So what exactly do we have here?
In the eight months since Pope Francis walked through the draped door onto the papal balcony overlooking hundreds of thousands in St. Peter’s Square and then bowed silently – asking first for the blessing of the people before offering his own to them – we have been sizing up this unexpected gift of the Holy Spirit.
To a cynical world interested in sizzle and sound bites, the first few days and weeks of the Pope Francis papacy provided plenty of “A” material for “Entertainment Tonight” and “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”
Instead of climbing into a Mercedes with a police escort following his election, Francis took the bus – a middle seat – with the guys dressed in red back to his small room at the Vatican’s rooming house for cardinals. He had someone drop him off at his Rome hotel – where he had stayed before the conclave began – so he could pay his bill.
He stopped his white, papal Jeep and jumped out to kiss babies and the disfigured. He called Argentina to cancel his newspaper delivery (he was on an extended vacation and wasn’t expected back in quite awhile). In the middle of the day, he cold-called a pregnant woman in distress who had written to him about why she decided to give birth rather than have an abortion.
Along the way – just about every day – Pope Francis says something in his daily homilies that makes news. He said it is far better for the church to be wounded and injured by going into the streets – the new evangelization at work – than for it to atrophy by closing itself off to the world.
Pope Francis abhors jargon and church-speak. His message is straight from the Gospel of St. Mark (1:22) in which the evangelist gives a remarkable assessment of Jesus’ message: “The people were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.”
That brings us to Pope Francis’ latest remarkable talk from the heart – the 50,000-word aptly named “apostolic exhortation” titled “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”). Pope Francis uses the long-form narrative to string together the bits and pieces of his vision for the mission of the church as an evangelizer in the modern world.
Without resorting to code words, Pope Francis speaks bluntly about the danger of complacency, both inside and outside the church. He decries poor preaching and is critical of the over-centralization of the Curia. While not changing a word of church doctrine, Francis says it is critical to the church’s evangelizing mission to be creatively pastoral.
And, he keeps coming back to that word – “joy.” The pope asks, where is the joy in the Christian life? If anyone should be joy-filled, it should be the Christian, who has the promise of eternal life because God became flesh, dwelt among us, suffered, died and rose to smash the power of death.
“There are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter,” Pope Francis writes. “An evangelizer must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral!”
To use a popular expression, the church should embrace people where they are, just as Jesus did the unthinkable by speaking to the Samaritan woman at the well who was a serial adulterer – but someone whose heart was open to change.
How could the church reach this woman and others paralyzed by sin or injustice, the pope asks, unless it is willing to bridge that divide by talking – and listening.
“A church which ‘goes forth’ is a church whose doors are open,” he writes. “Often it is better to simply slow down, to put aside our eagerness in order to see and listen to others, to stop rushing from one thing to another and to remain with someone who has faltered along the way.”
In the course of offering salvation, the church can hurt its own evangelizing mission if doctrine is used as a sledgehammer to kill an open spirit. Note that Pope Francis does not dismiss doctrine, but cautions about an imbalance when the church talks “more about law than about grace, more about the church than about Christ, more about the pope than about God’s word.”
A lot has been made of Pope Francis’ call for a global economic system in need of reform, but it also clear that in 1891 – 122 years ago! – Pope Leo XIII called for a fair living wage that would keep families intact and strong.
“Today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality,” the pope writes. “Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? … I am far from proposing an irresponsible populism, but the economy can no longer turn to remedies that are new poison, such as attempting to increase profits by reducing the work force and thereby adding to the ranks of the excluded.”
The pope does not want another new evangelization “program.” He wants metanoia – a “Jesuit” word that means change of heart.
“Sometimes we are tempted to be that kind of Christian who keeps the Lord’s wounds at arm’s length,” he writes. “Yet Jesus wants us to touch human misery, to touch the suffering flesh of others … Whenever we do so, our lives become wonderfully complicated and we experience intensely what it is to be a people, to be part of a people.”
Stay tuned. This pope is comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable – as someone who has authority.
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at email@example.com.
So what exactly do we have here?