There is a theme coming through Pope Francis’ pontificate which is at once attractive and alarming. It his his message of joy in the proclamation of the gospel. Evangelii Gaudium is brimming with exhortations to joy.
The pope’s own ministry is abundant in joy. He reaches out to others with the attractive joy which is the fruit of the Holy Spirit. That this joy is attractive there is no doubt. That it reveals a new, dynamic way of living is a certainty.That true evangelism cannot take place without this attractive quality as well as the other fruits of the Holy Spirit is beyond dispute. I see Pope Francis simply doing what Jesus did–being with people and allowing God’s love to be seen in his words and works.
However, within the call for evangelization there are some other demands–some other dynamics. Pope Francis exhorts us to reach out in mercy to the sinner and with compassion to the poor. This is a vital part of the church’s mission and a crucial part of the proclamation of the gospel.
Where I have a problem ministering in the United States is that so many people do not perceive their need of mercy and have no idea that they are in need of compassion and love. To put it bluntly, how does one go about saving someone who does not think they need saving? How does one communicate the joy of the gospel to those who, sated by their materialistic pleasures, do not perceive sadness in their lives? How does one offer forgiveness to one who does not believe they have done anything wrong? How does one offer healing to one who does not believe they are sick? H0w does one offer mercy to those who have no idea that they need mercy?
The only way people will realize their need of mercy is to first be told that they have stepped outside God’s mercy and are headed away from all that is beautiful, good and true.
This is where the Holy Father’s wonderfully inspiring words don’t connect with the work I see that has to be done in the United States. For the last fifty years the majority of Catholic priests have been following what seems to be the pope’s method of ministry. They have not spoken about sin and personal responsibility. They have spoken only about forgiveness and love, acceptance and the need for positive self esteem. They have offered a vision of a wonderful Catholicism–a caring, sharing, giving and growing faith community. They have offered an uplifting vision of people living and working together to make the world a better place as they all followed Jesus in the path of happiness and joy, and the message joyfully emptied the churches.
Well meaning priests said, “You shouldn’t really come to Mass if you don’t love Christ enough to want to come! Missing Mass is not a mortal sin!” they cried. “We are leaving behind all that legalism and guilt mongering. Our message is one of joy, brotherhood, unity and forgiveness!” The people heard their message and agreed that they should not come to Mass unless they loved Christ enough. Realizing that they did not love Christ enough and not knowing why on earth they should love him they left in droves.
They didn’t come to Mass anymore because they were told by the priest that it wasn’t necessary. “What really matters is that you hear that Jesus is merciful and that he will not send anyone to hell! Who wants to believe in a God like that who sends people to hell?” they asked. So the people believed their priests and they stopped going to church because there was no penalty for not going and besides, they felt okay with themselves, and Jesus was always forgiving so why go to church and what was there to forgive anyhow?” The people were offered a cheap form of grace. Was it the Divine Mercy or just Buddy Jesus?
This was combined with the rise of pop psychology which told you that you were okay and everybody else was okay too–except maybe your Mom and Dad who were the ones to blame for any problems or unhappiness you had. Guilt was out and whatever you wanted to do was in because that was simply self expression. Sin became a social construct that priests and ministers used to control people. It was okay to do whatever you wanted as long as you harmed no one. Then we learned that this was the creed of the satanist: “Do as you will but harm no one.” That didn’t matter because Satan was buried along with sin. There was no such thing as all that supernatural stuff.
Then along came indifferentism and ecumenism an universalism all bundled together like the three weird sisters. They taught that all the Christian denominations were pretty much the same and all that really mattered was how much you loved Jesus. Furthermore, all religions were pretty much the same too, and everyone was going to end up in heaven eventually so once again, what was the point of evangelism and missionary work and confession and Mass when God was so great and good that he was going to cast a wide net and gather everyone in anyway no matter what?
The big problem of evangelization therefore is not so much that people need to hear the joyful message of God’s mercy, but that they first somehow or other need to hear and understand that there is something wrong and that they need the joyful message of God’s mercy. The response of most middle Americans is a very honest shrug of the shoulders and an admission that life is fine and they don’t really need much of anything at all thank you very much. Like Dives they have everything they could possibly want: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
One response might be to proclaim again without compromise the reality of sin and the clear commands of God so that people will realize their need of repentance. The problem is that we exist in a post Christian culture where most people are already inoculated against that message. Should you tell them that what they are doing is sin and against God’s law they would simply stare uncomprehendingly and say, “Sin? What sin? I’m a nice person!” If you told them that they were going to hell if they persisted in mortal sin they’d say, “Hell? We don’t have to believe in that anymore. Father said so.”
I am all for Pope Francis’ message of joyful hope, but what I have yet to hear from Pope Francis (and I need to re-read Evangelii Gaudium more closely) is why we should evangelize in the first place. He speaks much about reaching out and going out and proclaiming the gospel, but he is not clear about what that gospel consists of and the reason to turn to Christ. Why do we reach out and help people? What’s the point? Is it to make people happier? Is it to make life more fair? Is it to solve the poverty problem? Is it to bring better health care–build better schools? Make the world a better place? While these are all vital aspects of evangelization, the atheists are right that you don’t really need to be a Christian to do all that.
What then is the point of evangelization? Why bring people into the church? What does it matter? I’m sure Pope Francis would reply that it is for the salvation of souls. We evangelize in order to deliver souls from eternal damnation and open for them the doors of heaven. It is to bring Christ to them so they might encounter him, hear his call and follow him on the path to life. This is the old, old story: of a dying world redeemed by a loving Lord, of a sinful race rescued from everlasting alienation from God. This is the joyful message and it is really the only one we have to offer.
While voicing these thoughts I am also aware that I still have much to learn about evangelizing in the Catholic context. I’m aware that I still carry Evangelical Protestant “baggage”–preconceptions and limitations of vision. I’m trying to adjust my perspective and am willing to be informed and enlightened by those who know more about this subject than I do.