December 2013

Surprised by joy

Retired Bishop Pat Power says Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, is the most enriching and life-giving papal document he’s read since Vatican II.

BY Pat Power

In 1985, an English Jesuit priest, Gerard Hughes published an uplifting book, God of Surprises. In 2013, our Argentine Jesuit Pope, Francis, has, right from the moment of his election as Bishop of Rome, given us new insights into the presence of a loving God in our world.

His recently published Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, The Joy of the Gospel, refreshingly portrays the Christian life in a manner which is not only achievable to all people under God’s grace, but is a journey which is filled with joy.

The opening paragraph sets the tone for the whole inspiring document. “The JOY OF THE GOSPEL fills the hearts of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew. In this Exhortation I wish to encourage the Christian faithful to embark upon a new chapter of evangelisation marked by this joy, while pointing out new paths for the Church’s journey in the years to come.” Here is salvation being offered to all people. They are not to be excluded or weighed down by past failures or struggles. Rather they are invited to find the joy of the Lord in a personal encounter with Jesus Christ.

Some months ago, I agreed to talk with the people of Sacred Heart Parish, Kooringal, Wagga Wagga on the influence of the Second Vatican Council on the life of the Church. Thanks to the Parish Council Chair, Denis Nickle, I was helped to incorporate some of what Pope Francis had written into the presentation which I made a week after the publication of Evangelii Gaudium. Denis extracted some key points which I wish to highlight.

We often hear the question: “Are we concerned with mission or maintenance?” Pope Francis answers that question decisively. “I dream of a missionary option, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things… can be suitably channelled for the evangelisation of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation… making ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open.” (27)

“An evangelising community gets involved by word and deed in people’s daily lives; it bridges distances, it is willing to abase itself if necessary, and it embraces human life, touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others. Evangelisers thus take on the ‘smell of the sheep’ and the sheep are willing to hear their voice.” (24)

Pope Francis highlights the missionary possibilities of parish life. “The parish is not an outdated institution; precisely because it possesses great flexibility, it can assume different contours depending on the openness and missionary creativity of the pastor and the community… In all its activities the parish encourages and trains its members to be evangelisers.” Pope John XXIII once likened the parish to the village fountain where all could freely come and drink. Pope Francis’ image of the parish is similar. “It is a community of communities, a sanctuary where the thirsty come to drink in the midst of their journey, and a centre of constant missionary outreach.” (28)

“The bishop must always foster missionary communion in his diocesan Church… To do so, he will sometimes go before his people, pointing the way and keeping their hope vibrant. At other times, he will simply be in their midst with his unassuming and merciful presence. At yet other times, he will have to walk after them helping those who lag behind and – above all – allowing the flock to strike out on new paths.” (31)

The Pope recognises the need to think about a conversion of the papacy, repeating Pope John Paul II’s 1995 request for help in finding a new way of exercising his Petrine primacy. (32)

Time and again throughout the Apostolic Exhortation, Pope Francis refers to Vatican II’s enrichment and renewal of the life of the Church. A changing world demands “that we constantly seek ways of expressing unchanging truths in a language which brings out their abiding newness… There are times when the faithful, in listening to completely orthodox language, take away something alien to the authentic Gospel of Jesus Christ because that language is alien to their own way of speaking to and understanding one another.” (41)

“The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor.” (58) It is not just a question of what the Church does for the poor, but what they have to give to us. “This is why I want a Church which is poor and for the poor. They have so much to teach us. Not only do they share in the sensus fidei, but in their difficulties they know the suffering Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelised by them.” (198)

The Pope gives some beautiful advice on the preparation and presentation of the homily, he addresses many of the social and political issues of our time, speaking of the importance of dialogue which is very much part of the Church’s ecumenical and interfaith mission as well.  The Pope warns against an excessive clericalism and while singling out women’s unique gifts acknowledges the “need to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church.” (103)

Evangelii Gaudium is the most enriching and life-giving papal document which I have read since Vatican II. I make the plea of another commentator and urge you to read it in full. Its teaching is engaging, intelligible and consistently joyful and hope-filled. In these troubled times for our Church, here is a message which does not shy away from the harsh realities we need to face, but invites us to bring the person of Jesus into the broad picture as we journey together as a pilgrim people.

Pat Power

Bishop Pat Power retired in 2012 as Auxiliary Bishop of Canberra-Goulburn. Educated by the Good Samaritan Sisters at St Christopher’s School in Canberra, Pat says he has “retained a continuing affection for and appreciation of the Good Samaritan Sisters who have played an integral part in my life as priest and bishop since my ordination in 1965”.

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