“The Church—I repeat once again—is not a relief organization, an enterprise nor an NGO (Non-Government Organization), but a community of people, animated by the Holy Spirit, who have lived and are living the wonder of the encounter with Jesus Christ and want to share their experience of deep joy, the message of salvation that the Lord gave us. It is the Holy Spirit who guides the Church in this path.” — Pope Francis, Message for World Day of Peace (L’Osservatore Romano, August 28, 2013)
In contrast with his usual custom of keeping what he says brief and to the point, Pope Francis wrote a fairly long message (about one full page in L’Osservatore Romano) for Mission Sunday, which will be observed on October 20, 2013. This letter is rather wide ranging. It strikes me as giving more insight into what Pope Bergoglio is about than almost anything I have previously come across, except perhaps Lumen Fidei.
This Pope’s evident optimism has always puzzled me because he does have, at the same time, a pretty good grasp of the real and growing obstacles to the presence of Christianity in almost every sector of the world and its culture. Near the end of this Message, for instance, Pope Francis tells us:
I wish to say a word about those Christians, who, in various parts of the world, encounter difficulty in openly professing their faith and in enjoying the legal right to practice it in a worthy manner. They are our brothers and sisters, courageous witnesses—even more numerous than the martyrs of the early centuries—who endure with apostolic perseverance many contemporary forms of persecution. Quite a few also risk their lives to remain faithful to the Gospel of Christ.
We do not hear of President Obama or other political leaders drawing “red lines” about such persecution of Catholics. Evidently, the persecution of Christians is not a public or world problem. Indeed, for all too many, Christianity, particularly Catholicism, is the world problem, best to marginalize it or, better, to eliminate it.
The Pope does not give any names of those who do the persecuting. I am not happy about this. But I understand that, if you mention persecution, especially in Islamic states, Christians are then persecuted with greater force. You are blamed for it. Very few places can be found in the world where Catholicism can be freely, openly, and legally present. The fact is that also in the so-called democracies, the prevalent mood of the public order is to reduce religion to the exclusively private sphere with no presence allowed in education, health, culture or other normal areas of human life.
The Pope seems aware of these issues but he remains relatively unconcerned about them. He has an approach to the world through worship, community, and joy that is not deterred by what in fact are huge and growing problems that can only properly be designated as persecution. Nevertheless, he even seems to think that the world could change very rapidly and unexpectedly, not unlike the effect of John Paul II as contrasted to all those experts who assumed that Marxism was here for the duration.
II. Faith Enlightens Reason & Opens Us Up to God
To understand what the Pope is about, we begin with faith. “Faith is God’s precious gift which opens our minds to know and love him. He wants to enter into relationship with us and allow us to participate in his own life.” Several things are to be emphasized here. Faith is not something we conjure up on our own. If we could formulate what faith teaches by our own powers alone, we would not need it. Faith, like creation itself, has the status of “gift,” not that of necessity. We do not have a “right” to it, even though it is at least offered to everyone. The other side of this gift-status, however, is that our constitution, worldview, or politics ought not to go out of its way to prevent us from hearing and practicing what this faith is about. Faith comes by hearing and listening, as Paul said. But much can be done today by governments, media, and other associations to prevent anything tinged with faith from being heard, printed, or even spoken. Try to bring a Bible into an Islamic country or mention God in a public school.
However, this “gift” contains something—an understanding, an intelligibility addressed to the mind. It is designed to “open” our minds. The faith is in line with reason. Indeed, I would say that faith makes reason more what it is, that is, more reasonable. This “more” means that, if our philosophy, if what we know by reason, is in line with what is, the faith will come across to us as making sense of issues we did not otherwise figure out by ourselves. Faith was not designed to make us ignorant but to provide us more “mind” so that we could see how much more there is to see than what we know by ourselves.
We hear talk of “man’s search for God.” But it rarely occurs to us that all the while God is searching for us. If this searching is so, we might ask: Why cannot God find us? Doesn’t He know where we are? This is the point. We cannot be found even by God unless we are willing to be found, that is, unless we are willing to admit that we don’t already know everything. Many are reluctant to admit this personal side of a lack of faith. The essence of modernity is that we need only ourselves. More explicitly, we prevent God from knowing us if we are sinners, or better, if we are not willing to admit that we need to be forgiven.
We need to realize that we cannot explain the world except through God and His purpose for us. God wants us to participate in His life; we are in fact created to lead a life that is beyond our natural capacity. We are invited into this life with creation itself. But God also made us free. He knows that living the life of God is not possible unless we want to live it. So faith, reason, and will come together, as the Pope intimates in his brief introductory sentence.
Pope Francis thus adds that the faith is not for a “few.” But still it “needs to be accepted.” In short, God does not want to be in our hearts if we do not want Him there. “Everyone should be able to experience that joy of being loved by God.” Moreover, this “gift of salvation” is not something that we can or should keep to ourselves. This is where the theme of the mission comes in. “If we want to keep it (the faith) only to ourselves, we will become isolated, sterile and sick.” I had several student friends who went to World Youth Day in Rio. This sense of joy was the sort of feeling or atmosphere that the pope creates around him, as the students recalled it.
“The proclamation of the Gospel is part of being disciples of Christ and is a constant commitment that animates the whole life of the Church.” The Church does not exist for itself alone and its present members. The Apostles are “fishers of men.” Something exists in the Church that seeks to gather others to itself. This is, of course, nothing less than the Holy Spirit. Following a comment of Benedict XVI, Pope Francis adds: “Each (Catholic) community is ‘mature’ when it professes faith, celebrates it with joy during the liturgy, lives charity, proclaiming the Word of God endlessly, leaves its own to take it to the ‘peripheries,’ especially to those who have not yet had the opportunity to know Christ.” The spirit of Pope Francis, as I see it, is contained in this passage. When anyone comes within a Catholic church, it is this spirit and joy that the Pope wants everyone to see there, even if it is a persecuted Church.
III. Pursue Missionary Effort With Courage & Joy
What is this “missionary spirit”? It is not only about “geographical territories, but about peoples, cultures and individuals, because the ‘boundaries’ of faith do not only cross places and human traditions, but the heart of each man and each woman.” This too is a remarkable sentence. We cannot confine the spirit to nations and cultures. Individuals from any religion, philosophy, or place can be touched. This is why we have individual Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and atheists suddenly—not often, to be sure—but actually to be touched by a grace that he accepts. Many of the greatest saints and figures in Catholicism have gone this route and still do so today. On the other hand, Pope Francis adds that everyone has also to be aware of making the faith known to others. The Apostles themselves were witnesses to churches in different areas in their travels. An “apostolic community is not complete unless it aims at bearing witness to Christ before all nations and before all peoples.”
But does not this emphasis on making the faith known go directly against multiculturalism and does it not smack of “proselytism”? Both external and internal obstacles prevent this missionary aspect to flourish. If a parish or culture lacks joy and delight in the faith and in truth, how will it appear to those outside of it? To make his point, Francis cited Paul VI who said (Evangelium Nuntiandi, #80) that it is indeed wrong to “impose” faith on anyone. “But to propose to their consciences the truth of the Gospel and salvation in Jesus Christ, with complete clarity and total respect for free options which it presents…is a tribute to this freedom.” The truth is that there are few places where this sort of freedom is actually practiced or allowed to be practiced.
Pope Francis seems to understand this difficulty. We must be joyful and announce the Gospel. Christ came to “show the way to salvation.” We are to make it known “to the ends of the earth.” Yet, “all too often we see that it is violence, lies, and mistakes that are emphasized and proposed.” This is how the Church is pictured. Thus, “it is urgent in our time to announce and witness to the goodness of the Gospel, and this from within the Church itself.” Again, this passage is the key to Pope Francis’s approach to the modern world. We all know about men as sinners, especially clergy and Christians. But we forget that Christ came so that sins might be forgiven, not that they be so totally eradicated that His presence is no longer necessary and freedom no longer allowed. But still the words of Christ are to be known to “the ends of the world.”
Yet, “one cannot announce Christ without the Church.” Francis makes this point graphic by citing Paul VI: “When an unknown preacher, catechist, or Pastor preaches the Gospel, gathers the little community together, administers a Sacrament, even alone, he is carrying out an ecclesial act.” What we are stands within the grace and understanding of what the Church is, the Body of Christ. Still, a large number of those who had the faith fall away under the pressures of their own sins or the temptations of the culture. Moreover, “a large part of humanity has not yet been reached by the good news of Jesus Christ.” Francis does not seem to be discouraged by any of this. We should just preach the Gospel “courageously and in every situation.” The temptation is to judge the Church by modern sociological or political standards and not vice versa.
The Pope is blunt, in words I cited above: “The Church—I repeat again—is not a relief organization, an enterprise or an NGO, but a community of people, animated by the Holy Spirit, who have lived and are living the wonder of the encounter with Jesus Christ, and want to share this experience of deep joy, the message of salvation that the Lord gave us.” It is this “spirit of joy” that seems to be, as it were, Pope Francis’ “ace in the hole.” It is this spirit that he knows is the key that men of our and any time are looking for in all they look for. “It is the Holy Spirit who guides the Church on its path.” It is this sense of confidence that animates Pope Francis.
The Pope then calls frankly for missionaries. Bishops are to pay attention to this need. Missionaries have a double purpose. One is to bring the good news to those who do not know it or to those who have lost it. But secondly it is to bring back the “freshness” of the lives of Christians in communities we do not know. This is what the Apostles did in their journeys. It is at this point that Francis adds the remarks that I cited above on the persecuted Church all around us, but largely unrecognized by our contemporaries, even by ourselves.
We sometimes are tempted to think that things look hopeless. There is no doubt that the disorders of our time show marks of diabolical logic and force. The Pope frequently touches on this presence himself. But his response is that of John XXIII, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI—“courage.” And he adds a surprising comment of Benedict. “The word of the Lord may spread rapidly and be glorified everywhere.” The disorders of our time are in fact so bizarre and painful that men in their heart cannot help but seeing that something is radically wrong. The “abolition of man” seems almost complete. Where to turn? I think when men finally choose to see the human greatness of a John Paul II, the intelligence and wisdom of a Benedict XVI, and the joy of Pope Francis, it may become obvious that the Holy Spirit has indeed been there all the time.
We need not cease in pounding away at the aberrations of our times, for they are indeed great. But we do see that something else is also at work in our midst. That something else, the breath of the Holy Spirit, the plan of the Father, is also there in our very souls if we will allow ourselves to see it. This is why Pope Francis tells us that the Church is not a welfare agency or a government program, but an experience of deep joy and salvation. It is the Holy Spirit that guides us. Who else? This is the message of mission that Pope Francis seems to have seen in a world full of sins and disorders of the most terrible kinds, things we won’t acknowledge until we encounter the joy in the community that worships God in the manner that God Himself, in the Incarnation and Crucifixion, taught us.
Editor’s note: This essay first appeared September 16, 2013 in Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission.