Monthly Archives: March 2014

The Joy of the Gospel vs. the Anguish of the World

If you want to name a central theme to Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium, you could do worse than this. After all, the name of the apostolic exhortation is Latin for “Joy of the Gospel.” So.

But since it’s Lent when I’m writing this, let me point out both sides. Francis focuses on the Joy aspect because, for him, the best part of our faith, and the reason for spreading it, is the joy it engenders. But he doesn’t overlook that the world offers other alternatives that promise happiness, and they all dead-end in anguish.

In his opening paragraph, Francis contrasts the joy of Christ with “sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and and loneliness.” (1). He talks about “the great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience.” (2)

Some Christians miss the joy part. “There are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter” may be his best line in the whole thing, mostly because we know those folks. (6). But Joy doesn’t equal happiness. “Joy adapts and changes, but it always endures, even as a flicker of light born of our personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved.”

Instead of this enduring if variably intense joy, we often get trapped looking and settling for happiness. He quotes his predecessor: “our ‘technological society has succeeded in multiplying occasions of pleasure, yet has found it very difficult to engender joy.'”(7)

Instead, the Christian community finds joys in little things: “an evangelizing community is filled with Joy; it knows how to rejoice always. It celebrates every small victory, every step forward in the work of evangelization.” (24)

The world isn’t often like this, and Francis admits it. “The Joy of living frequently fades, lack of respect for others and violence are on the rise, and inequality is increasingly evident. It is a struggle to love and, often to live with precious little dignity.” (52) “…Priority is given to the outward, the immediate, the visible, the quick, the superficial and the provisional.”(62)

But it’s not just the darn kids on the lawn; it’s inside the Christian too. Francis points out that what often does in the joy of the Gospel is a “‘gray pragmatism of the daily life of the Church, in which all appears to proceed normally, while in reality faith is wearing down and degenerating into small-mindedness.’ A tomb psychology thus develops and slowly transforms Christians into mummies in a museum.” (83) (Incidentally, while the tomb sentence is Francis, the gray pragmatism comes from the pre-Pope Benedict writings of then-Cardinal Ratzinger.). Francis also warns of a Christian “defeatism” that turns us into “‘sourpusses,'” (which must have been fun to translate from the Latin) (85)

But that’s not what the Church is all about. In his section on the homily (or sermon), Francis says “The Lord enjoys talking with his people; the preacher should strive to communicate that same enjoyment to his listeners.” (141) The Church teaching should be “marked by Joy, encouragement, liveliness and a harmonious balance which will not reduce preaching to a few doctrines…” (165). “Proclaiming Christ means showing that to believe in and to follow him is not only something right and true, but also something beautiful, capable of filling life with new splendor and profound joy, even in the midst of difficulties.” (167) “Rather than experts in dire predictions, dour judges bent on rooting out every threat and deviation, we should appear as joyful messengers of challenging proposals, guardians of the goodness and beauty which shine forth in a life of fidelity to the Gospel.” (168)

His best summation of the dynamic comes in his closing chapter. The treasure of the Gospel “is a truth which is never out of date because it reaches that part of us which nothing else can reach. Our infinite sadness can only be cured by an infinite love.” (265) “A person who is not convinced, enthusiastic, certain and in love, will convince nobody.” (266)

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10 Things Pope Francis asks of us in Evangelii Gaudium

I only counted ten times that Pope Francis asks the readers to do something in apostolic exhortation. How hard could they be?

1) “I invite all Christians…to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day.” (3)

2) At the end of his outline of topics, he says “All of them help give shape to a definite style of evangelization which I ask you to adopt in every activity which you undertake. In this way, we can take up, amid our daily efforts, the biblical exhortation ‘Rejoice in The Lord always; again I will say: Rejoice.” (Phil. 4:4). (18)

3) “Each Christian and every community must discern the path that The Lord points out, but all of us our asked to obey his call to go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach all the ‘peripheries’ in need of light of the Gospel.” (20)

4) “I hope that all communities will devote the necessary effort to advancing the path of a pastoral and missionary conversion which cannot leave things as they presently are.” (25)

5) “I encourage each particular Church to undertake a resolute process of discernment, purification and reform.” (30)

6) “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.” (47)

7) “I exhort you to generous solidarity and to the return of economics and finance to an ethical approach which favours human beings.” (58)

8) “imagine innovative spaces and possibilities for prayer and communion which are more attractive and meaningful for city dwellers. (73)

9) “Each individual Christian and every community is called to be an instrument of God for the liberation and promotion of the poor, and for enabling them to be fully a part of society.” (187)

10) “I ask you to seek, as a community, creative ways of accepting this renewed call [for concern for the poor].” (201)

So a daily personal encounter with Christ, in everything we do, outside our comfort zone, dedicated to disrupting the status quo, focused on institutional reform, always open to seekers, engaging a human-centered approach to economics, engaging city dwellers, radically for the poor and with the poor. No big whoop.

NOT FRANCIS: What I learned about leadership from Monday’s Gospel

I apologize to all three of this blog’s followers for writing a post that, ostensibly, is unrelated to Pope Francis and his apostolic exhortation. But I had more to say than would fit in a Facebook post and needed a place to store it.

Monday’s gospel was Mark 10:17-27, known as the story of the rich young man. Most reflections, including most of my reflections, on this gospel, focus on the guy who goes to Jesus, says he’s doing everything right, and gets told to give up everything he has and follow Jesus. And we reflect on whether we, like the guy, would have walked away from Jesus to stay with our stuff.

But this time, I was struck by another part of the story and whether it teaches us something about what leadership should be like. After the guy comes up to Jesus, asks what he must do to inherit eternal life, and says he has obeyed all the commandments since his youth, you get verse 21: “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him, ‘You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give it to [the] poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.'”

Stay with Jesus before he starts talking. Hold off on the “could I possible part with my Bon Jovi CD collection?” for a minute. Jesus does three things in this verse, and I’m wondering if this is a model for what leaders are called to do.

First, Jesus looks at him. He really looks at him and sees who he really is – his strengths, his weaknesses, his quirks, his joys, his sorrows.

Then, Jesus loves him. (In Greek, this is agape, the spiritual love. I checked.) Jesus doesn’t just take the measure of the man who is talking to him; he embraces the man (if not literally) and makes the conscious choice to love him and want the best for him.

THEN, Jesus challenges him. And while it turns out that the guy isn’t up to the challenge, I have little doubt that it was the right challenge for him to face if he was ever to accomplish his goal (“what must I do to inherit eternal life.”)

I’m thinking that, as a leader, this is what I’m called to do with the people in my charge. Truly see them, good and bad. Truly love them and commit to wanting their best. And truly challenge them to help them become better people.

Me personally? I tend to skip the last one. I try to know the people I work with and I want their best, but I don’t push them into the uncomfortable place of confronting their greatest weakness. I’ve had bosses who don’t truly see me and treat me as a generic employee. (And I’m sure I’ve been that boss.) I’ve had bosses who are quick to point out my weakness, but not with any sense of love. (I’ve been that boss, too, I bet.) But all three? That’s tough stuff.