Monthly Archives: January 2014

A church that is local, personal, externally focused, communal (and poor), part 2

Wow, would the world be a better place if this was the attitude of every Christian: “We need to help others to realize that the only way is to learn how to encounter others with the right attitude, which is to accept and esteem them as companions along the way, without interior resistance. Better yet, it means learning to find Jesus in the faces of others, in their voices, in their pleas. And learning to suffer in the embrace of the crucified Jesus whenever we are unjustly attacked or meet with ingratitude, never tiring of our decision to live in fraternity.” (91)

I am tempted to let Francis drop the mic and walk off the stage with that one at least on this theme, but he has other treasures on the need for the Church to be local, personal, communal, focused outward. I won’t quote it (you can always get a link to the doc from my “About” tab), but in paragraph 95 he does a great job of pointing to the internal, careerist, organization-building tendency in the Church (and, sociologists would argue, in every human institution). In 97 he says about this temptation: “We need to avoid it by making the Church constantly go out from herself, keeping her mission focused on Jesus Christ, and her commitment to the poor.”

There is, you have to admit, a leaning toward clubbishness in the Church, a tendency to focus on keeping the holy safe from the outside world. Francis won’t have it. “The salvation which God has wrought, and the Church joyfully proclaims, is for everyone…Jesus did not tell the apostles to form an exclusive and elite group. He said: ‘Go and make disciples of all nations.'” (113)

There is a lot in the middle section of the exhortation on the kerygma – the basic kernel of the Gospel (see the earlier post on the essential message). I’m ashamed to say that in all my years as a Christian, I haven’t spent a lot of time practicing how to talk about that message, but many who have seem to articulate it as a solely individual one about your personal relationship with Jesus. But Francis says that isn’t complete. “The kerygma has a clear social content: at the very heart of the Gospel is life in community and engagement with others.” (177) “To believe in a Father who loves all men and women with an infinite love means realizing that ‘he thereby confers upon them an infinite dignity…to believe that Jesus shed his blood for us removes any doubt about the boundless love which ennobled each human being.” (178) He concludes in 180: “Both Christian preaching and life, then, are meant to have an impact on society.” And thus he is off to talk about poverty and peace.

Later, in his talk about unity and dialogue, he has a great section 231-233 on the need for the world of ideas to be ever-grounded in reality (which, if my doctoral professors had adhered to, I might have taken a different path, by the way).

It’s easy to see community simply as the field of mission, and not it’s end, but that is incomplete. “Mission is at once a passion for Jesus and a passion for his people…we want to enter fully into the fabric of society, sharing the lives of all, listening to their concerns, helping them materially and spiritually in their needs, rejoicing with those who rejoice, weeping with those who weep; arm in arm in others, we are committed to building a new world.” (269)

This is the Church Francis wants.


Encyclical coming? Uh-oh.

Word on the street (word on the via Della Conciliazione?) is that Pope Francis is working on an encyclical about the environment. I was hoping to leisurely walk through these themes from the apostolic exhortation. Guess I better get on the stick!

Incidentally, the pope says stuff that’s valuable every day, and I don’t balance to blog about it. That’s because a) I have a job and don’t have time b) it mostly builds off of what’s in the exhortation (and, I’m betting, the encyclical to be named later). If you want daily papal coverage, Vatican radio, Catholic News Agancy, Catholic News Service and others can scratch that itch. There are actually some great free apps out there that bring the news in real time – The Pope App and Missio, to name two. So I will take the long view.

The Joy of the Gospel and abortion

A major theme of The Joy of the Gospel is the call to focus on God’s love and forgiveness rather than dwelling only on where we see people falling short. In other interviews and writings, and even in the Joy of the Gospel, Francis bemoans the fact that the Church is more often known for what it’s against than it’s for. Even so, the abortion issue comes up, and in the context of today’s March for Life, I thought it was worth pointing out what he says, because it illustrates why the Church maintains it’s position and what Francis thinks we could be doing differently about it.

