Pope Francis and the Gospel of Joy

The Pontiff’s apostolic exhortation is filled with warnings, encouragement, explanations, and challenges, all rooted in a pastor’s love for the flock.

[Charity is] “the unity of the Church; and more, it is the real, sober, working love of the Christian heart. And that means that every act of genuine Christian love, every work of mercy is in a real and authentic sense sacrifice, a celebration of the one and only sacrificium christianorum.” — Joseph Ratzinger, 1954[1]

“Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is nothing else than the culmination of the way he lived his entire life. Moved by his example, we want 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; arm in arm with others, we are committed to building a new world. But we do so not from a sense of obligation, not as a burdensome duty, but as the result of a personal decision which brings us joy and gives meaning to our lives.” — Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 269, November, 2013


Pope Francis’ exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) continues and reinforces a vision of the Church found in the early studies of the future Pope Benedict XVI—a vision that was central to Benedict’s teachings as the Successor of St. Peter. In Evangelii Gaudium, Francis draws from his own experiences and in his own way continues his predecessor’s vision. In doing so, he is making clear that the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church stands at a critical juncture in a dangerous time. This makes Francis’ exhortation a simple one: as Christians have done in ages past, the faithful today must live the Gospel always, everywhere, and radically. They must rely on the grace of God and relentlessly and sacrificially “love in the present,” as a young Joseph Ratzinger put it.

For Francis, it is precisely this essential Christian understanding of an incarnational love of neighbor—one made possible by an even more essential relationship with God—that will continue to carry the Church through and beyond any age hostile to the light, the truth, and even the joy of the Gospel.

The bad news

Pope Francis warns that worldly forces will crush adherents to lukewarm, highly interiorized, and personalized Christian spiritualities that seek only their own ends—their own salvation. Such spiritualities impede the mission of the Church.

Symptoms of these closed-in attitudes include the expectation that Mass must entertain; that the Church is a means to personal, worldly gain; or that the Gospel must make no demands on one’s life. Pope Francis appears to be familiar with these realities. Jorge Mario Bergoglio certainly would have come across them in the dioceses, parishes, and ministries under his care. Now as Supreme Pontiff, Francis can offer us this critique:

Spiritual worldliness leads some Christians to war with other Christians who stand in the way of their quest for power, prestige, pleasure and economic security. Some are even no longer content to live as part of the greater Church community but stoke a spirit of exclusivity, creating an “inner circle”. Instead of belonging to the whole Church in all its rich variety, they belong to this or that group which thinks itself different or special. […] 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? (98, 100)

There seems to be a bit of St. Paul here, who, in writing to the Church in Galatia, asks, “Are you so stupid? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?” (cf. Gal 3:3).

The frustrations shared by the Apostle to the Gentiles and the current Pontiff are rooted in a Church that poorly understands its faith. As Paul confronted and exposed the ills within the Church in his day, so Francis does the same, confronting issues both within and outside the Church. Those interior to the Church include those noted above as well as “selfishness and spiritual sloth” (81-83), “sterile pessimism” (84-86), and “spiritual worldliness” (93-97).

Francis demonstrates his familiarity with the front lines of the Church Militant by enumerating highly specific problems at the foundations of parish life: poor faith formation; inadequate youth ministry; underutilizing the gifts of women and the elderly; and “a dearth of vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life [which] is often due to a lack of contagious apostolic fervor in communities which results in a cooling of enthusiasm and attractiveness” (107).

The threats that press upon the Church from without—threats that hinder the faithful from sincerely and joyfully sharing the Gospel and that prevent others from hearing it—are likewise diverse and plentiful. Francis admits that he will not be offering a “detailed and complete analysis of contemporary reality” (51) exterior to the Church, but his review is nonetheless thorough.

His list includes: an “economy of exclusion,” where “[h]uman beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded” (53-54); the “new idolatry of money,” which derives from “the denial of the primacy of the human person” (55-56); a “financial system which rules rather than serves” (57-58); rampant “inequality which spawns violence” (59-60); and an array of other cultural concerns (61-67) such as secularism, the breakdown of the family, and the viewing of marriage as a means to “mere emotional satisfaction that can be constructed in any way or modified at will” (66).

In his listings of interior and exterior challenges, Francis appears less concerned with the latter, which are largely beyond the Church’s control but can be influenced by the Church, a point he will make by quoting Benedict XVI’s views on the separate but relational natures of Church and State (183).

But Francis as the Successor of Peter can directly impact the catechesis, formation, and enthusiasm of his flock, the target audience in Evangelii Gaudium.

