Pope Francis and the New Evangelization

Pope-Francis-March-2013Why does Pope Francis appear to emphasize evangelization and a pastoral approach rather than merely teaching doctrine?  I think the first word should be given to Saint John XXIII in his allocution, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia (1962) at the opening of Second Vatican Council:

“The greatest concern of the ecumenical council is this: that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously. . . . In order, however, that this doctrine may influence the numerous fields of human activity, with reference to individuals, to families and to social life, it is necessary first of all that the Church should never depart from the sacred patrimony of truth received from the Fathers. But at the same time she must ever look to the present, to the new conditions and new forms of life introduced into the modern world which have opened new avenues to the Catholic apostolate.”

These “new conditions and new forms of life introduced into the modern world” will eventually be described by Saint John Paul II as the ‘New Evangelization.’

In a famous quote in this address, Saint John XXIII notes that while we must hold to the faith once received, the manner in which is presented is another matter.  He notes,

The substance of the ancient doctrine of the Deposit of Faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another. And it is the latter that must be taken into great consideration with patience if necessary, everything being measured in the forms and proportions of a magisterium which is predominantly pastoral in character.

Ten years after the Council Blessed Pope Paul VI wrote his timeless apostolic exhortation on evangelization entitled Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975).  Blessed Paul VI echoes the remarks of Saint John XIII,

On this tenth anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council, the objectives of which are definitively summed up in this single one: to make the Church of the twentieth century ever better fitted for proclaiming the Gospel to the people of the twentieth century . . . it is absolutely necessary for us to take into account a heritage of faith that the Church has the duty of preserving in its untouchable purity, and of presenting it to the people of our time, in a way that is as understandable and persuasive as possible (EN 1-3).

Blessed Paul VI continues;

What matters is to evangelize man’s culture and cultures (not in a purely decorative way, as it were, by applying a thin veneer, but in a vital way, in depth and right to their very roots), in the wide and rich sense which these terms have in Gaudium et spes,[50] always taking the person as one’s starting-point and always coming back to the relationships of people among themselves and with God. (EN 20)

Building on these truths the Church acknowledges that evangelization is a process with stages and that we don’t evangelize by beginning with rigorous doctrinal catechesis.  The General Directory for Catechesis notes;

The process of evangelization, (123) consequently, is structured in stages or “essential moments”: (124) missionary activity directed toward non-believers and those who live in religious indifference; initial catechetical activity for those who choose the Gospel and for those who need to complete or modify their initiation; pastoral activity directed toward the Christian faithful of mature faith in the bosom of the Christian community. (125) These moments, however, are not unique: they may be repeated, if necessary, as they give evangelical nourishment in proportion to the spiritual growth of each person or of the entire community (GDC 49).

Pope Francis’s remarks about the Church as a field hospital after battle are clearly thinking about the stages of evangelization.   In his interview Pope Francis notes,

“The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all.”

According to the GDC we must establish initial proclamation and full initiation before we get to continuous education in the faith (GDC 51).   These preliminary stages include “catechesis of baptized adults who wish to return to the faith” (GDC 51).  If we too quickly jump to controversial issues or even to advanced catechesis on doctrinal issues, we are missing vital steps in the evangelization process.

It is in this context that we must understand Pope Francis’ provocative remarks:

“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.

The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.

In no way do we wish to be understood to be saying that we don’t need to teach or catechize on doctrinal issues. In truth, many people are confused about what they believe. The question is, what is the best approach to move these people into a living encounter with Christ that results in their own personal desire to follow him form their hearts? If we simply moralize or try to ‘guilt’ people in to action, we miss the living dynamic that was intended by the Gospel.


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