Click here if you don’t see subscription options
James Martin, S.J.November 26, 2013

Today Pope Francis issued a bold new document—in Vatican parlance an “apostolic exhortation”—called "Evangelii Gaudium" or “The Joy of the Gospel.” In this new document, he sets out an exciting new vision of how to be a church.  In all my years as a Catholic, I cannot remember a papal document that was so thought-provoking, surprising and invigorating.  Frankly, reading it thrilled me.

To me, it seems that with each new homily, address, interview, general audience message and letter, Pope Francis is challenging himself—and us—with three questions, each of which flows naturally from the other:

First, Why not look at things from a new perspective? Second, Why not be open to doing things in a new way?  And third, Why not have a new vision for the church?

And what is Pope Francis’s vision for the church? 

It is to be a joyful community of believers completely unafraid of the modern world, completely unafraid of change and completely unafraid of challenges.  Not everyone will like this document.  Some may find it frightening. For it poses a fierce challenge to the status quo--explicitly: “Pastoral ministry in a missionary key seeks to abandon the complacent attitude that says: ‘We have always done it this way,’” he writes in a section entitled “Ecclesial Renewal.”  

The document’s overall message is that Catholics should be unafraid of new ways of proclaiming the Gospel and new ways of thinking about the church.  In fact, such new ways are essential if we are to spread the Gospel at all. This may sound like boilerplate talk expected in a document on the “New Evangelization,” but it is not; for in the document Pope Francis identifies areas of petrification in the church, areas where he wants to see real change.   

This is not to say that the "Evangelii Gaudium" seeks to overturn traditional church teachings. Instead it seeks to overturn the way that we have done things, and to be fearless in doing so.  For example, while he reaffirms the church’s inability to ordain women as priests, he also invites the church to think about their place in the church in new ways, to imagine “the possible role of women in decision-making in different areas of the Church’s life.”

Over and over, Pope Francis takes aim against such longstanding roadblocks to growth as “complacency,” “excessive clericalism,” and even Catholics who act like “sourpusses.”  (That’s the official English-language translation.)  About that last roadblock, he says that there are Christians whose lives are like “Lent without Easter.” 

Nor does Pope Francis have patience for people who are “tempted to find excuses and complain.” Essentially, he contrasts this dourness and pessimism with the joy of living a life centered in Christ and focused on the hope of the resurrection. It is a hope-filled, positive and energetic view of the church actively engaged with the world. 

"Evangelii Gaudium" is very difficult to summarize, so wide-ranging is it. Ironically, something that would at first appear to be a narrow topic—how to spread the Gospel today—offers Pope Francis the latitude to address many topics in his trademark open style. The exhortation moves easily from a discussion on joy as a requirement for evangelization, to how “personal dialogue” is needed for any authentic invitation into the faith, to the difficulty of being a church when Catholics are “warring” against one another, to the need for priests and deacons to give better homilies, to an overriding concern for the poor in the world—the last being a special concern of the pope. 

To that end, some will be surprised that Pope Francis champions an idea that has lately been out of favor: the church’s “preferential option” for the poor. “God’s heart has a special place for the poor,” the Pope says.  But it is not enough simply to say that God loves the poor in a special way, and leave it at that. We must be also vigilant in our care and advocacy for them.  Everyone must do this, says the pope. “None of us can think we are exempt from concern for the poor and for social justice.”

And in case anyone misses the point, after a critique of the “idolatry of money” and an “economy of exclusion,” the pope says: “The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor. I exhort you to generous solidarity and a return of economics and finance to an ethical approach which favors human beings.”

What’s more, this does not mean simply caring for the poor, it means addressing the structures that keep them poor: “The need to resolve the structural causes of poverty cannot be delayed.”

This joy and confidence needed to tackle these challenges—both inside and outside the church—is rooted and grounded in a deep relationship with Jesus Christ. Without that “personal encounter” with Jesus trying to spread the Gospel is useless.  We must have what he calls a “constantly renewed experience of savoring Christ’s friendship and his message.”

Most Catholics will, like me, read the letter with enthusiasm. But some Catholics have criticized the pope for trying to change too much in the church—even though no dogma has been altered. A few Catholics are not only beginning to critique him, but even worse, fear him. Change seems to be something to fear. As one of my Jesuit friends used to say, playfully, “I’m against change; even change for the better!” But the church must change if it is to grow—not in its core beliefs, but in the way that it lives out and shares those beliefs.

