Jesus Christ is the center – the driving source – of the entire Exhortation. Those who have been called, and have accepted Christ are sent into their particular life’s world to spread his name, and to do it joyfully.
The sentence: “Where your synthesis is, there lies your heart,” 1 holds the key to Pope Francis’ Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel. It raises the obvious question: What is Pope Francis’ synthesis? Where does his heart lie?
A full synthesis won’t be feasible during his lifetime. But The Joy of the Gospel is where the pontiff is starting. So the attempt is worth making. It has to be tentative, though, because the Exhortation is long and Pope Francis has a characteristic way of weaving foundational convictions and beliefs into a verbal polyphony far removed from neat, logical sequences.
Add to that the pontiff’s passion. “A person who is not convinced, enthusiastic, certain, and in love, will convince nobody.” 2 Pope Francis is manifestly all of those, and he certainly means to convince. So what does he hope to convince us of? Where is this leading us?
Christ Is the Center
Jesus Christ is the center – the driving source – of the entire Exhortation. Those who have been called, and have accepted Christ are sent into their particular life’s world to spread his name, and to do it joyfully. This is the “new phase of evangelization.” Francis does not envision structures or systems, unless you interpret his long exploration of the homily that way. 4
Encountering Christ also defines the Church for Francis. He appreciates the Church as the prolongation of the divine life, enfleshed, and already transmuting human life, “a mystery rooted in the Trinity,” yet existing “concretely in history,” and making a crucial impact on human evolution. 5 The resurrection is not an event of the past; it is vibrantly present in human existence and the planet’s rhythms: “Christ’s resurrection everywhere calls forth seeds of that new world … for the resurrection is already secretly woven into the fabric” of earth’s life and human history. 6 He sees life erupting everywhere, continually—this is the Resurrection in reality.
Resurrected life notwithstanding, however, as we are sinners. This splendid, joyful grasp of God’s ongoing creating and redeeming is not mindless optimism or naiveté. Jorge Bergoglio is the man who stood at the back of the temple while the Pharisee up front was bragging to God how good he was. The Pope’s motto is: miserando atque eligendo, (“By showing compassion and by choosing.”) This is not theology or piety. It names, as accurately as he can manage, the entirely personal relationship that God, in Christ, initiated in and with Jorge Mario Bergoglio and his life’s world.
The Church Shaping the World
This pontiff sees the Church in the world in the radical terms established by the Second Vatican Council: “first and foremost a people advancing on its pilgrim way towards God.” 7 The Church is not a safe refuge. We are a people following the example of Jesus, who wants 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.” 8 The Church not only ought to be, but is actually, a radioactive force shaping human life: “arm in arm with others, we are committed to building a new world.” 9 This remains the perspective throughout the pontiff’s synthesis: the church is building the world anew from within the world.
Pope Francis creates his synthesis standing in this Church. From within it, and with the bishops—guided by the Holy Spirit “who helps us together to read the signs of the times”—he does a forceful, deeply personal discernment of these signs. 10 He reads them, deeply informed by the teaching of his immediate predecessors, and by Sacred Scripture. But he rejects a speculative or a theoretical reading of the times—sociological, anthropological, economic—as too prone to “masking reality” and to creating “objectives more ideal than real.” These methods can result in an “intellectual discourse bereft of wisdom.” 11 For this pontiff, we arrive at wisdom through discerning the signs of the times, the Church’s and the world’s.
Discernment—he calls it a process—reaches fruition in Pope Francis’ synthesis, the way Mozart’s musical genius reached fruition in his symphonies. 12 The term appears nineteen times in the original Spanish. What does it mean?
The Several Discernments
Francis means, first of all, that God is speaking in and through both his creation and human history, in ways that we can perceive and appreciate in the light of faith. This is not an entirely original idea. Francis noted his predecessor, Paul VI, listening for “what the Lord has to say in this or that particular circumstance.” 13 He is convinced, with Paul VI, that the Lord is saying something when we see a beggar die on the street, or when we watch globalization stripping earth’s resources, leaving some destitute, and others obscenely wealthy. Francis discerns in the strong conviction that “realities are greater than ideas.” Consequently, he will not allow any fogging or blurring whatsoever of what is real: “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.”14
He can be confident of hearing what an event “has to say” because Francis perceives the Holy Spirit at work in the world—all the time, and everywhere—indicating in these signs of the times how the Church is to enact “The Way,” here and now. If we look at the real world “with the eyes of faith, we cannot fail to acknowledge what the Holy Spirit is sowing.” 15 This is not an original idea, either. John Paul II had written earlier: “In this situation, and also through it, God calls the believer.” 16
This call is, first of all, to belong to a people, for “without this sense of belonging we cannot understand our deepest identity.” 17 Given this identity, we are called to live joyfully and happily in the world; to being engaged with all the affairs of our time and place; to witnessing that Jesus Christ lives, and offers grace to every single person; to living a life of an evangelist. Each of us is called to a level of spiritual maturity, which makes it feasible for us to work with our bishop “in the discernment of every issue which arises in their territory.” 18 Goodbye to the Sunday Catholics’ pray, pay, and obey; and goodbye to a bishop leading his flock from a desk in the chancery.
