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This is a feature in the special commemorative issue of America celebrating Pope Francis and his five groundbreaking years. Purchase a copy of Pope Francis: Five Groundbreaking Years here.

The Dignity of the Vulnerable

By Meghan J. Clarke

‘The dignity of the human person and the common good rank higher than the comfort of those who refuse to renounce their privileges” (No. 218). In a simple sentence, Pope Francis summarizes the bedrock of Catholic social doctrine: human dignity, the common good and the preferential option for the poor and vulnerable. While he states that “The Joy of the Gospel” (“Evangelii Gaudium”) is not a social document, it offers an integrated spirituality that links the church’s social teaching and evangelization. In 85 pages, there is much on poverty as exclusion, inequality as social sin, violence, unjust economic structures and the idolatry of money, to name a few. All of these issues are highlighted because the primary mission of evangelization is to spread the good news of God’s love for all.

“How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality” (No. 53). As he often does, Pope Francis challenges himself and us to look in the mirror. In New York, homelessness is at a decade high and rising. In Los Angeles, the City Council is considering a ban on feeding homeless people in public. Whom do we see when we look in the mirror? And whom do we see when we walk down the street? The context is current, thus new, but the message is not. From the Bible, St. John Chrysostom and St. Thomas Aquinas to his immediate predecessors, Pope Francis is reiterating a concern for the dignity of vulnerable people that is first and foremost God’s concern, and therefore it must be ours.

Poverty is exclusion and “those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised—they are no longer even part of it. The excluded are not the ‘exploited’ but the outcast, the ‘leftovers’” (No. 53). The ultimate violation of human dignity is to be no longer counted as a human person. The response must be inclusion and participation. Justice as participation animates the church’s social mission lived out from our parishes to the Vatican’s advocacy at the United Nations. And it is the responsibility of us all. “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” (No. 49). Thus “The Joy of the Gospel” places the work of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and Catholic Relief Services at the center of the church’s evangelization. In doing so, we are all invited to live out “an authentic faith—which is never comfortable or completely personal—[and] always involves a deep desire to change the world, to transmit values, to leave this earth somehow better than we found it” (No. 183).

Meghan J. Clark is an assistant professor of moral theology at St. John’s University, Queens, N.Y.


The Church Encounters the World

By Drew Christiansen, S.J.

Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel” is so long and so rich that I was relieved when the editors suggested a topic. “We need something on the document,” the editors wrote, “as a reflection of a post-Vatican II engagement with the world.” Engagement with the world, to be sure: after evangelization, there is no clearer theme in the text than the need to engage the world on every front, in every possible way, whether in the flesh or in the realm of ideas. 

A distinctive intellectual contribution toward engagement with the world comes in a set of four axioms related to the common good and peace in society (Nos. 217–37). One problem that concerned the Second Vatican Council and Pope Paul VI was the risk of division when members of the church were permitted to follow different options in pursuit of the common good. Their solution was to argue that charity should unify us, even if our particular engagements differed. Francis proposes the four axioms as ways to overcome the divisions that arise from diversity and to re-imagine unity.

1. Time is greater than space. The first axiom draws on the council’s own sense of God working in history and the people of God walking together in hope of final fulfillment in the kingdom. The first axiom is a counsel to accept our limited achievements in time with hope of their final fulfilment in God. It is, in particular, a kind of wisdom we need when “we are building a people.”

2. Unity prevails over conflict. The second axiom addresses the soft underbelly of Catholic social teaching—namely, its failure to address the issue of conflict or, at least, to move toward premature closure when differences arise. Francis, as the principle suggests, takes the Catholic (Pauline) primacy of charity over division, but only after taking a closer, harder look at the problems we confront. “Solidarity, in its deepest and most challenging sense,” he writes, “thus becomes a way of making history in a life setting where conflicts, tensions and oppositions can achieve a diversified and life-giving unity” (No. 228).

3. Realities are more important than ideas. The third axiom is a stake in the ground. It marks the differences between Francis’ pastoral pragmatism and his predecessors’ intellectualism. “It is dangerous,” he writes, “to dwell in the world of words alone, of imagery and rhetoric.” Ideas can twist and obscure reality. They yield “angelic forms of purity, dictatorships of relativism, empty rhetoric, objectives more ideal than real, brands of ahistorical fundamentalism, ethical systems bereft of kindness, intellectual discourse bereft of wisdom” (No. 231).

