Evangelii Gaudium – a call to a radical life

Fr Callistus Isara, a member of the Missionary Society of St Paul (MSP), addressed the 2014 SMA Regional Assembly held at Abuja, Nigeria. We are happy to reproduce an edited text of his presentation on The Joy of the Gospel, the Apostolic Exhortation of Pope Francis.

Introduction

Good morning. I am delighted to be with you this morning to share with you this reflection on Evangelii Gaudium. I thank Fr Peter McCawille, SMA, for giving me this opportunity to share this reflection with you on the occasion of your SMA Regional Assembly. The Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium is tremendously rich and insightful, hence one cannot adequately unveil its invaluable content and message in one presentation. That said, I wish to highlight some aspects of the Exhortation in this presentation.

Evangelii Gaudium is divided into five chapters, namely:

  • The Church’s missionary transformation;
  • amid the crisis of communal commitment;
  • the proclamation of the gospel;
  • the social dimensions of the gospel;
  • and spirit-filled evangelizers.

However, this paper gives an overview of Evangelii Gaudium and then focuses on The New Evangelization, Pope Francis’ vision for the Church and his love of the poor, and the place of the homily in evangelization.

Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel)

The Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium was issued by Pope Francis on November 24, 2013, to mark the end of the Year of Faith. The major source of Evangelii Gaudium was the fruit of the propositions of the 13th Ordinary General Synod of Bishops which met in Rome from 7 – 28 October, 2012, with the theme: The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith. The Bishops at this Synod sought to renew the spirit of evangelization in the Church. At the end of the Synod, the Bishops handed their propositions to Pope Francis which formed the background to this great Exhortation.

Pope Francis repeatedly cites Evangelii Nuntiandi of Paul VI which was issued in 1975. This shows the continuity of magisterial teaching on evangelization. Like Evangelii Gaudium, Evangelii Nuntiandi was a Post-Synodal Exhortation on Evangelization in the Modern World. Like Evangelii Gaudium, the main source of Evangelii Nuntiandi was the propositions of the 1974 Third Ordinary General Synod of Bishops.

It should be noted that this Exhortation is the vade mecum of Pope Francis’ life and ministry as a priest, bishop, and pope. This Exhortation reveals the heart of Pope Francis. Pope Francis uses this Apostolic Exhortation as a platform to underscore the salient issues that are dear to his heart as a priest, bishop, and now as pope and leader of the Roman Catholic Church.

The title of this Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, is instructive in the sense that it calls on Catholics to preach the Gospel with joy. The Exhortation begins thus: “The Joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus … With Christ joy is constantly born anew” (EG #1).

The good news is a joy that once received should be shared with others. The Christian faith is meant to be shared with joy. It’s like what Jeremiah said: “When your words came, I devoured them: your word was my delight and the joy of my heart; for I was called by your Name, Yahweh, God of Sabaoth” (Jer 15:16). The Christian faith is not a burden to be lived with but a joy to be shared with others. Pope Francis perceptively puts it: “an evangelizer must never look like someone who has just come from a funeral! Let us recover and deepen our enthusiasm” (EG #10). The Holy Father continues this line with a citation from Evangelii Nuntiandi of Paul VI: “delightful and comforting joy of evangelizing, even when it is in tears that we must sow … And may the world of our time, which is searching, sometimes in anguish, sometimes with hope, be enabled to receive the good news not from evangelizers who are dejected, discouraged, impatient or anxious, but from ministers of the Gospel whose lives glow with fervour, who have first received the joy of Christ” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, #75).

If all Christians should preach the gospel with joy, it is undoubtedly even more important for missionary priests to radiate the joy of the gospel. I grew up with missionary priests, SMA priests for that matter. I was an altar server to Fr Dan Cashman, SMA, from the age of 11 until I went to the major seminary. Fr John Brown, SMA, gave me first Holy Communion, and Fr Jeremiah Cadogan, SMA., recommended me for admission into the Missionary Society of St. Paul. I did my summer apostolic work (in 1986) with Fr James Higgins, SMA, at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, Sapele, Delta State. My first contact with priests as a youngster was largely with SMA priests and I chose to become a missionary priest because of my relationship with Fr. Dan Cashman, SMA, in whose footsteps I wanted to follow. There were other SMA priests who worked in Warri Diocese from the 1960s to early 1990s. Though I had a wonderful experience with SMA priests, there was no doubt some SMA priests, were unfriendly, tough, and intimidating. Thus, our missionary presence should be  one of joy and our parishioners should see in us happy priests and missionaries.  

