Pope Francis’ Missionary Church

The Pontiff’s focus (and impatience) is “this-worldly,” but it is not “utopian” or modernist

Pope Francis looks on as he leads his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Dec. 11. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis looks on as he leads his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Dec. 11. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)“Each Christian and every community must discern the path that the Lord points out, but 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.”
— Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel, #20.

“The kingdom is here, it remains; it struggles to flourish anew. Christ’s resurrection everywhere calls for the seeds for that new world, even if they are cut back, they grow again, for the resurrection is already secretly woven into the fabric of this history, for Jesus did not rise in vain. May we never remain on the sidelines of this march of living hope?”
— Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel, #278.


When I finished Pope Francis’ first encyclical, The Light of Faith, I concluded that Francis’ pontificate would concentrate on the parish, on local communities and dioceses as centers of worship, belief, and charity. The Church would be less in the public eye. This example of a vibrant local life would be the basis of the attraction of Christianity to the Gentiles.

On finishing Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, however, I have to conclude differently. Francis is concerned with an active, “missionary” Church that is very much involved with everything else through its attention to and delight in its own communal life. Time Magazine’s making Francis the “Person of the Year” is enough to tell us that Pope Francis’ short pontificate so far has not been a quiet affair to which few have paid attention. From the moment of his election, Francis came on not so much as a tiny seed but as a full grown mustard tree, to adapt a famous parable.

Since the day of his election, Francis has often, sometimes daily, made headlines of one sort or another throughout the world. Most everyone has an opinion about him. No one can ignore him, not even those who would like to. He is obviously likeable. He appreciates community life. One of the Renaissance popes (Leo X, d. 1521) quipped to his brother: “God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it.” I have the impression that, in the best sense, Francis has enjoyed being pope. He seeks to know everyone. He drives his security forces crazy. But he has an exuberance that is catching. And he has something to say and he says it; let the chips fall where they may. He tells everyone he loves them. He tells us that he is a “sinner.” He does not think he is always right. He thanked Archbishop Marchetto for correcting him on the issue of the continuity of the Church before and after Vatican II.

Aside from The Light of Faith, which had Benedict XVI in its background, we have seen very little of Francis’ overall thought. He has a sparse paper-trail. He gives short, familiar homilies in Santa Marta’s chapel, each with three points. His Wednesday audiences and talks in L’Osservatore Romano are generally short and homey. He affirms every settled doctrine of the Church, but wants to present it gently, in a new context. What he says is always full of personal comment. We know much of his experiences in Argentina. They loved him in Rio at World Youth Day. Several of his interviews have gained worldwide attention and sharp controversy.

The Pope clearly wants to shift the attention of the Church to a missionary, outgoing mode. He does not want anyone to stay at home. We not only are to experience the joy of the Gospel ourselves, but its contagion is to be brought to others. The Pope prods those who stay at home or in bureaucratic offices to get out in the streets. He wants bishops and priests to have open doors. Somewhere he commented that churches should be unlocked—which makes one smile because of the experience of many parishes: if they do not lock their doors, they are constantly vandalized. But he speaks from his own experience where doors of churches can be left open. This is the goal of any peaceable society.

The Pope has many ideas about economics and politics. He does not hesitate to tell us about them. To many, they sound very “south of the border,” even beyond Mexico way. Pope Bergoglio admits that he is not an expert in these matters. But he insists that attention to the poor is part of his and everyone else’s job. He wonders why we cannot find politicians who can figure this problem out. Actually, a good part of the world’s poor in recent decades have passed out of extreme poverty (see “Towards the End of Poverty,” The Economist, June 1, 2013). Many people at least seem to know how to accomplish this goal. But this Pope will not be content with less than everyone. This insistence is both refreshing and a little frustrating. No one can mind too much to be reminded of things yet to be figured out. St. Thomas, whom the Pope cites frequently in The Joy of the Gospel, however, said that such things often can only be done “gradually.”


But if I am asked what is the overall impression left by this Exhortation, I have to say that it is very much “this-worldly” oriented. It points horizontally, not vertically. The inner life of the Godhead is not much spoken of. When the Father is mentioned, it is always in the context of the love of the neighbor whom God loves in Christ. Unlike Benedict in Spe Salvi, there is little attention given to “eternal life.” When Francis mentions the “kingdom of God,” he does not, as one would expect, cite Augustine. He mentions actual cities and is rather surprised by them. When Augustine talked of “the City of God,” he said that it began among us, but could not be achieved in this world. No existing city would ever be this Kingdom. Augustine, with good reason, was leery of the ambitions of the cities of this world.

