Living the Joy of the Gospel
Global Perspectives for Local Action: The European Perspective
Speaking about Pope Francis and his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin addressed a Catholic Leadership Forum of priests, school principals and archdiocesan agency leaders gathered at the Catholic Leadership Centre, Melbourne on 14 July 2014
“A few weeks ago I was speaking with a Parish Priest in my diocese who told me that he was a little worried about his Curate. He said that his curate was a hard worker and that he got on reasonably well with people, but that he had a problem.
I asked what this problem was and the Parish Priest replied that the problem was with a person and when I asked further, to my surprise the answer was Pope Francis.
The curate was not at all happy with some of the utterances of Pope Francis which he felt were not in line with what he had learned in the seminary and he felt that this was making the faithful insecure and even encouraging those who do not hold the orthodox Catholic belief to challenge traditional teaching.
My reply to the parish priest that now we had a problem and that this young man seemed to be the one whose security was being upset.
Later I began to reflect on this situation. This young curate is not the only one who feels upset by the way Pope Francis speaks about some things. There are those who say that he is a communist because of his concern for the poor and his trenchant criticism of some aspects of today’s market economy.
The more I reflected however the more I came to the conclusion that it was Pope Francis who has the problem and the problem was with us, with all of us. We all fall into the temptation of reading Pope Francis superficially and selectively.
All of us are pleased with what Pope Francis says when he says things we like. He has a remarkable talent for the one liner which instantly strikes us and makes us feel that he is someone who is not afraid to speak the truth clearly. Pope Francis has indeed a remarkable talent to work within the world of twitter in his ability to fit deep messages into few words.
But herein lies the problem. Pope Francis’ thought is more subtle and when you read his document on the Joy of the Gospel you see that he very quickly nuances about what we wishes to say and very often we do not look at the nuances or take the time to reflect on what he is really striking at.
Similarly we are all very impressed at many of the gestures of Pope Francis and especially at the consistency with which he retains the simplicity of his own life style. But it is easier to admire his lifestyle than to imitate it.
Pope Francis is someone who has the courage to break away from accepted traditions and thought patterns, while most of us are trapped in traditions without often fully realising it.
One of the reasons for this is that perhaps over the years we have come to have a very conformist and closed Catholicism. We can say that about conservative Catholics and about progressive Catholics. We all very quickly become closed in within our own ideas.
Pope Francis in his interview with the Jesuit magazine La CiviltàCattolicaspoke about the two poles of rigorism and laxism. Certainly Irish Catholicism had a strong rigorist tradition. Things were either black or white. Things were sinful or non-sinful and the only distinction was between mortal and venial and probably that meant “when in doubt make it mortal”.
Today there is a growing laxist tendency in society and also in the Church. We have lost the sense of sin and there is the temptation to think that anything goes.
Pope Francis is neither a rigorist not a laxist because he realises that most people do not live in the absolute black and white of those who sit in judgement, but in the day to day struggle of life, striving to be good in the midst of the struggle between good and evil. Pope Francis is not a relativist. He clearly sets himself within the tradition of the Church as regards doctrine.
Yet he realises that the men and woman of our times have to be met where they and led into a deeper understanding of the real roots of the message of Jesus. “Pastoral ministry in a missionary style is not obsessed with the disjointed transmission of a multitude of doctrines to be insistently imposed”.
People must be lead to the very heart of the Gospel from which then they will not only begin to understand the teachings, but will embrace the meaning, the beauty and the attractiveness of the Gospel.
There are some who will feel that we are again moving away from the certainties of Gospel. There are those who would say that the mark of true Catholicism is that of truth and certainty. But one has to be careful to understand what the certainty of the Gospel means.
Faith is always a risk and a leap into the unknown. The certainty we feel so strongly about may well be a certainty of our own making. It may well represent a comfort zone which covers our fears of taking that leap of faith which will bring us closer to Jesus. Certainties can deceive. Seeking can be a healthy sign of respect for a truth we still have to enter into profoundly.
