An emergency tends to focus one’s mind and energies and to clarify one’s priorities. If a dangerous fire breaks out in a home, the inhabitants thereof will lay aside their quarrels, postpone their other activities, and together get to the task of putting out the flames. If a nation is invaded by an aggressor, politicians will quickly forget their internal squabbling and put off their legislative programs in order to work together for the shared purpose of repulsing the enemy.
Christianity is grounded in what its earliest proponents called “good news,” euangelion. There is, therefore, something permanently fresh, startling, and urgent about the Christian faith. It is not a bland spirituality or generic philosophy; it is news about something amazing and unprecedented, namely, that a carpenter from Nazareth, who declared himself the Son of God, has been raised from the dead. This is why there is a “grab you by the lapels” quality about the early Christian witness: the authors of the New Testament are not trading in generalities and abstract principles; they are telling the world about a revolution, an earthquake, an emergency. Jesus is risen from the dead, and therefore he is the king. And because he is the king, your whole life has to be rearranged around him.
This evangelical urgency, which Pope Francis gets in his bones, is the leitmotif of the Pope’s Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel). He knows that if Catholicism leads with its doctrines, it will devolve into an intellectual debating society, and that if it leads with its moral teaching, it will appear fussy and puritanical. It should lead today as it led two thousand years ago, with the stunning news that Jesus Christ is the Lord, and the joy of that proclamation should be as evident now as it was then. The Pope helpfully draws our attention to some of the countless references to joy in the pages of the New Testament: “Rejoice!” is the angel’s greeting to Mary; in her Magnificat, the Mother of God exults, “My spirit rejoices in God my savior;” as a summation of his message and ministry, Jesus declares to his disciples, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete;” in the Acts of the Apostles, we are told that “wherever the disciples went there was great joy.” The Pope concludes with a wonderfully understated rhetorical question: “Why should we not also enter into this great stream of joy?” Why not indeed? Displaying his penchant for finding the memorable image, Pope Francis excoriates Christians who have turned “into querulous and disillusioned pessimists, ‘sourpusses,’” and whose lives “seem like Lent without Easter.”
Once this basic truth is understood, the rest of the church’s life tends to fall more correctly into place. A church filled with the joy of the resurrection becomes a band of “missionary disciples,” going out to the world with the good news. Ecclesial structures, liturgical precision, theological clarity, bureaucratic meetings, etc. are accordingly relativized in the measure that they are placed in service of that more fundamental mission. The Pope loves the liturgy, but if evangelical proclamation is the urgent need of the church, “an ostentatious preoccupation with the liturgy” becomes a problem; a Jesuit, the Pope loves the life of the mind, but if evangelical proclamation is the central concern of the church, then a “narcissistic” and “authoritarian” doctrinal fussiness must be eliminated; a man of deep culture, Pope Francis loves the artistic heritage of the church, but if evangelical proclamation is the fundamental mission, then the church cannot become “a museum piece.”
If there is one thing that bothers Pope Francis above all it is the endless bickering within the Catholic Church itself: “how many wars take place within the people of God and in our different communities!” Elitists on both the left and the right want to establish a church of the pure, those who hold all of the right positions on the key issues, and they are none too shy about critiquing, attacking, and excommunicating those who don’t agree with them. But the Church is meant to be a counter-sign to the divisiveness and violence of the world, a place where love, compassion, and mutual understanding hold sway. When we become but an echo of the fallen world, then we are like salt that has lost its savor, and our evangelical persuasiveness is fatally compromised. Again, keep in mind the metaphor of the emergency: when a threat or an opportunity of great moment appears, we ought to lay aside our petty (and even not so petty) differences and make common cause.
Twice in the course of the Apostolic Exhortation, Pope Francis references the ancient principle bonum diffisivum sui (the good is diffusive of itself). When we find something that is good or beautiful or compelling—whether it is a movie, a work of art, a book or a person—we don’t keep it to ourselves. Rather, we are filled with a missionary fervor to share it. This principle applies, par excellence, to our experience of Christ Jesus risen from the dead. We want, with a reckless abandon, to give this supremely good news away. This energy, this compulsion—“woe to me if I do not evangelize”—is, for Pope Francis, the beating heart of the church.