My advice to Catholics would be: Read the entire document. Take your time. Be generous with it. Let it excite you. Pray with it. And be open to the Holy Father’s call to “embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by this joy, while pointing out new paths for the Church’s journey in years to come.”

Finally, as Jesus said, “Fear not.”  We can change the way we do things in the church—the spread of the Gospel demands it. So be confident in God’s desire for the church to grow and change. Besides, as Francis says, “Nobody can go off to battle unless he is fully convinced of victory beforehand.”

At one point, Pope Francis uses a famous quote from Pope John XXIII, who noted at the opening of the Second Vatican Council that many doubted things could change for the better. Too many people at the time—1962—were predicting doom and disaster for the church and for the world. But Pope John disagreed. “We feel that we must disagree with those prophets of doom who are always forecasting disaster.”

"Evangelii Gaudium" is Francis’s own ringing response to prophets of doom.   

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Bruce Snowden
9 years 6 months ago
Great summary of "Evangelii Gaudium. It challenges the whole Church but is frightening to "sour pusses" as Pope Francis calls them, you know, those who let the water of Baptism flowing from their foreheads dim their vision, even turning that Blessed Water into tears of sorrow at the very thought of change even for for the better, ever ready "to find excuses and complaints." These live by the axiom, "My mind is made up, don't confuse me with the facts!" Pope Francis' ministerial emphasis on "the poor" is heartening too, for it doesn't just say to offer them a greeting like, "God bless you, be well fed," as James points out, but it means that the Church must, wherever needed get off its fat butt (pardon the expression) doing as Blessed John Paul II said at Yankee Stadium, helping the poor "not out of our abundance, but from our very substance" in other words don't just give until it hurts, but rather give until it helps! Like helping that struggling young family to meet its mortgage and in so many other ways, even though one might have to forego that Broadway Show and fine meal following. You know, some really, really, really, practical and helpful stuff! I also like the Holy Father's ministerial emphasis of acknowledging and expanding the place of women in the Church in new ways. Will there be a "February Surprise?" Well, for sure "Evangelii Gaudium" does lay the foundation for significant changes of womans' traditional ministry in the Church, having nothing to do with the priestly ordination of women, "definitively" impossible according to the mind of Christ as Blessed JPII said. I suspect that women will be appointed to ecclesial governance in ways formerly unimaginable! Great days are ahead for those with "eyes to see and ears to hear" as the Lord might say and I am glad to know it's coming! God, St. Ignatius and St. Francis continue blessing Pope Francis!
Michael Cobbold
9 years 6 months ago
Not to rain on the parade or anything, but there was a lot of euphoria - followed by a collapse of the Church - 50 years ago. The Church is still living in it. If John XXIII's "prophets of doom" are today's "sourpusses", then so be it. What is troublesome is not the prospect of being called bad names by Popes - maybe John XXIII should have a lot more attention to the so-called "prophets of doom" - but the prospect of yet more doctrinal & pastoral confusion & misery in the Church. A Church as sickly and mired in scandals as the CC is can hardly expect to evangelise. It has no tradition of doing so. It is just not credible - people leave it for a reason; if the Church can't satisfy its own members of its moral probity, it is not going to attract anyone with doubts about its claims. Let it heal itself, before it thinks of to instructing others. Besides, evangelism is what small bodies of religious do - not what the vast mass of the Faithful do. If the "average Catholic" had the knowledge of the Bible the average Evangelical has, the idea might be credible - but is the "average Catholic" that familiar with the Bible ? The HF cannot create a culture in which Catholics are zealously evangelical, simply by wishing it into existence - the world is not like that. As for women in the Church - there's a problem: giving people almost everything they want, except for the one thing they really want, is like dangling a carrot an inch away from a donkey - it is not going to be enough to satisfy their desires. (James Hitchcock writes on this in the excellent "Catholicism confronts Modernity" (1979), a book no Catholic can read, & stay euphoric.) The closer the Popes get to giving (certain) women what they want, the greater the disappointment & anger will be when the thing they want most is, once again, declared off-limits. So the clamour to ordain women is not going to be quenched - it will be fed. The more the Pope is adored by those who presently find his ways pleasing in their eyes, the more he will be hated by them when he re-affirms teaching he cannot deny without destroying his own office as Pope. Women cannot be ordained to the Catholic priesthood - that is what the universe is like; God designed it that way. If they want to be Catholic priests, they need to find another creation, and another God. Which, to be fair, some them do: http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=5278
Sara Damewood
9 years 6 months ago
This is so wonderful! Now, if we can just get the average Catholic to read and be moved by his words...
Bill Mazzella
9 years 6 months ago
This is a pope who knows how to preach the good news which is what the gospel is. In this letter Francis takes the church away from being Empire and returns to the Sermon on the Mount. "The poor will be filled with great things and the rich will be sent away empty." No longer the Augustinian defense of the rich (as long as they are poor inside) but a demand that the poor be attended to and nourished. It is no longer the Knights of Malta and the elite of the church that matter. Rather Christ's own, the captives. Clergy may no longer blame people for not coming to them but are mandated to go meet the people and be involved in their lives. Every step of the way. Francis leaves no doubt that he wants a church of joy, love and mutual concern. In action and in thought. This is a marvelous document. It makes the church real and relevant. Jesus is returning to his church.
Rick Malloy
9 years 6 months ago
Spent a pleasant and energizing few hours reading the exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. This is an amazing document. Pope Francis calls all to a renewed passion and vigor in proclaiming Faith in the Gospel and work for justice which is a constitutive dimension of sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ. His insights and down to earth analysis of everything from the homily at Mass to global economic processes is accessible, profound and challenging. This Jesuit Pope is a combo of John XXIII, JP II, Pedro Arrupe and St. Ignatius!
Rick Malloy
9 years 6 months ago
And I should add, the kids in Washington DC were mesmerized by Jim Martin's keynote address at the "Ignatian Family Teach In 2013." They were calling him "a Pope Francis for the United States."
Michael Barberi
9 years 6 months ago
I am both enthusiastic and encouraged by Evangelii Guadium. I am also cautiously optimistic because for clergy to get out of their parish and diocesan offices and for all Catholics to be evangelizing the gospel and serve the needs of the poor, is a good direction but without a concrete blueprint, it will be too abstract and ambiguous. In other words, precisely how will this occur? For example, my parish has 2500 families and 1 priest. Exactly how many parish priests are not doing the work that Pope Francis is talking about? 10%, 50%, 80%? With 2500 families to attend to (or 20%-30% of them), what should a parish priest be doing that he is not doing now? When it comes to Catholics, about 25% of Catholics attend weekly Mass. Many partake in some type of ministry, but not all. Most work full time, give some of their spare time and money to the Church and the poor. What is the objective here in terms of this New Evangelization? All that I have heard from the pulpit for the past 5 years is a personal and communal call to holiness, to be more like Christ, to love God and neighbor, to join a ministry, give generously, et al. Will this alone solidify a divided Church without talking about the difficult issues? Will this increase Mass attendance and open the doors to the Church and its sacraments to those that have been disenfranchised in some way by the Church? If clergy and Catholics are to focus on the New Evangelization; the nature of the new evangelization, the context of the Church's ministry today, the pastoral responses to the circumstances of our day, and the participants in the new evangelization, then the outcome cannot be a repeat of the past narrative on the teachings that divide the RCC. If this new evangelization is to succeed, then the hierarchy must adequately address the impasse in fundamental theological ethics of all the issues facing women and families today namely: women Deacon ordination and access and placement in high decision-making church offices, the Eucharistic reception for the divorced and remarried, reproductive technologies that make procreation possible for many couples with serious fertility problems, responsible birth control for couples who have children and want no more for good reasons, et al. To ignore non-reception or not adequately address these issues would be an impediment to the success of a new evangelization.
Tim O'Leary
9 years 6 months ago
Evangelii Gaudium is amazing, with its strong emphasis on the joy of faith in Christ, on the Holy Spirit, who “works as he wills, when he wills and where he wills…”, and on the demands of the poor on our time as well as our resources. It contains many phrases that will become part of the Catholic lexicon for years to come (such as "charity à la carte", Christians living like “Lent without Easter” “sourpuss Catholics”, shepherds should “smell like their sheep,” “anonymous kinds of power”, “a new self-centred paganism is growing” “I want a Church which is poor and for the poor”). I was very moved by it, perhaps, more than any other papal document since Centesimus Annus or Evangelium Vitae. Even more than these masterpieces, the words of Pope Francis on evangelization and being with the poor appeal more directly to my heart and personally challenge me. The opening line is so beautiful: “The joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew.” This is followed in (2) by a succinct diagnosis of our modern ailment “The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience.” On doctrine, as Fr. Martin says above, there is clear continuity - both with Vatican II and the teaching of the popes since then. I counted 25% references to writings of Pope John Paul II, and approximately 10% each to Pope Benedict XVI, Paul VI and VC II. Several references also go to Latin American bishop's conferences. As usual, Aquinas is the most quoted theologian and saint. Note