Pope Francis' first Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), issued late last year, is a refreshing restatement of the Church's commitment to evangelisation and of the hidden treasure of her social teachings.
The Apostolic Exhortation can be downloaded from the Vatican web site at www.vatican.va/holy_father/francesco/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20131124_evangelii-gaudium_en.html.
The papal letter was prepared as both a reflection and a summary of the 2012 Synod of Bishops, which was convened by Pope Benedict XVI to discuss the theme: The New Evangelisation for the Transmission of the Christian Faith.
The letter is addressed specifically to the Catholic faithful – bishops, clergy, consecrated people, and lay men and women – rather than the wider world. Pope Francis urges the faithful to be people of joy who serve as an inspiration to others in society.
Offer of salvation
Francis commences his letter with these words: "The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew.
"In this Exhortation I wish to encourage the Christian faithful to embark upon a new chapter of evangelisation marked by this joy, while pointing out new paths for the Church's journey in years to come."
In this, Evangelii Gaudium reflects the Pope's intense pastoral concern to rediscover the most effective means of bringing people, particularly those who do not know Christ, to the faith.
While emphasising that the function of spreading the message of Christ belongs to all believers, Francis makes particular reference to the role of pastors in evangelisation.
He identifies three groups of people who are the focus of the Church's task of evangelisation. The first are those who are practising the faith. "Ordinary pastoral ministry seeks to help believers to grow spiritually so that they can respond to God's love ever more fully in their lives."
The second are those who were baptised, but have lost contact with the faith. "The Church, in her maternal concern, tries to help them experience a conversion which will restore the joy of faith to their hearts and inspire a commitment to the Gospel."
The third group are the Church's principal focus: "Lastly, we cannot forget that evangelisation is first and foremost about preaching the Gospel to those who do not know Jesus Christ or who have always rejected him.
"Many of them are quietly seeking God, led by a yearning to see his face, even in countries of ancient Christian tradition. All of them have a right to receive the Gospel."
Christians, he insists, have the duty to proclaim the Gospel without excluding anyone. "Instead of seeming to impose new obligations, they should appear as people who wish to share their joy, who point to a horizon of beauty and who invite others to a delicious banquet."
It is not by proselytising that the Church grows, the Pope said, but "by attraction".
He quotes Jesus' words in Luke, "I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance," to emphasise the central role of evangelisation in the Church's mission.
He also emphasises that it followed Jesus' command to his disciples after the resurrection: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you (Mt 28:19-20)."
Pope Francis refers to the importance of personal example and the liturgy in winning people to Christ: "The Church evangelises and is herself evangelised through the beauty of the liturgy, which is both a celebration of the task of evangelisation and the source of her renewed self-giving."
Pope Francis points out that the role of evangelisation cannot be separated from a self-examination of the Church herself, quoting Paul VI who said, "The Church must look with penetrating eyes within herself, ponder the mystery of her own being ...
"This vivid and lively self-awareness inevitably leads to a comparison between the ideal image of the Church as Christ envisaged her and loved her as his holy and spotless bride (cf. Eph 5:27), and the actual image which the Church presents to the world today ...
"This is the source of the Church's heroic and impatient struggle for renewal: the struggle to correct those flaws introduced by her members which her own self-examination, mirroring her exemplar, Christ, points out to her and condemns."
Pope Francis sees the local parish as central to the Church's presence in the world, welcoming the activities of new religious movements as long as they work with the existing parish structures.
He adds that the Church's self-examination must extend to the Holy See itself: "Since I am called to put into practice what I ask of others, I too must think about a conversion of the papacy.
"It is my duty, as the Bishop of Rome, to be open to suggestions which can help make the exercise of my ministry more faithful to the meaning which Jesus Christ wished to give it and to the present needs of evangelisation."
He recalls that Pope John Paul II asked for help in finding "a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation", but adds, "We have made little progress in this regard." Hence, "The papacy and the central structures of the universal Church also need to hear the call to pastoral conversion."
Vatican II, he observes, stated that, like the ancient patriarchal Churches, episcopal conferences are in a position "to contribute in many and fruitful ways to the concrete realisation of the collegial spirit."
