Few people alive today are more popular and polarizing than Pope Francis. No one seems sure quite how to respond to the Bishop of Rome, nor are they sure whose side (if any) he is taking in ongoing theological and cultural debates. Sensational media claims about Francis “revolutionizing” the Catholic faith are overblown, to be sure, but Catholics of a staunch traditionalist bent also right in noting that the current successor to Peter is no mirror image of his papal predecessors. It was thus with great anticipation that I read Francis’ The Joy of the Gospel, if for no other reason than to engage the Pope on his own terms.
The Joy of the Gospel is the English translation of Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (New York: Image Books, 2013). Francis’ main thurst throughout this exhortation is to call Christians to the “joy of the Gospel”; this he does superbly while drawing in a number of topics to his primary discussion. For Francis, the true joy of the Gospel centers on the proclamation of Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and coming return (5). Francis calls the faithful to a “renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ” which transcends personal concerns and leads to a life of transformation. This transformative joy should invigorate faith, center our life of Christ and His Church, and lead us to gladly evangelize and engage our world.
The evangelization that Francis advocates does not center around proselytizing, but instead emphasizes relationship and the transformation of existing institutions and systems. In order to address the challenges of the present age and transform cultures, Francis is not afraid to change the tactics of the Church. This is not to say (as the Western media is so fond of suggesting) that the Church will shortly flee from the idea of Truth, for Francis continually notes the steadfastness of Church doctrine. However, this does not mean staticism, for in this exhortation Francis encourages creative engagement with cultural norms and ideals, especially those of urban areas and the poor. Throughout The Joy of the Gospel, but in this section especially, Francis comes across as staunchly conservative on matters of theology—the Church must defend and proclaim Truth, including the historical reality of Christ, the need for repentance from sin, and the sanctity of the lives of unborn, to name but a few issues.
The notion of “Communal Commitment” stands as one of Francis’ guiding principles, both in his papal practice and in The Joy of the Gospel. Here he exhibits a willingness to learn and build from the popular piety of the faithful in addressing secular and relativistic challenges to the faith. Francis also relies heavily upon external sources to provide the foundation for his thought. The words of Scripture, Pope Benedict XVI’s “Address to Brazilian Bishops in the Cathedral of Sau Paulo”, Pope Paul VI’s Evangelii Nuntianti, and (to a lesser extent) Pope John Paul II’s post-synod addresses to the churches of Asia and Africa are all highly influential. For Francis, the proclamation of the Gospel must encounter all cultures and cultural expressions through the evangelizing power of the Holy Spirit, for “It is an indisputable fact that no single culture can exhaust the mystery of our redemption in Christ” (87).
Francis’ criticisms of rampant consumerism, greed, and wasteful throughout this book are important and must be taken to heart and applied by Christians of all denominations. However—and despite a beautiful section wherein he humbly calls Christians to love and not political bifurcation and division—Francis offers some puzzling statements on the social and economic aspects of evangelization. In this section, he (rightly, if I may be so bold as to comment on the theology of the Pope) underlines that evangelization necessarily includes the need for social betterment, especially the “preferential option for the poor.” However, his statements on economics are vexing, as they include (at least in this English translation) a fair number of “buzzwords” often associated with that brand of liberation theology deeply impacted by Marxist economics.
Francis makes a compelling case for the Christian necessity of helping the poor, a case which more Western Christians need to hear and heed. However, in a manner similar to someone like Gustavo Gutierrez, Francis too often fails to clearly define what he means by some of his statements. One comes away impressed with our need to love the poor and help them as much as possible. But at the same time one cannot help but wonder what something like the call to “restore to the poor what belongs to them” (134) means in practicality? Francis also appeals to language of globalization, which is especially curious given his call earlier in this exhortation for the Church to decentralize and cede more authority to local bishops and priests. Overall, a charitable reading of Francis on the social dimensions of evangelization yields a reminder to love and serve the poor at every opportunity and to be (or become) socially engaged for justice, and asks that Western Christians be willing to prioritize theology and ethics over economics if necessary.
After reading The Joy of the Gospel, I’m convinced that at least some of the current confusion surrounding Francis rests solely on Francis’ own shoulders. In this exhortation, he offers a lot of back and forth between “left” and “right” on a number of issues. This, I think, is postulated as an appeal to balance—and certainly there is something to be said for the balance of Roman Catholicism over the years—but at times Francis’ commitment to balance seems to override his commitment to theological truth. Francis’ desire to hear the concerns of the faithful and their encounters with the challenges of the (post)modern world stands to do much more good than harm to the Church. Yet, at least in the rhetorical posture displayed here, I wonder if Francis has underestimated the impact that popular conceptions of the Church might have on the Church. Perhaps, as a great admirer of the firmness of Pope John Paul II, I wish that Francis would a more clearly delineated attitude on matters of possible change, an attitude that he simply does not wish to take. At any rate, I—and much of the rest of the world—await with eager anticipation the rest of Francis’ papacy.
In final review, The Joy of the Gospel comes highly recommended for all Christians and those wanting to learn more about Roman Catholic Christianity. This would be an especially valuable read for those who want to go beyond the rhetoricized and partial portrayals of Francis provided in the media (not that this review attempts to be anything other than introductory itself). There is a particularly superb section on ministry and preaching which, while directed toward priests, contains valuable insights for all those in Christian pastoral ministry. Francis’ humility and willingness to learn will likely stand as his greatest accomplishments, and this book serves as a superb pastoral model of those traits. So take up and read The Joy of the Gospel, for it is well worth your time.
I received this book courtesy of Image Books in exchange for my honest review. All opinions expressed are my own.