Evangelii Gaudium: Pope Francis rebukes conservative Catholics (part 1)

Quotes from the papal teaching document “Evangelii Gaudium”, with my commentary.

“THE JOY OF THE GOSPEL fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness.” EG 1

Pope Francis is teachings us that the offer of salvation must be accepted, in some way. All human persons are offered salvation, not all accept that offer.

“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…. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us….” EG 2

This papal document includes commentary on society today. The style of the document is less pedantic than the works of some past Popes; it is more conversational, but no less authoritative. After commenting on what society and the Church as a social institution is like today, especially pointing out faults and failings, the Pope teaches on the remedy for those problems.

“I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ…. no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord.” EG 3

The possibility of salvation for non-Catholic Christians, who know about the Catholic Church and yet do not convert, is implicit in this quote. Pope Francis teaches that all Christians can encounter Jesus and be brought into His joy, which implies that they can be saved.

“God never tires of forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy.” EG 3

Even those who are on the path of salvation are sinners, who need forgiveness.

“There are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter.” EG 6

Pope Francis criticizes the failings of some Christians, and this obviously includes many Catholics. This particular fault is sometimes found among conservative Catholics: over-emphasis of the self-sacrifice of Christianity, and under-emphasis of joy and the enjoyment of life.

“Sometimes we are tempted to find excuses and complain, acting as if we could only be happy if a thousand conditions were met. To some extent this is because our ‘technological society has succeeded in multiplying occasions of pleasure, yet has found it very difficult to engender joy’.” EG 7

Pope Francis criticizes the failings of modern society, and notes its negative effects on the lives of Christians. True joy is found through the grace of God, not through technology and consumerism.

“When the Church summons Christians to take up the task of evangelization, she is simply pointing to the source of authentic personal fulfilment.” EG 10

The holy Pontiff is speaking to all Christians; he sees all Christians as members of the one Church, despite our failings that tend to divide us. Spreading the Gospel brings others to the path of salvation, but it also helps each of us with our own path of salvation, and this is true personal fulfillment — to walk the path of salvation with Christ.

“A renewal of preaching can offer believers, as well as the lukewarm and the non-practising, new joy in the faith and fruitfulness in the work of evangelization.” EG 11

Pope Francis is speaking even to lukewarm and non-practicing Christian believers. He wishes the lukewarm to find new fervor, and for the non-practicing to accept the call to practice the faith again. That is the effect our evangelization should have.

“The life of the Church should always reveal clearly that God takes the initiative, that ‘he has loved us first’ (1 Jn 4:19) and that he alone ‘gives the growth’ (1 Cor 3:7).” EG 12

The Gospel message and the path of salvation is always founded on Christ and on the graces of God.

“In first place, we can mention the area of ordinary pastoral ministry…. In this category we can also include those members of faithful who preserve a deep and sincere faith, expressing it in different ways, but seldom taking part in worship.” EG 14

Pope Francis considers the ministry of the Church to have an obligation to reach out to non-practicing or minimally practicing Catholics. He observes that these persons are also members of the faithful, and they may in fact preserve a deep sincere faith, despite seldom attending Mass. This point is controversial, since some Catholics consider that only those who regularly attend Mass possess a deep and sincere faith.

“A second area is that of ‘the baptized whose lives do not reflect the demands of Baptism’, who lack a meaningful relationship to the Church and no longer experience the consolation born of faith.” EG 14

The Church must also reach out to fallen-away Catholics, who have lost or who have never had, a close relationship with the Church.

“Lastly, we cannot forget that evangelization is first and foremost about preaching the Gospel to those who do not know Jesus Christ or who have always rejected him.” EG 14

Those who lack sufficient accurate knowledge of Christianity and those who know but have always rejected Christianity also need evangelization. They have a right be offered the Gospel, and we have a duty to do the offering.

“Countless issues involving evangelization today might be discussed here, but I have chosen not to explore these many questions which call for further reflection and study. Nor do I believe that the papal magisterium should be expected to offer a definitive or complete word on every question which affects the Church and the world. 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’.” EG 16

Pope Francis contradicts one of the common false assumptions among conservative Catholics, that we should seek a definitive answer on every question of faith and morals from the papal magisterium, and that the teaching of the Church is almost exclusively the teaching of the Popes. Rather, Pope Francis promotes here the understanding of Vatican II, that the Bishops are true successors to the Apostles, and they have a role of collegiality with the Pope as the successor of Peter.