But, he says, this desire has not been fully realised, since a juridical status of episcopal conferences has not yet been sufficiently elaborated. "Excessive centralisation, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church's life and her missionary outreach."
The Pope next discusses the difficulty in conveying the Church's message through the media, and the importance of concentrating on the central message of Jesus Christ, and not on secondary issues.
Francis also offers practical guidance on the need for the Church to be open in all respects: "The Church is called to be the house of the Father, with doors always wide open. One concrete sign of such openness is that our church doors should always be open, so that if someone, moved by the Spirit, comes there looking for God, he or she will not find a closed door.
"There are other doors that should not be closed either. Everyone can share in some way in the life of the Church everyone can be part of the community, nor should the doors of the sacraments be closed for simply any reason.
"This is especially true of the sacrament which is itself 'the door': baptism. The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.
"These convictions have pastoral consequences that we are called to consider with prudence and boldness. Frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators."
He concludes: "The Church is not a toll-house, it is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems."
Francis then turns to the contemporary issues which obstruct the Church's mission, by dehumanising the human being.
He summarises these in a number of propositions: no to an economy of exclusion no to the new idolatry of money no to a financial system which rules rather than serves and no to the inequality which spawns violence.
In Chapter 4, "The Social Dimension of Evangelisation", Francis explains why the Church has to respond to those aspects of contemporary society which exclude the poor and marginalised, and undermine human dignity.
The Church's pastors, he says, have the right to offer opinions on all that affects people's lives, "since the task of evangelisation implies and demands the integral promotion of each human being".
He adds: "It is no longer possible to claim that religion should be restricted to the private sphere and that it exists only to prepare souls for heaven. We know that God wants his children to be happy in this world too, even though they are called to fulfilment in eternity, for he has created all things "for our enjoyment" (1 Tim 6:17), the enjoyment of everyone.
"It follows that Christian conversion demands reviewing especially those areas and aspects of life related to the social order and the pursuit of the common good."
He commends The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, "whose use and study I heartily recommend", before addressing two issues.
He puts forward a powerful rationale for the Church's defence of the poor, and the need to ensure that the economic system serves mankind, rather than operating independently of it.
He specifically rejects the idea that there are no moral issues involved in economic policy: "The need to resolve the structural causes of poverty cannot be delayed, not only for the pragmatic reason of its urgency for the good order of society, but because society needs to be cured of a sickness which is weakening and frustrating it, and which can only lead to new crises.
"Welfare projects, which meet certain urgent needs, should be considered merely temporary responses.
"As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world's problems or, for that matter, to any problems. Inequality is the root of social ills."
He then asks God to give us more politicians capable of sincere and effective dialogue aimed at healing the deepest roots – and not simply the appearances – of the evils in our world. "Politics, though often denigrated, remains a lofty vocation and one of the highest forms of charity, inasmuch as it seeks the common good."
He writes forcefully about the need to fight against exploitation of human beings: "I have always been distressed at the lot of those who are victims of various kinds of human trafficking ... Where is the brother and sister whom you are killing each day in clandestine warehouses, in rings of prostitution, in children used for begging, in exploiting undocumented labour? Let us not look the other way."
Right to life
Pope Francis also defends the rights of women and unborn children, correcting misinterpretations of earlier statements he has made: "Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenceless and innocent among us.
"Nowadays efforts are made to deny them their human dignity and to do with them whatever one pleases, taking their lives and passing laws preventing anyone from standing in the way of this.
"Frequently, as a way of ridiculing the Church's effort to defend their lives, attempts are made to present her position as ideological, obscurantist and conservative. Yet this defence of unborn life is closely linked to the defence of each and every other human right. It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development.
"Human beings are ends in themselves and never a means of resolving other problems. Once this conviction disappears, so do solid and lasting foundations for the defence of human rights, which would always be subject to the passing whims of the powers that be."
The Holy Father urges Catholics to build respectful relations with our fellow citizens, including those of other Christian faiths, as well as Jews and Muslims.
He concludes by showing how Mary, who constantly accompanied Jesus in his mission on earth and has been an ongoing source of help and encouragement to Christians, is a central component of the Church's mission of evangelisation, as both a model Christian and as a beautiful gift, given to us by Jesus, as the mother of all Christians.