The next few posts are especially for people who aren’t big into Christianity in general or Catholicism in particular. Even if you have never been to a church service of any type, there’s a fair chance you’ve seen the Charlie Brown Christmas special and heard Linus explain Christmas to Charlie Brown, which I paraphrased in this post’s title (Jorge Bergoglio is Pope Francis’ given name.)
Since the pope is writing to members of the Catholic Church, you would think that he wouldn’t need to spell out what the good news is he is calling us to spread with joy. But, just like Linus, he does it simply and eloquently. And often.
First, here is the essential message of the Christian faith, expressed a couple of different times in the document:
“Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you.” (Paragraph 164. All citations are by paragraph, which is how the Church tends to organize documents since they get printed in a bunch of different formats, making page #s less useful.)
Here’s another way of saying it: “Faith also means believing in God, believing that he truly loves us, that he is alive, that he is mysteriously capable of intervening, that he does not abandon us and that he brings good out of evil by his power and his infinite creativity.” (278)
Francis says that grasping this reality, this good news (which is what “Gospel” means), is really the one thing you need to speak about God with others. “What is essential is that the preacher be certain that God loves him, that Jesus Christ has saved him, and that his love always has the last word.” (151) “Before all else, the Gospel invites us to respond to the God of love who saves us, to see God in others and to go forth from ourselves to seek the good of others.” (39)
This is the message that speaks “to the desire for the infinite which abides in every human heart.” (165) This is “a truth which is never out of date because it reaches the part of us which nothing else can reach. Our infinite sadness can only be cured by an infinite love.” (265).
While we will talk a LOT more about evangelizing (which means delivering the good news), it Francis never loses that it’s because this news is so good that we are impelled to share it with others. “With Jesus life becomes richer and…with him it is easier to find meaning in everything. This is why we evangelize.” (266). “The primary reason for evangelizing is the love of Jesus which we have received, the experience of salvation which urges us to ever greater love of him. What kind of love would not feel the need to speak of the beloved, to point him out, to make him known?” (264)
If you’ve always thought of religion as believing in a set of rules or doctrines, this talk about love may sound a little strange. But that really is what it’s all about. Quoting his predecessor, Benedict XVI, he says “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” (7) “Here we find the source and inspiration of all our efforts at evangelization. For if we have received the love which restores meaning to our lives, how can we fail to share that love with others?” (8) “A person who is not convinced, enthusiastic, certain and in love, will convince nobody.” (266) (that’s my favorite quote of the night, and may show up in some work projects.)
Another theme that comes up a lot is that we often react to this call to evangelize by saying it crimps our style. But Francis says we’ve got it all wrong. “Yet there is no greater freedom than that of allowing oneself to be guided by the Holy Spirit, renouncing the attempt to plan and control everything to the last detail, and instead letting him enlighten, guide and direct us, leading us wherever he wills.” (280) “Those who enjoy life most are those who leave security on the shore and become excited by the mission of communicating life to others.” (10)
OK. So that’s what the good news is and basically what evangelizing, the focus of this whole document, is all about. If you’ve read this far and you have questions, I’d be happy to try to answer them. If you’re really just waiting for some more of the “Francis talking about social problems” stuff, well, here’s the essential piece of where they come from: “Appearances notwithstanding, every person is immensely holy and deserves our love. Consequently, if I can help at least one person to have a better life, that already justifies the offering of my life.” (274)
And in closing: “We may not always be able to reflect adequately the beauty of the Gospel, but there is one sign which we should never lack: the option [preference] for those who are least, those whom society discards.” (195)