities of the Church must also change.

For Francis the life of Christians asks them to go out of their comfort zone to communicate God's compassion to those who are on the edges of society and church. To do this they must have experienced God's compassion in their own lives and to have found in it a source of such deep joy that they want to share it with others.

Sharing faith must be characterised by compassion and respect. Its task is not to win a war against the secular world and its philosophies but to win people. So it must include people in conversation and focus on what matters most deeply — the love and compassion of God — and not on the details of faith and moral teaching.

In the Pope's view the highest priority of Church governance is not to preserve faith but to communicate it. So it should be inspired less by the desire to control than by boldness.

The Pope embodies this boldness in his rhetoric. Changes in the Church that were once not open for general discussion are now named bluntly as agenda items. Among them are the decentralisation of Church governance and so inevitable changes in the way the Pope is seen in the universal church.

Francis writes most passionately when he speaks of going out to the poor. They are the centre, although not the sum, of the Church's address. He cuts through tiresome debates about who the poor are: they are the people living in the favelas of Argentina and other cities, and others who share their indigence and precariousness.

Because his interest is in people's concrete lives and relationships, he asks why people are poor. He focuses on the evils of an economic order that holds people in poverty.

The interest of Evangelii Gaudium lies less in a single argument than in the variety and sharpness of its perceptions. It is less like a Penny Bunger than a string of Tom Thumbs. So a few personal reflections.

First, Francis is not interested in radical institutional or doctrinal change but wants to help a dysfunctional Church work better at compassionately communicating God's love. He will remain within the framework of Church teaching on faith and morality he has inherited, including on the reservation of priestly ministry to men and respect for life before birth. But he wants less self-preoccupation in governance and in imagination.

Second, some notable firsts and omissions. To my knowledge this is the first church document that refers to 'sourpusses'. It must be the first lengthy papal document for some time, too, that refers to the Magisterium only twice in passing. Nor does Pope Francis refer explicitly to clerical sexual abuse, one of the greatest current obstacles in Western societies at least to sharing or hearing Catholic proclamation of the Gospel as good news.

Third, the section on the challenges posed by the modern world is a broad brush and earthy presentation of systems and ideologies discussed regularly in church documents — individualism, neoliberalism, consumerism, secularism and so on. I enjoyed especially his strong criticism of the deification of the market. But I wonder whether the easy naming of cultural trends will help the Church to go out to people as the Pope commends. It has led Catholics in the past to judge people who are different as embodiments of an ideology rather than simply as people with the same mixture of high and low desires, bright and dumb ideas, as ourselves.

But finally I was delighted by the way in which Evangelii Gaudium expressed so simply and directly a joy in faith, an insistence that the poor must be at the centre of the Church's imagination and governance, and an impatience at the various ways in which Catholics can encage faith and make it morose.

Andrew Hamilton headshotAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, evangelism, pope francis, Evangelii Gaudium, encyclical



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Existing comments

The only difference between Christians and Jews in one word is Equality. They celebrate both on the same day Good Friday and Passover but in memory of different events. For the Jews this is the happiest day as they celebrate their escape from Egypt while for the Christians instead it is the day that Jesus was crucified. Jesus was a Jew who was killed by his own only because he opposed the concept of one "chosen people" and invoked Equality. Today the concept of Equality is largely confused among Christians in the UK and USA. Those populations are like hypnotized by the concept of Individualism spread by the Jewish culture which is so pervasive in those Countries. In our days, the Zionist media have confused the values and leveled the concept of Equality with the same sex marriage as if that were the debate to discuss in regard to Equality. Those Christians who do not believe in Equality are no different than the Jews in their Belief.

wavettore | 02 December 2013  

Just exactly what does the verb 'to moderate' mean? That is, as in 'submitted feedback is moderated'.

Paul | 03 December 2013  

Illuminating as always, Andrew. But I wonder about your comment that '...the Pope is not interested in radical institutional...change'? I think he is (see the Council of Cardinals/reform of Curia/revivification of Synod of Bishops/calls for decentralisation and reform of Papacy/consultation at all levels, even if not for its own sake but precisely for a more effective evangelisation. And in committing himself to radical institutional change he shows he has learned the lesson of the post-Vatican II failures to implement the Council - there were new theological ideas in abundance then, wonderful Conciliar decrees, a sense of excitement but none of this was enough without the dull work of institutional, structural and legal changes. Francis seems to understand this and I would say that the institutional changes now underway are indeed radical.