Francis runs through a long list of the populations that are poor and vulnerable, to whom he is calling Christians to devote extra care and attention. In 212, he singles out “women who endure situations of exclusion, mistreatment and violence,” for instance.

“Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children…this defence of unborn life is closely linked to the defence of each and every other human right. It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development. Human beings are end in themselves and never a means of resolving other problems.” (213)

He recognizes that some hope that the new pope might change the Church’s position, so he devotes an extra paragraph to explain why that’s not going to happen, while also showing that he has empathy for those faced with heart-wracking choices. “Precisely because this involves the internal consistency of our message about the value of the human person, the Church cannot be expected to change her position on this question. I want to be completely honest in this regard. This is not something subject to alleged reforms or “modernizations.” It is not “progressive” to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life. On the other hand, it is also true that we have done little to adequately accompany women in very difficult situations, where abortion appears as a quick solution to their profound anguish, especially when the life developing within them is the result of rape or a situation of extreme poverty. Who can remain unmoved before such painful situations?” (214)

When the lights go down in the city

Just had to throw in that Francis has a beautiful reflection on the challenges and beauty of city life in this document. In para. 71: “It is curious that God’s revelation tells us that the fullness of humanity and of history is realized in a city. We need to look at our cities with a contemplative gaze, a gaze of faith which sees God dwelling in their homes, in their streets and squares. god’s presence accompanies the sincere efforts of individuals and groups to find encouragement and meaning in their lives. He dwells among them, fostering solidarity, fraternity, and the desire for goodness, truth and justice.”

“In cities, as opposed to the countryside, the religious dimension of life is expressed by different lifestyles, daily rhythms linked to places and people.” (72)

It’s ironic that I was in a group discussion of the Joy of the Gospel, and when the subject of the city came up, the participants, especially the older ones, completely missed this point. “Cities are where all the bad things happen,” was what they got out of the reading. To be fair, Francis does talk at length about the challenges of city life in 74 and 75. But it is a nuanced picture.

A church that is local, personal, external, communal (and poor), Part 1

Here’s why I said in a recent Facebook post that Pope Francis may be using the same consultants as my employer. As we at AARP figure out how best to help people, a theme that has emerged is the need to be local and personal in communities, something that we have as a thread of our history but aren’t primarily known for. As the only membership organization larger than us in the US, it appears the Catholic Church has identified the same strategy.

Early on (15), Francis cites John Paul II stating that “the missionary task [spreading the good news] must remain foremost” and asks, “What would happen if we were to take these words seriously? We would realize that missionary outreach is paradigmatic for all the Church’s activity. [italics in text]. He then quotes the bishops of Latin America as saying that the a church “cannot passively and calmly wait in our church building.” To spread the good news, we must be externally focused.
Later, he says “it is vitally important for the Church today to go forth and preach the Gospel to all: to all places, on all occasions, without hesitation, reluctance or fear.” (23) Externally focused.

It’s not just enough for Christians to be out in the world; to be effective, we need to be involved in people’s lives. “An evangelizing community gets involved by word and deed in people’s daily lives…it embraces human life, touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others. Evangelizer a thus take on the “smell of the sheep”…[such a community] is also supportive! standing by people at every step of the way.” (24)

While Francis defends the parish (what we think of as a church community) as an institution that hasn’t outlived its usefulness (and outlines the functions of a parish along the lines I mentioned in the last post), that defense is dependent; “This presumes that it really is in contact with the homes and the lives of its people, and does not become a useless structure out of touch with people or a self-absorbed group made up of a chosen few…In all it’s activities the parish encourages and trains its members to be evangelizers.” (28)

People often think of a Church building as a place that is protected from the riff-raff. That isn’t what Francis has in mind: “The Church is called to be the house of the Father, with doors always wide open. One concrete sign of such openness is that our church doors should always be open, so that if someone, moved by the Spirit, comes there looking for God, he or she will not find a closed door…Everyone can share in some way in the life of the Church; everyone can be part of the community, nor should the doors of the sacrament be closed for simply any reason…The Eucharist…is to a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.” (47)

