There is arguably no papal document since the end of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) that has mapped out such a radical reform of Church governance, life and mission as Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Evangelii gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel).
It is the blueprint for what the pope’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, has called a “paradigm shift” towards a more decentralized, synodal and missionary Church for the next millennium.
Yet, in the more than five years since Francis issued the exhortation in September 2013, this revolutionary text remains largely unstudied and unimplemented at almost every level of the Catholic Church—parishes, dioceses, episcopal conference and even at Vatican.
Revelations over the past year confirming that the clergy sexual abuse crisis and its institutional cover-up are a global phenomenon and not limited to just a few regions have further neutralized Evangelii gaudium’s impact.
The highly emotive events of 2018—including, but not limited to, the widespread abuse catastrophe in Chile, the removal of the sexual predator Theodore McCarrick from the College of Cardinals and the former papal nuncio to Washington’s lurid accusations that the Vatican and the pope have allowed sexually active homosexuals to climb the hierarchical while covering up abuse—have forced the now 82-year-old Francis to devote much more time to dealing with the abuse crisis.
Catholics who identify as traditionalists, and those obsessed with the strict enforcement of rules and blind submissiveness to the clergy, have seen this crisis as the chink in the Jesuit pope’s armor. Though most of Pope Francis’ critics remained silent and were even dismissive of the claims of abuse victims only a few years ago, they have now seized on his seemingly ambivalent handling of this crisis as their most effective means of further blocking his more widespread and profound plans for reform.
It is hard to recall a time in modern history when the Bishop of Rome was so contested, despised and vilified. Not even Paul VI faced such opposition as he tried to implement the reforms called by the just-concluded Vatican Council II.
Evangelii gaudium is a challenging manifesto for deep and radical reform and, as such, it is a threat to Francis’ traditionalist opponents. That most Catholics, including bishops and priests, are largely unaware of the exhortation’s profound significance, or are just ignoring it, is of great assistance to these opponents’ efforts.
Certainly, other documents from this pontificate—such as the 2015 encyclical on creation and ecology (Laudato Si’) and the 2016 apostolic exhortation on marriage and family (Amoris laetitis)—have raised a lot more discussion and controversy. But, by the pope’s own admission, none of them are as important as Evangelii gaudium. Francis continues to see “The Joy of the Gospel” as his most consequential contribution to the future life and development of the Church.
The main objective of the document is to move Catholics out of the comfort of their self-referential and neat-and-tidy communities into the messiness and ambiguities of everyday life beyond the church sanctuary. It is a call to renewed mission.
Thus, it is a stinging rebuke to “the complacent attitude that says: ‘We have always done it this way’ ” and a direct summons “to be bold and creative in this task of rethinking the goals, structures, style and methods of evangelization” (EG 33).
Pope Francis is trying to launch a radical “missionary option” that will necessarily mean “transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.”
That means change and reform—even of the structures and practices of the centralized bureaucracy at the Vatican.
“Excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church’s life and her missionary outreach,” the pope says. He calls for a greater enhancement of the “genuine doctrinal authority” of episcopal conferences.
The main goal is to renew the Church as a community of believers that takes the Gospel of Jesus Christ outside of its comfort zone and joyfully shares it (not imposes it) with all people, but especially with those who are poor, despised, outcast and on the margins. It certainly does not envision a Church that is immaculate and perfect, but one that takes risks and is unafraid of stumbling in its mission to share the Good News and the Word of Life with all humanity.
This, in a nutshell, this the kind of Church that Pope Francis is trying to bring forth:
“I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a Church concerned with being at the center and which then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures.
“If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life.”
The pope continues: “More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: ‘Give them something to eat’ (Mk 6:37).”
This is what a renovated Church looks like in the mind of Pope Francis. Those who want to be part of the rebuilding project have the guiding document at hand. It’s called the Gospel. And the blueprint for making it alive for the Church in our times is Evangelii gaudium.
All Catholics, no matter what their role or responsibility in the Church, need to read this apostolic exhortation, study it and pray over it. Then help implement it. Perhaps this would be the start of a rejuvenated and vibrant community of faith, a sign of hope for the world.
Robert Mickens is the English editor for La Croix International website.