On Dec. 11, the world learned that Time Magazine had named Pope Francis its “Person of the Year” for the speed with which he pulled the “papacy out of the palace and into the streets.” But if you read his first apostolic exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium” (The Joy of the Gospel), it becomes clear that his acts of love are motivated by more than a desire to be in the streets.
The press focused on the huge change in the public’s perception of the Church and papacy, as is evidenced by the media’s fascination with him over the past seven months. But Pope Francis is not concerned with fame or with what the media thinks. Instead, he is focused on our hearts and what leads to their conversion.
The papal spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, reacted to the recognition from Time by saying, “As for the pope himself, he’s not someone who seeks fame and success, because he has put his life at the service of announcing the Gospel of the love of God for mankind.”
This message of God’s love for mankind is accompanied by the pope reminding us that sin has consequences, that it hurts us individually and at the communal level. The consequence of sin is unhappiness. We all know this and we experience it every time violence, corruption and selfishness—some of the fruits of sin—disfigure our lives.
Here in the archdiocese, all we need to do is look to the Dec. 13 shooting at Arapahoe High School and the horrific mass shootings that have preceded it. Evil really exists in the hearts of people, and only the love of Jesus Christ can change it. As Catholics we must pray for an end to all sin and all violence, and proclaim the love of Jesus Christ to the world.
In the midst of a fallen, broken and confused world, Pope Francis proclaims in “Evangelii Gaudium” that what gives him joy is meeting, knowing and loving Jesus. He calls on each of us to personally encounter the merciful Christ, acknowledge our sinfulness and follow him.
“No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her,” the pope writes, “since ‘no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord.’ … Now is the time to say to Jesus: ‘Lord, I have let myself be deceived; in a thousand ways I have shunned your love, yet here I am once more, to renew my covenant with you. I need you. Save me once again, Lord, take me once more into your redeeming embrace (EG, 3).’”
And then Pope Francis exclaims, “How good it feels to come back to him whenever we are lost!”
It is essential for each and every one of us to experience God’s forgiveness and mercy at the personal level, and we cannot stop there. In the Gospels we can see how the encounter with Jesus changed the lives of Zacchaeus, the Samaritan woman, the apostles, and so many others. Once a person encounters Jesus’ personal love for them, they leave sin, turn to love and proclaim it to others. They become generous in their love.
So far, the press has focused on Pope Francis’ touching embrace of the sick and poor, his acts of charity, his words of acceptance for those who feel marginalized, while his call to conversion to Jesus Christ is left in the background. But the Holy Father is only able to live the Gospel because his heart was changed by personally meeting Jesus in prayer, in the sacraments, in the Scriptures, in the teaching of the Church, and in the poor. He sees the face of Jesus in every person he encounters. That is not something the press will cover, but it is crucial for us to discover, especially because his loving relationship with Jesus is what made possible all of the things Time praises him for in its “Person of the Year” announcement.
In “Evangelii Gaudium” the pope also speaks about how choosing to follow Christ has consequences. He explains that once we experience God’s loving goodness we trust him and decide to follow him. This should change how we live our personal lives, how we desire in our hearts to live the virtues and avoid sin, how we treat the less fortunate and how we use our skills and talents for the common good. In short, our faith in Jesus Christ and his personal love for me can change the world as we have seen by the lives of the saints.
There is much more to the pope’s exhortation than can be considered here, so I encourage every person in the archdiocese to read “Evangelii Gaudium.” The Gospel is not about fame; it is about humbly receiving the love of the God who has loved us first and proclaiming that love to the world.
My Christmas prayer for you is that as we approach the annual celebration of the in-breaking of God into human history, the revelation of the Father’s love for humanity, I urge each of one you to walk with Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, to receive Jesus in your hearts in a new and more intimate way, to take a step toward the Father’s loving embrace so that you can bring the witness of his love and mercy to a world that is desperate for it.
May each one of us cry out with the angels and proclaim to the world: “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord.”