The Seal Is Love

Author: Rino Fisichella

The Seal Is Love

Rino Fisichella

Archbishop President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization on 'Evangelii Gaudium'

If we were to sum up Pope Francis' Evangelii Gaudium in a few words, we could say that it is an Apostolic Exhortation written around the theme of Christian joy in order that the Church may rediscover the original source of evangelization in the contemporary world. Pope Francis offers this document to the Church as a map and guide to her pastoral mission in the near future. It is an invitation to recover a prophetic and positive vision of reality without ignoring the current challenges. Pope Francis instills courage and urges us to look ahead despite the present crisis, making the cross and the resurrection of Christ once again our "the victory banner" (n. 85).

The several references in Evangelii Gaudium to the Propositions of the October, 2012 Synod on the New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith are a testimony to the extent to which the last Synod has influenced the drafting of this Exhortation. This text, however, goes beyond the experience of the Synod. The Pope commits to paper not only his previous pastoral experience, but above all his call to seize the moment of grace in which the Church is living in order to embrace with faith, conviction and enthusiasm a new phase in the journey of evangelization. Extending the teaching of the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi of Paul VI (1975), he emphasizes the centrality of the person of Jesus Christ, the first evangelizer, who today calls each and every one of us to participate with him in the work of salvation (n. 12). "The Church's missionary action is the paradigm for all of her endeavors" (n.15) affirms the Holy Father, so that it is necessary to seize this favorable moment in order to catch sight of and live out this "new stage" of evangelization (n. 17). This missionary action is articulated in two themes which mark the basic outline of the Exhortation. On the one hand, Pope Francis addresses the particular Churches because, living in the first-person the challenges and opportunities characteristic of their cultural context, they are able to highlight aspects of the new evangelization which are peculiar to their countries. On the other hand, the Pope sets out a common denominator in order that the whole Church, and each individual evangelizer, may discover a common methodology born of the conviction that evangelization is always participatory, shared and never isolated. The following seven points, gathered together in the five chapters of the Exhortation, constitute the fundamental pillars of Pope Francis' vision of the new evangelization: the reform of the Church in a missionary key, the temptations of pastoral agents, the Church understood as the totality of the People of God which evangelizes, the homily and its preparation, the social inclusion of the poor, peace and social dialogue, and the spiritual motivations for the Church's missionary action. The cement which binds these themes together is concentrated in the merciful love of God which goes forth to meet every person in order to manifest the heart of his revelation: the life of every person acquires meaning in the encounter with Jesus Christ and in the joy of sharing this experience of love with others (n. 8).

The first chapter, therefore, proceeds in the light of the reform of the Church in a missionary key, called as she is to "go out" of herself in order to meet others. It is "the dynamic of exodus and the gift of going out of oneself, walking and sowing ever a new, always further and beyond" (n. 21), that the Pope explains in these pages. The Church must make "this intimacy of Jesus, which is an itinerant intimacy", its own intimacy (n. 23). The Pope, as we are already accustomed to, makes use of effective expressions and creates neologisms to grasp the nature of the Church's evangelizing action. First among these is the concept of "primerear , namely God preceding us in love and indicating to the Church the path to follow. The Church does not find herself in a dead-end, but is following in the very footsteps of Christ (cf. I Peter 2:21). Thus the Church is certain of the path she must follow. She does not tread this path in fear since she knows that she is called "to go out in search of those who are far from her and arrive at the crossroads in order to invite those who are of pastoral ministry to a perspective which is not only missionary but is in a permanent state of evangelization (n. 25). In fact, alongside the structures which facilitate and sustain the Church's missionary activity there are, unfortunately, "ecclesial structures which can jeopardize the dynamism of evangelization" (n. 26). The existence of stagnant and stale pastoral practices obliges us, therefore, to be boldly creative in order to rethink evangelization. In this sense, the Pope affirms that: "an identification of the goals without adequate research on the part of the community as to how to achieve them is doomed to end in mere fantasy" (n. 33).

It is necessary, therefore, "to concentrate on what is essential" (n. 35) and to know that only a systematic approach, i.e. one that is unitary, progressive and proportional to the faith, can be of true assistance. This implies for the Church the capacity to bring out "the hierarchy of truths" and its proper reference to the heart of the Gospel (nn. 37-39), thereby avoiding the danger of presenting the faith only in the light of some moral questions as if these could stand apart from the centrality of love. If we lose sight of this perspective, "the moral edifice of the Church runs the risk of becoming a house of cards, and this is our biggest danger" (n. 39). So there is a strong appeal from the Pope to find a healthy balance between the content of the faith and the language in which it is expressed. It may happen at times that the rigidity of linguistic precision can be to the detriment of content, thus compromising the genuine vision of the faith (n. 41).