Of course, this emphasis on actual cities is Aristotelian. We are social and political animals. What concerns Francis, if I might put it that way, is the second great commandment. He obviously does not deny the first, the love of God. But Francis’ attention is given to God’s love as it exists among us. But he thinks not enough response is given to it. He wants to improve the world by emphasizing the joy of Christianity that we can experience in our lives and worship. The love of neighbor is an active thing. This pope believes in action. He talks of contemplation at times, but with overtones of Ignatius of Loyola’s simul in actione contemplativus; we behold God’s action in the doing of what needs to be done.

Pope Bergoglio is much more oriented to modernity, to modern culture, than the previous two popes. He cites John XXIII, and sometimes Paul VI, though he certainly cites John Paul II and Benedict—and de Lubac, Guardini, Newman, Bernanos, and the various documents of episcopal conferences. He is open to modern science. He is aware of skepticism, relativism, and atheism, but he has a certain sympathy for their adherents.

So what do I think the Pope is doing with his strong emphasis on missionary activities? He lightly touches the difficulty of political obstacles in most nations of the world to allow for much real missionary work. He mentions the basic right of religious freedom and its lack in many nations. He does not name many names. So his missionary activity first begins at home. The “joy” of the Gospel is designed to be a beacon of light in the world. It can only be seen if believers themselves see it.

Modernity is, briefly, the position that no truth is found in things or in ourselves. We are free because we are liberated from all religion or philosophy that would limit our freedom, individual or corporate. Religion of any kind is an enemy to this liberty. Once this freedom is established, man can go forward, as Benedict pointed out, to create a world in his own image. Man is not made in any image of God. He makes himself in his own image. Once free of any transcendent claim, man is free to create a truly “human” world that has no outside demands of a god or nature. Science and politics with this background will be able to make man into what he ought to be.

What Pope Francis seems to be doing in this Exhortation is, as it were, to present an alternative to modernity within modernity. This alternative is itself inner-worldly. That is, the emphasis is on the effects of Christianity as it truly ought to be lived in the here and now.

Another legitimate version of this living as Christians ought to live would be the admonition in Scripture that Christians will often be hated precisely because they do live as Christ asked them to live. At the end of time, it seems possible that there will be little faith. But we are dealing here with what is in fact a legitimate approach, as far as I understand it. There has always been a question of what is, in fact, the “inner-worldly” purpose of revelation. Granted that it can and often is rejected, still what would the world look like if the famous ancient phrase “see how they love one another” were practiced as a missionary endeavor?

As far as I can see, Pope Bergoglio is bent on proposing for us a way to put into effect what the Didache once said about Christians wanting to live quietly and peacefully in the world. But this would initially involve not only Christians themselves with a life of joy in their communities, but also of intelligently confronting issues of sin, economic and political disorder, self-love, and other aberrations that prevent us from helping others.

In the process, we do not cease to be sinners. Hence, the Pope has much to say about forgiveness and mercy. His particular proposals may be debated. Nietzsche’s complaint was that Christians did not live like Christians—so why worry about them? Pope Bergoglio’s exhortation is that we will all “worry” about them when they live in love and display the joy that Christ showed them. This love is not just a personal thing, though it that too. The Pope speaks of “structural” impediments and cultural habits that prevent us from living as we should.

But at bottom, what this Exhortation seems to be is, indeed, an answer to classical modernity that, when spelled out, does everything modernity hopes for, only better and more securely because it is rooted in the real nature of man and is open to the gifts that have come to us in revelation. The Pope’s impatience has its charm. It also has its dangers. After all, most men who have ever lived on this planet have lived in very imperfect circumstances. The Church was for them too. Few lived in really fully developed economic and political orders with scientific and technological support that enabled man the leisure and time to create a civilization. Paul VI called it a “civilization of love,” and Pope Francis would probably call it the same.

So while the function and inspiration of the Church is surely to stand for joy and fulfillment in this life, it never forgets that we save or lose our souls in the societies in which we live, whatever their condition. Some societies are better than others. And we are fortunate if in our lifetime we have lived in one of the better ones. One does not know this—“who are we to judge?”—but it is quite possible that more souls reached their transcendent end from the gulags and concentration camps than from the fashionable addresses of our culture.

But that is no argument for setting up concentration camps. That is the Pope’s point. We must try with all our energy and strength for something better. Pope Bergoglio’s impatience is “this-worldly,” if you will, but it is not “utopian” or modernist. That, I think, is what this detailed Exhortation really has to teach us.

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About James V. Schall, S.J. 180 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019) taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of over thirty books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His of his last books included On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018) and The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (Ignatius, 2020).