Understanding Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium”

Evangelii Gaudium is ostensibly the Pope’s response to the Synod last October … but it is much more than a simple reporting on what happened there.  It is the outlining of the key themes Pope Francis hopes will constitute his pontificate,

Pope John Paul II, Pope Francis, and Pope Benedict XVI

To understand Pope Francis, we might recall two scenes from the founder of the religious order who inspired the young Jorge Mario Bergoglio in the first place.  St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) was once incarcerated by the Inquisition for suspected heresy; but Ignatius was also the one who coined the term “the hierarchical Church.”  The young Inigo was misunderstood, and thus perceived as a threat as he wandered post-Reformation Europe giving his Spiritual Exercises. He encouraged believers to foster a deep “personal relationship” with the person of Jesus Christ in how they prayed scripture, and how they exercised charity in their everyday lives.  Yet, he was also the Counter-Reformation leader who insisted his men be faithful to the Vicar of Christ, even when he was asked to suffer some fairly deplorable leadership from the Vatican (e.g., Pope Paul III, who legitimated the Society of Jesus in 1540, but made his illegitimate son the first Duke of Parma).  Ignatius is the man who guides all who thirst for holiness that, “Leaving aside every judgment of our own, we ought to keep our minds inclined to obeying promptly in all things the true Spouse of Christ our Lord, our holy Mother the hierarchical Church” and, again, that “in all things we must always maintain that the white I see, I shall believe to be black, if the hierarchical Church so stipulates” (Spiritual Exercises, §365).  Jesuits are thus men who are called to know what is utterly foundational, while also looking for the flexibility needed to make Christ known and alluring for all.

On the Feast of Christ the King (24 November 2013), our Holy Father issued his first Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel. It is neither an easy read, nor a brief one (it’s admittedly “jumpy,” as a dear priest friend called it), running 288 numbered sections (224 pages in the official Vatican edition).  An Apostolic Exhortation is traditionally issued in the wake of a Roman Synod.  Evangelii Gaudium is ostensibly the Pope’s response to the Synod last October on “The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Catholic Faith,” but it is much more than a simple reporting on what happened there.  It is the outlining of the key themes Pope Francis hopes will constitute his pontificate, and from the five sub-headings of the Exhortation, we capture a good sense of what this will entail:

The Church’s Missionary Transformation (§19-49) argues that the heart of the Gospel is missionary: realizing that the Faith is a gift from God never intended to “stop” with the individual but to go through each Christian out into the evangelization of others.  In this way, the Church is being continually reformed by her evangelical zeal and the growth of her children.  This section echoes Hans Urs von Balthasar’s famed warning after the Council, that without the conviction that the Gospel is to be shared and ultimately died for, “the Church Militant” is in danger of becoming “the church photocopying”!

Amid the Crisis of Communal Commitment (§50-109) will probably prove to be the most controversial section.  Here, Pope Francis calls for a more just economic and globally equitable approach to commerce.  He never condemns capitalism—pure and simple. He does, however, argue that “trickle down” theories of economic growth—where the profits of the rich will inevitably aid the situation of the poor—actually do not work.  This section also examines the secularization of cultures which distances the everyday life of human beings from the beauty of the Christian message.  Finally, contained in the end of this section is Francis’ already widely-publicized views on how the Church would benefit by relying more on the insights of faithful women.  There is nothing too radical here; it is rather a continuation of what Blessed John Paul II began when he chose to focus on the “feminine genius.”  Francis thus writes: “The Church acknowledges the indispensable contribution which women make to society through the sensitivity, intuition, and other distinctive skill sets which they, more than men, tend to possess. I think, for example, of the special concern which women show to others, which finds a particular, even if not exclusive, expression in motherhood. I readily acknowledge that many women share pastoral responsibilities with priests, helping to guide people, families, and groups, while offering new contributions to theological reflection. But we need to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church. Because ‘the feminine genius is needed in all expressions in the life of society, the presence of women must also be guaranteed in the workplace’ and, in the various other settings where important decisions are made, both in the Church and in social structures” (§103).

The Proclamation of the Gospel (§110-75) is really the heart of the Apostolic Exhortation, achieving just that: exhorting all Christians to see themselves as apostles called to go out into their varied worlds to preach the Good News of Christ’s love and forgiveness.  Francis stresses how the myriad ways of life in our postmodern world are simply more invitations for the Gospel to take root.  Here, Francis’ unabashed confidence in the power of Christ and his Church to convert all comes through brilliantly.  Our Pope is not afraid of the world, but sees in every human culture (the word “culture” comes from a Latin verb meaning “to worship” or “colere”) wide-ranging, as well as rich, opportunities for Christian conversion.