“a definite style of evangelization which I ask you to adopt in every activity which you undertake.” EG 18

Pope Francis is telling the ordinary members of the faithful to evangelize the world by means of our good example and our words in all that we do in life. The Pope’s call is consonant with the teaching of Vatican II on the role of the laity in evangelization:

“The apostolate of the laity derives from their Christian vocation and the Church can never be without it.”

“The laity derive the right and duty to the apostolate from their union with Christ the head; incorporated into Christ’s Mystical Body through Baptism and strengthened by the power of the Holy Spirit through Confirmation, they are assigned to the apostolate by the Lord Himself.” (AA 1, 3)

“God’s word is unpredictable in its power. The Gospel speaks of a seed which, once sown, grows by itself, even as the farmer sleeps (Mk 4:26-29). The Church has to accept this unruly freedom of the word, which accomplishes what it wills in ways that surpass our calculations and ways of thinking.” EG 22

Here Pope Francis is offering a subtle rebuke to those Pharisaical Catholics who want all the activities of evangelization, doctrine, and discipline to be tightly controlled by Church authority and narrowly expressed by those who teach and preach. There is a certain unruliness to evangelization: the faithful spread the Gospel in the many circumstances of their lives without continual authorization and approval from Church authority.

“An evangelizing community gets involved by word and deed in people’s daily lives; it bridges distances, it is willing to abase itself if necessary, and it embraces human life, touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others.” EG 24

The Church must not see Herself as primarily a gathering of believers in churches, but as an evangelizing community that brings Christ to a sinful and suffering world. Here again, Pope Francis challenges conservative Catholics, who tend to focus on details of liturgical form and the exact phrasing of doctrines, rather than on reaching out to sinners everywhere. The conservative view of the Church as a closed and elite group, who alone are saved, is rejected. The idea found among ultra-conservatives, that they alone are the true Church, a small faithful Church within the larger supposedly-unfaithful group of Catholics, is rejected.

“This is the source of the Church’s heroic and impatient struggle for renewal: the struggle to correct those flaws introduced by her members which her own self-examination, mirroring her exemplar, Christ, points out to her and condemns.” EG 26 quoting Paul VI

The Church needs renewal because her members on earth are sinners. The Church must see Her own flaws, resulting from this sinfulness, and condemn that which deserves condemnation. I will add that these flaws that are in need of correction or even condemnation are not found solely on the left, but also on the right. The assumption among many conservative Catholics that conservatism equals truth or conservatism equals faith is a false assumption.

“I dream of a ‘missionary option’, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation. The renewal of structures demanded by pastoral conversion can only be understood in this light” EG 27

Pope Francis proposes that the Church’s “ways of doing things”, which includes the form of the Mass and various aspects of discipline and regulations, need to change and to be continually renewed so as to be suitable for evangelization in the world today. Again, Pope Francis is challenging conservative Catholics to examine and criticize their own assumptions. And he is certainly rejecting the idea that all the details of form in the liturgy are best left the same; he is rejecting the conservative refusal to accept changes in the form of the Mass and in the Church’s pastoral efforts.

“The parish is not an outdated institution; precisely because it possesses great flexibility, it can assume quite different contours depending on the openness and missionary creativity of the pastor and the community.” EG 28

This assertion implies that the Mass and other liturgical services must be offered with adaptability of form. I suggest that the Church, under Pope Francis, is moving toward flexibility of liturgical form, such that the priest who celebrates Mass will be permitted to make small changes in wording and other aspects of liturgical form, as his right and duty while acting in persona Christi.

I recently attended a Mass which began by asking the people to stand and greet their neighbors. And during the Mass, the priest departed from the exact written form of some of the prayers to change the wording in various ways. The Mass ended with the priest asking if anyone had a birthday recently. And when different persons responded, the people applauded. Then he asked if any married couples had an anniversary recently. When different couples responded by saying how many years they had been married, the people again applauded.

This type of flexibility in liturgical form is condemned and ridiculed by many conservative commentators. But it is entirely consonant with the approach to evangelization suggested by Pope Francis.

