Pope Francis’ Vision for the Church

13th May 2014 - by Fr Denis Carter

Pope Francis

Brian Davies, Birmingham J&P writes: The Joy of the Gospel (Evangelii Gaudium, Nov.2013) is presented as an ‘Apostolic Exhortation’ arising from the October 2012 Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelisation.

What we have in effect is a vision statement about the kind of Church Pope Francis wants. “I want to promote sound evangelisation,” he says. “This should not be to impose new obligations…but to share joy in the Gospel”.

The whole tone is unlike papal documents we have known. He addresses us with “I” rather than the more formal “we”. He speaks with warmth and passion. Most importantly, he constantly endorses Vatican II, restoring key concepts like ‘People of God’, ‘Kingdom’, ‘Local Church’, ‘Collegiality’, ‘Signs of the times’ and ‘Option for the poor’.

The following is an attempt to highlight three themes which permeate this inspirational document and seem particularly relevant for J&P people. This is Pope Francis’ dream.

A more missionary Church

“I dream of a ‘missionary option’, capable of transforming everything, so that the church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channelled for the evangelisation of today’s world, rather than for her self-preservation.” [27] He later adds, “We do not live better when we flee, hide, refuse to share, stop giving and lock ourselves up in our own comforts. Such a life is nothing less than slow suicide” [272]. He cautions against “ostentatious preoccupation” with liturgy and doctrine as opposed to ensuring that the Gospel has “a real impact” on
people and engages “the concrete needs of the present time.”

Pope Francis makes himself very clear: “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…my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: Give them something to eat (Mk 6:37).” [49]

A Church with the courage to change

Realising this dream, Francis says, will require “a reform of the church.” “What I am trying to express here has a programmatic significance and important consequences. I hope that all communities will devote the necessary effort to advancing along the path of a pastoral and missionary conversion which cannot leave things as they presently are.” [25] Rather than being afraid of “going astray,” what the church ought to fear instead is “remaining shut up within structures that give us a false sense of security, within rules that make us harsh judges” and “within habits that make us feel safe.”

Francis even calls for a “conversion of the papacy,” in recent years “we have made little progress” on that front.” [32]. He is quite explicit about this. “It is not advisable for the Pope to take the place of local Bishops in the discernment of every issue which arises in their territory. In this sense, I am conscious of the need to promote a sound ‘decentralization’. [16]. He suggests that Bishops’ Conferences be given “a juridical status …. including genuine doctrinal authority.” [32]. “It is up to the Christian communities to analyze with objectivity the situation which is proper to their own country’.” [184] It’s worth noting that he often quotes not only from Vatican II but also from CELAM and from various Bishops’ Conferences.

The Roman Curia should be at their service not vice versa. He calls for collaborative leadership, saying bishops and pastors must encourage “the means of participation proposed in Canon Law and other forms of pastoral dialogue, out of a desire to listen to everyone and not simply to those who would tell him what he would like to hear.” He wants people to be given an opportunity to be “bold and creative.” At times the bishop should lead, but at other times he should walk behind so the faithful can “strike out on new paths.” [31] “Lay people are, put simply, the vast majority of the People of God.

The minority – ordained ministers – are at their service. There has been a growing awareness of the identity and mission of the laity in the Church… But in some cases, the laity have not been given the formation needed to take on important responsibilities. In others, it is because in their particular Churches room has not been made for them to speak and to act, due to an excessive clericalism which keeps them away from decision making.” [102]. Pope Francis has described clericalism as “one of the worst evils” and being like “leprosy” in the Church.
Pope Francis’ Vision for the

A Church on the side of the poor

Pope Francis’ vision here is powerful. “There can be no room for doubt or for explanations which weaken so clear a message. Today and always the poor are the privileged recipients of the Gospel; and the fact that it is freely preached to them is a sign of the kingdom that Jesus came to establish. We have to state, without mincing words, that there is an inseparable bond between our faith and the poor.
May we never abandon them.” [48]. He constantly returns to the same theme. “That is why I want a poor Church for the poor … to put them at the center of the Church’s pilgrim way. We are called to find Christ in them, and to lend our voice to their causes.” [198] Making the poor feel welcome is the most effective way of presenting the good news of the kingdom.

Francis is quite explicit about the unjust systems that are responsible. He says:

• No to an economy of exclusion and inequality!
“Today everything comes under the laws of competition & the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalised: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape’. Human beings are treated as ‘consumer goods to be used and then discarded’ in a ‘throw away’ culture.(53)

• No to the idolatry of money!
“The dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacks a truly human purpose. [55] “While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few.” [56]

• No to a financial system which rules rather than serves! [57].
He exhorts politicians and the rich ‘to generous solidarity’ with the poor and a return to an ethical economic system ‘which favours human beings’. [58]

• No to the inequality which spawns violence!
He calls on the church to oppose spreading income inequality and unemployment, as well as to advocate stronger environmental protection and oppose armed conflict. [59] Instead of ‘blaming the poor’ for their troubles, we should recognise that “today’s economic mechanisms promote inordinate consumption, yet it is evident that unbridled consumerism combined with inequality proves doubly damaging to the social fabric. Inequality eventually engenders a violence which recourse to arms cannot and never will be able to resolve” [60].

When Jesus says, “You yourselves give them something to eat.” (Mk 6:37), Francis explains, “It means working to eliminate the structural causes of poverty and to promote the integral development of the poor.” [188] He calls for solidarity with the poor which ‘must be lived as the decision to restore to the poor what belongs to them’ and be open to needed ‘structural transformations’ [189]. He reaffirms the ‘preferential option for the poor’ [200] and stresses that ‘none of us can think we are exempt from concern for the poor and for social justice’ [201].

Pope Francis teaches that “the dignity of the human person and the common good rank higher than the comfort of those who refuse to renounce their privileges. When these values are threatened, a prophetic voice must be raised” [218].

Our Spirituality

Although it may be impossible to summarise Pope Francis’ message in a few words, his vision for a more missionary Church, a Church with the courage to change, and a Church on the side of the poor is ultimately based on bringing people to faith in Jesus Christ. “What kind of love,” he asks, “would not feel the need to speak of the beloved, to point him out, to make him known?” “Yet I realize that no words of encouragement will be enough unless the fire of the Holy Spirit burns in our hearts. A spirit-filled evangelisation is one guided by the Holy Spirit, for he is the soul of the Church called to proclaim the Gospel” [261].

So we are to be what Francis calls “Spirit-filled evangelisers”. “Mystical notions without a solid social and missionary outreach are of no help to evangelisation, nor are dissertations or social or pastoral practices which lack a spirituality which can change hearts.” [262]

Brian Davies Birmingham Justice & Peace Commission
The full text of “Evangelii Gaudium -The Joy of the Gospel – Apostolic Exhortation on the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today’s World” is published by CTS: ISBN
978 1 86082 914 7 & on F&J website to download