Pope Francis has laid out his plans for the Church in “Evangelii Gaudium” (EG). Rush Limbaugh read it and has concluded he’s a Marxist. Politically conservative evangelicals fear they’ve lost an ally in the Catholic Church. The pro-gay marriage lobby and Planned Parenthood are disillusioned after reading paragraphs 66 and 213, and rightly so. Pius X Society sympathizers are on edge after reading 108. “Left-leaning” Catholics who were hoping for a female priesthood are deflated after reading paragraph 104. Mainstream media labels him a progressive. Whose side is this man on anyway?
That he’s getting the entire world’s attention is undeniable. (I was recently interviewed on Al Jazeera TV about him. That’s a first for me!) But I think most of the world, from Rush to HuffPost to Al Jazeera, has absolutely no idea how to read him. That’s because most of the world is examining the 265th successor of Peter through the wrong lens.
The Church has never fit the hyper-politicized lens the Western World has come to see all things through. We’re “right of center” on abortion and gay marriage. We’re “left of center” on immigration and the need to care for the poor. Maybe that’s because our “center” is Jesus Christ.
The only paradigm that explains everything Pope Francis is saying and doing is the Great Commission. He’s evaluating all things Catholic in light of the question, “Does this ‘make disciples’ (Matt 28:19) effectively?” And he’s making it clear that the Great Commission doesn’t only entail talking about Jesus, though that is an essential part, but also, shining the light of Jesus Christ into every aspect of human life, from economics to life issues to marriage.
Pope Francis is an evangelist, plain and simple. But he’s no ordinary evangelist. Though he’s taken his name after Francis of Assisi, our pope is clearly a missionary in the spirit of “the other St. Francis.” St. Francis Xavier was a 16th-century Jesuit missionary who may have baptized more people than anyone in history. He was also a bit of a wild man. His desire to share the Gospel in its purest form probably drove the more mild manned, yet good people around him crazy!
He once wrote to his superior, “Many, many people … are not becoming Christians for one reason only: there is nobody to make them Christians. Again and again I have thought of going round the universities of Europe, especially Paris, and everywhere crying out like a madman, riveting the attention of those with more learning than charity: ‘What a tragedy: how many souls are being shut out of heaven and falling into hell, thanks to you!’”
That’s a man who liked to “shake things up.” The one thing that made his skin crawl was an evangelistically impotent Church. He challenged people deeply, to the point of annoying them. Likewise, anyone who’s read the pope’s apostolic exhortation without feeling a bit challenged hasn’t read it with an open heart.
Pope Francis isn’t endearing himself to “the left” or “the right”–those poles that have so painfully torn apart the Church since Vatican II. His apostolic exhortation gives the jab of a shepherds staff to those parts in each of our hearts that would cling to either a liberal social gospel without the cross, or to a “high church” Catholicism that isn’t willing to become “bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets (EG 49).”
Those who have come to experience the Church as a conservative fortress to keep sinners out rather than as a launching pad for a mission to serve the world, sinners included, are rightly threatened by Francis. Those who had hoped the pope’s desire to “shake things up” would manifest as a new, liberal theology are rightly disappointed. He’s not a theologian, interested in developing doctrine. He’s a pastor and his passion is developing the strategy of the new evangelization that was set forth by his predecessors, even in regard to the way he exercises his own office (EG 16).
Things might get a bit messy with a papacy bent on spending all of its energy exploring how to most effectively impact the modern world. Local Churches should grapple with the strategies the pope lays out as we discern what will work in each diocese and region. His intention in “Evangelii Gaudium” isn’t to offer an exhaustive and detailed plan, but to start the conversation on many important issues within the life of the Church (EG 32 and 226). But while the implementation of his pastoral direction will vary from place to place, and disagreements will occur over the specifics (stay tuned), the overall direction he’s steering the Barque of Peter is definitive and clear. He’s turning the Church’s energies and focus “outward” to the task of the new evangelization.
Pope Francis is steamrolling through all the barbed wire we’ve established between ourselves in the Church, disregarding all of our internal factions. The only “side” he is choosing is the Great Commission. He’s leading the charge into “no man’s land,” where the Gospel meets the rest of humanity, and he’s inviting the entire Church to follow him there. But follow or not, like the Jesuit Francis of the 16th century, he’s making it clear that he’s going there, even if he goes there alone.