Saturday, 30 November 2013

Welcoming Evangelii Gaudium

The recent Apostolic Exhortation of Pope Francis Evangelii Gaudium is remarkable for the  way in which it begins with an outpouring of the Pope's own sense of the joy flowing from encounter with Christ. 'With Christ, joy is constantly born anew,' he begins and his purpose in writing is to encourage the faithful to engage in evangelization and mission that are singled out by a joyful exploration of 'new paths for the church's journey in years to come.' This is a very hopeful and significant document. In it, if my reading is correct, I see the foundations being laid for the church to re-examine some of its teachings and, more importantly, some of the ways it relates to the social, economic, scientific, interdenominational and interfaith issues that are hot potatoes today. That is not to say that the Roman Catholic church is likely to revise its stance on these things any time soon. But I think the Pope is preparing the ground for some careful work and for the possibility of 'new light' to dawn in the future.
There is something astir in the Roman Catholic church. I've just been reading Hans Kung's new book Can We Save the Catholic Church? (Collins, 2013). It contains a scholarly analysis of how the church has got to the place it is today with regard to many of the issues people struggle over - it's wealth, hierarchical nature and dogmatism, its attitude to science, progress, contraception, sexuality, celibacy and women's ministry amongst other things. Kung (once a mainstream Catholic theologian, censured by the Vatican and subsequently not allowed to teach in Catholic seminaries for many years) sets out very helpfully the things he regards as needing reform in the church. Startlingly, these include the abolition of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith and, perhaps more understandably, given Kung's treatment, the cessation of theological repression. Kung was a central figure in the Second Vatican Council and he shows how the reforms envisaged as a result of the Council have been effectively largely blocked under Popes John Paul and Benedict. Evangelii Gaudium might just be the beginning of the journey back to the path Vatican II was heading down.

Pope Francis has not been in office very long but, already, there is a radically new atmosphere about his papacy and things are being challenged in the Vatican. Fresh voices are being heard. Even before his election as Pope there was a great deal of talk about an urgent need for reform. What I find so hopeful in Pope Francis' document is the new reality with which he talks about many things. One feels that he has not lived in an ivory tower - he has touched and been deeply touched by the ordinary day-to-day lives of those who struggle with poverty, political oppression and family breakdown. He has some deservedly serious challenges for us in the two thirds world:

The danger in today's world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent and covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God's voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt and the desire to do good fades....that is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life...I invite all Christians everywhere , at this moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ....'no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord.'

Evangelii Gaudium is a long document but I think it is well worth a read. Above all, it announces to the world the direction that one of the major churches will be attempting to travel over the next few years and no serious Christian ought to be unaware of it. As a Reformed and fairly liberal Christian, I do not myself agree with with some of the things the Pope has to say about, in particular, family life, contraception and abortion and the role of women in the church but I can see a new awareness of the cost of some of the church's teachings as they are played out in people's lives. This suggests to me that the Vatican may be willing to examine afresh some of the assumptions upon which its pastoral ministry and mission are based. On the other hand, I find very great encouragement in some of the things  the Pope has to say, for example, his identification of the parish system as being one that has (or should have) great flexibility, allowing the church to be present and relevant in so many different contexts. He has some thought-provoking things to say about the relationship between the rapid scientific and technological progress being made in some parts of the world alongside the reality of the daily struggle to survive in other parts. Can we who live in 'throw away' cultures continue to 'throw away' the lives of the poor as though they were expendable? This is a South American Pope speaking to us. This is a voice from a church that is truly global.

Evangelii Gaudium appears to be the first truly 'Franciscan' document of this Pope's reign. He previously completed and published Lumen Fidei which had been largely drafted by Pope Benedict. It is noticeable that the two documents are very different in tone and content, suggesting that Francis is now finding his voice and making his true mark. 'Joyful evangelisation' of the whole world could be said to be the theme of the exhortation - a proclamation of the gospel in deed and word through a joyful living in response to encounter with Christ as risen Lord. An exhortation is intended to be a pastoral rather than a theological document and so the nature of what he says is essentially practical and driven by what he sees as the missionary needs of the church. There is a long section on the effects of the secularisation of society and another on the social inclusion of the poor. He also covers peace and interfaith (mainly Islam) dialogue, preaching ('the preparation of the homily') and the spiritual foundations of the church's imperative to be engaged in mission. I can't do justice to the full 224 pages of the exhortation here, but I hope that I may have whetted your appetite and roused your curiosity sufficiently for you to look for yourself 

Evangelii Gaudium    

See also Hans Kung Can We Save the Catholic Church?

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