At this point I think I it is good to remember that Pope Francis speaks not just of the joy of the Gospel but of the joy of spreading the Gospel, the joy of evangelising. He quotes the Aparecida document of the Latin American bishops of 2007 of which he was one of the principal authors by saying: “those who enjoy life most are those who leave security on the shore and become excited about communicating the Gospel to others”.
The joy of the Gospel is never just a sort of personal sense of satisfaction within myself. Quite to the contrary, the joy of the Gospel will always leave me uncomfortable if I do not set out to share that joy with others. The Gospel by its nature builds community and a Gospel community is always one which is truly evangelical in the best sense of that word. This is why Pope Francis tends to refer to Christians as missionary disciples.
The message of Pope Francis from the beginning of his pontificate and indeed the message which he delivered to the Cardinals at the final General Congregation just before the Conclave has consistently been about a Church which reaches outwards, the opposite to what he calls a self-referential Church.
Just days before he was elected, Pope Francis made a remarkable one page handwritten speech to the gathered cardinals. in the final short paragraph he spoke about what he expected from the new Pope: “Thinking of the new Pope” he said, “he must be a man who from the contemplation and adoration of Jesus Christ helps the Church to go out to the peripheries, and helps her to be the fruitful mother, who gains life from the sweet and comforting joy of evangelising.
These last words are taken from Pope Paul VI’s exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi which Cardinal Bergoglio regarded as one of the most significant Church documents since Vatican II.
For Pope Francis a Church which closes in on itself ceases to be the Church of Jesus Christ. Evangelisation and renewal in the Church require that we become missionary disciples of Jesus capable of bringing the message of Jesus to the men and women of today not as an abstract message, nor as a code of moral do’s or don’ts but through a living personal witness to the joy of knowing Jesus,
It is through the quality of our witness that we reach out to those who do not know Jesus, but also to those whose knowledge of Jesus has not brought them the joy that they seek. This is reaching out to those on the margins of society and especially those who were wounded or hurt within the family of the Church.
Pope Francis challenges the entire Church to become witnesses to Jesus the good shepherd. Evangelising, the Pope says, involves closeness to those we evangelise, smelling of the sheep that we encounter. It involves bringing them to a deeper knowledge of Jesus, not imposing our own views but through being able to journey with them and being alongside them – sharing with them the difficulties of life in today’s world.
Modern communications can be of great value in spreading the Gospel, but distance communication can never replace the nearness to suffering and alienation which the message of Jesus requires. When we speak of a preferential option for the poor, we are not talking about a political programme. We are talking about an attribute of God’s activity. Without real contact with the realities of the poor and the excluded we will never enter fully into the logic of the God revealed in Jesus Christ.
The Good Shepherd is a complex image. It is not about the bleached white sheep of the holy pictures. Sheep are dirty, they are oily, they are muddied and disorganised in their movements.
Our evangelisation must reach out not just to the like-minded but to those whose original faith has become murky and those whose life’s-journey brings them to live within the complexities of modern living where it is so easy to lose direction.
The Good Shepherd is also an unorthodox shepherd. He is the one who is ready to leave the ninety nine to reach out and to find the one who is lost. Again let me quote Pope Francis: “Rather than being a Church which opens and receives, we have to try to be a church which goes out beyond itself towards the men and women who do not come to Church, who no longer know the church, those who have left the Church and those who have become indifferent”.
Most of us feel a little uncomfortable about the idea of really leaving the ninety nine to find the one who is lost. It sounds nice, but is it reasonable to apply as a general principle? We fear that we will lose the ninety nine through our inattention. We may even be concerned that the ninety nine might be happier if we forgot the lost one, that the Church would be better off or at least a little tidier without some of those lost. The lost sheep may be the ones who make us feel uncomfortable.
I spoke last week about a preferential option for those who were the victims of sexual abuse within the Church. There is no way in which victims and survivors of sexual abuse in the Church can be healed from a distance or through some sort of outsourced healing process. Healing can come only through being close to them in their woundedness.
