If Pope Francis winds up becoming one of our most popular popes, he might also become one of the most misunderstood.
His new apostolic exhortation, Evanglii Gaudium, is a sweeping 224-page meditation on the state of the Church and its role in the world that touches on wide range of topics, from boring homilies and the brutalities of human trafficking to how to lead a true virtue-driven life. But most media coverage so far has seized upon just a few choice lines that have been deemed insufficiently capitalism-friendly, to the expense of his real message.
Evangelii Gaudium outlines Francis’ vision in now-familiar terms. He seems concerned the Church is becoming more judgmental than merciful. He wants a Church that has the outgoing spirit of the pilgrim, always willing to joyfully bring the gospel to the ends of the earth—as opposed to a Church closed in on itself, languishing in the dull ennui of institutional inertia as history passes it by. And he worries that some Catholics have become too attached to the external forms of the faith, while their hearts have grown cold. (We read again about the ‘obsession’ with the ‘disjointed transmission of a multitude of doctrines’ and the ‘neo-Pelagianism’ of traditionalist Catholics.) Within his treatment of these broader themes, are numerous insights into the spiritual life and the challenges of the modern era. Here are eight:
1. God’s inexhaustible mercy. One of the most important themes of Evangelii Gaudium is mercy, which Francis reminds us was viewed by St. Thomas Aquinas as the greatest of virtues (as far as external works are concerned). Evangelii Gaudium issues a passionate call for us to renew our commitment to mercy. Not only are we called to practice mercy, but also we are urged to not tire of seeking mercy from God: “How good it feels to come back to him whenever we are lost! Let me say this once more: God never tires of forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy,” Francis writes, citing Matthew 18:22, where Christ urges His disciples to forgive others “seventy times seven.” It is in this context, perhaps, that we should read the pope’s comments on Holy Communion: “The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”
2. Genuine religion is incarnate. “Genuine forms of popular religiosity are incarnate, since they are born of the incarnation of Christian faith in popular culture. For this reason they entail a personal relationship, not with vague spiritual energies or powers, but with God, with Christ, with Mary, with the saints. These devotions are fleshy, they have a face. They are capable of fostering relationships and not just enabling escapism,” Francis writes. This fundamental characteristic of Catholic faith is a vital antidote to the two extremes so common in our culture: on the one hand, the materialist gospel of health and wealth, and, on the other, those forms of spirituality that seek total detachment from the body and deny the good of the created world.
3. Faith is always a cross. “Faith always remains something of a cross; it retains a certain obscurity which does not detract from the firmness of its assent. Some things are understood and appreciated only from the standpoint of this assent, which is a sister to love, beyond the level of clear reasons and arguments,” Francis reminds us. This powerfully echoes Galatians 2:19, where St. Paul tells us that he has been crucified with Christ so that now it is Christ Who lives in him, and Colossians 3:3 where he applies this to us: “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”
4. The way of beauty. Those of us distressed by the ugliness of post-Vatican II churches, the crass populism of guitar Masses, and the general crisis in Catholic art, will be encouraged by Francis’ reaffirmation of the importance of beauty in evangelization: “Every form of catechesis would do well to attend to the “way of beauty” (via pulchritudinis). Proclaiming Christ means showing that to believe in and to follow him is not only something right and true, but also something beautiful, capable of filling life with new splendor and profound joy, even in the midst of difficulties. Every expression of true beauty can thus be acknowledged as a path leading to an encounter with the Lord Jesus.” Let’s hope the pope explores this theme further in the future.
5. The ‘revolution of tenderness.’ Another great theme of Evangelii Gaudium is Francis’ emphasis on our divine call to live in community with others—a message that is sorely needed in a time when so many are drawn into what could be described as the ‘interactive solitude’ of virtual communities. The fact that we have been created in the image of Trinity—the perfect divine communion—reminds all of us that we are meant to live in communion with others, that no is saved alone, Francis reminds us. This call to community is also rooted in the Incarnation and the crucifixion: “True faith in the incarnate Son of God is inseparable from self-giving, from membership in the community, from service, from reconciliation with others. The Son of God, by becoming flesh, summoned us to the revolution of tenderness.”
6. Humility before Scripture. An entire section of the exhortation is loaded with tons of practical advice for homilists, including exhortations against sermons that too long or too boring. There’s a lot of wisdom here that speaks to the rest of us as well, particularly in how we ought to approach the study of the Scriptures. Whenever we attempt to discern the meaning of a text, Francis says we are practicing “reverence for the truth,” which he defines as “the humility of heart which recognizes that we are neither its masters or owners, but its guardians, heralds, and servants.” Scripture should not be portrayed in homilies as a behavioral code of conduct or a catalogue of “abstract truths or cold syllogisms,” he adds. Instead, homilies should “communicate the beauty of the images to encourage the practice of good” so the faithful “sense that each word of Scripture is a gift before it is a demand.”
7. The most vulnerable—the unborn. Francis offers this refreshing (and reassuring) rebuke to those who would emphasis the Church’s teachings on the poor at the expense of its pro-life message: “Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenseless and innocent among us. … Frequently, as a way of ridiculing the Church’s effort to defend their lives, attempts are made to present her position as ideological, obscurantist and conservative. Yet this defense of unborn life is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right. … Human beings are ends in themselves and never a means of resolving other problems.” He adds: “Precisely because this involves the internal consistency of our message about the value of the human person, the Church cannot be expected to change her position on this question. … This is not something subject to alleged reforms or ‘modernizations.’ It is not “progressive” to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life.”
8. The wounds of Christ. Near the end of the exhortation, the pope offers this convicting interpretation of how we can live out devotion to the Five Sacred Wounds in our works of mercy: “Sometimes we are tempted to be that kind of Christian who keeps the Lord’s wounds at arm’s length. Yet Jesus wants us to touch human misery, to touch the suffering flesh of others. He hopes that we will stop looking for those personal or communal niches which shelter us from the maelstrom of human misfortune and instead enter into the reality of other people’s lives and know the power of tenderness.”