The style of the joy and hope of the gospel

For some of my Protestant friends, having a photo of the Pope at the top of this article may seem scandalous. As an evangelical, I certainly have my hesitations and criticisms regarding Pope Francis and the Roman Catholic Church; but I have learned a lot, and have often been inspired, by examples of faith from the other side of the Tiber. The holistic vision of life and mission described in the text The Joy of the Gospel that Francis published during his first year as pope is an example that closely aligns with the idea of mission as a lifestyle which is at the core of my theological project. At a later date I wll discuss my theory of a transition from societal, doctrinal, and institutional paradgims towards a stylitic paradigm of Christian faith – but suffice it to say that some of these themes are very clear in this text by François. Here, I offer a brief summary of the main ideas of this text, based on a reading by Enzo Biemmi, a Catholic theologian and professor in Verona.

Before we begin, however, I’d like to clarify that in this case, the purpose of this post is to provide a summary of the text rather than to say that I endorse everything found in it. It is the overall orientation of the text that I appreciate, and not all the details. In particular, as a Protestant who adheres 1) to sola fide and sola gratia, I believe that the Roman magisterium goes too far in saying that evangelization is necessary for our salvation as evangelizers; and 2) to solus christus, when it opens a certain path of salvation even, for example, to agnostics. In a way, it thus makes salvation both too easy and too hard…

But the beauty of François’s thought lies in the idea of harmony between word and deed; in the demand for absolute integrity, both for Christians and for Christian institutions. Commenting on the same text in one of his publications, Christoph Theobald suggests that institutional reform is as important a part of the Christian mission as evangelization; the pope acknowledges that institutional repentance is paramount for his church, and on this point, we Protestants certainly must follow him.

But that’s enough commentary; here is my summary of the text from Biemmi (2015): Une Église « en sortie ». La conversion pastorale et catéchétique d’Evangelii gaudium (A Church which “goes forth”. Pastoral and chatechetical conversion in /Evangelii gaudium), Revue Lumen Vitae, 2015/01, p. 29-41:

Citatations translated from the French.

Here, Biemmi summarizes the teaching of the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium by Pope Francis. The exhortation is “his programmatic document, his identity card” which, based on the joy of the gift of the Gospel and the work of the Holy Spirit, calls for “a radical conversion, a true and authentic reform of the Church, of each of its dimensions, so that everything in the Church speaks of the Gospel (p. 30, emphasis added).” Francis sets aside the term “evangelization” to almost exclusively speak of “mission”, a horizon that aims to move away from the “particular sector of pastoral action (30)” and to remove faith “from the realm of the sacred and [return] it to secular life (31).”

The context that calls for this conversion is the end of “sociological Christianity,” in which “Christian and citizen coincided” and faith was “inherited…, expected, obligatory (31).” Having previously become the whole lump of dough, the Lord now calls his people to become leaven again, a minority, but a minority for the good of of the lump of dough - and to do so with a spirit of hope for society and for the world. This is a missionary reform of the whole Church, in which all its structures undergo a “pastoral conversion” so that “they all become more missionary” – thus the Church becomes a sacrament, or a “sign and instrument of the grace of the Gospel (33)” [cf. Lesslie Newbigin’s Sign of the Kingdom]. This reality reflects the “very style of God,” in which his words and actions are in perfect harmony (citing Dei Verbum no. 2).

Biemmi cites Christoph Théobald, who speaks of two levels of faith (general, human, the work of the Holy Spirit in every human being; and the faith of a disciple, committed to Jesus) and André Fossion who talks about a kind of “anonymous Christians” in the spirit of Rahner to ask why there is still a need for evangelization. Drawing from the text of François, as well as Evangelii nuntiandi, he provides three reasons: 1) for our own salvation; 2) for our joy, or as an expression of our gratitude, and 3) as an expression of our love for others (36-37).

Evangelization is not just a matter of style or “attitudes”; evangelization involves a message. It is not about transmitting doctrines, but a foundation: “an event to which kerygma testifies (37)”. This is the first announcement - not in a chronological sense, but in a sense of primacy; an announcement that is repeated, and which “focuses on the essential, on what is most beautiful, greatest, most attractive, and at the same time most necessary”: it is the free gift of God’s love (38-39).

The style of Jesus in evangelization is understood to have two facets: the perfect harmony of word and deed ("[he] says what he thinks and does what he says"); the ability to listen and learn; and his lack of insistence, instead calling to that first, general, human faith – the prior work of the Holy Spirit in each person’s conscience. “Theobald calls all of this ‘holiness’, perfect correspondence between content and form.”

Next post : Five paradigmes of Christian faith


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