“The bishop must always foster this missionary communion in his diocesan Church…. At other times, he will simply be in their midst with his unassuming and merciful presence. At yet other times, he will have to walk after them, helping those who lag behind and – above all – allowing the flock to strike out on new paths…. Yet the principal aim of these participatory processes should not be ecclesiastical organization but rather the missionary aspiration of reaching everyone.” EG 31

Here the Pope corrects some Bishops: those who would act mainly as administrators, those who would act with restrictive authority, preventing the faithful from striking out on new paths, and those who would see the diocese as a private organization with him as its leader, rather than a participatory community where everyone does as much as possible to reach out to everyone.

“The papacy and the central structures of the universal Church also need to hear the call to pastoral conversion.” EG 32

Pope Francis seeks a decentralization of the Church, in which the whole of the Faith is not viewed as coming solely or mainly from the Pope. I would say that the Faith comes from Sacred Scripture, from the living Tradition found in all the lives of the faithful, and that magisterial teaching is not solely from the Pope, but from the Bishops as fellow Apostles, and from the faithful by the fruit of their medication on Tradition and Scripture. This view contradicts the overly-simplistic view of some traditionalists, who want the Pope to settle all disputes, and the Bishops to merely repeat what the Popes have said.

“Pastoral ministry in a missionary key seeks to abandon the complacent attitude that says: ‘We have always done it this way’. I invite everyone to be bold and creative in this task of rethinking the goals, structures, style and methods of evangelization in their respective communities.” EG 33

Pope Francis is formally inviting the faithful, the pastors of parishes, and the Bishops of diocese to make changes to liturgical form, to the structures of parishes and diocese, and to the approach to teaching and preaching the word of God. This call implies a legitimate ability and authority of every priest who celebrates the Mass to adapt liturgical, in a bold and creative ways, so as to be more effective in evangelizing the participants at Mass and ultimately the world.

Here again is a subtle rebuke of the Pope to the conservative Catholic subculture, which seeks to prevent creative change to liturgical form and to all the structures, styles, and methods of the local churches and the Church as a whole.

But the same rebuke can be applied to liberal Catholics, who are stuck in one liberal version of the liturgy or the various styles and methods of evangelization. Renewal and change apply to all us fallen sinners.

“Pastoral ministry in a missionary style is not obsessed with the disjointed transmission of a multitude of doctrines to be insistently imposed. When we adopt a pastoral goal and a missionary style which would actually reach everyone without exception or exclusion, the message has to concentrate on the essentials, on what is most beautiful, most grand, most appealing and at the same time most necessary.” EG 35

This tendency to present the Faith as a set of isolated doctrines to be imposed on everyone is a fault often found among conservative Catholics. We must instead present all the doctrines of the Faith as a unified whole that flows from the love of God above all else, and the love of neighbor as self.

“All revealed truths derive from the same divine source and are to be believed with the same faith, yet some of them are more important for giving direct expression to the heart of the Gospel…. the Second Vatican Council explained, ‘in Catholic doctrine there exists an order or a hierarchy of truths, since they vary in their relation to the foundation of the Christian faith’. This holds true as much for the dogmas of faith as for the whole corpus of the Church’s teaching, including her moral teaching.” EG 36

A disorder in the hierarch of truths, or a denial of such hierarchy, is found among some Catholics today, those who over-simplify the Faith, reducing it to a small set of doctrines that seem equal in weight. To the contrary, Jesus taught this hierarchy of truths:

{23:23} Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! For you collect tithes on mint and dill and cumin, but you have abandoned the weightier things of the law: judgment and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, while not omitting the others.
{23:24} You blind guides, straining out a gnat, while swallowing a camel!

In his teaching document, The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis rebukes the Pharisees of today, just as Jesus did.

I plan to continue this commentary on Evangelii Gaudium to a total of 8 parts. This post is part one.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Forgiveness and Salvation for Everyone
is now available in print (paperback, 510 pp.) and in Kindle format.

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7 Responses to Evangelii Gaudium: Pope Francis rebukes conservative Catholics (part 1)

  1. Dora says:

    It may be premature to comment, but here goes… So Francis is saying he wants to abolish the term “liturgical abuse,” and we should now welcome the dancers… which the bishops had strictly forbidden … and which we protested in our own Church? And by the way, we protested not so much on their own account, but because they symbolized the priest’s clear and obvious rebelliousness on dogma as well. You yourself have noted a link.

    • Ron Conte says:

      I haven’t read the whole document yet. Where does he say this?

