The apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium is a document that gives expression to Pope Francis’ notable missionary zeal. The Holy Father wishes to urge the Church to embark on a new stage of evangelisation, one with renewed enthusiasm and with the joy of the gospel. It is a text in which the Pope himself gives us pointers to understand the priorities of his pontificate.
If we look at the content, we see that there is no lack of new and surprising insights. First, however, we must recognise that everything we find in Evangelii Gaudium was taught by Pope Francis during the first year of his pontificate, sometimes almost to the letter and other times implicitly. The organic and unitary framework of Evangelii Gaudium contains many incisive statements that we have mostly learned to appreciate “analytically”, one at a time. This brings out a very important fact: Pope Francis has in mind a vast and coherent project of renewal of the Church centred on evangelisation. It is a mature project that is expected to grow as it is heard and acted upon. We could say that we are looking at a large mosaic. Whereas before we only noticed the individual tiles, now, thanks to this apostolic exhortation, we can begin to contemplate its overall design.
The Pope especially wants the Church to rediscover the importance of “going forth”, the essential nature of a pilgrim Church. It is a deeply Christological text: “An evangelizing community knows that the Lord has taken the initiative, he has loved us first, and therefore we can move forward, boldly take the initiative, go out to others, seek those who have fallen away, stand at the crossroads and welcome the outcast”(EG 24). A Church that refuses to follow the Lord would be a sick Church: “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”(EG 49). A second characteristic of the document is the centrality of the theme of joy. Pope Francis has a particular fondness for Paul VI’s apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, which deals with the “delightful and comforting joy of evangelising” (n. 80). The Holy Father considers joy to be a real programme, the only engine capable of sustaining our “going forth”.
The recent ad limina visits by bishops from different countries and continents to our dicastery, the testimony given by lay associations, ecclesial movements and new communities, all confirm the strong and profound impact of the Pope’s teaching on the life and mission of the lay faithful. The credit undoubtedly goes to his great communication skills and the way that he is able to engage simple people. Such an approach is proving to be of great help to the world of lay associations. They are inspired to open new paths of evangelisation. In other words, the concreteness of the language facilitates the receipt and implementation of what is said. People feel that they are being heard and understood by the Holy Father and they willingly listen to what he is saying to them.
It might seem that Evangelii Gaudium does not reflect so much on the laity as such, as only a few paragraphs are explicitly devoted to them. However, this is a misleading impression. One of the central motifs of the apostolic exhortation is the assertion that evangelisation is the duty of the whole people of God (cf. EG 111-134), and “lay people are, put simply, the vast majority of the people of God” (EG 102). The exhortation therefore lends itself very well to becoming a handbook for the lay people of today, a detailed map to navigate their way as they “go forth”. For all the baptised, Evangelii Gaudium is an essential new reference point that complements the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Christifideles Laici (1988) in promoting the vocation and mission of the laity. The document by Pope Francis is a call to individual believers wherever they may be, and it gives a new orientation to the whole people of God in their varied kinds of communities. Parishes and lay groups, old and new, are in need of renewed impetus to go forth and evangelise. As the Holy Father noted, our times are showing a high degree of individualism (EG 78). Christian communities run the risk of sterile self-reference as a result of a fearful withdrawal into themselves. They forget the proper identity of the baptised (cf. ibid.)
Evangelii Gaudium is a great gift. It is a living testimony intended to rekindle missionary passion in the whole Church, in capite et in membris… a conversion of heart that must not and does not want to leave things as they are!