Joy of the Gospel - an Apostolic Exhortation from Pope Francis
Pope Francis’s The Joy of the Gospel is a unique and remarkable document. Presented as an apostolic exhortation, it has been called a manifesto of his papacy. Its down-to-earth, colloquial style sets it apart from other papal documents. Pope Francis writes in a way that can leave readers feeling that he is speaking directly to them, much as any good pastor would speak to his people.
Pope Francis pursues an agenda that goes to the heart of our faith: “In this Exhortation, I wish to encourage the Christian faithful to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by this joy [of the Gospel], while pointing out new paths for the Church’s journey in the years to come.” It’s all about the good news of Jesus Christ, which is a gift and an urgent responsibility both for persons and for the church itself—at all levels. This is the most important thing to remember when you read this document.
With respect to persons, Pope Francis’s encourages all Christians to turn anew to the Lord, so that he can transform us ever more fully into the friends, disciples, and servants that he wishes us to be. Those who are ready and willing to do this will find themselves changed in the process. They will know the joy of the Gospel and be eager to share it with others. People don’t keep good news to themselves!
When he considers the church, Pope Francis knows that all of its structures, norms, practices, and ways of thinking are to serve the Gospel, and especially its proclamation by word and deed. The church needs to be continually transformed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ no less than persons do. The Gospel is meant to bring joy to the church, and prompt it to proclaim Jesus Christ to its own members as well as to others.
Once we appreciate the grace and promise, power and claim of Jesus Christ in this way, an urgent agenda of transformation comes into view. Whatever obscures or takes priority over the Gospel or makes it comfortable has to be named and tackled specifically and concretely. This accounts for two major currents in The Joy of the Gospel.
The first addresses the priority of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. The problem is that, through no fault of theirs, many Catholics have never considered that their faith is to be based on a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and that this relationship is to govern the entirety of their lives. The second current concerns institutional arrangements in the Catholic Church at all levels, particularly the need for them to be subordinate to the Gospel and effectively support its proclamation and reception. The problem is that many structures, attitudes, ways of thinking, and inherited practices in the church have become stale or worse. Unserviceable or obsolete arrangements tend to obscure the centrality of Christ, disarm the radical power of his Gospel, and get priorities mixed up.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the same as it has always been, yet for succeeding generations and different situations it is to be ever fresh and new. In other words, the Gospel has an inner capacity to reach hearts—ours and everyone else’s—and set them on fire with Christ’s love, a love that overflows into community, worship, service, and proclamation. It wants to do the same things with respect to the church. Pope Francis calls for action on those things in the church that prevent the Gospel from coming across as fresh, radical, life-giving, and life-changing for us and the rest of the human family in the early 21st century. Keep that in mind as you read this document, and you’ll get what Pope Francis is saying and doing.
In calling us back to Christ and insisting that church institutions and practices are to serve the proclamation of the Gospel in word and deed, Pope Francis has done us all a great service. May your reading of The Joy of the Gospel be an occasion of grace for you. Above all, may it help you to know the Lord more personally and serve him more generously in a church community that does the same.
(Rev.) Walter J. Woods, S.T.D., Pastor