If discernment cannot be the unique way that the Church finds what God wants done in this time and this place, Francis unquestionably sees it as our characteristic way. “The kingdom, already present and growing in our midst, engages us at every level of our being, and reminds us of the principle of discernment” used by Paul VI, which we need to apply to “the unceasing interplay of the Gospel and of man’s concrete life, both personal and social.” 19
Faith Doing Justice
Francis frames his own discernment with recent conciliar and papal teaching, especially social teaching. He cites the Second Vatican Council 16 times; John XXIII, 4 times; Paul VI, 21 times; John Paul II, 46 times; and Benedict, 19 times. These citations do not just decorate the text; they are used to make the most significant points.
Within this frame, Francis sees the teeming, busy, electronically-linked, global world this way: “The earth is our common home and all of us are brothers and sisters.” 20 The planet “belongs to all mankind, and is meant for all mankind.” 21 Among all peoples, that some suffer from lack of natural resources, or from lagging development, “does not justify the fact that they are living with less dignity.” 22 Each person, alive in this moment, has the right to the food and housing that matches their dignity as God’s personal creation. More than that: each person alive today must be able to anticipate the education and development that matches the gifts with which God endows them.
These realities impose stern duties on those who have plenty, and also pose harsh problems. Their solution lies in politics, as much as in business. Both of these are noble works because their task is the common good. 23 Furthermore, both are calls from the Lord: “Business is a vocation, and a noble vocation” and politics “remains a lofty vocation, and one of the highest forms of charity.” 24
Francis is not exploring economic or fiscal policy, but he makes two incisive statements about the economy that will challenge Americans. First, “Welfare projects”—the whole business of the redistribution of wealth—“should be considered merely temporary responses.” They are not a perpetual part of a just economy. And second, “the socioeconomic system is unjust at its root” and that is why temporary responses keep being called upon.25 Indeed, “the structural causes of inequality” are complex, and are a global problem. 26. But this problem is not going to be solved by the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation.” Francis disdains the “trickle-down” faith, making this hard-eyed observation: “This opinion … has never been confirmed by the facts.”27
Picking up a theme in papal teaching, since Rerum Novarum established it in 1891, Francis insists that the Church “cannot, and must not, remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice.” Typically, the words he uses to express this, he borrows from the teaching of another pontiff: Deus Caritas Est of Benedict XVI. 28
The Enculturating Church
Francis makes it very clear—this is a major point in his synthesis—that he does not see Christians merely co-existing with others, somehow in, but not of, the world and its business. Much more realistically, he discerns Christians absorbed in the vibrant unfolding of current human life. Hence, the Church does not need to get going on enculturating; the Church—the people of God—is already profoundly enculturated. “We are living in an information-driven society which bombards us indiscriminately with data,” and Catholics do not escape the lure of “remarkable superficiality in the area of moral discernment.” 29 We are all deep into our cultures.
Every local church is steeped in its own culture; Francis expects them all to remain distinct and diverse. His image of the Church is not a sphere in which “every point is equidistant from the center, and there are no differences between them.” He prefers “the polyhedron, which reflects the convergence of all its parts, each of which preserves it distinctiveness.” 30
In a world teeming with nations, cultures, and other human organizations, Francis judges that “the contribution of the Church in today’s world is enormous.” 31 He might have cited as evidence the Church’s worldwide spread, its international diplomacy, and constant struggle for human rights and for peace—and much else at the highest levels. Instead, he names makeshift hospitals, homes for addicts in destitute places, schools for children, care for the elderly—and the “many other ways of showing an immense love for humanity inspired by the God who became man.” 32 Immense love; immense contribution!
