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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