“Evangelization,” Pope Francis reminded us in The Joy of the Gospel (§15), “is first and foremost about preaching the Gospel to those who do not know Jesus Christ or who have always rejected him.” This is a teaching that cannot surprise us; what followed it, however, should prompt our reflection, for the Holy Father immediately insisted that “all” such people “have a right to receive the Gospel.”
To North American Catholics, wary of the spurious rights claims that are tearing apart the moral fabric of our society, such an affirmation may seem a mere gesture, a way of paying Caesar in his own coin. We may even fear that the claim is paradoxical: rights, after all, are privileges or immunities claimed by individuals as belonging to this or that class of people, but “those who do not know Jesus Christ or have always rejected him” are surely not claiming the privilege of hearing the Gospel. What, then, can the Pope have meant by ascribing to them the “right” to receive it? And what are we to learn from his use of the expression?
An initial interpretative key is provided by Pope Francis himself in his very next sentence: “Christians have the duty to proclaim the Gospel.” The sentence concludes with the phrase “without excluding anyone,” and the paragraph goes on to refer the discussion back to the Apostolic Exhortation’s general theme of joy. Yet it is well for us to fasten upon the unadorned affirmation of the Christian’s duty to evangelize. Much is being made of this duty today in the Church. We do well, therefore, to wonder about its origin and its implications.
A helpful beginning is to remember how our everyday rights and duties proceed from the common good as their source and are directed to it as their end. The common good of temporal society—the shared life according to virtue, crowned by the worship of God—is both the principle and the purpose of such political rights as our privilege of voting for elected officials and such duties as the paying of taxes. Yet thinking about these examples is hard for us today because so much of our political life is under the sway of the passions, and, to that extent, seems to be irrational. When we consider the family, however, it is easier for us to understand the rights and duties of individuals, for we have a more concrete appreciation of the goods that the family holds in common—the everyday works of keeping the family together and perpetuating its life over time—goods which are illuminated by celebrations of the family’s continuity at baptisms, weddings, and even funerals. It is immediately evident to us when a member of a family wrongly claims a right or neglects a duty; the spectacle of a mother or father who puts his or her private good before the good of the whole family can be quite literally horrifying. Even the gray areas of family life—anxious questions such as whether to attend the wedding of nephew who is marrying outside the Church—only underscore our confidence that judgments about the good of the individual are to be made with reference to that individual’s membership in the whole family.
The Gospel, as the Catechism tells us in its sonorous first paragraph, is God’s freely chosen plan of gathering “all men, scattered and divided by sin, into the unity of his family, the Church” so that we might all become “his adopted children and thus heirs of his blessed life.” Men and women had no right to be created, nor, once fallen, to be redeemed. Our own lives—both in this world, and, by grace, in the world to come—are gifts from God, each one of them a precious gift that is received, not taken, claimed, or demanded. And it is the knowledge and the love of God that is, in very deepest truth, our life itself. This knowledge, that is, the Gospel, is the first and last of common goods. It is, as St. John Paul II memorably put it in his Letter to Families (see §§10ff.), a good that is mine because it is also yours, that is, it is mine because it is ours. Christ can be my Savior only because He is the Savior of all. The infinite abyss of sin and death cannot be bridged by anyone other than the omnipotent God.
We note,then, that it is to Christians, those who have received and accepted the gift of God’s saving love in Christ, that Pope Francis speaks when he insists upon the duty to proclaim the Gospel and the right of others to receive it. This is as it should be. The right to the Gospel is not a claim made by men and women upon God, but by sinners upon the Children of Light. And as we are all sinners, it is a claim made by all us, however implicitly. The Pope’s teaching about the “right to the Gospel” reminds Christians that they have received the unspeakable riches of Christ “without pay” and, therefore, that it is their pressing duty to give it to others “without pay” as well (Matt. 10:8), for, as St. Augustine explained, “a possession which is not diminished by being shared with others, if it is possessed and not shared, is not yet possessed as it ought to be.”
The implications of the duty to proclaim the Gospel are manifold. Pope Francis’s Apostolic Exhortation discusses a great many of them, and there are as many others as there are virtues of the Christian life. For the student of Sacred Doctrine who hopes to respond to this duty as to a divine call, three virtues exemplified by apostolic saints can be briefly recommended.
The first is humility, that root of charity and sap of evangelization. Every saint shows us some facet or other of this lovely quality, but for the student, Cardinal Newman’s example is especially helpful. In his autobiography, the Apologia Pro Vita Sua, Newman chronicled the changes in his convictions through the years of his wandering in exile as an Anglican, and then, in a stirring chapter that painted the likeness of his mind since his conversion, he testified to the security, illumination, and contentment of his mind as a Catholic. The Church’s doctrine, he wrote, “has taken certain definite shapes, and has thrown itself into the form of a science, with a method and a phraseology of its own, under the intellectual handling of great minds, such as St. Athanasius, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas; and I feel no temptation at all to break in pieces the great legacy of thought thus committed to us for these latter days.” Here is a pattern of intellectual humility of great use to the contemporary student. For if we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that our generation stands to that “great legacy of thought” more as a student than as a fellow teacher. We will make our furthest advances in the knowledge of Christ when we allow ourselves to be led by the hand by our teachers the saints.
The second virtue is studiousness, that is, the desire to order our studies with reference to the highest and most worthy object of our understanding, God. As its name indicates, this is the special virtue of the student, that is, not of the contemplative religious who climbs into the higher mansions on the wings of grace—though it were well if students were also thus climbing—but of the one who, as the saying goes, puts seat of pants to seat of chair and pencil to paper. For this virtue, we have almost a living example in St. John Paul II, whose life of studies was so fruitfully dedicated to telling the world about God’s mercy in Jesus Christ and whose great encyclical Fides et Ratio remains as an example of the patient, disciplined, and courageous search for the highest and most essential truths.
A third virtue for the theological student is mercy. It is, of course, the love of God that must come first for the theological student, but immediately in its train should follow mercy, which, as Aquinas taught, is “of all the virtues which relate to our neighbor . . . the greatest” (Summa Theologiae II-II, Q. 30, Art. 4). Mercy is that “sorrow at the suffering of another”—again the words are Aquinas’s—that prompts us to supply what our neighbor lacks. Living as we do amidst the culture of death, when our neighbors’ daily choose roads that lead them far astray from the path pointed out by reason’s kindly light and Christ’s sweet yoke, we see that the lack that we need to supply is one of truth itself. Yet of all the goods a man or woman may lack, the last one he is likely to beg for is truth. And so we need the example of apostles like St. Jean de Brébeuf, who cheerfully set aside the comfort of northern France to take the truth of Christ to the Hurons of Ontario. Far from a self-satisfied resting in his own learning, Brébeuf cultivated a rich generosity as a teacher and insisted that his fellow missionaries do the same. “The Huron language,” he told them, “will be your Saint Thomas and your Aristotle; and clever men as you are, and speaking glibly among learned and capable persons, you must make up your mind to be for a long time mute among the Barbarians.” An analogous trial awaits today’s apostles to the affluent barbarians of the twenty-first century, who must be patiently taught about nature and reason and freedom and true love long before they can be schooled in the mysteries of the sacraments or of the inner life of God.
The way of humility, studiousness, and mercy is not a broad way, but a narrow one. If we take it, we must row against the cultural current that surrounds us. But if Pope Francis is correct to say that our unbelieving generation has a “right to the Gospel,” then our duty to our neighbors includes at least this much.