Evangelii Gaudium and Pope Francis’s “missionary impulse”
Editorial FAITH MAGAZINE Jan-February 2014
“What a joy it is for me to announce this message: Christ is risen! I would like it to go out to every house and every family, especially where the suffering is greatest, in hospitals, in prisons …” (Urbi et Orbi message, Easter 2013)
It is characteristic of Pope Francis to want to reach out to the margins of society. And this great missionary zeal is evident in his first Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium: “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 channelled for the evangelisation of today’s world.”
In the same paragraph he quotes his predecessor John Paul II with effusive approval: “All renewal in the Church must have mission as its goal if it is not to fall prey to a kind of ecclesial introversion” (EG 27). The question that faces us is how best to foster this missionary spirit, and of course the tactics to be adopted will vary according to the circumstances that obtain in our corner of the Lord’s vineyard.
''A missionary impulse, no matter how generous or noble-hearted it may be, will not be able to sustain itself in the long term if it is not based in sound doctrine. In the end it will amount to little more than a passing enthusiasm.''
Of course Pope Francis is right: the Church must be renewed in missionary zeal and she must reach out anew to the whole of humanity. However, in the United Kingdom at least the necessary prerequisite for this “missionary option” is a thoroughgoing renewal of catechesis. If we as Catholics are to go out and evangelise those on the fringes of our society, then we must first be well acquainted with and certain of the full content of our own faith.
For readers of this magazine and those involved in the Faith movement, this call for a renewal of catechesis is a familiar theme. It is undeniable that for the past 40 years many of our catechetical programmes simply have not borne fruit. And this being the case, it would be all too easy to carp and moan from the sidelines. However, that would be unworthy and unhelpful. We need to offer a positive alternative. We need to say what this catechesis would look like and what its content would be. It is part of the charism of the Faith movement to do just that.
At many times in the Church’s history – often because of external factors such as the influence of political circumstances or of the surrounding culture – particular issues have come into sharp relief. These issues are not the whole content of the Catholic faith but, to use a military analogy, they take on a strategic value. If we surrender on such an issue then it would be corrosive of the whole of the Catholic faith. But if we can hold this issue and resolve it correctly, and with the necessary clarity, then it safeguards the whole content of the Catholic faith.
An example would be the debate over the term “consubstantial” in the Nicene creed. Every Sunday we profess our faith that Christ is “consubstantial with the Father”. The debate, which focused on this single word, convulsed the entire Church in the fourth century. It was not just an arcane point of Christology at stake. This one term had important ramifications for the whole content of our faith.
Similarly today, there are key strategic issues that we must get right to strengthen the whole edifice of our Catholic faith. Almost 40 years ago, in the September 1976 edition of this magazine, the then editor Fr Edward Holloway gave a checklist of the key issues: “the transcendence of God, the real spirituality of the soul, and the reconciliation of an evolutionary universe with one fixed nature of man, a true fall in that nature and a true leading on of human salvation by God, which climaxes in His literally divine and transcendent self”.
Get these issues right and not only will we have defended the whole content of the Catholic faith, but the way in which these issues dovetail and cohere will result in a compelling apologetic for the Catholic faith. Conversely, any catechesis that ignores or fudges these issues is building on shaky foundations.
A missionary impulse, no matter how generous or noble-hearted it may be, will not be able to sustain itself in the long term if it is not based in sound doctrine. In the end it will amount to little more than a passing enthusiasm. If, however, we get these key issues right then we will be able discern the full contours of the figure of Christ. We will find in him our saviour and a sure, unambiguous foundation upon which we can build our lives. The joy of knowing Christ will be infectious, and by our lives we will communicate this spontaneously and naturally to those around us.
Only in this way will Pope Francis’s dream of a “missionary option” find its lasting fulfilment.