27th Nov 2013

On Evangelii Gaudium: The Joy of the Gospel Is Rooted in the Cross

by Kathryn Jean Lopez

“We and Jesus have the same Mother!”

These were Pope Francis’s closing words to a gathering on the Church in the Americas at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe earlier this month in Mexico City.

Though the first American pope joined us only by way of a video message, the greeting was no less critical, no less emotional for those of us present. There’s a paramount responsibility we have as his fellow Christians from the Americas to pray with him, work with him, lead with him — our brother, our shepherd, our Holy Father from what John Paul II called one continent.

Thanksgiving has come, and we ought be a people of thanksgiving. Whatever you’ve read in headlines and excerpts, gratitude is at the heart of the pope’s continuing message. It was at the heart of Pope Benedict XVI’s historic announcement of his resignation this past Feb. 12, and it is the impetus behind so much of what Pope Francis says and does. You can see it, can’t you? In the words, in the embraces? In the joy. In the pleading. In all the talk about weeping and encounter and peripheries.

There’s supposed to be something different, something countercultural, something of Heaven about Christians.

As with interviews of months past, reactions vary to Pope Francis’ first teaching document, the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), as you’ve no doubt noticed. It’s over 40,000 words in length, and we who comment — whether on op-ed pages or on Facebook or at the dinner table — each focus on different aspects. As with the America interview that appeared earlier this fall — and as with so many of his messages of God’s mercy, our responsibilities, a loving Father’s radical call for us to live selfless lives in transformative surrender to Him — we can too easily miss the heart of the matter amid a flurry of headlines that affirm or inflame our ideological comfort zones. When we do, we also miss much of the point of the Gospel — the joy, the exhortation, the call, the Christian difference. The point is that we must be challenged. The point is that we must encounter Christ, and daily, and if we do, we must be changed.

In Evangelii Gaudium, in fact, Pope Francis writes:

The word of God constantly shows us how God challenges those who believe in him “to go forth”. Abraham received the call to set out for a new land (cf. Gen 12:1-3). Moses heard God’s call: “Go, I send you” (Ex 3:10) and led the people towards the promised land (cf. Ex 3:17). To Jeremiah, God says: “To all whom I send you, you shall go” (Jer 1:7). In our day Jesus’ command to “go and make disciples” echoes in the changing scenarios and ever new challenges to the Church’s mission of evangelization, and all of us are called to take part in this new missionary “going forth”. Each Christian and every community must discern the path that the Lord points out, but all of us are asked to obey his call to go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach all the “peripheries” in need of the light of the Gospel.

This was so much of the focus of our encuentro in Mexico City, to use a word favored by our three most recent popes. During sessions, we talked about the work of making disciples, communicating with love beyond the audiences — and congregations — bishops, priests, religious, and lay people at the sessions might have most ready access to. In front of the image of herself the Blessed Mother left a Mexican layman, we prayed that we might truly be disciples of her Son, bringing her son to those in pain, in desperation, stuck in routines — that we might be truly apostolic in all our words and works. That we might let Christ be seen through the instruments of our lives.

Back home, in light of exhortations, we jump to clarify and highlight, helping people to feel comfortable or be challenged politically and economically, often overly depending on our political persuasions. Politics is crucial. As Pope Francis points out in the exhortation and elsewhere, it’s noble work, it’s necessary work. Christians may not opt out from politics. We must bring real wisdom to it. We must discern our contributions. We must live examined lives that inform policy debates and keep justice, mercy, and charity all in deliberations.

(In his long texts and interviews, this Jesuit pope keeps dropping practical Ignatian guidance about the inevitable spiritual warfare, about how to let the Satan be conquered. That’s something else to be thankful for — the cornucopia of concrete spiritual guides and witnesses we have as Catholics.)

God is “unpredictable,” our current Holy Father writes in Evangelii Gaudium.

“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,” he continues. We must humble ourselves because God’s will may not be ours and His ways tend not to be as well. We are called to follow and to “patience and disregard for constraints of time” as we evangelize.

Make no mistake about faith, he warns us — it’s not just a safe harbor in a storm, a harmless prayer before a holiday meal. “The disciple is ready to put his or her whole life on the line, even to accepting martyrdom, in bearing witness to Jesus Christ, yet the goal is not to make enemies but to see God’s word accepted and its capacity for liberation and renewal revealed,” Pope Francis writes.