      I think the Pope has in mind to loosen liturgical form, permitting more flexibility and variation. But this does not imply that anything goes, or that nothing would be a abuse of liturgical form. Relatively limited departures from prescribed form are not necessarily expressive of rebellion. Here is an example of a priest who (prior to Pope Francis) was making small changes to the form of the Mass. He was never accused of any serious sin. But he was forced out of the priesthood because his bishop demanded that he follow the exact form of the Mass. Pope Francis would not approve of this type of decision.

  2. George says:

    I agree with Pope that the Church must put a living encounter and relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ first for from this all the fruits of the Holy Spirit will come such as forgiveness of sins, helping the poor, love of God above all else and love of neighbour as self. Without this relationship we may as be a secular organisation arguing over trifles. For most catholics on the “street” Church bureaucracy is not in there thoughts or even finer points of the liturgy is “huh?”

  3. Adam says:

    Mr. Conte,
    Is it not legitimate to have some sadness at the loss implied with the call for leniency? Nearly everything in the Mass is deliberate, a sign or symbol. The actions are not just tradition ( which alone is enough of a reason not to alter them without cause), but are meant to tie us back to the invisible reality of the sacrifice.
    I realize that few of the laity nowadays know the symbolism, but that lack of knowledge is not remedied by allowing additional alterations, many of which, at present, seem to be off-the-cuff.
    Furthermore, one of the most powerful signs that my non-Catholic friends comment on frequently is the similarity of the Mass. They find it incredible that it is the same readings, the same form and the same prayers throughout the world.
    I recognize that not all adjustments are abuses, but it takes a seasoned eye and educated mind to know when the situation calls for such an alteration. It would be a shame to lose a connection with the deep history and signs in the Mass to make it appear more personal.
    God bless Pope Francis and all he does for the Church Militant.

    • Ron Conte says:

      The Church was given the authority by the Lord Jesus over the form of the Mass. Jesus established the Mass and the Eucharist, but not in immutable specifics. It is Pharisaical to treat every part of the Mass as if it were an unchangeable dogma. There is no loss of connection to history in making changes to points of liturgical form. The profound meaning in our Faith is not found in unchanging points of ritual, but in unchangeable truth.

  4. Adam says:

    Mr. Conte,
    Thank you for your response.
    Everything you mentioned is true, but I may not have been clear on my points.
    * The Church absolutely does have the authority to establish form for the Mass. That is not in question.
    * Where was it said that every part of the Mass is an unchangeable dogma? It clearly can change, as our recent alterations to the GIRM indicate. Nevertheless, we have been given the GIRM, by a legitimate authority, and it should be followed whenever possible, precisely because it was given by a legitimate authority.
    * There is no loss of connection to history if changes are made with reason, by one with the authority to do so. Otherwise, like I mentioned, the symbols, types, words and actions that are meant to point to Christ are obscured. I might not have been clear on this point. I object to someone changing the words or form of the Mass “on the fly”.
    * I am primarily saddened by the fact that many people seem not to be aware of the great treasure that we have in the Mass, which seems to be the root of the desire to alter bits of it “so as to be more effective in evangelizing the participants at Mass and ultimately the world.”.
    * Forgive me, but I do not see any reference in the document where Pope Francis implies or states that the liturgy of the Mass is an area to “make changes to liturgical form”. On the contrary, he gently offers correction only to the portion of the Mass that is most flexible, the homily. Pope Francis does state that we must be open to trying new modes of evangelization and that ideas should not be dismissed because they are different from what has always (or is currently being) done. Many have found to this point that ideas or efforts to reach out in new ways have been stifled. I would like as much as anyone else to see those ideas at least given a fair hearing.
    Thank you for the work you do and for your commitment to Christ.

    • Ron Conte says:

      Good points, Adam. You said: ‘I object to someone changing the words or form of the Mass “on the fly”.’ The problem I have with many online commentaries about the form of the Mass is that the lay commentator puts forward the form that he thinks is best. But the opinion of the priest, the local Bishop, and even the Pope is treated as if it were of lesser value. Is not a priest who has been saying Mass for many years trustworthy to make some small changes to the wording of prayers, or to the form of the Mass? Can the local Bishop not permit and oversee this type of flexibility to form? Why should the conservative Catholic subculture have control over the form of the Mass, to the exclusion of the priest, Bishop, and Pope?

      You are right that Pope Francis did not state the idea of the priest making changes to the form of the Mass. But I am drawing the conclusion, from the flexibility and openness to change in the parish that the Pope is stating, that the Pope would welcome such an approach.

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