Pope Benedict XVI declared the Year of Faith (11 October 2012 to 24 November 2013) as a means of re-energizing Catholics all over the world to appreciate the gift of faith, to deepen their faith, to be committed to the faith, and to be zealous in sharing the faith with others. According to Benedict XVI, the Year of Faith would give “renewed energy to the mission of the whole church to lead men and women out of the desert they often are in and toward the place of life: friendship with Christ who gives us fullness of life” (Vatican City (CNC), October 16, 2013). Evangelii Gaudium offers a guideline on how to share the faith with others with joy.

The New Evangelization

The term ‘New Evangelization’ has become the Church’s most recent vocabulary that should be on the lips of every priest.

There are three main components to the New Evangelization:

First, it is for the Catholic to begin with himself or herself. The evangelizer must be first evangelized in order to truly witness to the faith. The Catholic should deepen his / her faith through the varied means provided by the Church in order to become an effective evangelizer.

Second, it is for Catholics who, though baptized, their lives do not reflect the demands of baptism. These are Catholics who lack meaningful relationship with the Church. The Church no longer sustains them in their spiritual journey and the practice of the faith. The Church calls them to conversion and priests should reach out to them so that they can rediscover the joy of the Gospel and the faith in which they were baptized. The call for conversion is for all Catholics irrespective of their state. Conversion, as a radical change of heart, is an ongoing aspect of the spiritual life. The New Evangelization calls for conversion for all Catholics, laity and clergy alike.

Third, it is the proclamation of the Gospel to those who do not know Jesus Christ and those who have always rejected him. This task is a mandate entrusted to all Christians in virtue of their baptism and confirmation. Paul, the great missionary to the gentiles, understood very profoundly this mandate when he said: “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Cor 9:16). Also, “If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel” (1 Cor 9:15-16). Thus it is incumbent on all Christians to grasp the gravity of this mandate. The Second Vatican Council teaches that “each disciple of Christ has an obligation to spread the faith to the best of his ability” (Lumen Gentium, no. 17). Pope Francis challenges all Catholics to be actively engaged in person to person preaching “on the street, in a city square, during work, on a journey” (EG #127).

Pope Francis’ vision for the Church

Pope Francis states categorically his vision for the Church:

“Here I repeat for the entire Church what I have often said to the priests and laity of Buenos Aires: 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. I do not want a Church concerned with being at the centre and then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures” (EG #49).

Pope Francis’ remark says it all. He wants us to return to a Church that looks like the early Church which did not have much property but had a great evangelizing spirit and continuously witnessed to the Lord Jesus to the point of death. Pope Francis has told bishops to get out of their offices and go out to the streets to meet their flock. He also told bishops not to become airport bishops but to be present always to their flock.

Pope Francis urges all Catholics to come out of themselves and reach out to others in love. To preserve our security, to remain in our comfort zones, to withdraw from others, not to reach out to others, is to be spiritually dead. As Christians and priests, we find fulfillment when we reach out to others, embrace others, and allow others to embrace us. To be closed in and look only inside ourselves is to be selfish, narcissistic, and to be filled with dryness and spiritual aridity. Pope Francis poignantly states: “If we wish to lead a dignified and fulfilling life, we have to reach out to others and seek their good” (Evangelii Gaudium #9). Also, “If we are to share our lives with others and generously give of ourselves, we also have to realize that every person is worthy of our giving” (EG #274).

A call to pastoral charity

Pope Francis’ vision for the Church requires priests to continually embrace pastoral charity in order to fruitfully and joyfully proclaim the gospel. According to Pastores Dabo Vobis: “By virtue of their consecration, priests are configured to Jesus the Good Shepherd and are called to imitate and live out his pastoral charity” (Pastores Dabo Vobis, #22). Pastoral charity is the total gift of self to the Church following the example of Christ. Therefore, the priest is called to give himself totally and unreservedly in love to the Church and those entrusted to his care. The priesthood is a call to service following in the footsteps of Christ, the Good Shepherd (Jn 10:11), who “came not to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk 10:45). Our relationship with our parishioners should manifest the pastoral charity of Christ who loved the Church and gave himself up for her (Eph 5:25). Pastoral charity calls for the priest’s self-emptying to Christ and his Church and those entrusted to his care. The priest, as it were, should make his own the mind of Christ (Phil 2:5). The priest should continually give and share himself with others.

Pope Francis’ lifestyle and priestly simplicity of life

Pope Francis’ message has been heard loud and clear through his lifestyle even before he communicated it through Evangelii Gaudium. Essentially, Pope Francis did not really change his simple lifestyle after his election as pope. The Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires is the same person as Pope Francis of the Vatican. Pope Francis is an epitome of humility and simplicity. After his election Pope Francis refused to use a papal Mercedes Limousine back to the Vatican Guest House where the Cardinals resided during the conclave. He travelled in a Bus with the Cardinals who elected him pope. He also refused to live in the Apostolic Palace; instead, he chose to live in Domus Sanctae Marthae, the Vatican Guest House where he lodged during the Conclave. Pope Francis said he chose to live in Domus Sanctae Marthae because he wanted to live in a community. Pope Francis celebrates Mass every morning in the Chapel there with Vatican Staff and others. His homilies are short, simple, and easily understandable.

