Today's release of Pope Francis's apostolic letter, Evangelii Gaudium, or the Joy of the Gospel, has many people in a tizzy. In a good way. Some of excerpts from the letter have all the hallmarks of a pope setting a course against many of our world's (and the Church's) most noxious nostrums:
From the official Vatican news network:
To “recover the original freshness of the Gospel”, as he puts it, through a thorough renewal of the Church’s structures and vision. Including what he calls “a conversion of the papacy” to make it better able to serve the mission of evangelization in the modern world. The Church, he says, should not be afraid to re-examine “customs not directly connected to the heart of the Gospel” even if they may have deep historical roots.
In strikingly direct and personal language, the Pope appeals to all Christians to bring about a “revolution of tenderness” by opening their hearts each day to God’s unfailing love and forgiveness. The great danger in today’s consumer society, he says, is “the desolation and anguish” that comes from a “covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience.” Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests , he warns, “there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor.”As we open our hearts, the Pope goes on, so the doors of our churches must always be open and the sacraments available to all. The Eucharist, he says pointedly, “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” And he repeats his ideal of a Church that is “bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets” rather than a Church that is caught up in a slavish preoccupation with liturgy and doctrine, procedure and prestige. “God save us,” he exclaims, “from a worldly Church with superficial spiritual and pastoral trappings!” Urging a greater role for the laity, the Pope warns of “excessive clericalism” and calls for “a more incisive female presence in the Church”, especially “where important decisions are made.”Even taken out of context, these quotes are startling. The pope, in stark and clear language, slams trickle-down economic theory, that hoary justification for continuing to enrich the already wealthy. Just as Christmas shopping mania is about to infest the land, he challenges consumer culture, with its self-indulgence and ignoring of the poor. He flings open the doors of the churches and of the sacraments -- a long overdue corrective to the sanctioned practice of withholding Christ from those who need him the most. He signals a desire to re-examine old customs that are not rooted in the gospel -- the celibate priesthood maybe? And he seems interested in finding a larger role for women in the church's decision-making offices.
For a progressive like myself, this letter is an extraordinary declaration of Pope Francis's radical departure from recent popes, who have turned their back on the world as through it has nothing to teach them. It also is a shift away from the self-congratulatory pose of many conservative Catholics who seems happy to hunker down within a church that is small, colder and "purer."
But before we go screaming joyfully into the streets, its good to be cautious. Francis's statements are open to interpretation. And, he has thrown a few bones to the conservatives. For all the talk about women having more decision-making power, the pope is not opening the Church to a female priesthood. Neither is he backing away for the church's absolute ban on abortion. Indeed, when taking off the rosy glasses of progressive hopefulness, it's hard to understand how the pope's letter will affect local parishes. One could even take each of his points and interpret it to mean that nothing will change. For instance, without a change to canon law, will divorced and remarried Catholics be able to receive sacraments? Will the Eucharist be open to non-Catholics? Or will we still have to endure priests making inhospitable announcements at weddings and funerals that only Catholics may receive? And with an all-male and female-unfriendly priesthood still in charge, will "Father" really cede significant leadership authority to women?
Still, the pope has signaled that the gospel is meant to be a joyful experience-- truly good news -- and not an experience that continues to alienate the faithful while irritating non-Catholics. It's been so long since I, for one, have considered the Gospel to be joyful, that for all its shortcomings and ambiguities, Francis has lit a fire of fulfilled hope in this crank of a Catholic.
And for that, we should be glad.