One of the central passages in this chapter is certainly paragraph 32 in which Pope Francis illustrates the. urgency of bringing to fruition some of the perspectives of the Second Vatican Council, in particular the exercise of the Primacy of the Successor of Peter and of the role of Episcopal Conferences. John Paul II in Ut Unum Sint, had already requested assistance in order to better understand the obligations of the Pope in ecumenical dialogue. Now, Pope Francis continues in this request and sees that a more coherent form of assistance could be derived from the further development of the theoretical foundations of Episcopal Conferences. Another passage of particular intensity for its pastoral implications are paragraphs 38-45. The heart of the Gospel "is incarnate within the limits of the human language". As a consequence, doctrine is inserted into "the cage of language"— to use Wittgenstein s expression — which implies the necessity of a real discernment between the poverty and the limits of language, on the one hand, and the often yet to be discovered richness of the content of faith, on the other. The danger that the Church may at times fail to consider this dynamic is a real one, giving rise to an unjustified fortress mentality in relation to certain questions which risks rendering the Gospel message inflexible while at the same time losing sight of the dynamic proper to its development.

The second chapter is dedicated to recognizing the challenges of the contemporary world and to overcoming the easy temptations which undermine the New Evangelization. In the first place, the Pope affirms, we must recover our identity without those inferiority complexes which lead to "concealing our identity and convictions ... and end up suffocating the joy of our mission as we become obsessed over becoming like everyone else possessing the things which they possess" (n. 79). This makes Christians fall into "a kind of relativism which is more dangerous than the doctrinal one" (n. 80), because it impinges directly on the lifestyle of believers. So it happens that many expressions of our pastoral activity suffer from a kind of weariness which derives from placing the accent on the initiatives themselves and not on the person. The Pope believes that the temptation of a "de-personalization of the person" in order to become better organized is both real and common. By the same token, the challenges in evangelization should be accepted more as a chance to grow and as not as a reason for falling into depression. There should be no talk, then, of a "sense of defeat" (n. 85). It is essential that we recover interpersonal relationships to which we must accord a priority over the technology which seeks to govern relationships as with a remote control, deciding where, when and for how long to meet others on the basis of one s own preferences (n. 88). As well as the more usual and more diffuse challenges, however, we must be alive to those which impinge more directly on our lives: the sense of "daily uncertainty, with evil consequences", the various forms of "social disparity", the "fetishism of money and the dictatorship of a faceless economy", the "exasperation of consumption" and "unbridled consumerism".... In short, we .find ourselves in the presence of a "globalization of indifference" and a "sneering contempt" towards ethics, accompanied by a constant attempt to marginalize every critical warning over the supremacy of-the market which, with its "trickle down" creates the illusion of helping the poor (cf. nn. 52-64). If the Church today appears still highly credible in many countries of the world, even where it is a minority, its is because of her works of charity and solidarity (n. 65).

In the evangelization of our time, therefore, and most especially in the face of the challenges of the great "urban cultures" (n. 71), Christians are invited to flee from two phenomena which undermine its very nature and which Pope Francis defines as "worldliness" (n. 93). First, the "charm of Gnosticism" which implies a faith closed in on itself, not least in its own doctrinal certainties, and which erects its own experience as the criterion of truth by which to judge others. Second, a "self-referential and Promethean Neo-Pelagianism" of those who maintain that the grace is only an accessory while progress is obtained only through personal commitment and force. All of this stands in contradiction to evangelization. It creates a type of "narcissistic elitism" which must be avoided (n. 94). Who do we want to be, asks the Pope, "Generals of defeated troops" or "foot soldiers of a platoon which continues to fight"? The risk of a "worldly Church in spiritual or pastoral trappings" (n. 96), is not hidden but real. It is vital, then, not to succumb to these temptations but to offer the testimony of communion (n. 99). This testimony is reinforced by complementarity. Starting from this consideration, Pope Francis explains the necessity of the promotion of lay people and women, and the need to foster vocations and the priestly life. To look upon the Church in the light of the progress of these last decades demands that we subtract ourselves from a mentality of power and embrace a logic of service for the united construction of the Church (nn. 102-108).

Evangelization is the task of the entire People of God, without exception. It is not, nor could it be, reserved or delegated to any particular group. All baptized people are directly involved. Pope Francis explains, in the third chapter of the Exhortation, how evangelization may develop and the various stages which may indicate its progress. First, he is keen to underline the "the primacy of grace" which works tirelessly in the life of every evangelizer (n. 112). Then the Pope develops the theme of the great role played by various cultures in the process of the inculturation of the Gospel, and which prevents a particular culture from falling into a "vainglorious sacralization of itself" (n. 117). He then indicates the fundamental direction of the new evangelization in the interpersonal relationships (nn. 127-129) and in the testimony of life (n. 121). He insists, furthermore, on rediscovering the value of popular piety as an expression of the genuine faith of many people who thereby give true testimony of their simple encounter with the love of God (nn. 122-126). Finally, the Pope invites theologians to study the mediations necessary in order to arrive at an appreciation of the various forms of evangelization (n. 133), reflecting more at length on the homily as a privileged from of evangelization which requires an authentic passion and love for the Word of God and for the people to whom it is entrusted (nn. 135-158).