Gerry O'Hanlon, S.J. | 03 December 2013  

Andy: you make me want to read the original! How lovely - if not surprising given all reports to date - that while there is no revision of Catholic doctrine and moral teaching 'the conversational style embodies the kind of change that needs to take place if the Church is effectively to commend the Gospel to others'. Equally that the highest priority of Church governance be not to preserve faith but to communicate it - and this driven by the joy of knowing the compassion of god firsthand. May we continue to be emboldened.

anna brown | 03 December 2013  

Thanks for your helpful comments, Gerry. Your point about the need for institutional change to embody reform is very important. We wait to see how this will be implemented. The difference between us may be in the way we imagine radical change. I had in mind such innovations, ordinary in other church polities, as introducing regular synods at each level of church with voting rights for lay members, appointing Bishops for six year terms, etc. Pope Francis seems more likely to me to work with structures present although vestigial in the Catholic Church, such as the Bishops' Synod and Episcopal Conferences and to give them more authority in relation to the Curia, and to appoint competent people to manage and regulate the different organs of church governance. We would both hope that, whether this kind of reform is radical or not, its results will be radical.

Andy Hamilton | 03 December 2013  

“I had in mind such innovations, ordinary in other church polities, as introducing regular synods at each level of church with voting rights for lay members, appointing Bishops for six year terms, etc.” – Andrew Hamilton, Comments. Andrew I have to say these are the changes I look forward to as well. Perhaps when national bishops conferences are given more autonomy to adapt national churches to reflect local cultures then some of these will emerge. Others I would like to see are women deacons, married priests, more flexible notions of Eucharistic ministry, most of all more democratic local church structures that you suggest and greater participation of women at all levels within the church – particularly its decision making structures – to reflect Australian egalitarian values.

John Edwards | 03 December 2013  

"Its task is not to win a war against the secular world and its philosophies but to win people." I'm not sure Pope Francis would agree with you! Yes evangelization is about people, but it IS also about warring with the secular philosophies that make human beings' lives miserable. Pope Francis singled out capitalism recently, but pick any of the 'isms' and note how they effect human beings when the 'ism' is taken to its extreme. Evanglization must involve - in some shape or form - war-ring against any philosophies that demeans or destroys the body, mind and soul of the human person. To draw someone to the "light" that is Christ, they must by definition be drawn out of 'the darkness".... there is a lot of 'darkness' in our materialistic, over sexualized, selfish society.

Molly Mac | 03 December 2013  

I suspect that it is also the first Papal document to use inclusive language e.g. men and women instead of the usual 'men' one expects from ecclesiastical documents

Beatrice | 04 December 2013  

Thanks for your comments Andrew. In fact, I hope for the same as you do; and that by releasing a more collegial spirit at the more macro-level, Francis will have released the genie out of the bottle so that there will be a corresponding effect at local level too. We'll see. Certainly it's more likely to happen if we at local level ask, assert that it should - and that's very much in line with the Francis dictum about 'thinking with the church' meaning a real listening to the 'sense of the faith' of us all. Hopeful times.

Gerry O'Hanlon, S.J. | 04 December 2013  

Good one, Andy. It's also the first encyclical that uses the female pronoun alongside the male which is refreshing, for this Francis fan anyway.

Cecily McNeill | 04 December 2013  

What Pope Francis has put before the Catholic Church, so must the proponents of No-God and No-Religion life constructs do as well. There is no doubt that our Catholic Church has been tied up in the conservative versus progressive vision of evangelisation, while the proponents of the No-God and No-Religion constructs have been able to present a united and very aggressive proclamation of their gospels. Our Catholic Church's seemingly, disunited proclamation and one that spent more time and energy on internal divisions, gave our opponents the advantage they didn't deserve. It's good to see that we are now being equipped with both, a clear presentation of our religion as well as being called to imitate Christ in how to share that clarity.

Fr Mick Mac Andrew | 04 December 2013  

"Sweet and sour" is my favourite international dish. Francis with his apparent preference for administrative rather than doctrinal change will no doubt spoil many appetites - particularly those of the many critics who rail against doctrine in pursuit of their preferred interests.

john frawley | 04 December 2013  

It seems to me to be a very good time to push on with the cause for canonisation of Blessed Frederic Ozanam, the founder of the St Vincent de Paul Society

Joe | 04 December 2013  

God is calling everyone to come to him up his "Mountain', and to start from where they are. There are many paths up the Mountain. The Jews found one path, but thought it was exclusive to Jews. Christians found another path, but thought it exclusive to Christians. Muslims make the same mistake. We need to realise that while we all retain our individuality, we unite as members of one ‘faith’, and that these ‘faiths’ need to combine like the limbs and organs of one Universal Body. Only then will we find the peace and harmony towards which God is inviting us.