4. The whole is greater than the parts. The fourth axiom is another take on the question of unity in diversity, but a highly inventive one. Using his own advice that homilists should use images, Francis proposes that instead of thinking of unity as a sphere, we ought to think of unity—in community—as a polyhedron, a multifaceted reality in which the contribution of the diverse parts to the whole are more evident. Francis wants to bring together the global and the local, but with each part growing in its own way, so we constantly broaden our horizons even as we deepen our local roots. Even the Gospel, Francis argues, follows this rule. It must be preached to people in every culture and condition “until it has been proclaimed to all people, until it has healed and strengthened every aspect of humanity, until it has brought all men and women together at table in God’s kingdom” (No. 179).

Read the full response here

Drew Christiansen, S.J., former editor in chief of America, is Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Global Human Development at Georgetown University. 


A Multifaceted Message

By Rev. Robert P. Imbelli

I venture to highlight two obstacles to evangelization that have particularly struck me in my own reading of “The Joy of the Gospel.” One might call them pastoral workers adrift and theology adrift. Chapter 2 of the document is tellingly titled “Amid the Crisis of Communal Commitment.” Its second section treats “Temptations Faced by Pastoral Workers.” In his direct, even blunt, style, Pope Francis deprecates the fact that “one can observe in many agents of evangelization, even though they pray, a heightened individualism, a crisis of identity and a cooling of fervor. These are three evils which fuel one another” (No. 78).

The situation is exacerbated by a media and academic culture that often propagates skepticism and even cynicism regarding the message of the church. This ambient culture, this “social imaginary” (in Charles Taylor’s suggestive phrase) weakens the church’s evangelical dynamism and can sow noxious seeds among evangelizers. In the words of Pope Francis: “many pastoral workers, although they pray, develop a sort of inferiority complex which leads them to relativize or conceal their Christian identity and convictions” (No. 79). One sees with sorrow Catholics, including priests and religious, who display a “practical relativism” which “consists in acting as if God did not exist, making decisions as if the poor did not exist, setting goals as if others did not exist, working as if people who have not received the Gospel did not exist” (No. 80). As I remarked before, Francis is nothing if not blunt.

A second obstacle to evangelization and the church’s missionary responsibility lies in the neglect or marginalizing of the kerygma. Francis insists that the kerygma “needs to be the center of all evangelizing activity and all efforts at church renewal.” Though the initial proclamation of the Gospel can be expressed in diverse ways, its core is always Christological and Trinitarian. The church, in the power of the Holy Spirit, proclaims “Jesus Christ who, by his death and resurrection, reveals and communicates to us the Father’s infinite mercy.” And the Jesus Christ the church proclaims is no figure of the past. At the heart of the kerygma is the claim that “Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you” (No. 164).

These passages appear in the third chapter of the papal document, on “The Proclamation of the Gospel,” in the section treating “Evangelization and the Deeper Understanding of the Kerygma.” The immediate context is the relation of the kerygma to the church’s catechetical ministry. However, I think it legitimate to suggest that the pope’s remarks are also applicable to an understanding of the nature and mission of theology. Catholic theology too is called to serve the proclamation of the joy of the Gospel, since “all Christian formation consists of entering more deeply into the kerygma” (165). The church’s identity-constituting kerygma should orient and illuminate not only catechesis, but theology as well.

A theology unmoored from the kerygma is no longer faith wholeheartedly seeking understanding, no longer hope giving an account of its sure basis in the risen Christ, no longer love speaking passionately of its beloved. Theology not anchored in the kerygma has nothing of significance to contribute to the church’s mission of evangelization and becomes, instead, an obstacle. It inevitably loses its ecclesial moorings and drifts into a detached study of religion.

Read the full response here

Rev. Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is an associate professor of theology at Boston College. He was on the founding committee of the Catholic Common Ground Initiative, initiated by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. 


On Our Pilgrim Way

By Amanda C. Osheim

From his brief address on the evening of his election to the publication of “The Joy of the Gospel,” 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 the Second Vatican Council to describe the mystery of the church in relation to the modern world. Almost 50 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 with one another 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’s gift 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 we may find joy 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, Dubuque, Iowa.

