The media and the public can’t get enough of Pope Francis. Case in point: Time anointed him Person of the Year this week. More important, the pope issued an apostolic exhortation last month titled The Joy of the Gospel. In the hours and days since its publication, ideologues on all sides of the political spectrum have lifted quotes from the document to prove that Francis is on their side. He is against abortion, so he’s a conservative. He criticizes economic systems that exploit the poor, so he’s a liberal.
These assertions prove the very point that Francis is making with his exhortation. He contends that we focus too much on things that are either extrinsic (no matter how beautiful and commendable these things might be) or things that are secondary (no matter how important and true these things might be).
The pope is calling every Catholic and every Catholic institution to gaze upon Jesus Christ and to rediscover the joy and the freedom that is found in this gaze. It is this encounter that must be primary in the life of every Christian. Francis recalls that the apostles never forgot the moment when Jesus touched their hearts: “It was around four o’clock in the afternoon” (John 1:39). Every Catholic must remember and continuously return to the encounter with Christ. This is what is primary. From there, the pope reminds us that we who have experienced the tenderness of Christ’s gaze and who have been filled with His joy, must be instruments of that encounter to others. To be a Catholic is to be a missionary. To be a Catholic is to share the joy of the Gospel. Every human person, Francis says, has the right to hear the joy of the Gospel.
In the past, Francis has likened the Church in the present moment to a field hospital in a battle zone. In such a situation, it would be foolhardy to treat non–life threatening injuries before addressing the primary afflictions. The Joy of the Gospel is the triage manual for the Catholic Church. Francis is saying that we must rededicate ourselves to what is primary: the encounter with Christ. We must not let anything—be it bureaucratic systems, ecclesial structures, secondary aspects of the faith, impatience, or bad preaching—hinder or obscure what is primary: the encounter with Jesus Christ, who brings freedom and joy to the human heart.
Pope Francis does not limit his vision to the transformation of just each individual heart. He understands that true evangelization brings about a transformation of the whole world. Specifically, he reminds Catholics that we are to be a church that cares for the poor. He does not want this concern for the poor simply to be expressed in occasional acts of charity that ease our consciences, but do nothing to transform the systems that oppress the needy. No, he calls us to engage in a consistent effort to transform society so that the poor are no longer excluded. Francis is clear that Catholics must not excuse themselves from the Gospel command to love the poor.
There is much else to be discovered in the pages of this exhortation, but at its very center is the call to return to what is primary, essential, and indispensable. Every Catholic parish, institution, and individual is called to report for duty at the field hospital. The triage manual has been issued: to live our life in the gaze of Jesus Christ, to share the joy of the encounter with Christ with everyone, to transform society so that the most vulnerable may live and thrive.
University Chaplain Father David Barnes is BU’s Catholic Center chaplain; he can be reached at email@example.com.
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