Robert Liddy | 04 December 2013  

John Edwards, I like your suggestion that the church reflect Australian egalitarian values. I think this is even more crucial for Australia at this time, as we, as a nation, are rapidly losing our egalitarian values. The gulfs between rich and poor are getting wider by the day, more and more people unemployed, under-employed or employed as casual workers in insecure jobs; more private hospitals and school, fewer for those who cannot afford to pay. And so on. The Church should be there as a "light on the hill" to shine light on the darkness that is enveloping our society.

Janet | 04 December 2013  

If the pope still works within the moral teachings of the Catholic Church then his charity and words have no consequence. The church continues to damn to eternal death millions of people. That's the reality

Michael Gravener | 04 December 2013  

Father Hamilton, PLEASE, send a copy of the Pope's Exhortation to each Catholic member of our Federal Government's Cabinet...so many of them Jesuit-schooled. Also enclose your response from Eureka. Thank You.

Caroline Storm | 04 December 2013  

What a joy to hear from a Pope that the poor must be at the centre of the Church’s imagination and governance.

Terry Fitz | 04 December 2013  

Michael Gravener, I always thought that it was God who damned "millions to eternal death" - not the Catholic Church. I am a little uncertain of the figures but suspect that so too are most people. Do you have the stats to support your remarkable contention?

john frawley | 04 December 2013  

I have read the document and saved reading your commentary Andrew until I'd finished. Your comments are both faithful and illuminating insights on this most welcome message from Pope Francis. His is a powerful message precisely because in both language and intent he addresses his words to all people, not only those concerned with faith or the church. Pope Francis' message is attractive because it appeals to the optimist that lies (sometimes steadfastly dormant!) within us all, to stop bickering among ourselves especially about things that are of marginal import, to renew our relationship with Christ, and to get on with the business of putting our skills, energies and attention at the service of others, especially those who are most vulnerable. It was a welcome prompt to this reader at least to cheer up, stop being so self absorbed, remember that it's actually Jesus who does the hard yards in saving humanity and get on with it! Thank you for your similarly encouraging words.

Marcelle Mogg | 05 December 2013  

I am in no position to judge whether or not Francis is "interested in radical institutional or doctrinal change". However, he does twice assert the need for conversion, or pastoral conversion, in relation to the papacy and the central structures of the universal church (cf. par 32). As I understand it, the biblical concept of conversion (metanoia) requires a radical change of mind and heart - a recognition of past failure and a preparedness to find a new way in the future. There can be little doubt that Francis is aware of the implications of his choice of words. That he explicitly identifies a need for metanoia in respect of the papacy suggests to me that he is at least open to fundamental change at the institutional level.

Denis Nickle | 06 December 2013  

Fr Hamilton, the englishtranslation on number 85 us tndeed "sourpusses"[the official latin is not up yet. Presuming the spanish is the original, google translates the the number 85 as reduction as "One of the most serious temptations to drown the fervor and boldness is the consciousness of defeat that makes us pessimistic complainers and face disenchanted with vinegar...

Name | 09 December 2013  

#Fr Hamilton, the English "EG" translation In number 85 is indeed "sourpusses"
#[the official Latin is not up yet]
# Number 85 has. other 'polyglot "EG" variants viz:Italian:"facia scura," [dark face] ;Spanish: "con cara de vinagre" [vinegar face];French: "visage assombri"[clouded face];Portuguese: "cara de vinagre" [vinegar face]German "mit düsterem Gesicht verwandelt"[transformed with dark face.]
The vinegars have it !!!![Presumably Spanish was the original].[used Google 'iffy' translations of polyglot versions at vatican.va]

Father John George | 09 December 2013  

Pope Francis is helping us see via his "The Joy of the Gospel"- NOW, is the time for Repentance, Forgiveness, Joy and Love. Joyeux Noël - So break my step And relent You forgave and I won't forget Know what we've seen And him with less Now in some way Shake the excess But I will wait, I will wait for you And I will wait, I will wait for you And I will wait, I will wait for you And I will wait, I will wait for you So I'll be bold As well as strong And use my head alongside my heart So tame my flesh And fix my eyes That tethered mind free from the lies But I'll kneel down Wait for now I'll kneel down Know my ground Raise my hands Paint my spirit gold And bow my head Keep my heart slow Cause I will wait, I will wait for you And I will wait, I will wait for you And I will wait, I will wait for you. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rGKfrgqWcv0

Game Theory | 09 December 2013  

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