A breath of life for an old religion

Michael Cook
3 December 2013
Reproduced with Permission

I have read many Papal documents. I am a Catholic and a journalist and it comes with the territory. But never, ever, have I read anything as stunning as Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), the first major document penned by Pope Francis.

There is nothing new in Evangelii Gaudium. Nothing at all. Perhaps that is the secret of its charm and power. It is a challenge for Christians to scrape back the layers of paint and dust and soot which have darkened the glowing light of the Gospel message.

Evangelii Gaudium has a vigorous innocence and freshness about it; it is a young man's shout to the world that love is possible, justice is possible, anything is possible, if the world would only listen to the plain words of Jesus Christ.

I would compare it to the impulse of early 20th century poets and artists to remake art to pierce the shroud of dead custom and cliché. The American poet William Carlos Williams wrote in the 1920s that art should "revive the senses and force them to re-see, re-hear, re-taste, re-smell, and generally re-value all that it was believed had been seen, heard, smelled and generally valued". That is what Pope Francis fervently wants his readers to do.

Should anyone outside the Catholic Church care what this Pope says? I should think so. Evangelii Gaudium is billed as a battle plan for the world's Catholics (one-sixth of the planet) and even to all Christians (one-third). If only a few of them take it seriously, the world will change.

In 220 pages Pope Francis covers a lot of ground so it is futile to attempt a comprehensive review. But let's make one thing clear at the start. Notwithstanding the blanket media coverage, this is not an "apostolic exhortation" (the technical name) about the evils of capitalism; it is about recovering the joy of being a Christian.

There seem to be four voices speaking: the Pope as Old Testament prophet, as New Testament apostle, as philosopher, and as social critic. It is the last which has attracted nearly all media commentary, but it is not the most important and it can only be assessed in the light of the other voices.

Pope Francis as a New Testament apostle. Christianity, the Pope stresses, is not a form of moralism, a laundry list of dos and don'ts. It is "a great stream of joy" which comes because "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."

Christians need to go back to this fundamental theme, he insists repeatedly. "How I long to find the right words to stir up enthusiasm for a new chapter of evangelization full of fervour, joy, generosity, courage, boundless love and attraction!"

That is the plain message of Christianity. "Why complicate something so simple?" he asks. Religion is not meant to be a witchhunt for heresies or squabbles over influence and power. "Whom are we going to evangelize if this is the way we act?"

Evangelisation is the heart of this document, not the Pope's stinging words about capitalism and consumerism. In developed countries, many Christians feel either that there is no need to draw their friends to God or that their efforts will be useless.

With all of his immense energy and conviction, the Pope spurns such pessimism as "slow suicide". "I am a mission on this earth; that is the reason why I am here in this world. We have to regard ourselves as sealed, even branded, by this mission of bringing light, blessing, enlivening, raising up, healing and freeing."

If the Pope succeeds in motivating only a small fraction of his flock, the consequences will be immense

Pope Francis as Old Testament prophet. Not once in Evangelii Gaudium are the numerous sex abuse scandals mentioned, at least directly. But I suspect that the betrayal of innocent lives by corrupt priests and slumbering bishops weighs heavily upon the Pope. How could men dedicated to serving Jesus Christ commit these crimes?

His answer is that too many of his co-religionists have become lukewarm. Seduced by a culture of consumerism and comfort, they are incapable of Christian love. They have become "sourpusses… mummies in a museum." A young Jorge Bergoglio worked for a little while as a bouncer. He has lost none of his toughness.

Even Catholics who pride themselves on their "orthodoxy" get a tongue-lashing. And why not? With great grace comes great responsibility. "We should not be concerned simply about falling into doctrinal error, but about remaining faithful to this light-filled path of life and wisdom."

Pope Francis as a philosopher. The Pope's simplicity is one of his most endearing traits. But he is highly intelligent and well versed in theology, philosophy and the history of the Church. This emerges when he analyses the "tomb mentality" into which the Catholic Church, or at least parts of it, has sunk.

"Realities are more important than ideas" is the heading on one section in which he buttresses his pastoral plan with metaphysics. "This calls for rejecting the various means of masking reality: 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."

Perhaps he is attempting to reach Catholics who have reduced their devotions to ideological touchstones. He writes, "Not to put the word into practice, not to make it reality, is to build on sand, to remain in the realm of pure ideas and to end up in a lifeless and unfruitful self-centredness and gnosticism."

Pope Francis as social critic. His success in this role can be measured by the pitch and volume of the yelps of offended pundits. "This is just pure Marxism," says , who says he is not a Catholic. "My reaction to it is barely controlled rage," says Tim Worstall, at Forbes, who says he is. The reaction by Tea Party conservatives in the US was, broadly speaking, that this was ignorant gaucho-nomics, not economics.

What did the Pope say about capitalism? He has harsh words for trickle-down economics, "the idolatry of money", the invisible hand, and the "absolute autonomy of markets". But this is completely in sync with what nearly every Pope since Leo XIII has written about market economies. Like Communism, it tends to reduce man to an economic unit. As I said before, Pope Francis says nothing new in Evangelii Gaudium. (Haven't spluttering Catholics read John Paul II's great social encyclicals Sollicitudo Rei Socialis or Centesimus Annus? How about Benedict XVI's Caritas in Veritate?) But he says it with greater passion:

"Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people's pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else's responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase; and in the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us."

The example of Jesus is clear: "Blessed are the merciful, because they shall obtain mercy". This is why the Pope is calling for an end to an economy of exclusion. It is a fundamental and clear demand of the Gospel. "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?"

Ultimately the Pope is trying to stir consciences, not prove economic theorems. The Pope sets the bar high, very high, and insists that Catholics must not bury the plain demands of the Gospel, "the most beautiful message that this world can offer", "under a pile of excuses".

"No one must say that they cannot be close to the poor because their own lifestyle demands more attention to other areas. This is an excuse commonly heard in academic, business or professional, and even ecclesial circles."

Pope Francis is realistic. He knows that Catholics have a short memory for Papal documents. But this document, so full of joy and heart-piercing urgency, is different. Read it. Ponder it. Practice it.