I think of that extraordinary gesture of Pope Francis who at the General Audience saw a man whose face was covered in sores. The Pope stopped and came over to the man. Unlike what we probably would have done, Pope Francis did not engage the man from a careful distance about what disease he had: he simple kissed him.
Victims of abuse in the Church – and not just of sexual abuse, but of all forms of arrogance or insensitivity within the Church community – should be actively sought out and embraced in healing.
The Church must become very much a place where people encounter healing rather than blame. Arrogance and insensitivity and abuse cannot be healed by the nice phrases of spin doctors, but only through a real sense of humility.
There are those who would say that this is perhaps too simplistic to reach out in that way and would lead to unforeseen consequences and perhaps further litigation. All I can say is that what Jesus said about leaving the ninety nine is unreasonable and imprudent in our terms but that is what Jesus said and it is what he asks us to do.
For some, such humility may well appear as making oneself vulnerable; but if being vulnerable allows you to come closer to the vulnerable then it will foster healing in a way in which false certainties will not.
The danger for a Church which in many ways is under attack is to close ranks rather than to accept that it is time to go out to those who are anguished and angry or scandalised with the Church and show that the Church is a community which cares for them and for all those on the frontiers of abandonment and poverty and those who are searching for meaning in their lives and who have not received the message of Jesus because the Church was too focused on itself rather than on the marginalised and wounded.
The Church must be a Church which reaches out and Pope Francis speaks of this repeatedly and is not afraid to speak also about the small print -the detail -of how this can be achieved: “I dream of a ‘missionary option’, that is a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, its way of doing things, times and schedule, language and structure can be suitably channelled for the evangelisation of today’s world rather than for self-preservation”.
That quote brings me back to the realities of a changing Church like that in Ireland. In the diocese of Dublin we have two priests under the age of forty and forty four between the age of seventy and seventy five. And yet there can be more time lost, to use the Pope’s words, over “times and schedules”, over the loss of a ten o’clock Mass, than over the real challenges of faith that we encounter.
In a changing Church we can no longer continue to do things as we used to. That applies as Pope Francis said to timetables and schedules, but it really challenges us to take a completely new look at what evangelising means.
Our young people have lost familiarity with the language of faith, despite years of Catholic education. It is no longer just that we have not been able to win the hearts of young people for the Church as an institution; we are no longer winning their hearts of Jesus Christ.
In the first instance this may not be just a failure in our preaching. It is also a failure in listening. There is a sense in which we are afraid to look too closely at what “the Spirit is saying to the Churches”, for fear that the Spirit may be asking for more radical change than we wish.
If we are called to bring the message of Jesus to those on the margins of society, then have to listen to the marginalised: to the poor and the rejected, but also to the sinners and the confused. We have to have the sensitivity to hear what the Spirit is saying when the Spirit speaks from unlikely sources.
There is no clerical monopoly on holiness. Clericalism misses the point of what holiness is about, just as other forms of rivalry and internal bickering in the Church do the same. Indeed when Pope Francis lists the challenges which the Church encounters one is entitled: “no to warring amongst ourselves”. He talks about a spiritual worldliness which leads to divisions in seeking power and prestige.
He speaks of a search for exclusivity and the creation of inner circles. Instead of the desire to really sharee the richness and diversity of the entire Church community there are those who prefer to some group which thinks of itself as different if special. The richness of our Catholic tradition includes a welcome for diversity.
I am bishop of my entire flock, including those whose spirituality may not be one to which I am particularly attracted. But there are groups who represent not diversity but exclusivity, whether on the left or the right or the centre. Exclusivity is not one of the criteria for discerning a sense for the Church.
Exclusivity is not something that we find just in others; we find it in each of our hearts. It is a bit like the phrase “I’m not a racist, but…” We can all say that “I’m tolerant of all traditions in the Church, but…”
There are real challenges in situations where the number of priests is falling and there as still many services which a parish has to provide. We have to refocus on what is essential.
People who have become estranged from belief and religious practice will be attracted back to a Church in which they encounter Gospel wisdom which touches their hearts and lives. Our Church should focus resources on forming our faith communities into places where that Gospel wisdom is developed and shared.
