For my MA application, I had to write a book critique. We were given a selection of texts and I picked Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation: Evangelii Gaudium. The next post is just shy of 1500 words long, so if you’re not particularly interested, don’t worry. I just didn’t want my efforts to fall into the chasm of nothingness.
Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium, published in 2013 as his first apostolic exhortation, is an encouraging document that offers hope and optimism for the Church. It admits that the world, and, too often, the church, is flawed and sinful, but also reminds us Jesus is triumphant. Reading it in 2020, it almost seems to be a prophecy for our time; however, it was very much influenced by the theologies of Latin America and Vatican II formed in the last century. It offers few new ideas but fervently enlivens those who read it.
Evangelii Gaudium encourages the church to approach mission, service and evangelism with a new zeal. It places mission as a central aspect of church activity and also extols its benefits on individual and corporate spiritual growth. The church should conduct itself, Pope Francis argues, with joy, patience, care and an open mind to creativity.
The apostolic exhortation is addressed to all members of the church and this is reflected in the content of the text. This is particularly true of chapter one, which mentions the importance of individual churches, communities, parishes, dioceses then the papacy in fulfilling its vision. Even from this address, we can detect influences from Pope Francis’ Latin American background, where base communities and the laity played an important role, especially in the outworking of the liberation theology that emerged from this region. We can also see how this reaffirms the Church’s commitment in Vatican II and its insistence that it is the individual churches that represent the body of Christ in a particular location that unite to make the wider Church.[i]
The influences of liberation theology most strongly reveal themselves in chapters two and four. In chapter two, Pope Francis explores the various challenges posed by ministering in today’s social context, focusing on economic, cultural and systemic inequality within the modern world. Pope Francis returns to these ideas in chapter four, exploring the implications of the social dimension when teaching and evangelising. Here, Pope Francis particularly addresses “the option for the poor” and how the church should “let ourselves be evangelised by them”.[ii]
Chapters three and five address the methods of evangelising and church teaching, and the importance of the Holy Spirit. Pope Francis states that the whole church, including laity, has a role in preaching the gospel. Again, this conforms to ideas formed during Vatican II that the whole of the body has the ability to receive gifts from the spirit for use in evangelism.[iii] Chapter five then ends with a heart-felt prayer to Mary for her blessing over the church and its missionary activity.
Pope Francis is able to maintain a positive, warm and emboldening tone throughout the text. The introduction’s emphasis on the joy that the Gospel brings as well as the personal invitations for the believer to renew their joyful encounter with Christ cannot help but inspire and revitalise their faith. Throughout, Pope Francis includes himself in the audience of previous texts and reminds the reader that he too has need to put these exhortations into practice. Therefore, the readers feel as if they are joining Pope Francis in a rejoicing group of pilgrims on this journey of faith.
This does not mean that Pope Francis has been unwilling to criticise. In some places, his opposition to former practices is scathing. When encouraging believers to avoid a pessimistic outlook, he alludes to the “evils…of the Church”.[iv] He also criticises those that put Church tradition, practices and bureaucracy before the physical and spiritual needs of parishioners and those they desire to reach. At times, his criticism, such as the mention of evils, seems too vague and leaves the reader wondering to what exactly he is referring. This is also true of his criticisms and warnings about the wider world. While discussing the problems of materialism, capitalism, the global economy and growing individualism, he makes sweeping remarks. None of his points are evidenced outside of previous remarks by popes, bishops or even some saints who lived some millennia ago. It may be that Pope Francis wishes this document to stay very much within the sphere of the Roman Catholic Church, or its “monolithic body of doctrine”.[v] However, he himself points out that the inclusion of the study of the social sciences “serves to bring out and develop different facets of the inexhaustible riches of the Gospel.”[vi] It seems strange, then, that Pope Francis was not willing to bring this richness and nuance into his own document, especially when he is instead using ancient texts to shape the ideas of a text addressed to modern reader.