For example, in admitting that new religious movements are challenging the Church and calling the lapsed (and even some of the active) away from full communion, Francis does not simply acknowledge that this is in part due to a “materialistic, consumerist and individualistic society,” or to the exploitation of those looking for immediate help and quick comfort. Yes, those are forces with which the Church must contend. But what forces within the Church’s own activities are leading Catholics to find other faiths more appealing? Francis minces no words in his answer:

We must recognize that if part of our baptized people lack a sense of belonging to the Church, this is also due to certain structures and the occasionally unwelcoming atmosphere of some of our parishes and communities, or to a bureaucratic way of dealing with problems, be they simple or complex, in the lives of our people. In many places an administrative approach prevails over a pastoral approach, as does a concentration on administering the sacraments apart from other forms of evangelization. (63)

Francis’ intent in providing such painful instruction—and there is much of this in Evangelii Gaudium—is reminiscent of how the ancient nation of Israel recorded its many centuries of rebellion against a faithful God. Francis’ ecclesial analysis likewise calls to mind St. Augustine, whose Confessions continued and personalized the Old Testament’s “examination of conscience.” When Francis highlights the faults of the Church, he is not merely engaging in a pious and public penitential rite. Rather, he tells us that admitting our communal shortcomings is necessary if we as individuals and as a Church truly wish to repent and believe in the joy of the Gospel.

The good news

Pope Francis understands that admitting our shortcomings is never easy. One could reasonably assume that he has received and dispensed the sacrament of reconciliation often enough to know something about confronting personal sin. Penitents may not be joyful when they enter a confessional but possess boundless joy when they leave. Such is the working of grace.

And so from Francis’ examination of the struggles of the universal Church come explorations of Christ’s promises to his disciples as well as the great good that the Church can offer the world (and indeed has already given the world). But all this implies a responsibility for the faithful to cooperate with God’s grace. Only then can the People of God throughout the world carry on the missionary work of the Church:

Differing currents of thought in philosophy, theology and pastoral practice, if open to being reconciled by the Spirit in respect and love, can enable the Church to grow, since all of them help to express more clearly the immense riches of God’s word. For those who long for a monolithic body of doctrine guarded by all and leaving no room for nuance, this might appear as undesirable and leading to confusion. But in fact such variety serves to bring out and develop different facets of the inexhaustible riches of the Gospel. (40)

We are offered an example of this variety of riches within Evangelii Gaudium’s study of the place of the Gospel in modern market economies and in welfare systems. Here, as is often the case, Francis uses no sugar to sweeten his medicine. He even acknowledges that his words may be “irksome” for many.

But this is precisely Francis’ point: the joy of the Gospel is often found only after wrestling with the “irksome” challenges that come to all who encounter it.

In fact it is here—at the intersection of belief in what challenges us and putting our faith into practice—that Pope Francis the pastor gazes into the person before him, in this instance, the person wounded by the Holy Father’s words on wealth and economic models (202-208). “If anyone feels offended by my words,” he writes, “I would respond that I speak them with affection and with the best of intentions…. My words are not those of a foe or an opponent” (208).

Here the Bishop of Rome offers a written embrace as tender and strong as any he’s given with his arms in St. Peter’s Square. Here he offers his pastoral affection publicly to those who, while claiming loyalty to Christ and his Church, disagree (slightly or vehemently) with the Church’s teachings on wealth and the common good. Of course, this embrace could also be for anyone troubled by any Church teaching or any issue raised in Evangelii Gaudium—marriage, abortion, environmental protection, a cleric’s duty to provide sound and effective homilies, or our personal responsibility for the poor among us.

In other words, in his unexpected pastoral embrace, Francis not only shows us what it means to teach with love, he also reminds us that to evangelize in this new age does not require us to deny who we are. Actually, the opposite is true. The New Evangelization requires us to rediscover and then become what disciples of Christ are intended to be.

Like Benedict XVI, Pope Francis is aware that the cross looms large when we claim to be disciples of the Son of God—when we seek to live sacrificially the Gospel in our particular corners of creation. But the vision of the Church held by Francis and his predecessor includes Christians giving witness that crosses need not be avoided out of fear—especially fear that when we give all we are, we will be left with nothing. Rather, we will have more than we could expect—fulfillment, meaning, and joy.

In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis exhorts us to ponder, interiorize, and then share this truth with a dark and waiting world.

[1] Volk und Haus Gottes in Augustins Lehre von der Kirche, translated by Aidan Nichols, OP in his book The Thought of Pope Benedict XVI: An Introduction to the Theology of Joseph Ratzinger (Burns & Oates, London/New York, 2007).

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About William L. Patenaude 35 Articles
William L. Patenaude MA, KHS has a master's degree in theology and is an engineer and 33-year employee of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. His debut novel A Printer’s Choice, has been described as "a smart, suspenseful Catholic sci-fi novel, with a richly imagined fictional world."