Ongoing Redemption: Core of the Synthesis
For a while now, the Church has understood that Jesus Christ is the universal Savior. The Catechism explores the “mystery of universal redemption,” through which God “would free men from the slavery of sin.” 33 Paul VI had gone so far as to say that no one is excluded from the joy of the Lord. 34
Pope Francis’ synthesis furthers insight into the revelation. He urges us to see that “the Holy Spirit is at work in everyone.” 35 God is not merely present in every single human life, like paint on a wall. It is truer to say that every person “is the object of God’s infinite tenderness.” 36
This is one of, perhaps, three sayings in the Exhortation which are emphasized by italics. This particular clause is at the core of the synthesis. It is not enough to understand that earth belongs to all, and everyone has human rights. Francis goes beyond that: all, and everyone alive, is holy—not just holy, but immensely holy—and deserves our attention and love. This is how Francis sees humankind, all seven billion of us.
Doing the Redemption
One other italicized clause names what all of us are as Christians: “I am a mission on this earth.” 38 In his synthesis, this “I” is not Francis; it is the “I” of each and every Christian. He makes explicit how we are to see ourselves: “We have to regard ourselves as sealed, even branded, by this mission of bringing light, blessing, enlivening, raising up, healing and freeing.” 39 Every one of us is a mission on this earth, for our time and our place, among those with whom God places us. Where, earlier, church leaders may have felt that the Church needed to segregate ourselves from the world to remain unsoiled by it, this pontiff yearns for a church out in the street—even if that means mud on our shoes. 40
Being out in the street, being steeped in humankind’s busyness, is not all positive. We are all affected by secular global culture, in its values and possibilities. These values and possibilities, Francis acknowledges as good, because the God of life is at work in them. The swift, startling developments in science and technology are, in fact, evidences of the Spirit of Life at work in the world around us.
But these splendid developments—particularly technologies, applied helter-skelter, without much reflection—“can also limit, condition and, ultimately, harm us.” 41 The eager application of new technologies to human life—to its exquisite beginning and its ambiguous ending—does indeed offer us temptations to take over from God.
Ongoing Conversion: First, Ecclesial
Here is the circumstance that makes ongoing conversion a keen necessity.
The pontiff does not spend much time on individual conversion. The call that he hears, and is proclaiming, goes directly against our world’s chilling individualism. Citing John Paul II, he insists that “Christian conversion demands reviewing especially those areas and aspects of life ‘related to the social order and the pursuit of the common good.’” 42
Looking at the signs of the times in the Church, Francis discerns that the Holy Spirit is pointing right now to “ecclesial conversion.” What does he mean by this? He is clear: ecclesial conversion demands far-reaching changes in Church organization, away from functioning as “mere administration,” to functioning as a dynamic source of missionary energies. His sentiment is strong that this ecclesial conversion must include the papacy, and the pope, himself: “Since I am called to put into practice what I ask of others, I, too, must think about a conversion of the papacy.” John Paul II had called for it, but Francis writes candidly and bluntly: “We have made little progress in this regard.” 43
Francis sees ecclesial conversion reaching the episcopacy, too. This is a strongly fixed conviction in his synthesis, and he returns to the bishops’ role and identity in many passages. He takes ideas, and even the language they are couched in, from bishops’ conferences on several continents. He looks at teaching authorities in the Church, and finds that he does not think “that the papal magisterium should be expected to offer a definitive, or complete, word on every question which affects the Church and the world.” 44
He leaves more than a hint that too many issues have been bumped up to—or been taken over by—the center. This is not “advisable,” and makes him “conscious of the need to promote a sound ‘decentralization.’” This requires returning to bishops the functions defined for them by Vatican II, even defining doctrinal issues, a change that must be more than temporary. 45
Ongoing Conversion: Pastoral and Missionary
The signs also indicate the demand for “pastoral conversion” to channel our energies away from too tense a focus on ourselves. God gives the Church energies meant “for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.” 46. Repenting and reforming cannot be taken as meaning withdrawing from the world and its business. It will move us to bring to the world, the leaven, the salt, and the light that God has given us to be.
