Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
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The Joy of the Gospel
A Series of Reflections on the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, by Pope Francis
by Bishop William S. Skylstad, for the Inland Register
(From the May 15, 2014 edition of the Inland Register)
I: The Church’s Missionary Transformation
Bishop Cupich has requested that I write a series of reflections on the Holy Father’s insightful and challenging response to the Synod on Evangelization, held at the Vatican in October of 2012. In that three-week session, approximately 200 bishops from all over the world, along with 80 experts and auditors from various fields of expertise, participated. In some quarters, in anticipation of the gathering, there was a bit of “will it do any good?” sentiment. However, with the publication of Pope Francis’s response to the synod, his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), on the Feast of Christ the King last November, the Holy Father gives clear indication for all of us in the Church that it is not business as usual. As disciples of Jesus, we need to be about serious work and take on the serious responsibility of living and passing on the Good News of the Gospel.
The first sentence of the exhortation is foundational: “The joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus.” There are five chapters in his response, and this reflection of mine is the first of five in the series. Each chapter provides a theme for our consideration and implementation as Church.
As an introduction to the chapters, Pope Francis speaks about a joy ever new, a joy which is shared: “Let us not flee from the resurrection of Jesus, let us never give up (#3)…. the Gospel radiant with the glory of Christ’s cross, constantly invites us to rejoice” (#5). Those comments are certainly in keeping with the Easter season we are now celebrating.
St. Pope John Paul II said to the Bishops of Oceania: “All renewal in the Church must have mission as its goal if it is not to fall prey to a kind of ecclesial introversion” (#27). Pope Francis speaks to us at the grassroots level: “In all of its activities, the parish encourages and trains its members to be evangelizers… It is a community of communities, a sanctuary where the thirsty come to drink in the midst of their journey, and a center of constant missionary outreach” (#28).
We carry on the mission within our human limits. We give witness ourselves of the need for conversion and redemption. Our limitations become opportunities. Our “missionary heart never closes itself off, never retreats into its own security, never opts for rigidity and defensiveness” (#45). On the contrary, we go forth ever mindful that the human heart needs to be touched by the comfort and attraction of God’s saving love, which goes far beyond our faults and failings. Compassion is paramount in this endeavor. “The confessional must not be a torture chamber but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy which spurs us on to do our very best” (#44).
I’m reminded of an incident a few weeks ago: a YouTube clip showing Pope Francis veering briefly away from the confessional he was to occupy as a confessor to a confessional nearby to make his own confession. That image is a powerful reminder that mercy received is also mercy shared. Little wonder that the Holy Father’s messages constantly radiate a profound sense of compassion!
In the last part of this first chapter, Pope Francis speaks of the attitude in our Church of going forth into the world with its doors open. We don’t move out into the world and the fringes of humanity in a blind rush, but are focused on Jesus and the message of the Gospel. I’m reminded of the Parable of the Prodigal Son in the Gospel of Luke, in which the father of the home is at the doorstep, looking down the road, waiting for his wayward son to return. And finally, one day he does. We celebrate “Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak. These convictions have pastoral consequences that we are called to consider with prudence and boldness. Frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators. But the Church is not a tollhouse…” (#47).
As a Church we take our place humbly in the world. “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” (#49). Yes, we are called to be evangelizers, messengers of God’s love and compassion, but first of all we must experience it ourselves.
Do we think of that reality in context of some of the struggles we are going through in the Church today? Just maybe such experience is a tremendous grace, not only for us especially, but also for the entire world to see.
(Bishop Skylstad is Bishop Emeritus of the Diocese of Spokane.)
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