On Sunday, Pope Francis gave out copies of a hefty text to a procession of people that included a bishop, a priest, a seminarian, an artist, a journalist, a blind man and members of a family. What did all these people, from countries as diverse as Japan, Tanzania and Australia have in common?
They were all Catholics, certainly, by virtue of their baptism. But by virtue of their baptism they were also all called to be evangelisers. That, in a nutshell, is the message of Evangelii Gaudium , the major new document that Francis handed out in St Peter’s Square.
The apostolic exhortation, whose English title is “The Joy of the Gospel”, is the first teaching document in which we truly hear Pope Francis’s voice. Yes, he released an encyclical, Lumen Fidei , in July, but that was mainly the work of Benedict XVI. This new text is, as Catholic journalist Francis X Rocca puts it, “his real debut as papal author”.
The document follows the synod of bishops on the new evangelisation in October 2012. But, in typically Franciscan style, it is not a conventional post-synodal exhortation. It is rather, as the Pope said it would be in June, an “exhortation on evangelisation in general” that seeks to “take everything from the synod but put it in a wider framework”.
Pope Francis’s contention is, as we have said, that each of us is called, through our baptism, to become evangelisers. This is a message the bishops have been trying to convey since at least the Second Vatican Council, with varying degrees of success. Many of us are able to accept the idea at an intellectual level, but worry that we don’t have what it takes to become evangelisers in everyday life. We are well aware of our weaknesses and know there are others more capable of carrying out the task. Pope Francis’s encouraging message in Evangelii Gaudium is that there is, in fact, no one better qualified to carry out our own personal mission than we are. God compensates for our weaknesses by giving us the grace to fulfil our calling. He not only called us but also gives us the means to respond to his calling.
In the first few months of his electrifying pontificate Francis has shown what it means to be an evangeliser. It is to throw yourself into the greatest adventure that life can offer, taking the message of God’s unconditional love to the peripheries, to the people whom no one appears to care about. It is there, as Francis says, that we ourselves discover Christ more deeply than ever before.