Such a dramatic change in any local diocese gives one reason for seeing the local church as “the primary subject of evangelization,” as John Paul II had named it. 47 The people and their bishop are “called to missionary conversion,” which means that everyone has to be involved “in this task of rethinking the goals, structures, style, and methods of evangelization in their respective communities.” The people will want to be wherever “the need for the light and the life of the Risen Christ is greatest.” This has to go on in every diocese, and even in every parish, requiring that “each particular Church undertake a resolute process of discernment, purification, and reform.” 48
This is where the conversion of the individual Catholic lies. We cannot pretend to be strong and zealous, but if we look boldly into our own hearts, we would find there the mandate to go forth and proclaim Good News. This conversion is so central in his synthesis that it is the subject of the only prayer Francis incorporates into the Exhortation:
Lord, I have let myself be deceived; in a thousand ways, I have shunned your love, yet, here I am once more, to renew my covenant with you. I need you. Save me once again, Lord, take me, once more, into your redeeming embrace. 49
Not Optimism but Hope
The love of God, and the Church, leads this synthesis; but hope trails right behind it. It is most obvious in the joy and happiness glowing in almost every sentence. But, there is more to this hope than a fresh papal style. Hope, St. Augustine wrote, has two beautiful daughters: anger and courage. Both are evident in this Exhortation; both have to do with conversion.
Start with anger: Anger against letting the invisible hand of capitalism bury human needs and dignity. Anger against the “idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose.” Anger against a “system which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits,” as does the environment. Anger that many are so excluded that are “no longer society’s underside, or its fringes, or its disenfranchised;” they simply no longer belong to society at all. Francis’ blistering name for how the world sees the truly poor and dispossessed: “the leftovers.” 50
Then note the courage: Francis shows it at every point of his synthesis, marked, as it is, by transparency and candor. “I do not want a Church concerned with being at the center … caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures.” What he wants is a Church concerned by “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.” 51
The pontiff suggests that it took courage even to write this Exhortation, because he recognizes that documents do not achieve much in our day. He writes at length, nonetheless, because “what I am trying to express here has a programmatic significance, and important consequences.” 52
A Real-Life Program
The program, and its consequences, play out in the everyday life of ordinary Christians, who are “God’s leaven in the midst of humanity.” 53 Here is a really fresh discernment in the pontiff’s synthesis: Any culture that has been evangelized is, in some measure, marked by faith. Even in the secularized West, the pontiff discerns the persistence of a “Christian substratum.” That means that the culture, even “with all its limitations,” embodies “values of faith and solidarity capable of encouraging the development of a more just and believing society.” He sees this substratum—“especially among the most needy”—as a living and vital preservation of the values of “an authentic Christian humanism.” 54
As Francis sees it, secularism has not uprooted or obliterated the Christian values and viewpoints woven into a culture’s DNA by the Christians who evangelized it. It has only fogged over them. Now, this Christian substratum offers us a “moral resource.” However, it remains true that every “culture and social group needs purification and growth,” even those already evangelized. 55
By reading the signs of the times in our own United States—newly secularized in education, and historically chaotic in politics—Catholics, and all Christians, will be shown by the Holy Spirit the ways the nation can develop in justice, peace, and holiness. This is actually our duty as Christians, a people sent, not to go and settle in gated communities, enjoying the graces of our religion, but to go into the shopping centers, stadia, civic busyness, and even politics, to witness to, and announce, the Good News being brought by the Lord Jesus Christ. 56
Now about the Individual
It comes to this: Francis expects the faithful to discern the signs of their own times in their own place. The sensus fidei reaches far beyond a single moral issue, like artificial birth control, or a single doctrine like the Real Presence. By the gift of the Spirit, the faithful have “a certain connaturality with divine realities,” which is a wisdom enabling the faithful to grasp God at work in the world—though they may not be able to give it “precise expression.” 57 But the faithful can “distinguish clearly what might be a fruit of the kingdom from what runs counter to God’s plan.” 58 As Francis sees it, every faithful Christian is to read the signs of the times in our time, and place, and find, where the Spirit is leading them—and all of us.
