Reading, Practicing and Spreading the Joy of the Gospel, The Anchor, December 6, 2013

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Putting into the Deep
The Anchor
December 6, 2013

“In today’s world of instant communication and occasionally biased media coverage, the message we preach runs a greater risk of being distorted or reduced to some of its secondary aspects,” Pope Francis wrote in his new apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, “The Joy of the Gospel.”

“The biggest problem is when the message we preach then seems identified with those secondary aspects that, important as they are, do not in and of themselves convey the heart of Christ’s message.”

Those insights have all been confirmed in the distorted media coverage of the new exhortation, dedicated to the proclamation of the Gospel in today’s world.

Reviewing most of the headlines, news stories, and commentaries after the Nov. 26 release of the document, one might think that Pope Francis had written a document not on evangelization but on trickle-down economics, capitalism and autonomous markets, peace and justice, the preferential option for the poor, the decentralization of the Church, the nature of Islam, woman’s ordination, the reform of the papacy, and Church discipline concerning divorced-and-remarried Catholics.

Part of this distortion comes from a general media bias toward things that are controversial and changing. This leads many journalists to dismiss the main point of the document —sharing the joy of the Christian faith — as boring and “same old, same old,” while zooming in on lines about an economy that “kills,” priests who turn the confessional into a “torture chamber” or a Church that is “dirty.” These subordinate points are considered “interesting” and “newsworthy,” because they much more into the media’s predilection for the sensational.

At the same time, part of the blame for the slanted media coverage rests, to be honest, with the document itself.

Pope Francis has been regularly trumpeting that in the proclamation of the Gospel we need to focus — almost obsess — about the “kerygma,” the proclamation of the merciful love of God made possible for all of us by Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Sometimes, he notes, “the message we preach” gets identified with “secondary aspects” that aren’t an essential part of that kerygma.

In interviews, he has said that this identification with secondary aspects regularly happens with the presentation, coverage and understanding of Church’s teachings on human sexuality. But, as the coverage of the exhortation makes clear, the same distortions can happen with regard to the Church’s social teaching on poverty and the markets.

It’s frankly unrealistic to expect the media to focus on the kerygma and Francis’ summons to the whole Church to share it and live it when he includes whole sections and a slew of sound-bytes on economic policy, poverty, and peace that are much more within the comfort zone and interest of media members. It would be like asking hungry boys to eat all their asparagus when there’s a big, tempting chocolate cake on the table.

It would have been wise for Pope Francis to follow his own wise advice to prevent these distortions. As important as it is to provoke a conversation on economic injustices, the cause of peace, and various needed institutional reforms, it’s even more important for the Church and the world to focus anew on what Pope Francis rightly calls the “heart of the Gospel,” which was the point of this exhortation. The result of his including various “secondary” issues in the exhortation is that few are talking about the “primary.” Francis has given us most practical program on evangelization any pope has ever written and most think that he has written an exhortation on social policy.

This is one of the reasons why serious Catholics need to read the exhortation, which is available for free on the Vatican’s website (vatican.va) and it can also be picked up at low cost at Catholic bookstores or on Amazon.

Pope Francis wrote it not only to “bishops, clergy, [and] consecrated persons,” but also to the “lay faithful.” To the extent Catholics can read, they should use this God-given skill to grow in their faith by reading what the Holy Father has written. We generally read — and never ignore — letters written to us by family members. The same should apply to letters written to us by our holy father in faith.

Outside of the length — it took me about five hours to read — it’s one of the most accessible papal teaching documents I can recall, made so by Pope Francis’s down-to-earth and straightforward language.

As you read it, you’re likely to have various thoughts and questions. If you’d like to have a chance to discuss them, I’d encourage you to come to the presentation on the exhortation I’ll be giving next Thursday, December 12, at 6:30 pm at St. Bernadette’s in Fall River. After giving an overview of the exhortation for those who haven’t had a chance to read the document and mentioning the background for many of the significant points Pope Francis makes, I hope to have a lively question-and-answer session, with you a part of it.

In the next few columns, I’d like to tackle various aspects of the exhortation.

Next week, I will focus on the exhortation’s main message, how the Church doesn’t merely have a mission but is a mission and how everything in the Church must be reformed to participate in this missionary paradigm.

The week after, I’ll tackle Pope Francis’s challenging words on economic reform and how the cult of the new golden calf not only injures the poor but harms the idolaters and all of society.

Then we’ll ponder the lengthy section he writes to bishop, priests and deacons on the reform of preaching and examine how those thoughts should influence how all of us share the message of the faith.

Pope Francis laconically noted that papal documents “do not arouse the same interest as in the past” and are often “quickly forgotten.” That, of course, happens because many Catholics allow it to happen, basing their knowledge of the documents on news stories and short-lived news cycles. It doesn’t have to be that way.

If we want to help Pope Francis in his reform of the Church, let’s arouse our interest to read this powerful presentation of his papal priorities, prayerfully ponder its points, remember and practice its teaching, and learn how, together with Francis, to pass on the joy of the Gospel.