by Brother Enzo Biemmi
Evangelii gaudium by Pope Francis is the fundamental reference document for grasping the vision of mission and evangelization that he entrusts to the ecclesial community. We will analyse it from three particular perspective:
- The structure of the text, through which Pope Francis reveals his vision of faith and the Church, thus making EG the programmatic paper of his magisterium.
- The language he uses, characterized by three peculiar features.
- The Content of the proclamation
The Structure of the Text
A. An outline of the rewriting of the Council (Christoph Theobald)
Theologian Christoph Theobald, in one of his speeches affirms that with EG we are faced with an outline of the rewriting of Vatican II. He claims that Pope Francis, compared to his predecessors, seems to have a freer relationship with the Council, a relationship characterized by having fully assumed the perspective but by feeling the need to reformulate some basic lines for the today’s deeply changed context. It defines EG as “an original interpretation of the council”. Given “the cultural distance from the council,” he writes, “and without the prospect of a new council, it is necessary to find a type of “rewriting” that is sufficiently anchored in the last normative expression of universal Catholicism and at the same time sufficiently free with respect to it to respond to the ‘today of God’ with sufficient creativity.» But, he adds to this historical reason, a properly theological reason: the “pastoral perspective” of Vatican II needed “a stylistic renewal, certainly amply prepared by Paul VI, but left in latency during a post-conciliar period, too preoccupied with “doctrinal” content of the council.”
With the expression “stylistic renewal” of Vatican II’s pastoral activity, Theobald resorts to its privileged notion, that of “style” (see his major work Christianity as a style), with which all theology is permeated and redesigns a new way for the church to be in the world and to understand the gospel. This “rewriting” of Vatican II in the absence of a new council is contained, says Theobald, in EG. An outline, of course, because a total rewriting of it can only be done by a new council. This outline of rewriting is summed up, in the language of the Jesuit theologian, in the expression “new style of evangelization”.
B. Evangelii gaudium: apostolic framework of the Church
So let us start by looking at the logic that dictates the structure of the text. To grasp its meaning, we must start from the self-awareness that Pope Francis himself has of it. We report the words he said in a meeting with the Jesuits and he repeated to the Superiors General on November 25, 2017.
I tell you again that Evangelii gaudium is a framework. It is not original, on this point I want to be very clear. It combines the Evangelii nuntiandi and the Aparecida document. Although it came after the Synod on evangelization, the strength of Evangelii gaudium was to take those two documents and freshen them up and to offer them again on a new plate. Evangelii gaudium is the apostolic frame of the Church of today.
The key expression is this: EG is the apostolic frame of the Church today. With this image Pope Francis makes explicit his intentions: EG is a new frame of reference for the life of the Church, not a document like the others. “I believe that the Evangelii gaudium should be deepened,” he adds, “that we should work in groups of lay people, priests, in seminaries, because it is the evangelizing atmosphere that the Church wants to have today. Along this path, we must go forward. It is not something concluded, as if we were saying: it’s done, now it’s up to Laudato si‘. And then: it’s done, now there’s Amoris laetitia…”.
If EG is the frame, then we can say that Laudato si’ and Amoris laetitia are the two paintings that the Pope has already painted within this frame, two conjugations of the missionary perspective of EG in two crucial fields for the life of all: the custody of creation and the care of the family. We are sure that the third canvas, the one on the young (after the next synod of 2019), will have the same frame. Pope Francis will never renounce his frame.
A frame has four sides. Let us try to remain on this image and identify the four sides of this apostolic frame, that is, the coordinates with which EG rewrites the vision of the gospel, of mission, of church and ultimately of God.
The joy of love
The first side of the frame, the left one from which EG starts, is joy. “The joy of the Gospel fills the heart and the whole life of those who encounter Jesus. Those who let themselves be saved by Him are freed from sin, from sadness, from inner emptiness, from isolation. With Jesus Christ, joy is always born and reborn “.
It is good to note that both the frame (EG) and the two canvases (Laudato sì and AL) start with joy. AL is particularly clear:
THE JOY OF LOVE that is lived in families is also the joy of the church. […] “the Christian announcement concerning the family is indeed good news“.
The mission has as its source and motivation the joy of those who have already been reached by the grace of the gospel. We were not used to these departures. Usually the ecclesial documents begin by presenting a list of difficulties, the limits of this culture, that long list of “isms” in which the Church has risked to close in. After this diagnosis there follows the therapy, of which the Church disposes. EG and its paintings do not start either from a diagnosis or from a proposal, but from recognition, from an act of gratitude. Papa Francis affirms that the proclamation starts from the joy of having received the gift of the gospel and of faith. The fulcrum for evangelization is not the sociological analysis of current cultural conditions, more or less favourable to the gospel, but the beauty of what believers have received by grace. The journey of the Word is therefore not determined by the situation of the terrain, as can be seen from the apparent abundance of seed of the sower of the evangelical parable (Mk 4: 3-9). Every culture is suitable for the gospel, as long as the Church that proclaims it manifests a life pervaded by joy, because this is the source of its testimony (“by attraction and not by proselytizing”). We immediately realize that an approach that would re-launch the mission based on a change in pastoral strategies, is excluded. The subtle evil of the Church is not the lack of pastoral strategies, says the text, but the sadness due to the lack of faith of the Christian community.
