Recasting the New Evangelization Framework in Light of the Poor: Early Highlights and Analysis of Evangellii Gaudium
Evangellii Gaudium, the Joy of the Gospel, will most certainly become an important text to understand Catholic social ethics, mission, ecclesiology, and what it means to be a disciple in the world today. The text addresses a number of important themes including the importance of preaching, the danger of pride and despair within the church, economic inequality, the idolatry of free market capitalism and structural sin, the call of all the church to proclaim the Gospel with joy, and the pneumatological dimensions of evangelization. Most of all, perhaps, Pope Francis calls our attention to the demands of people who are poor and marginalized as a fundamental component of evangelization.
Strongly echoing themes from Pope Paul VI, liberation theology, and his own deeply pastoral style, Francis offers a helpful corrective to certain interpretations of the “new evangelization” that were common over the past decade.
Although the exhortation was stimulated by last year’s Synod on “The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith,” Pope Francis has chosen not to make this a “post-synodal apostolic exhortation” as has been the case for the modern synods for most of their history. This may reflect a desire to allow the voices of the bishops and their recommendations to stand as they are and/or perhaps an indication that his pontificate will offer a different reading of the evangelization—the church’s fundamental task in the world. Reading the text, it is clear that he offers a more holistic or integral vision of evangelization that closely resembles the approach taken by Pope Paul VI in his 1975 post-synodal apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi .
At last year’s synod, a minority of bishops (mostly from outside of Europe) critiqued the preparation documents and the discourse surrounding the “new evangelization” in three ways:
- as being overly prideful;
- as being too Eurocentric; and
- as being “weak on social justice” and not giving enough attention to the reality of poverty and the option for the poor.
With Evangellii Gaudium, Francis offers a clear response to these and other similar critiques by reclaiming a holistic or integral approach to the Church’s mission in the world. Using gender-inclusive language and writing in the first person singular—a decidedly different style than other papal documents—Francis begins by introducing the concept of evangelization. Following this introduction, Chapter Two examines the present global context. Whereas earlier texts on the new evangelization focused primarily on the problems posed by secularism, sexual immorality and the “dechristianization of Europe,” Francis hits hard on economic inequalities throughout the world. For him, it seems that it is economic inequality—not secularization—that is the major issue that the church is called to address. Economic inequality lies at the root of many problems including violence, lack of compassion and despair. His standpoint and perspective is clearly from the margins as he critiques what he calls the “economy of exclusion” and those:
trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. (54)
In response to these challenges facing the world, Francis calls upon pastoral workers and the church as a whole, to evangelize with hope and not to give into “burn out” pessimism, isolation and “warring” between members of the church. Whereas John Paul II was strongly critical of what he saw as over emphasis on social justice in his encyclical on mission (Redemptoris Missio), Francis focuses his criticism on another tendency that he describes as a “spiritual worldliness” which “hides behind the appearance of piety and even love for the Church” but which ignores the radical demands of the Gospel (93-97) This section is a must read for priests, lay ministers and anyone concerned with clericalism and for those who question the integral relationship between justice and the life of the church.
Chapter Three beautifully explores the universal vocation of Christians to engage diverse cultures and to proclaim the Gospel with hospitality and mercy:
Being Church means being God’s people, in accordance with the great plan of his fatherly love. This means that we are to be God’s leaven in the midst of humanity. It means proclaiming and bringing God’s salvation into our world, which often goes astray and needs to be encouraged, given hope and strengthened on the way. The Church must be a place of mercy freely given, where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live the good life of the Gospel. (114)
Our non-European pope continues by speaking of the importance of connecting the Gospel to the needs and realities of the cultures and societies in which it is proclaimed. Models of expressing the church developed in “European nations developed at a particular moment of their history” ought not to be the norm for all cultures. (118).