The fourth chapter is given over to a reflection on the social dimension of evangelization. This is a theme which is dear to Pope Francis since, as he states, "If this dimension is not explained in the correct way, we run the risk of disfiguring the authentic and full .meaning of the mission of evangelization" (n. 176). This is the great theme of the link between the preaching of the Gospel and the promotion of human life in all of its expressions. This promotion of every human being must be holistic and capable of avoiding the relegation of religion to the private sphere, with no incidence in social and public life. A "faith which is authentic always implies a profound desire to change the world" (n. 183). Two great themes emerge in this section of the Exhortation: the "social inclusion of the poor" and "peace and social dialogue". The particular evangelical passion with which the Pope speaks about them is indicative of his conviction that they will decide the future of humanity.

As far as concerns the "social inclusion of the poor", with the New Evangelization the Church feels it is her mission "to contribute to the resolution of the instrumental causes of poverty and to promote the intregral development of the poor", as well as undertaking "simple and daily gestures of solidarity in the face of the many concrete situations of need" which are constantly before our eyes (n. 188). What emerges from these closely written pages is an invitation to recognise the "salvific force" which the poor possess and which must be brought to the center of the life of the Church with the New Evangelization (n. 198). This implies that first of all, before any concrete experience, there be a rediscovery of the attention due to this theme together with its urgency, and the need to promote its awareness. Moreover, the fundamental option for the poor which asks to be put into practice is, in the mind of Pope Francis, primarily a "religious and spiritual attention" which must take priority over all else (n. 200). On these questions Pope Francis speaks with extreme frankness and clarity. The "Shepherd of a Church without borders" (n. 210) cannot allow himself to look away. This is why the Pope demands that we consider the problems of migration and is equally strong in his denunciation of the new forms of slavery. "Where is the person that you are killing every day in his secret little factory, in networks of prostitution, in children used for professional begging, in those who must work in secret because they are irregular? Let us not pretend. All of us have some share of responsability in these situations" (n. 211). Also, the Pope is equally forceful in his defence of human life in its beginning and of the dignity of every human person (n. 213). Concerning this latter aspect, the Pope enounces four principles which serve as a common denominator for the promotion of peace and its concrete social application. Recalling, perhaps, his studies into Romano Guardini, Pope Francis seems to create a new polar opposition. He reminds us that "time is superior to space", "unity prevails over conflict', "reality is more important than ideas", and that "the whole is greater than its parts". These principles open up to the dimension of dialogue as the first contribution towards peace, a dimension which is extended in the Exhortation to the areas of science, ecumenism and non-Christian religions.

The final chapter seeks to express the "spirit of the New Evangelization" (n. 260). This is developed under the primacy of the action of the Holy Spirit which always and anew infuses the missionary impulse in the Church beginning with the life of prayer whose center is contemplation (n. 264). In conclusion, the Virgin Mary, "Star of the New Evangelization" is presented as the icon of every authentic preaching and transmission of the Gospel which the Church is called to undertake in the coming decades with a strong enthusiasm and an unchanging love for the Lord Jesus.

"Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of the joy of evangelization" (n.83). The language of this Apostolic Exhortation is clear, immediate, free from rhetoric and insinuations. Pope Francis goes to the heart of the problems which touch the lives of men and women of today and which demand of the Church more than a simple presence. The Church is asked to actively program a renewed pastoral practice which reflects her engagement in the. New Evangelization. The Gospel must reach everyone, without exception. Some, however, are more privileged than others. Pope Francis leaves us in no doubt as to his position: "Not so much friends and rich neighbours, but above all the poor, the sick, those who are often ignored and forgotten ... there must be no doubts or explanations which weaken the clarity of this message" (n. 48).

As in other crucial moments of her history, it is with a sense of urgency that the Church prepares to engage in the New Evangelization in a spirit of adoration so as to behold once again, with a "contemplative gaze", the signs of the presence of God. The signs of the times are not only encouraging, but serve as a criterion for effective witness (n. 71). Pope Francis reminds us, first of all, of the central mystery of our faith: "Let us not run away from the resurrection of Jesus, let us not surrender, come what may" (n. 3). He shows us a Church which is the companion of those who are our contemporaries in the seeking after God and in the desire to see him.

L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
29 November 2013, page 11

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