The Social Dimension of Evangelization (§176-258) is the most “catholic” section, in that it contains the most “universal and inclusive” calls for personal solidarity.  At the forefront of true community is the Church’s special inclusion of the poor, her everyday life; and the second is the issue of civil peace, and the social dialogue that makes such harmony possible.  Essential religious issues such as ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue are accordingly taken up here as well.

 Spirit-filled Evangelizers (§259-88) is rooted in Pentecost, as Pope Francis argues that the filial boldness given to God’s children, on that first outpouring of the Holy Spirit, is continually available in Christ’s Church and, today, we are all called to receive the Spirit so as to bring him to all those who do not yet know themselves as “God’s people.” The stress here is on that “missionary impulse” with which the Exhortation opened, as well as on that one ecclesia God longs to form out of all humanity.  Following the lead of Blessed John Paul, the Exhortation ends with a prayer to Mary, asking her, the “Mother of the living Gospel, wellspring of happiness for God’s little ones,” to “pray for us.”

As I came away from an initial reading of these sections, I realized that the main message around which all of Francis’ teaching will, henceforth, revolve is found in the image of the Parable of the Prodigal Son: the Church is a tender Mother whose spouse, the loving Father of all, incessantly seeks out his children, bidding them to come home. Together, this spousal couple, God and his Church, longs to unite all human persons, making each of us their own son or daughter forever (see sections §46 and §144 for references to the Prodigal).

Many years ago, when some dear friends were raising their little ones, the mother of this large brood confided in me half-jokingly that she was nervous to take her youngest son, suffering from some sort of bug, to the doctor because her little boy was covered with cuts and bruises.  The doctor laughed when she anxiously told him this. Wanting to put her mind to rest, the physician admitted something to the effect that: “These days, I find that the kids with the bruises and abrasions are a lot healthier than the kids who have no bumps at all. At least, your kids are out playing; the other ones are spending all day indoors, wasting time playing video games.”  The doctor’s wisdom calmed my nervous friend: it is better that we experience a few bumps and bruises gotten from engaging in life deeply, than going through life pristine in appearance but distant from others.  If this is true on the natural level, might it also be true on the supernatural?  Pope Francis admits that it is:

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 center, and then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures. 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 door people are starving, and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: “Give them something to eat” (Mk 6:37; §49).

It is this notion of a “bruised and dirty Church” that many Catholics are struggling to understand. Francis’ pontificate defies our easy categories, and the many of us who have, all too comfortably, equated the Church’s mission with any one political party, or particular way of human ordering.  Francis’ pontificate is proving to be such a challenge because he is striving to knock Jesus’ followers out of their pre-conceived complacencies of how the Gospel is to be made manifest.

For example, Rush Limbaugh recently called Evangelii Gaudium “pure Marxism” and mused that, “If it weren’t for capitalism, I don’t know where the Church would be” (see Rush’s website for November 27, 2013).  Faithful Catholics would do well to remind Mr. Limbaugh that Christ, not capitalism, built the Church! In his reaction against the latent “Marxism” he detects in Pope Francis’ new-fangled social teaching, one wonders if Mr. Limbaugh might have had these two particular quotes in mind:

Christian tradition has never upheld this right {to private ownership} as absolute and untouchable.  On the contrary, it has always understood this right within the broader context of the right, common to all, to use the goods of the whole of creation: the right to private property is subordinated to the right of common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone.

The processes of globalization, suitably understood and directed, open up the unprecedented possibility of large-scale redistribution of wealth on a world-wide scale; if badly directed, however, they can lead to an increase in poverty and inequality, and could even trigger a global crisis. It is necessary to correct the malfunctions, some of them serious, that cause new divisions between peoples, and within peoples, and also to ensure that the redistribution of wealth does not come about through the redistribution or increase of poverty…