Much has been made of the emphasis that Francis places—along with his Master—on the poor. Much has been missed of his meaning. For by “the poor,” Francis does not mean only those without money. He means everyone on all the “peripheries”—the alien, the hungry, the child, the elderly, the disabled, the outcast. This pontiff believes that “all of us are asked to obey his call to go forth, from our own comfort zone, in order to reach all the ‘peripheries’ in need of the light of the Gospel.” 59 The call may take us no further than to people in our own city or town, or to neighbors or members of our parish—or even to our own families
Where the Heart Is
The new phase of evangelization is where the pastoral, evangelical, missionary heart of the present pontiff lies. As he sees it, this evangelization does not mean that we go out to impose truth on anyone, or to constrain them with a new moral code. It means that we go out to live joyfully, collaborating, and even leading, the development of peoples—their science, technology, art, and philosophy. We go out to dialogue—a word that occurs some sixty times in the Exhortation. Our modus operandi is courteous, friendly—with intellectuals, believers in other religions, even agnostics. Francis rejects what he calls a “tomb psychology” that takes from us hope and joy and “slowly transforms Christians into mummies in a museum.” 60
This turns inside out the siege mentality typified by a Pius IX, the implicit fear that Evil could be winning. It certainly broadens the un-proclaimed, but assumed, mindset of Francis’ two most recent predecessors, who were, perhaps, necessarily preoccupied with orthodox thinking on unsettling issues.
Semper Idem, Still
What does all this change do to Semper Idem (“Always the Same”), the episcopal motto of the great theologian and church leader, Alfredo Ottaviani? It leaves it intact. No single idea or conviction in this Exhortation can be taken as even leaning away from the orthodox. Francis is Semper orthodox. However, he also deepens it
What the Idem refers to: that is what Francis enlarges. For Cardinal Ottaviani, Idem meant revealed Truths, in their traditional statements. For Pope Francis, Idem names, instead, the Church in its quiet growing, like leaven in humankind. This Church is Semper Idem even as it continually deepens its human grasp of Revelation, translates its sources into hundreds of languages, and develops a scientific, theological approach to explaining it. Century after century, as the Church absorbs one culture after another—cultures undreamed of by the Jews sent by Jesus of Nazareth to proclaim it—this Church remains Semper Idem.
In the End, Christ in the World
For this whole skein of reasons, Christians must be truly open to the world we are in. In this synthesis, one of the deadliest dangers that the church faces right now is our being closed in on ourselves, living as though the life that we live in Christ really is not of the world’s life. “We do not live better when we flee, hide, refuse to share … and lock ourselves up in our own comforts. Such a life is nothing less than slow suicide.” 61
In Pope Francis’ mind, Jesus Christ keeps coming into our chaos to redeem those whom the Father has already chosen. Into this chaos, Christ keeps coming in the Eucharist, “not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.” 62 This is how the Father relates to his sinful children. We can feel God’s tenderness from the time of “the baptismal embrace, which the Father gave us when we were little ones,” to the time when that same embrace teaches us sinful children to yearn for “yet another embrace, that of the merciful Father, who awaits us in glory.” 63
We are a sinful people who, by God’s dispensation and in Christ Jesus, are exactly what the world around us needs.
- Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel: Evangelii Gaudium, Apostolic Exhortation, USCCB, First Printing, December 2013, 143. Hereafter, TJG with paragraph number. ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 266. ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 287. ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 135 – 159. ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 111. ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 278. ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 111 ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 269 ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 14 ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 231. ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 30. The word process appears steadily in various contexts. Other points of comparison with Mozart would be the polyphonic handling of ideas woven together, harmony, balance, and allusion to others. ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 154. ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 231. ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 68. ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 154. ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 268. ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 16. ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 181. Note the initial, somewhat fumbling, effort at harvesting the sensus fidelium on issues like birth control and divorce to come before the synod of Bishops. ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 183. ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 190. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 203. ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 205. ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 59. ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 202. ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 54. ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 183. ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 64. He adds: “In response, we need to provide an education which teaches critical thinking and encourages the development of mature moral values.” ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 236 This is the frame, along with ecumenical and interreligious realities, why evangelizing “involves the path of dialogue,” and why the church is in dialogue with states, society (cultures and sciences), and with other believers. ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 76. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, St. Paul Books & Media, 1994, 601. ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 3. ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 178. ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 274. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 273. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 45. ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 77. ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 182. ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 26, 32. ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 16. ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 16, 32. ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 27. ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 30. ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 30, 31, and 33: “The important thing is to not walk alone, but to rely on each other as brothers and sisters, and especially under the leadership of the bishops, in a wise and realistic pastoral discernment.” ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 3. The Exhortation ends with a lengthy prayer to the Lady Mary, 288. ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 55, 56, and 53. ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 49. ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 25. ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 114. ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 68. ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 69. ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 88. ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 119. ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 51. ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 20. ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 83. ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 272. ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 47. ↩
- Pope Francis, TJG 144. ↩