Pope Francis is clear on life and marriage. He is challenging on politics and economics without fighting against Republicans or Democrats specifically. His position is more transcendent and fundamental. His ardent opposition is to a disposable culture that poisons all debates and is an assault on human dignity, piercing the very heart of God. It’s a culture of death and dismissal, of denial and destruction. It’s beneath us. It’s poisoning us.

The Good News is not only the Good News but that there are laborers; we must labor in prayer, sanctified by sacramental lives of union with the Trinity. As Pope Francis points out early on in Evangelii Gaudium — this fruit of last year’s synod on the New Evangelization in Rome — he means for this to offer guidance and encouragement as Catholics seek to live lives in Divine surrender, drawing the world to His mercy.

In Mexico City, pilgrims are gearing up for the December 12 feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. They were doing this even as we met in conference there, weeks before the feast. They show up at the shrine with foot-high (and sometimes two-foot high and larger) statues of Our Blessed Mother. They carry their St. Jude medals and flowers. They leave an offering. They bring home blessed trinkets of remembrance. Some of them, frequently older women (many joined by a son who watches out for them), approach the Blessed Virgin’s image on their knees. Our Lady of Guadalupe roots them to Divine Mercy, to Christian hope, to the salvation and redemption that has been won for us.

She who said “yes” to God’s will helps us say “yes” in our lives. She brings us to her Son. Do we go to her as did the poor of Mexico City or as Catholic leaders — cardinals, bishops, a mother superior, university presidents, journalists, businessmen, the faithful — discussing the New Evangelization? Do we begin and end in prayer and thanksgiving for her intercession? We did there — given the geographic realities of conferencing among pilgrims, as the bishops of the Caribbean and Latin America did when preparing the Aparecida document in which the former Cardinal Bergoglio took a leading role. Do we do this every day?

In his exhortation, Pope Francis offers a brutally cold image in his alerting us to the scandal of our lives, our routinized “discipleship,” our practical atheism. He writes of many pastoral challenges, including “obsession with immediate results makes it hard for pastoral workers to tolerate anything that smacks of disagreement, possible failure, criticism, the cross.”

He warns of dangers that creep into our Christian and supposedly apostolic lives:

…the biggest threat of all gradually takes shape: “the gray pragmatism of the daily life of the Church, in which all appears to proceed normally, while in reality faith is wearing down and degenerating into small-mindedness”. A tomb psychology thus develops and slowly transforms Christians into mummies in a museum. Disillusioned with reality, with the Church and with themselves, they experience a constant temptation to cling to a faint melancholy, lacking in hope, which seizes the heart like “the most precious of the devil’s potions”. Called to radiate light and communicate life, in the end they are caught up in things that generate only darkness and inner weariness, and slowly consume all zeal for the apostolate. For all this, I repeat: Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of the joy of evangelization!

Mummies in a museum? If a tourist walks into a parish church, do they see life? Do they see the light of Christ? Are we letting Christ use our lives to spread the light of faith beyond that church building, but also in that church building? Wherever it is we are, there should be illuminating happening. If we’re Christian.

As Pope Francis said in his video message to us in Mexico, making a reference to the out-of-season roses that fell miraculously from Juan Diego’s cloak:

Remember that you have been baptized, that you have been transformed into the Lord’s disciples. But every disciple is also a missionary. Benedict XVI said they are two sides to the same coin. I beg you, as your father and brother in Jesus Christ, to take care of the faith you received in Baptism. And, like the mother and grandmother of Timothy, hand on the faith to your children and grandchildren, and not only to them. This treasure of faith is not given for our own personal use. It is meant to be given, to be handed on, and in this way it grows. Make the name of Jesus known. If you do this, do not be amazed if the roses of Castille bloom in the dead of winter.

It’s crucial to note that in the papal document on joy, the cross is ever present. That’s reality. That’s Christian reality! That’s part of our lives. Acknowledge this. Don’t run from this. Don’t suppress this. Embrace the cross! That joy of our hope, rooted in the cross on which Christ died lifts the burdens of the crosses men and women bear, our brother and sisters, the strangers we barely give thought to but must, ourselves.

Pope Francis reminds us in Evangelii Gaudium:

Christian triumph is always a cross, yet a cross which is at the same time a victorious banner borne with aggressive tenderness against the assaults of evil. The evil spirit of defeatism is brother to the temptation to separate, before its time, the wheat from the weeds; it is the fruit of an anxious and self-centered lack of trust.