Pope Francis does seem aware of this, and he does draw the reader’s attention to the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church as well as admitting he does not have the “monopoly on the interpretation of social realities or the proposal of solutions to contemporary problems.”[vii] Furthermore, it is hard to argue that he is wrong in his analysis. Whilst reading the document in 2020, some seven years after its publication, there are aspects that are extremely relevant to today’s world. The section titled “No to the inequality which spawns violence”[viii] is particularly pertinent. It accurately describes the Black Lives Matter movement, with the protests about police brutality and the ongoing voices rebuking the consequences of white privilege and cultural, systemic racism. Pope Francis seemed to have predicted the inefficacy of law enforcement and the consequences of the evil of unjust socioeconomic systems. It seems that his warning of how “the toleration of evil” will “quietly undermine any political and social system, no matter how solid it may appear” is true.[ix]The situation seems to have indeed reached the point where it will “eventually explode”.[x] It also offers a voice of hope in such situations, reminding us that God “marches triumphantly in history” and that “the resurrection is already secretly woven into the fabric of this history, for Jesus did not rise in vain.”[xi]
This may, however, have more to do with the liberation theology that underpinned such comments, rather than the apostolic exhortation itself. It is this theology that asks us to analyse the world and the social climate around us, working against the structures and the oppressive systems that harm the poor and marginalised.
This leads to the largest concern around Evangelii Gaudium: it offers very few new thoughts. Although it introduces itself as writing “on the proclamation of the Gospel in today’s world”,[xii] many of the ideas that underpin it belong to the 1960s and 70s. The Second Vatican Council ended in 1965, nearly 50 years before the publication of this apostolic exhortation and Teología de la liberación was published in 1971, 40 years prior. Even previous works by Pope Paul VI has some obvious echoes in the Evangelii Gaudium: even the titles of Evangelii Nuntiandi (Evangelism in Today’s World) and Gaudette in Domino (Joy in the Lord) suggest their influence over Pope Francis’ writing. Of course, it is not wrong to use theologies or ideas formed fifty years before, and that distance of time is hardly ancient. Many important theologies or concepts date from hundred if not thousands of years and still hold their relevance today. Furthermore, it might not be fair to direct the concern at Evangelii Gaudium itself, but at the Church it is speaking to. The sixties and seventies of the last century seemed to be highly influential in the shaping of today’s theology. The Vatican II, liberation theology and the protestant church’s Lausanne Movement were all forged in the crucible of this era. However, half a century later the Evangelii Gaudium is still asking the Church to “take the first step”.[xiii] It seems that the work of great minds of the previous century have been ignored, or at least the Church has been extremely slow to move into action. It is perhaps these reasons that Pope Francis tells us this is a “renewal which cannot be deferred”.[xiv] Furthermore, he gives helpful advice on not falling into pessimism and how to maintain a spiritual fervour in chapter five. However, it is hard not to wonder at the efficacy or relevance of such a document if such movements have failed to gain much ground.
Apostolic Exhortation: Evangelii Gaudium will not provide fresh perspectives in mission; however, it will refresh the church by giving much needed focus on some of the crucial concepts and helpful steps forward started in the previous century. Despite the Church’s slow adoption of these concepts, it remains optimistic that with patience missionaries will see the fruit of their labours and Jesus remains triumphant. With its joyous tone and some pragmatic invitations to restart a resolve to personal spirituality, it can be helpful for those who have become cynical or pessimistic. It is to be hoped that in a further fifty years, the Church is still not just taking its first steps.
[i] Vatican Council II, Lumen Gentium, accessed 1 July 2020, Vatican.va, 26
[ii] Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation: Evangelii Gaudium, accessed 11 June 2020, Vatican.va, 156
[iii] Vatican Council II, Lumen Gentium, 12
[iv] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 68
[v] Ibid, 35
[vii] Ibid, 146
[viii] Ibid, 49-51
[ix] Ibid, 49
[xi] Ibid, 207-208
[xii] Ibid, 1
[xiii] Ibid, 41
[xiv] Ibid, 25