A local and personal Church is not the same as a private one; local and personal is also communal: “The individualism of our postmodern and globalized era favours a lifestyle which weakens the development and stability of personal relationships and distorts family bonds. Pastoral activity needs to bring out more clearly the fact that our relationship with the Father demands and encourages a community which heals, promotes and reinforces interpersonal bonds.” (67)

In the call to community, the built environment often works against us. In cities, “Houses and neighbourhoods are more often built to isolate and protect than to connect and integrate,” frets the pope (75). And social media doesn’t help: “Today, when the networks and means of human communication have made unprecedented advances, we sense the challenge of finding and sharing a ‘mystique’ of living together, of mingling and encounter, of embracing and supporting one another, of stepping into this flood tide which, while chaotic, can become a genuine experience of fraternity, a caravan of solidarity, a sacred pilgrimage. Greater possibilities for communication this turn into greater possibilities for encounter and solidarity for everyone.” (87)

The Church has to be communal, like it or not: “Many try to escape from others and take refuge in the comfort of their privacy or in a small circle of close friends, renouncing the realism of the social aspect of the Gospel. For just as some people want a purely spiritual Christ, without flesh and without the cross, they also want their interpersonal relationships provided by sophisticated equipment, by screens and systems which can be turned on and off on command. Meanwhile, the Gospel tells us constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction.” (88)

So put your smart phone down and look around.

And poor: “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.” (49). “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)

What if?

You might have heard of Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven life. Pastor Warren isn’t Catholic, but his five-fold description of what the Christian life is about mirrors almost exactly the five-fold roles of the Church that our local diocese (collection of Catholic Churches run by a bishop) used in a class I took a few years ago. Warren says we are called to: worship, discipleship, community, service, and witness. If you think about what a church does, at least the good stuff, it pretty much fits in those five categories.

What Francis is challenging us to think about is this: what if, instead of trying to do five things, we focused first on witness, or evangelizing, of spreading the good news, and the other four things supported that one priority? It’s easy to look at churches today and see that some seem more focused on worship, while others are really focused on their community, and others service, and some on discipleship and building up the knowledge of faith of their members. But what if churches all focused on spreading the word, and worship was meant to support that word-spreading, discipleship was about helping people be better word-spreaders, community was really about sharing the joys and frustrations of spreading the word, and service was just a nonverbal way of sharing the good news?

That’s what the “new evangelization” challenges us to be. Maybe, later, I will reflect on how a Catholic Church that was first focused on evangelizing might look, act, and be different from what we find today. But for now, let me just let you sit with that question and say that for any of what Francis writes to make any sense, you’ll need to be thinking “What if the church was evangelizer first?”

Incidentally, this is neither a new idea (it’s been around since at least the end of the oldest gospel, Mark), nor only a Catholic one. David Platt’s Follow Me starts from this premise, and, while I haven’t yet read it, I understand Francis Chan’s Multiply does too.

The major themes in Joy of the Gospel (as I see them)

Here’s a rough road map of where I hope to head with these posts. As I studied the Joy of the Gospel, I found myself agreeing with the commentators who complained that this is a tough document to summarize. The themes I’m focusing on are really interrelated, but I will do my best to tease out what I see in the document that makes each one worth talking about separately. Here’s my list:

    The joy of the gospel vs. the anguish of the world

    A call to focus on mercy/grace/forgiveness over sin/law/judgement

    The Church should be local, personal, externally focused, communal (& poor)

    The value of diversity

    Renewing the preferential option for the poor


    Peace and unity

These are major themes, some of them overtly so. There are also a couple of trends, motifs, whatever you want to call ’ems that I noticed and wanted to share:

    Francis and the devolution of Church power from the papacy to the people

    “All things new” – while Francis draws heavily upon and writes within the context of Catholic doctrine, there is a theme of God working to make all things new that needs to be culled out.

    What Francis asks of us

And then there are a couple leftovers that I may throw in at the end: “Haters gonna hate” and great quotes that didn’t fit elsewhere.