Gospel wisdom does not grow in a culture of hectic. People seek silence and time and peacefulness and the ability to come to themselves. Gospel wisdom will never be the product of slick public relations gestures. Modern media offer new opportunities for the Church, but only if they are used in a way which upturns the inherent superficiality which they can contain.
Pope Francis notes that “we are in an age of knowledge and information, which has led to new and often anonymous kinds of power”.
To transmit faith in Jesus we must have a strong relationship with Jesus. We must identify with him in his self-giving love. Pope Francis stresses that the evangeliser never ceases to be a disciple. And he stresses that if we lose that sense of discipleship of Jesus, we end up becoming “unsure of what it is that we are transmitting”
There is a danger, for example, that in today’s world priests can lose direction and end up being so busy doing “priestly things” that they end up not being true priests. The priest is the one who knows Jesus Christ and who attracts people not because of things he does but because his faith in Jesus Christ gives his life an integrity which allows him to be a true Father to those he encounters. The priest who goes out to reach out to those on the margins of society cannot go out empty handed. He must know the message he is called to transmit.
Going out into the peripheries of human existence is for the Church is not just a one way street. There is a sense in which it is in going out that the Church, the community of believers, discovers who she really is. It is in our encounter with others that we realise the depth or the emptiness of our own knowledge of Jesus Christ. Refusing that encounter may well mean that we prefer comfort zones of our own making and that we are afraid and timid to go out and we think it is enough to keep the message for ourselves. When that happens we quickly find that we have indeed lost what we are really called to transmit.
The task of preaching the Gospel is the first task of the Church. Pope Francis asks what would it mean if we were to take these words seriously? He says that we would realise that missionary outreach is paradigmatic for every aspect of the life of the Church. And he quotes once again the bishops of Latin America: “we cannot passively and calmly wait in our Church buildings; we need to move from a pastoral ministry of pure conservation to a decidedly missionary pastoral ministry”.
For Pope Francis the doors of our Churches are of particular significance. They must be kept open so that those who wish to may come in. The doors of our Churches must be doors which welcome all and especially for those who wish to encounter the care and the forgiveness of Jesus.
The doors of our Churches must be physically open. But they must be truly open and not have spiritual security checks like at our airports to keep out those that respectable Christians might feel less worthy. But the doors to our Churches must be two way doors, not doors which make it more comfortable to sit inside. A church door must also be the space out of which we go out refreshed and revitalised in bringing with us the message of Jesus.
I return to my discussion with that Parish priest and his fearful curate. Pope Francis has a different model and he witnesses to that at the age of seventy seven. He witnesses through an extraordinary commitment and enthusiasm and indeed inner freedom.
He writes “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 doors people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us. ‘Give them something to eat’”.
The challenge is great but we should not lose hope. The biggest enemy is pessimism and the great ally of pessimism is pessimism. Pessimism is the mother of all self-fulfilling prophecies and it is a highly contagious disease.
In characteristically Pope Francis language, the Pope notes: “one of the most serious temptations which stifles boldness and zeal is a defeatism which turns us into querulous and disillusioned pessimists, “sourpusses”.
Nobody can go off to battle unless he is fully convinced of victory beforehand. If we start without confidence we have already lost half the battle and we bury our talent”.
Pope Francis’ answer is a radical one: a Church constantly going out from herself, keeping her mission focused on herself and her commitment to the poor. “God save us”, he says, “from a worldly Church with superficial spiritual and pastoral trappings!”
And he concludes: “Challenges exist to be overcome. Let us be realists, but without losing our joy and our hope-filled commitment. Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of our missionary vigour”.
I do not know if you will agree with me. But I am more enthused by the realism of Pope Francis than the fear and insecurity of that curate I mentioned at the beginning of my talk.
My prayer is that curate and many like him will be moved by what Pope Francis says and does and will overcome his insecurity and rediscover the joy of Gospel and the joy of sharing the Gospel in the world of today.”