It is here in this context of speaking positively of the church’s relationship to culture, education and the sciences that Francis offers an important perspective on the vocation of the theologian:
The Church, in her commitment to evangelization, appreciates and encourages the charism of theologians and their scholarly efforts to advance dialogue with the world of cultures and sciences. I call on theologians to carry out this service as part of the Church’s saving mission. In doing so, however, they must always remember that the Church and theology exist to evangelize, and not be content with a desk-bound theology. (133)
The Chapter then considers the importance of a well-prepared and positive homily that is open to critical evaluation by others:
Positive preaching always offers hope, points to the future, does not leave us trapped in negativity. How good it is when priests, deacons and the laity gather periodically to discover resources which can make preaching more attractive! (159)
After considering the global context (Chapter Two) and the church’s vocation to proclaim the Gospel (Chapter Three), Chapter Four considers the “Social Dimension of Evangelization.” Rooting evangelization in the proclamation of God’s kingdom, Francis echoes Paul VI’s integral vision of evangelization whereby social action in the public sphere is seen as an integral part of the church’s mission—something that was not very clear in the writing of Benedict XVI. He quotes from Pau VI’s Evangelii Nuntiandi to say:
Reading the Scriptures also makes it clear that the Gospel is not merely about our personal relationship with God. Nor should our loving response to God be seen simply as an accumulation of small personal gestures to individuals in need, a kind of “charity à la carte”, or a series of acts aimed solely at easing our conscience. The Gospel is about the kingdom of God (cf. Lk 4:43); it is about loving God who reigns in our world. To the extent that he reigns within us, the life of society will be a setting for universal fraternity, justice, peace and dignity….We know that “evangelization would not be complete if it did not take account of the unceasing interplay of the Gospel and of man’s concrete life, both personal and social”. (180-181)
People who are poor or marginalized in any way, he pleads, demand particular attention in our efforts at evangelization. Drawing from liberation theology, he writes:
Each individual Christian and every community is called to be an instrument of God for the liberation and promotion of the poor, and for enabling them to be fully a part of society. This demands that we be docile and attentive to the cry of the poor and to come to their aid.… it means working to eliminate the structural causes of poverty and to promote the integral development of the poor, as well as small daily acts of solidarity in meeting the real needs which we encounter. (187-188)
To do this, he writes, we must work for access to healthcare, just wages, education (192) and a more just distribution of income. (I would be curious to hear Congressman Paul Ryan’s reading of this!) All of us, he insists, regardless of our position in the church or society have an evangelical obligation to pay attention to the poor and the vulnerable. Our position as pastors, bishops, or theologians is no excuse for inaction (yes, academic friends – this includes us):
No one must say that they cannot be close to the poor because their own lifestyle demands more attention to other areas. This is an excuse commonly heard in academic, business or professional, and even ecclesial circles. While it is quite true that the essential vocation and mission of the lay faithful is to strive that earthly realities and all human activity may be transformed by the Gospel, none of us can think we are exempt from concern for the poor and for social justice (201)
Chapter Five concludes the exhortation with a much more pneumatological reading of evangelization. Here again is another contrast between the reading of Francis and the more Christocentric approach to evangelization taken by Blessed John Paul II and Benedict XVI. His call for “Spirit-filled evangelizers who pray and work” does not negate the past insights. Rather, it remands us that of the call of the Holy Spirit to be positive, hopeful, loving and full of joy as we proclaim the Good News. This calls us to recognize that:
every person is immensely holy and deserves our love. Consequently, if I can help at least one person to have a better life, that already justifies the offering of my life. It is a wonderful thing to be God’s faithful people. We achieve fulfilment when we break down walls and our heart is filled with faces and names!
Although the exhortation insists towards the end that it “is not a social document,” it is hard to miss the important insights here that extend well beyond evangelization including Catholic social teaching. It may not be a perfect document, but is it one of the most profound writings that I have read regarding the mission of the church. Anticipating the criticisms that are sure to come, especially on his emphasis on the poor, Francis writes with his typical humble and positive style:
If anyone feels offended by my words, I would respond that I speak them with affection and with the best of intentions, quite apart from any personal interest or political ideology. My words are not those of a foe or an opponent. I am interested only in helping those who are in thrall to an individualistic, indifferent and self-centred mentality to be freed from those unworthy chains and to attain a way of living and thinking which is more humane, noble and fruitful, and which will bring dignity to their presence on this earth. (208)