Evangelii Gaudium is Pope Francis’s 288-article exhortation, at the conclusion of the Year of Faith, on proclamation of the Gospel in today’s world. From beginning to end, Francis’s writing exudes a spirit of joy, of hope in the future, of profound respect for people, of common-sense connection to the real world. “There are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter,” Francis writes (6). Francis is not one them. His infectious joyfulness makes the Gospel message attractive in its simplicity and depth.
Francis has become famous for his striking word choices, and he repeats some of his favorite words and phrases in the exortation – “narcissism” (a bad thing in ministers), “museum pieces” (not what the church should be), “house of cards” (what the Church’s moral teaching risk becoming), “neopelagianism” (in those intransigently faithful to the past).
Others will rightly be commenting on the main themes of the exhortation – the entire Church as evangelizing community, the Church’s concern especially for the poor and the needy, the Church’s critique of unjust economic conditions (see the sharp words on “trickle-down” theories and the free market at no. 54), and much more. For Pray Tell readers, I highlight some of the themes we tend to talk about around here.
Liturgy: The liturgy is not treated extensively in the exhortation. But at 95, Francis refers to an “insidious worldliness” in “an ostentatious preoccupation for the liturgy, for doctrine and for the Church’s prestige, but without any concern that the Gospel have a real impact on God’s faithful people and the concrete needs of the present time.” The life of the Church “turns into a museum piece or something which is the property of a select few.”
Beauty in the Liturgy: This is affirmed twice at 24 – but with no further elaboration of the theme or critique of the reformed liturgy or call for greater continuity with liturgical tradition. The tone is practical and evangelical: “Evangelization with joy becomes beauty in the liturgy, as part of our daily concern to spread goodness.”
The Arts: Francis writes of the via pulchritudinis (“way of beauty”) at 167, with a bit more emphasis on the contemporary than the traditional. The Church should “encourage the use of the arts in evangelization, building on the treasures of the past but also drawing upon the wide variety of contemporary expressions so as to transmit the faith in a new ‘language of parables’.” He wants the Church to “be bold enough to discover new signs and new symbols, new flesh to embody and communicate the word, and different forms of beauty which are valued in different cultural settings, including those unconventional modes of beauty…”
Preaching: Francis gives a lengthy reflection on preaching (135-159) which is entirely practical and rather conversational in tone. Earlier (128) he wrote that preaching is “always respectful and gentle.” Here he emphasizes that “the preacher must know the heart of his community.” (137) The homily is not “entertainment”; it should be “brief” and not become “a speech or lecture.” (138) Preaching should not be “purely moralistic or doctrinaire,” nor should it be “a lecture on biblical exegesis.” (142) The pope speaks of the “closeness of the preacher, the warmth of his tone of voice, the unpretentiousness of his manner of speaking, the joy of his gestures.” (140) And in a rare note of realism in an official document, the pope says that “even if the homily at times may be somewhat tedious,” it will still bear fruit if the preacher has a spirit of maternal love.