On Holy Thursday 2013, Pope Francis washed the feet of two women (A Serb and a Muslim) in a juvenile prison outside Rome. Again, this reflects Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires. Hence, it was not a surprise that as pope he left the magnificent St. Peter’s Basilica, or the Basilica of St. John Lateran, his Cathedral as the Bishop of Rome, to celebrate Holy Thursday Mass in a prison. The pope carries his own bag when he travels. He said he has always carried his bag. 

Although people expect some form of simplicity of life from priests, Pope Francis’ lifestyle has brought that expectation to a remarkable consciousness. Simplicity of life and the spirit of detachment enables the missionary priest to be more readily available to live out his spiritual life of pastoral charity after Jesus Christ who, though he was rich, became poor for love of us (2 Cor 8:9). The lifestyle of some diocesan priests in Nigeria, of ostentatious display of materialism, has also been embraced, though sadly, by some religious priests and priests of societies of apostolic life. Oftentimes, many priests in Nigeria portray the image of affluence that the priest who has little and embraces a life of simplicity is under enormous pressure from family, friends, and others to be like Father A and Father B. Our desire as priests to conform to Christ and our exercise of pastoral charity require that there should be no room in us for arrogance, self-centredness, ostentatious display of materialism, lack of respect for the laity, etc.

Pope Francis’ love of the poor

Pope Francis notes: “We have to state, without mincing words, that ‘there is an inseparable bond between our faith and the poor.’ May we never abandon them” (EG #48). The Church has a special place for the poor because of the generosity of our Lord Jesus who “although he was rich, he became poor for your sake, so that you should become rich through his poverty” (2 Cor 8:9).

The cornerstone of Francis’ papacy is the love of the poor following in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi. He has demonstrated this by coming down from his pope mobile on the day of his inauguration to carry a disabled child, hugging and kissing a man at St. Peter’s Square with a debilitating disease. He continuously reaches out to the poor, prisoners, outcasts; he relates with them and eats with them. Pope Francis is an embodiment of the early Church that cared for the poor. Pope Francis loves the poor, the elderly, the weak, disabled persons, and destitute. Pope Francis states very clearly that he wants a poor Church: “This is why I want a Church which is poor and for the poor. They have much to teach us. Not only do they share in the sensus fidei, but in their difficulties they know the suffering Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them” (EG #198). The TIME magazine (29 July, 2013) described Pope Francis as, “A Pope for the Poor”. It also named him as its 2013 Person of the Year.

In the second chapter of Evangelii Gaudium which highlights the reality of missionary endeavour and the modern challenges to the missionary activity of the Church, Pope Francis vociferously says ‘no’ to all economic policies that trample on the poor. This chapter consists of the ‘nos’ of Pope Francis. In articles 53-54, Pope Francis says ‘no’ to the economy of exclusion. He condemns economic policies that virtually exclude the poor from the scheme of things. He lashes out at economic theories bereft of consideration for the plight of the poor, elderly, weak, destitute, etc. In article 55, Pope Francis says ‘no’ to the idolatry of money and laments the continued disparity between minority rich persons and majority poor persons. Sadly, the gap between the rich and the poor grows wider every day.

Pope Francis equally says ‘no’ to a financial system which rules rather than serves. Pope Francis declares: “The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor. I exhort you to generous solidarity and a return of economics and finance to an ethical approach which favours human beings” (EG #58).

Pope Francis’ other ‘nos’ include: ‘no’ to selfishness and spiritual sloth (articles 82-85); ‘no’ to spiritual worldliness (article 93); ‘no’ to warring among ourselves (articles 98, 100, 101). With regard to spiritual worldliness, Pope Francis notes: “Spiritual worldliness, which hides behind the appearance of piety and even love for the Church, consists in seeking not the Lord’s glory but human glory and personal wellbeing” (EG #93). A priest can easily be prone to spiritual worldliness, hence the need to be vigilant.

Spiritual worldliness leads to various divisions, with Christians disputing among themselves, as sometimes seen in the parish. What about priests not getting along with one another in the parish, a situation that is oftentimes known to parishioners? Pope Francis laments: “It always pains me greatly to discover how some Christian communities, and even consecrated persons, can tolerate different forms of enmity, division, calumny, defamation, vendetta, jealousy and the desire to impose certain ideas at all costs, even to persecutions which appear as veritable witch hunts. Whom are we going to evangelize if this is the way we act?” (EG #100).