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Christopher Rushlau
10 years 4 months ago
Is there a distinction between idealism and what I call communitarianism, which I will define, in the Pope's words, in the sentence quoted by Osheim from paragraph 115 and the preceding sentences? Let me present the entire paragraph here: The People of God is incarnate in the peoples of the earth, each of which has its own culture. The concept of culture is valuable for grasping the various expressions of the Christian life present in God’s people. It has to do with the lifestyle of a given society, the specific way in which its members relate to one another, to other creatures and to God. Understood in this way, culture embraces the totality of a people’s life. Each people in the course of its history develops its culture with legitimate autonomy. This is due to the fact that the human person, “by nature stands completely in need of life in society” and always exists in reference to society, finding there a concrete way of relating to reality. The human person is always situated in a culture: “nature and culture are intimately linked”. Grace supposes culture, and God’s gift becomes flesh in the culture of those who receive it. (end of No. 115) How do we distinguish "culture" from "... the world of words alone, of imagery and rhetoric...”, “angelic forms of purity, dictatorships of relativism, empty rhetoric, objectives more ideal than real, brands of ahistorical fundamentalism, ethical systems bereft of kindness, intellectual discourse bereft of wisdom..."? I find the vital clue to the Pope's own distinction, if any, in his phrase, "...finding there ["in society"] a concrete way of relating to reality". Given that bold phrase, ending in that very strong word, the subsequent sentence, beginning "grace supposes culture", quoted by Osheim seems to suggest that the individual cannot, on her own, engage with reality (except, perhaps, that reality of her own delusions, which are real delusions). So my little parenthetical example divulges the problem. If God gives us to engage the reality of our own delusions, which are real delusions, on our own, so that we may know that these as our own delusions, freely entered into, does God not give us some way to critique our culture as well? It would be odd if our autonomous sense of reality only extended to knowing, on our own, our respective, real error. The concept necessarily paired with the lonely encounter with reality, contrary to this interpretation of the Pope's words, is freedom. We cannot choose freely on our own if on our own we cannot engage reality. If we only engage reality "in society", then in which society? Who assigns us to one society in competition with another, who decides if we should watch Fox or CNN? Someone wiser? What saves that person from this imbroglio? This consideration opens up a meaning of evangelization more basic and generic than those mentioned by the reviewers today: we are called to call each other into reality, to set aside idealism, relativism, etc., but we are called to do so in the unique aspects of our respective lives, in a "scandal of particularity" that extends not to a certain tribe or denomination or organization but to the unique settings of each of our lives, where the Holy Spirit speaks in the events there. The gospel of the ordinary, the metaphysics of the ordinary, the grace of the ordinary, the sacrament of the moment, are where reality and freedom meet. When we see, or I must say, when I see my neighbor enisled, marooned, on a doctrinaire pseudo-reality of received opinions and mouthed cliches, not to mention robotic gestures and mechanical enactments of duty, I am called to bring the good news that this is unnecessary for that person, in that that person has been given the power and dignity to set aside the comic pages of the Sunday paper and proceed to the news, and there find the evangelical challenges for his own life. If you are free to err on your own, you are free, and compelled, to encounter God on your own. What of culture, then? Culture is a vocabulary. It would be hard to talk to someone if I made up my own language.
Luis Gutierrez
10 years 4 months ago
God became flesh and is with us! "The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist ..." (No. 104) Does this mean that I, being a male, cannot be the bride of Christ? Does it mean that, because I am a male, Christ cannot be my Bride? The Christ-Church mystery transcends the limitations of human language (Ephesians 5:32). Isn't it time to untie the patriarchal knot that limits our understanding of revealed truth? "Mary, untier of knots, pray for us."
Robert Killoren
10 years 4 months ago
The section on "No to Selfishness and Spiritual Sloth" (81-83) for me is very pertinent for those who have dedicated their lives to apostolic service. If I am reading it correctly he is addressing here not only a fear of committing oneself to mission, but ministry burnout as well. His remedy for the latter is obvious, but all too hard to execute for many: attain balance in your life and keep praying. Perhaps a model we can follow in this regard would be Mother Teresa. Feeling fulfilled and joyful was exceedingly difficult even for her, as witnessed in the recent book that included her correspondence on her dark night. Yet she persevered. However, for those of us with far less spiritual strength and fewer gifts of the Holy Spirit, it feels ten times harder. I'm not saying this well, but I know there is a lot of pain and suffering afflicting many contemporary "missionaries." Indeed, many suffer from paralysis and acedia, as the Holy Father suggests, but it seems to me that what they need is some help and support from the Church. What many get, however, are more and more demands placed on them. The paralysis and acedia actually may be symptoms of clinical depression, which is not something an individual can just shake him/herself out of. Intensive therapy and medication may be necessary, as well as time for self-healing. Pope Francis' bringing this up is a good thing, but we need more discussions about it, better solutions for managing burnout, and some real support from those who are suffering from it.

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