Over the past few days, I’ve had the opportunity to read through Pope Francis’s first apostolic exhortation Evangelli Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”). The text–which lays out Pope Francis’s vision for the universal Church–has created a lot of stir in the public arena the past week or so, most notably around the Pope’s criticisms of unrestrained capitalism and “trickle-down” economic theory, income inequality, and what he calls the “idol of money.”
Others were fascinated with what the Pope said about reform within the Church, including more episcopal collegiality and an increased role for women in the Church’s functional leadership.
Thoughts about what Francis wants to change about the world and the Church provide great leads for newspapers and blogs.
But to focus on them alone does a disservice to this exhortation.
After the reading the letter, one question and one answer stand out. What does Pope Francis want to change about the Church? He wants to change us. More than anything else, Francis wants us to be changed by a radical human encounter with Jesus Christ and the Gospel.
Jesus, Francis says, “fills [our] hearts and lives…and sets [us] free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness” (1).
The faith teaches that Francis himself as the pope is the Vicar of Jesus Christ. In other words, he acts in the name of Jesus and performs his ministry. Nearly nine months into Francis’s papacy, it’s hard to disagree that in this man, at this moment, the Petrine ministry has been entrusted to the Vicar the Church needs. His papacy has touched nearly every part of human society, especially those most marginalized by popular culture and those most distant from the Church.
The pope from the new world has re-energized a Church that has for far too long been stagnated by inner turmoil and division. He’s done it by insisting that the Church renew itself around its basic source: Jesus Christ and the Gospel he proclaimed and lived.
In his exhortation, Francis invites us to a “renewed personal encounter with Jesus.” The invitation, he says, excludes no one. And the encounter with Jesus does not disappoint: “whenever we take a step towards Jesus, we come to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms …God never tires of forgiving us.”
Over one hundred and twenty times Francis mentions Jesus. And a look back over his nine months as the Bishop of Rome reveals that he’s been doing this from the start. During the pre-conclave meetings last March, dozens of cardinals gave long and technical speeches about how the Church should address the many issues it was struggling with: the crimes and sins of its clergy, its message to an increasingly secular society, the role of women in its ministries and on and on.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio took a different approach. He talked about Jesus. He said that the next pope must be a man who, from a loving and fruitful relationship with Christ, shared the joy of the Gospel with the world, especially to those who live on the margins of society and culture. The pope they hoped to elect, he said, must be a man who encourages the Church to come out of itself and go to the peripheries. His brother cardinals agreed and elected him to do just that.
And now people are responding. Our churches are filling up again. Confession lines are growing longer and longer. People who have long been indifferent to the faith are considering a new path.
And those of us who advocate for Catholic values in the public sphere are seeing new openness to our faith’s social teachings. All of this is wonderful, but if Francis is right, none of it sustainable without once again renewing our personal relationships with the Lord.
What happens when a Christian encounters Jesus once again? We experience a lasting joy that cannot be contained and that must be shared. We use our faith in Jesus to reshape the world around us and especially to give life and comfort to those who suffer in a thousand different ways. Francis envisions this as a duty of the whole Church. On this, he 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 centre and which then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures. If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life. More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: “Give them something to eat” (Mark 6:37).
The mission set forth by Francis is of particular importance for those of us who work to promote religious values in civic and political life, where the temptation always exists to leave faith and values behind. But it is clear that our work as Christians for social justice and the common good must be first rooted in a relationship with Jesus Christ.
So what does Francis want to change about this Church? You. Me. Us. If Francis is right, the formula is quite simple: We must first be recreated by Jesus Christ before beginning the important work of recreating our families, our communities and our nation.