The missionary language of Evangelii Gaudium

The missionary language of Evangelii Gaudium

by Brother Enzo Biemmi

After having seen the structure of the text, its organisation and the logic that sustains it (structure and logic already significant to grasp the idea of mission of the document), a second clue is language.     In practice, Pope Francis, from the linguistic point of view, does what he asks of the Church: missionary conversion. He affirms that every dimension of the Church is called to reform and without saying so shows that he himself reforms language. And what a reform it is! The reform of the language of EG is the most obvious change from the previous magisterial language, including that of the Council. The latter uses a language impregnated with the Scriptures and the Fathers (which gives it a wisdom and spiritual tone) remaining however within the codes of ecclesial grammar that can be deciphered for those inside the Church and have an ecclesiastical culture. The language of EG is markedly different, and we can rightly define it as strongly “missionary”. Why?

a) It uses a self-implied language (I), and this has never been seen in an official document. EG talks with the self, the writer never exempts himself from what he says (see the case of the reform of the way of exercising the Petrine ministry, n° 32), he is not afraid of referring to his experience (e.g. of when he was in Buenos Aires, EG 7, 49, 76.)
b) It uses a welcoming language, in which the interlocutor (you), his concrete life, his history, his sufferings, his worries are constantly present. It is a language that looks at things not from the centre, but from the periphery, looks at things from the point of view of those who live them and not from the objectivity of what the Church is called to announce.
c) It is a revealing language, the message of which is constantly seen as “good news” and therefore leads to the essential: his essential consists in showing that every dimension of faith concerns the mercy of God for each one. The gospel is good news for your life, a word of mercy.

We need to reflect well on these three characteristics of the language of EG, which are an excellent clue to grasp the missionary conception of Pope Francis: self-explanatory (the Church is not outside what it says); hospitable (the Church does not leave out the real life of people in what it says and is part of this life); revealing in its content (the Church does not ignore the face of the merciful God in the formulations of what it says, nor does it limit itself to transmitting a doctrine).

We can define all this as the clearest “transgression” of Pope Francis, not only in EG (where it is very evident) but in all his interventions (the first appearance after election, his catechesis, homilies and interviews …). The most disconcerting change is the one that most affects the vision of the Church.

The language of the Church is truly missionary when it guards the intertwining of three aspects:  witnessing, the receiver of the message, the face of God. If one is left out he message is no longer missionary. We can thus outline three ways of understanding the evangelizing mission of the Church, three representations present today in the Church.

– The first representation leaves the announcer outside, leaves him sheltered behind the content he has to announce, behind the objective side of faith. In this case, the approach is markedly doctrinal and in doing so, it does not imply who announces, but does not even reach the recipient, his real life situation. In this way, the defense of the doctrine becomes a shield not to be implicated. The tendency of this mission idea is traditionalism.

– The second representation is entirely focused on the word of the witness, on his strong experience of faith. In this case, faith seems to coincide unconsciously with one’s own spiritual experience and the reality of life and the culture of the one to whom he is addressing becomes secondary. The testimony is always the same as itself. It is the same kerygma for everyone. It is precisely a charismatic approach.

– The third representation interweaves the three stories: one’s own as a person reached by grace and always progressing along the way; that of the other person listened to as a story of on-going salvation that recognizes the action of God and puts himself at his service; that of the Lord Jesus announced as “Gospel” for the concrete situation of a specific person. In this way, the Gospel proclaimed is always the same and yet always new. It is a “missionary” approach in a strong sense. It continuously modifies the three subjects involved, in the sense that it changes them, keeps them going along the way, in a state of redefinition, of sequela: both the one who announces, and the one who receives the announcement, and the content of the announcement.

This language understood in this way is a decisive question for grasping the idea of the mission of EG and for taking up its invitation to missionary conversion and is explicitly stated in a remarkable passage:

At the same time, today’s vast and rapid cultural changes demand that we constantly seek ways of expressing unchanging truths in a language which brings out their abiding newness. The deposit of the faith is one thing… the way it is expressed is another


There are times when the faithful, in listening to completely orthodox language, take away something alien to the authentic Gospel of Jesus Christ, because that language is alien to their own way of speaking to and understanding one another. With the holy intent of communicating the truth about God and humanity, we sometimes give them a false god or a human ideal, which is not really Christian. In this way, we hold fast to a formulation while failing to convey its substance. This is the greatest danger. Let us never forget that “the expression of truth can take different forms. The renewal of these forms of expression becomes necessary for the sake of transmitting to the people of today the Gospel message in its unchanging meaning” (EG 41)

This text leads us to the following point: what is the content of the proclamation? What should we announce in our mission?