A Church That Goes Out: Repeating a theme he has often stressed, Pope Francis writes: “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a Church concerned with being at the center and then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures.” (49)
Critique of Traditionalism: There is a danger that “we hold fast to a formulation while failing to convey its substance.” (41) There are “certain customs not directly connected to the heart of the Gospel, even some which have deep historical roots, … no longer properly understood and appreciated. Some of these customs may be beautiful, but they no longer serve as means of communicating the Gospel. We should not be afraid to re-examine them.” (43) There are “rules or precepts” once effective but which “no longer have the same usefulness.” (43)
Traditional Devotions: Traditional Catholic devotions are warmly praised at 122-126. But at the same time, there is undue emphasis on “the outward expressions and traditions of some groups, or on alleged private revelations” (does he mean Medjugorje?), and there are “devotions reflecting an individual and sentimental faith life” which are not “concerned with the advancement of society or the formation of the laity.” (70) After affirmation of prayer and intercession, reading Scripture, and Eucharistic adoration, he quotes John Paul II in rejecting “privatized and individualistic spirituality which ill accords with the demands of charity.” (262)
Divisiveness in Pastoral Workers: Francis writes, “It always pains me greatly to discover how some Christian communities, and even consecrated persons, can tolerate different forms of enmity, division, calumny, defamation, vendetta, jealous and the desire to impose certain ideas at all costs, even to persecutions which appear as veritable witch hunts. Whom are we going to evangelize if this is the way we act?” (100)
Pastoral Spirit: Pastoral ministry should not be “obsessed with the disjointed transmission of a multitude of doctrines to be insistently imposed.” (35) There should be a “fitting sense of proportion” in the “frequency with which certain themes are brought up.” (38) In words worthy of Luther, the pope decries “when we speak more about law than about grace, more about the Church than about Christ, more about the Pope than about God’s word.” (38). Then we risk “the edifice of the Church’s moral teachings…becoming a house of cards.” (39) Instead of the Gospel, we would be teaching “certain doctrinal or moral points based on specific ideological options.” (39)
Relativism in Pastoral Workers: In a culture of skepticism toward Christianity, many pastoral workers “develop a sort of inferiority complex which leads them to relativize or conceal their Christian identity and convictions.” They are obsessed with “being like everyone else.” (79) Pastoral workers fall into “relativism” which is not just about doctrine, but about “the deepest and inmost decisions that shape their way of life.” There is a “practical relativism” – “acting as if God did not exist.” (80)
Worldliness in Pastoral Workers: The pope seems to have a two-pronged critique of those on the so-called left and right. He critiques “Gnosticism, a purely subjective faith whose only interest is a certain experience or a set of ideas and bits of information which are meant to console and enlighten,” and then he goes on to critique a ‘self-absorbed promethean neopelagianism of those who ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past.” This latter leads to “narcissistic and authoritarian elitism.” (94)
Mercy: The Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.” (47) We should not act as “arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators,” and the church is not a “tollhouse” but “the house of the Father.” (47)
Ecumenism: Francis writes with emphasis, “How many important things unite us! If we really believe in the abundantly free working of the Holy Spirit, we can learn so much from one another! It is not just about being better informed about others, but rather about reaping what the Spirit has sown in them, which is also meant to be a gift for us.” (246)
Decentralization: The pope promotes “sound ‘decentralization’” (16). The papal magisterium should not “be expected to offer a definitive or complete word on every question which affects the Church and the world.” (16) The Second Vatican Council’s promotion of episcopal conferences “has not been fully realized” and there is a need for their clearer juridical status “including genuine doctrinal authority.” (32) “Excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church’s life and her missionary outreach.” (32) In the section on ecumenical dialogue, Francis says that “we Catholics have the opportunity to learn more about the meaning of episcopal collegiality… and synodality” from the Orthodox. (246)
Shared Decision-Making: There is an “excessive clericalism which keeps [lay persons] away from decision-making” in the Church. (102)
Women in the Church: The all-male priesthood “is not a question open to discussion,” (104) but “we need to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church.” (103) The pope speaks of exploring “the possible role of women in decision-making in different areas of the Church’s life.”
Motive for Seeking Ordination: “Despite the scarcity of vocations, today we are increasingly aware of the need for a better process of selecting candidates to the priesthood. Seminaries cannot accept candidates on the basis of… motivations hav[ing] to do with affective insecurity or the pursuit of power, human glory or economic well-being.” (107)
To be sure, Francis is no innovator on doctrine. He quotes Pope Benedict often (4 mentions in the text, 18 footnote references). He shuts the door (again) on women’s ordination, as noted above. He laments that “Marriage now tends to be viewed as a form of mere emotional satisfaction that can be constructed in any way or modified at will.” (66) There is surely a reference to gay marriage here, although the pope refrains from a head-on attack.
In general, the importance of this document is that it affirms, in an official way, the themes Pope Francis has emphasized more informally in his daily homilies and his interviews with the press. It is becoming clearer what sort of pastoral pope Francis is, and how he wants to energize the Catholic Church in its pastoral mission.