Private property no longer an absolute right?  The call for some sort of global redistribution of wealth?  This is what some people have read into what the Pope has written. However, Pope Francis is merely continuing themes introduced by two previous Popes, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. Referring to the first of the two paragraphs above from the Exhortation: Blessed John Paul II (in his Laborem Exercens §14) maintains that we are never pure possessors of God’s good creation, but partakers only, and, thus, even what we may think we “own” is still ultimately God’s.  In the second paragraph above, Pope Emeritus Benedict (in his Caritas in Veritate §42) has called us all to see that globalization enables new possibilities for richer countries to be more attentive to  the needs of poorer countries. So, much of what Pope Francis is doing in Evangelii Gaudium is simply continuing the same good Catholic social teaching upheld by Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II, reminding the world that profits are always to be subordinated to people, and that the bottom line is never to compromise human dignity. Herein lies Pope Francis’ call to a “revolution of tenderness” (§88) and each Christian’s responsibility to recognize “the sacred grandeur of our neighbor, of finding God in every human being” (§92).

Undoubtedly, our Holy Father Francis has his own unique style.  His opposition in this Exhortation is not aimed at the faithful who are already striving to bring the joy of Christ to the world. Nor is it aimed toward those Christians who are materially rich but who are already using their abundant wealth to aid those around them. Nor is it aimed at the family man who works hard to secure a level of comfort whereby he and his family are able to enjoy basic human goods. No, Francis writes against the regnant autonomy he finds wherever individual human beings place themselves and their desires before considering the neediness of their neighbors. What challenges the media is that Francis detects such concupiscence in both the world and the Church.  He writes against those in the world who use God’s gifts to them only for their personal advancement; he writes against those in the Church who find “cassocks, crew-cuts, and cufflinks” more essential to their living of the Faith than compassion, cheer, and charity. He writes to fulfill his office as our Holy Father, to bring the Good News of the Gospel to all who have ears to hear, and eyes to see.  May your eyes see the Christ Child born anew in the world and in your hearts this month.

David Vincent Meconi About David Vincent Meconi

David Meconi served as editor of Homiletic & Pastoral Review from 2010 to 2022.


  1. Many thanks for this synopsis. It will encourage the informed reading of the entire work.

  2. Avatar Cucolio Da Vinci says:

    Un analisis muy bueno de la Exhortacion Apostolica Evangelii Gaudium.

  3. Avatar Cucolio Da Vinci says:

    An excellent analysis of the Apostolic Exhortacion Evangelii Gaudium.

  4. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    Bishop of Rome, Francis’ explanation of a poor church for the poor is for me the most powerful message of The Joy of the Gospel. The wisdom of those who suffer real human need, who remain faithful in the face of insurmountable obstacles can teach those of us with all the necessities of life how to depend on God. Thank God for the gift of Francis.

  5. Avatar Ted Heywood says:

    Excellent insights and translations. I do believe what you write but, for me, it is too early to be comfortable. I can accept that what the Pope means by what he says is what you say he means, not what he literally said or the phraseology he chose to use. I sure hope that he catches on to the reality that words are important. And more so for the Pope than a Cardinal in Buenes Aires. We have been so stung by leadership that is not what it appeared, or should be, that doubts easily arise. We have had too many catholic leaders, both ordained and secular, that speak ringing words but have/had clay feet. He does appear to be real.
    As Christ reached into the ranks of the Pharisees to pluck out St. Paul to bring His Word to the Gentiles, so maybe the Holy Spirit has done similiarly with Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio.

  6. Avatar Jack Gordon says:

    Initially hesitant about the new pope, I have come to see him as an extremely attractive person, someone we could all wish to have in our own family so we could consult him regularly. Who can help but like and trust a man who waxes indignant in the presence of injustice or poverty? Who doesn’t ask himself “How would I react?” upon seeing him hug physically deformed pilgrims in St Peter’s Square? Who doesn’t yet realize that this man is teaching with his actions every day? And then there are those phrases that catch your mind and stay there, phrases like “God has pitched his tent among us”.
    We are blessed beyond any possible merit to have this good man sitting at this time in the Chair of St Peter.

  7. Does anyone know what language Pope Francis wrote this Apostolic Exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel?” Thank you

  8. Jose,
    since Pope Francis is from Argentina I would assume he wrote it in Spanish. The Latin version, is the official translation.

  9. Avatar Rodney Ferris says:

    I am just excited by the beautiful Exhortation of our Holy Father… I have it on my iPhone and I read it while waiting in line or at coffee…. It could be out to music, it is so readable! There is an earthy simplicity about his A/E that can be grasped by so many people. (He write like Jesuit! Interesting! Lol)

  10. Avatar ROSSRHOADS says: