By Father John Bayer
Special to The Texas Catholic
The Joy of the Gospel (Evangelii Gaudium), that rousing and programmatic Apostolic Exhortation of Pope Francis published on Nov. 24, 2013, is a rather enkindling piece of writing.
As others have noted, the pope has a very accessible and personal style. He writes as if what was most important to him was that we all sit up, listen and understand. An interesting feature of this document is that he frequently speaks directly to his readers, addressing them with the first and second person. Phrases such as “I invite you…” or “I ask you…” or “Let us…” can be found throughout the text.
One of my favorite examples of his personal style is a paragraph about the missionary responsibility of every Christian: “All of us are called to offer others an explicit witness to the saving love of the Lord, who despite our imperfections offers us his closeness, his word and his strength, and gives meaning to our lives. In your heart you know that it is not the same to live without him; what you have come to realize, what has helped you to live and given you hope, is what you also need to communicate to others” (EG 121).
In just two sentences, the reader is pulled into the mind and heart of Pope Francis through 10 personal pronouns, which invite us to think and feel with him as we ask ourselves, ‘Do I feel the closeness of the Lord in spite of my imperfections? Do I know that it is not the same to live without Jesus? Do I realize what gives meaning to my life?’
I think this style carries a message. In the opening paragraphs, the Pope offers a diagnosis of the spiritual sickness that threatens us all, believers and non-believers alike: “The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience.
“Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades” (EG 2).
Depersonalizing selfishness is not just wrong – it actually sickens the heart. “Lust indulged starves the soul” (Prv 13:19). When the movements of our interior lives do not expand beyond our own interior, then our lives begin to fade. When the desires of our hearts – however noble they seem – do not extend in order to entwine, bend and bind with the hearts of others, like true branches on the true Vine (Jn 15:1-8), then our soul begins to starve.
But if the disease is to close in upon oneself, then the cure is to open toward others, to rediscover our life as persons in community, starting from an encounter with Jesus and extending to an encounter with all his brothers and sisters.
After his diagnosis, Pope Francis prescribes the cure: “I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ […]. Now is the time to say to Jesus: ‘Lord, I have let myself be deceived; in a thousand ways I have shunned your love, yet here I am once more, to renew my covenant with you. I need you. Save me once again, Lord, take me once more into your redeeming embrace’” (EG 3). Through this encounter, “which blossoms into an enriching friendship, we are liberated from our narrowness and self-absorption” (EG 8). Looking directly at Jesus, from person to person, we see ourselves in the whites of his eyes. We see ourselves as he sees us. We know then that there is no reason to fear or to war, for we are loved by God. “Here we find the source and inspiration of all our efforts at evangelization. For if we have received the love which restores meaning to our lives, how can we fail to share that love with others?” (EG, 8). Moved by our encounter with God, we move to encounter our neighbor, enkindled and ready for a life of world-transforming love.
Father John Bayer, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving. His column appears occasionally in The Texas Catholic.