this connection with his predecessor (7): “I never tire of repeating those words of Benedict XVI which take us to the very heart of the Gospel: ‘Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.’” Francis' zeal for the faith is so infectious, his call to us all is hard to avoid or intellectualize. It is of course, solidly orthodox on the hot button issues of the day (male priesthood, the crime of abortion, diminished respect for the elderly, etc.). There is the strong endorsement of Eucharistic adoration, Marian shrines and a Marian model for us all, a vibrant prayer life and a life-long intimacy with Sacred Scripture. On the unborn, he says in 213: “Nowadays efforts are made to deny them their human dignity and to do with them whatever one pleases, taking their lives and passing laws preventing anyone from standing in the way of this. 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.” The pro-life movement should be encouraged to keep up the good fight. While its criticism of the amoral financial market has received a lot of attention and is described above by Fr. Martin, Pope Francis also says that welfare can only be a temporary fix and that jobs and education are the only permanent solutions. But I do not know of any government today who has a temporary plan for their welfare systems. They have become institutionalized and are increasing dependency - not reducing it - as they take ever greater and seemingly unsustainable shares of the economy. There is an urgent need for more effective solutions than the failed 20th century methods that only increased dependency or replaced poverty with consumerism and one form of malnutrition, starvation with another, obesity (even in the undeveloped nations). He has some very creative concepts as well in this document (his 4 points: Time is greater than space, unity than doctrinal conflict, reality than ideas (ideology), and the whole than the parts – polyhedrons vs. spheres). He also addresses religious freedom and the right relationship between faith and science and the limits of both. It is a very powerful document with many reverberations to come. It should challenge every thoughtful person and especially every committed Catholic. For me, a lot more to meditate about, and act on too.
Tom Wilson
9 years 6 months ago
Over the last week since the release of Pope Francis' document, there was an unsettled feeling that it created in me, a feeling that I had had before but I couldn't quite put my finger on it. And this morning it hit me: this is the same general speech that I had heard from upper management and the new consultants hired in the various companies that I had worked for over the years; the speech rolled out when the company was failing and the decision to reorganize had been made. The theme is the same: we are going to do things a different way, but nothing in the core values of the organization is going to change. Many of us knew what that meant. Everything was going to change. Queue the interviews with all of the managers (company Bishops) to determine what was working and what wasn't working, who "added value" to the organization and who had to go, which products/services (doctrine) were popular/profitable and which would be discontinued. And if you weren't "on board" with the changes, then you were an obstruction, a sourpuss if you will, and you were expendable. "We've always done it this way" was taboo, a request for a pink slip. Many people fell for the false promises that this was going to be a good thing for everybody, that the company was going to be the same company that they had loved and been faithful to for so many years, while copies of "Who Moved My Cheese" were handed out. Next thing you know, you have a new President, and a new company name, and the company that you once loved so much was gone. In the reorg that I had participated in, the company was literally gone: shuttered up while the people who relied on your company's product had to go find other denominations, er, vendors from which to buy their goods. My analogy is sloppy, but my point is this: Reorganizations are desperate attempts at fixing faltering companies. The end result ends up leaving a lot of people out in the cold, without jobs or without a place to buy their favorite product. To me (and the rest of us sourpusses) Pope Benedict's approach was the better approach. That is, keep doing well what you have always done well notwithstanding the changing desires of your customers and the competition. The world is full of McDonald's, but there are still family diners that remain in business because they have the better product, Waitresses that call you "Hon," a good cup of coffee in a thick ceramic mug, meatloaf and potatoes, and relaxed conversation over a healthy meal. They've always done it that way, God bless them.

The latest from america

Much of the story of the Second Vatican Council was first told to Americans by Xavier Rynne in The New Yorker. But who was Rynne?
James T. KeaneJune 06, 2023
In a June 1 audience with Pope Francis, Sister Laura, a leader of the church in the Amazon, spoke about “the need to advance in recognizing the diaconal service that [women] provide to the church.”
Casey StantonJune 06, 2023
cardinal matteo zuppi gestures during a meeting sitting at a table with dmytro lubinets
Pope Francis’ peace envoy to Ukraine met President Volodymyr Zelensky amid breaking news of the destruction of a critical dam that Zelensky blamed on “Russian terrorists.”
Scripture in Matthew Jesus and Caesar Coin stock photo
A Reflection for Tuesday of the Ninth Week in Ordinary Time, by Joe Hoover, S.J.
Joe Hoover, S.J.June 06, 2023