The last part of chapter two calls for the formation of the laity for evangelization. If lay persons are to be true evangelizers, it becomes indispensable to train and prepare them for such a great task. Here in Nigeria and in many parts of Africa, the laity have played an immense role in evangelization. The evangelizing mission of the Church in Africa and in Nigeria in particular will have optimum effect if the whole Christian community is prepared for evangelization. The Special Assembly for Africa of the Synod of Bishops directed that “the whole community needs to be trained, motivated and empowered for evangelization, each according to his or her specific role within the Church” (Ecclesia in Africa #53). The African Synod Fathers also noted that “there should be a formation of the laity for their indispensable role of the evangelization of Africa” (Ecclesia in Africa #53). It is indispensable for the Christian community to deepen its awareness of the call to evangelization and the onus lies on pastors to achieve this. Thus in a parish setting, there should be a deliberate effort towards evangelization. Since the parish is the locus for the exercise of ministry, it should also be the locus for missionary activity. The pastor and the parish pastoral council should design pastoral programmes that will make the parish to be mission oriented.   

Also worth noting in the last part of chapter two is Pope Francis’ call for the respect of women. He notes further that the ministerial priest’s sacramental power to consecrate the Eucharist is not power in general. As priests, we should work closely with women especially religious women. It is no longer news of the lack of collaboration between priests and religious women due largely to ego and power mongering. Sadly, one notices tension and mutual suspicion between priests and religious women in pastoral ministry.  Pope Francis points out: “Indeed, a woman, Mary, is more important than the bishops. Even when the function of ministerial priesthood is considered hierarchical, it must be remembered that it is totally ordered to the holiness of Christ’s members” (EG #104). Offices that do not require ordination should be open to the services of women in the Church.

The place of the homily in evangelization

Evangelization is the proclamation of the Word of God, the good news of Jesus Christ, to those who have not heard it in order to elicit faith in them. After all, “faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17). The New Evangelization emphasizes the deepening of the faith of Christians so that they can joyfully share it with others. One way of ensuring this deepening of faith is through the homily during Holy Mass. Instructively Pope Francis focuses on the homily in the third chapter of Evangelii Gaudium. Pope Francis’ approach is two-pronged: first, he examines the importance of the homily (articles 135-144) and second, the preparation of the homily (articles 145-159).

Pope Francis notes: “The homily is the touchstone for judging a pastor’s closeness and ability to communicate to his people” (EG #135). Pope Francis states that the homily should be brief and Christ should be at the centre of the homily and not the preacher: “This means that the words of the preacher should be measured, so that the Lord, more than his minister, will be the centre of attention” (EG #138).

The recurring decimal in priestly ministry is preaching the Word of God at Mass. Hence the priest should radiate the joy of the gospel in his homily. The priest should see the Sunday homily as one of his most important duties of the week; hence there should be a noticeable warmth and joy in the priest during the homily. The priest, through the homily, should lift people up and not pull them down. The priest should not perceive the homily as a burden but an exercise of great joy in the Lord. As Walter Burghardt has perceptively noted: “Look ahead to next Sunday’s sermon not as a chore but as chance, not an obligation but an opportunity” (Burghardt, Walter,Preaching. The Art & the Craft, p. 67).

With regard to preparation, Pope Francis points out: “Preparation for preaching is so important a task that a prolonged time of study, prayer, reflection and pastoral creativity should be devoted to it” (EG #145). Pope Francis advocates the use of images in preaching: “A successful image can make people savour the message, awaken a desire and move the will towards the Gospel. A good homily, an old teacher once told me, should have ‘an idea, a sentiment, an image’” (EG #158). We have to ask ourselves as priests: How much premium do I place on my Sunday homily? What amount of time do I devote to preparing for my Sunday homily?

Conclusion

Evidently, the tone of this Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium reflects the person of its author.

Pope Francis, by his chosen lifestyle of simplicity and humility, challenges both Church and state leaders to strip themselves of whatever is superfluous and reach out to the poor as Jesus Christ did.

Pope Francis, by his leadership lifestyle, challenges priests to a life of humility and simplicity and discard pride, arrogance, vanity, greed, and all forms of materialistic and ostentatious lifestyle. As pastors and ministers of the gospel, we should first strive to imbibe in our lives the teaching of Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium and then help our parishioners to embrace it.

As I noted at the beginning of this paper, one talk is insufficient to exhaust the rich content of Evangelii Gaudium. I hope what I have shared in this paper is enough to stir up some discussion this morning.

Thank you for listening and God bless you.