From his address on the evening of his election to the publication of "Evangelii Gaudium" this week, Francis has emphasized his vision of the church as “first and foremost a people advancing on its pilgrim way towards God” (No. 111). The metaphor of the people of God is deeply scriptural, and was used prominently by Vatican II to describe the mystery of the church in relation to the modern world. Fifty years later, in a world many call postmodern, Francis’ invocation of pilgrimage in relation to evangelization challenges us to discern the path anew through the sensus fidei.
Reception and response, embodiment and culture: this is the path of living tradition walked by the pilgrim people of God. Receiving the Holy Spirit in baptism, each of the faithful receives as well the gift of the sensus fidei. Far from a passive barometer of truth, this sense of faith helps us “discern what is truly of God” (No. 119). Life in the Spirit is active, demanding time, attention and growth.
The sensus fidei’s discernment is not a private undertaking, but rather requires dialogue. Through dialogue and each other we discern our personal and communal response to God. Francis indicates that all the baptized are “missionary disciples” and “agents of evangelization” (No. 120). Our graced response is our collective responsibility. If like Christ the church is sent to the world, then we must have the capacity to discern God’s love for the world. Without the ability to perceive God’s mercy, the church is incapable of rendering a response to God; our communal participation in the divine mission is deadened.
The encounter with Christ and reception of the Spirit transform the faithful into witnesses of the gospel. Through the sensus fidei the church becomes a sacrament of salvation to the world. Francis states, “Grace supposes culture, and God becomes flesh in the culture of those who receive it” (No. 115). Our mission is embodied within history. As we receive the Spirit and discern God through the sensus fidei we also grow in the wisdom that allows us to incarnate the gospel. God is one, but the agents of evangelization learn their missionary calling within the diverse contexts that give birth to “genuine catholicity” (No. 116). The gospel cannot be known outside of culture, and the sensus fidei is essential for showing the church “new aspects of revelation and giving her a new face” (No. 116). It is through manifold cultures, and not apart from them, that we discern the presence of God and put our response into action.
When the sensus fidei is embodied within culture, the church’s tradition is not a stationary monument, but is instead a faithful journey within history. The path is not an easy one, and may leave us “bruised, hurting and dirty” (No. 49). Yet joy may be found in discerning together God’s call to walk under the Spirit’s guidance as we join in Christ’s mission of merciful love for the world.
Amanda C. Osheim is assistant professor of practical theology at Loras College, in Dubuque, Iowa.