The second side of the frame, the one on the right (that is, facing joy, as its echo), is the mission. It is summarized in a phrase we know well: “the outgoing church”. No. 21 is explicit: “The joy of the Gospel which enlivens the community of disciples [frame on the left] is a missionary joy [frame on the right]“. EG clarifies both the purpose of the mission and the condition to be implemented. The purpose is that everyone, absolutely everyone, is reached by God’s love, his friendship, his mercy. In fact, the Church exists for this and must not put obstacles in the way of God’s love. The Church exists to evangelize, Paul VI said in Evangelii nuntiandi. However, the condition indicated by EG is unprecedented: missionary “conversion” is required not only for pastoral organisation, but for all dimensions of Church life.
«I dream of a “missionary option”, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channelled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation. The renewal of structures demanded by pastoral conversion, can only be understood in this light: as part of an effort to make them more mission-oriented, to make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open, to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth and in this way to elicit a positive response from all those whom Jesus summons to friendship with himself. » (EG 27).
The link between mission and conversion is explicit and must be considered as a step forward made by Pope Francis, both regarding the pastoral perspective of Vatican II, and with respect to Evangelii nuntiandi of Paul VI, which also constitutes a direct reference to EG, as we have seen. This connection takes a word that the synod on the new evangelization had not dared to pronounce: reform. The main aim is mission; its condition is reform, personal but also of the institutions. The Synod had given a spiritual answer to the challenge of evangelization: so that evangelization may be new – said the synod – it is necessary that the evangelizers become “new”. The invitation to conversion of ecclesial subjects was the watchword of the synod, summarized in the call to holiness (see the Message to the People of God, especially the number 5).
The reasons are well known: the celebration of the 2012 Synod coincided with a grave crisis within the Church: pedophilia, power struggles in the Vatican, scandal of the IOR (Vatican Bank). But the Synod had gone halfway. Pope Francis goes further and proposes the other half: personal conversion calls for institutional conversion, that is, the reform of structures. To take on the need for inner conversion and complete it by asking for the reform of the structures. The nexus of renewal-conversion-reform is crucial for the Church to be a “sacrament”, that is, a sign and instrument of the grace of the gospel. The renewal of evangelization (the need for it to be truly “new”) requires the conversion of individual believers (holiness) and takes shape as a reformation of the image of the Church, so that each of its expressions speaks of the Gospel, words are visible in the form of life, and the way of life is explicit in words. It is nothing but the consequence for the Church of living the same style of God: “events and words intimately connected, so that the works, performed by God in the history of salvation, manifest and strengthen the doctrine and the realities signified by the words, while the words proclaim the works and illustrate the mystery contained in them.”(Dei Verbum, 2). This is a crucial point in the concept of mission proposed by EG.
The third side of the frame, the one at the bottom, the one on which the mission is based, is history. History is the field of the mission of the Church and the place where it not only operates, but listens to and discerns the signs of the Word. All of EG is pervaded by being rooted in history, in people’s lives, in their sufferings and hopes. Pope Francis brings faith back to this world, tearing it from a private concept, typical of our European approach. The root source is the Assembly of the Latin American Bishops of Aparecida (2007) and even further back to Medellin (1968) and Puebla (1977). «It is not a matter of fleeing history, nor of building another parallel story, but of responsibly accepting the present time, taking care of all the suffering that is realized in it». Contact with history contains the need for a privileged choice for and with the poor.
Among many passages, we can read n. 269 and n. 270 of EG.
Jesus himself is the model of this method of evangelization which brings us to the very heart of his people. Moved by his example, we want to enter fully into the fabric of society, sharing the lives of all, listening to their concerns, helping them materially and spiritually in their needs, rejoicing with those who rejoice, weeping with those who weep; arm in arm with others, we are committed to building a new world. However, we do so not from a sense of obligation, not as a burdensome duty, but as the result of a personal decision, which brings us joy and gives meaning to our lives.(EG 269).
Sometimes we are tempted to be that kind of Christian who keeps the Lord’s wounds at arm’s length.
Yet Jesus wants us to touch human misery, to touch the suffering flesh of others. He hopes that we will stop looking for those personal or communal niches, which shelter us from the maelstrom of human misfortune and instead enter into the reality of other people’s lives and know the power of tenderness. Whenever we do so, our lives become wonderfully complicated and we experience intensely what it is to be a people, to be part of a people. (EG 270)
EG thus distances itself from all forms of intellectualism and spiritualism of faith, which are two ways of protecting oneself from life. A faith that reckons with history takes it away from the private sphere and immediately reveals its social and political impact.
The Holy Spirit
The fourth side of the frame is the Holy Spirit. It is the last chapter of EG. Thus, the text is based on a beautiful inclusion: it begins with joy and ends by recalling that evangelization is the mysterious action of the Spirit and that the announcement by the ecclesial community is a service of mediation to His work, a diakonia of the Holy Spirit. At the beginning, there is the joyful surprise of the gift, in the end the gratuitousness of sharing it knowing that it is not our competence to make it welcome, but the work of the Holy Spirit. At the centre, there is the missionary conversion that sends the Church out of itself (extroverted, non-self-referential, and not committed to preserving itself).
The frame of EG could be represented by a well-known picture of Van Gogh, the sower. The parable of the sower has been painted many times by the artist, who was the son of a Protestant pastor, and the text of Mk 4: 3-9 was the first that he had to comment on during a festive sermon, in his role of the preacher’s helper. In one of these paintings, we see the sower, who with his left hand keeps the sack of the seeds on his heart, guards the Word. With the right hand, in a solemn, liturgical gesture, he scatters them over the earth. But there is one detail: he does not follow the furrows of the plough and he swings to his left … still a few steps and he is outside the right frame, he leaves the picture. He continues to throw the seeds beyond the edges, in the suburbs.
We can then say that EG is the apostolic frame of the Church and her right side leads her to go out, to shift towards history, to expose herself. Better a battered Church than a protected Church.