“The Gospel, radiant with the glory of Christ’s cross, constantly invites us to rejoice,” he also writes.

So how do roses bloom in the cold? How was it that I saw a pure joy on the streets of Mexico City, even amidst threats and prostitution, some obvious misery and poverty? How is it that we can ever say “yes” to the will of God in our lives? How can we even know it?

Deep breath. Get thee in front of the Blessed Sacrament. Get to the sacraments! “The 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,” Pope Francis writes. What a gift! This is it. This is our heart. This is our life. This makes all the difference.

It’s not the stuff of headlines, but Pope Francis concludes The Joy of the Gospel with Mary. The Gospel is revolutionary; our lives ought to be. He writes:

Whenever we look to Mary, we come to believe once again in the revolutionary nature of love and tenderness. In her we see that humility and tenderness are not virtues of the weak but of the strong who need not treat others poorly in order to feel important themselves. Contemplating Mary, we realize that she who praised God for “bringing down the mighty from their thrones” and “sending the rich away empty” (Lk 1:52-53) is also the one who brings a homely warmth to our pursuit of justice. She is also the one who carefully keeps “all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Lk 2:19). Mary is able to recognize the traces of God’s Spirit in events great and small. She constantly contemplates the mystery of God in our world, in human history and in our daily lives. She is the woman of prayer and work in Nazareth, and she is also Our Lady of Help, who sets out from her town “with haste” (Lk 1:39) to be of service to others. This interplay of justice and tenderness, of contemplation and concern for others, is what makes the ecclesial community look to Mary as a model of evangelization.

Take a look again at some of the most striking images of Pope Francis, with men whose faces are so dramatically disfigured, with the handicappedwith children. With perfectly healthy looking people whose hearts may be bruised and hollowed by the evil we do do, to ourselves, to one another. What is it that people are responding to, in some cases on an almost primordial level, with a new openness and transparent yearning? Is the hope that he will change Church teaching on some of the most neuralgic of issues? (He deflates that balloon in Evangelii Gaudium.) Is it momentum for slapping down Paul Ryan budget models or for finally killing the welfare state, depending on which quotes you pick to highlight? We know better than this. Much of the grace of this moment in our Church — “the Francis Effect,” as some have called it (the Franciscum Revolution, anyone?) — is the opportunity to heal wounds and rise above some of the misunderstandings that harden hearts and set people astray in the wake of erroneous readings of the Second Vatican Council. The Church and our broader culture – with so many people who identify as “raised Catholic” — needs this reboot, needs this renewed encounter, an opportunity to learn what Catholicism proposes through interacting with real Christians.

What people are seeing in Pope Francis’s glances and embraces is this revolutionary nature of love and tenderness. Mary approached Juan Diego in it, offered it, and brought the Americas to Christ. The greatest miracle of that miraculous tilma may be yet to come. Thy Kingdom come.

The pope offers a prayer with us that all things may be made new, with the witness of our lives in Christ. To our Lady, he ends his exhortation on the New Evangelization:

Obtain for us now a new ardour born of the resurrection,
that we may bring to all the Gospel of life
which triumphs over death.
Give us a holy courage to seek new paths,
that the gift of unfading beauty
may reach every man and woman.

Pope Francis writes:

We must never forget that we are pilgrims journeying alongside one another. This means that we must have sincere trust in our fellow pilgrims, putting aside all suspicion or mistrust, and turn our gaze to what we are all seeking: the radiant peace of God’s face.

That radiant peace is the goal. It is the mission. It is the treasure. It’s the point. May that not get lost in the headlines, debates (even legitimate, healthy, necessary ones), and distractions.

The greatest model of a simple “yes” to the most dramatic ask, everyday, is our Mother, Jesus’ mother, who knows the joy and the pain and walks with us, bringing us ever closer to the Sacred Heart of her Son. She will help save us, by bringing us to our Savior. This is why she’s the “star of the New Evangelization.” God never leaves us alone. Not here in America. Not ever. Maybe we can just live like we know this, like we believe this, renewed and transformed eucharistic people, illuminating it all with the light of this blessed faith.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a nationally syndicated columnist. She is a director of Catholic Voices USA and blogs on Catholic things at K-Lo@Large.

(The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Catholic Pulse or the Knights of Columbus.)