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A Lutheran reaction to Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, Evangelii Gaudium (part I of III)

02 Dec
Jesus said: "I am the light of the world"... and "you are the light of the world".

Jesus said: “I am the light of the world”… and “you are the light of the world”.

(for other posts I’ve done on Francis, see here (“Hi, it’s Pope Francis here.”  God calling to?), here (The enigma of Pope Francis?), and here (Pope Francis – a pastor – speaks))

The other day, I noted with interest First Thing’s report on Pope Francis’ lengthy new encyclical (given its length, one can hardly blame the media for initially focusing on the economic issues it deals with [a good piece here] but hopefully, after reading the whole thing, they will see that George Weigel is right – see paragraphs 34-39, 65 in the encyclical where Francis tries to make very clear his program).  The new Pope is a gifted writer and communicator, and I think that the moral authority of his life – often convicting even while uplifting – will draw many to hear what he has to say.   A man of many gifts, his enthusiasm about the “Joy of the Gospel” and his eagerness to share that message far and wide is indeed contagious – I found much of it to be particularly powerful. 

In particular, Francis mentions several notions that will appeal to serious Lutherans. 

Click image to go to encyclical

Click image to go to encyclical

First, like his predecessor, he highlights that the work of the evangelist often seems fruitless and that it “is something much deeper, which escapes all measurement”: “The Holy Spirit works as he wills, when he wills and where he wills; we en­trust ourselves without pretending to see striking results” (paragraph 279, see also 22, 82).*

Second, Francis also mentions on at least two occasions (in parts 136 and 142) the great importance of hearing the word proclaimed, as faith comes by hearing (Rom. 10:17).  In discussing preaching in particular, Francis says it is essential that the preacher is “certain that God loves him, that Jesus Christ has saved him and that his love al­ways has the last word” (151).  Again, “On the lips of the catechist the first proclamation must ring out over and over: ‘Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you’” (164, see 42 as well).

Third, in paragraph 175, Francis points out that The sacred Scrip­tures are the very source of evangelization.” Merging Benedict’s words with his, he says “….We do not blindly seek God, or wait for him to speak to us first, for ‘God has already spoken, and there is nothing further that we need to know, which has not been revealed to us’” before ending with “Let us receive the sublime treasure of the re­vealed word”.

Fourth, in discussing the great importance of reaching out to the poor (something we remember that Paul in Galatians, that great epistle about justification, was especially eager to do), I was encouraged to read the following,

“Since this Exhortation is addressed to members of the Catholic Church, I want to say, with regret, that the worst discrimination which the poor suffer is the lack of spiritual care. The great majority of the poor have a special open­ness to the faith; they need God and we must not fail to offer them his friendship, his blessing, his word, the celebration of the sacraments and a journey of growth and maturity in the faith. Our preferential option for the poor must main­ly translate into a privileged and preferential re­ligious care” (200).

I was especially struck by a quotation from John Paul II:

“The missionary is convinced that, through the work­ing of the Spirit, there already exists in individ­uals and peoples an expectation, even if an un­conscious one, of knowing the truth about God, about man, and about how we are to be set free from sin and death. The missionary’s enthusiasm in proclaiming Christ comes from the convic­tion that he is responding to that expectation” (John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Redemptoris Missio (7 December 1990), 45: AAS 83 (1991), 292.)  (265)

Immediately after this JP II quotation, Francis goes on to say:

“Enthusiasm for evangelization is based on this conviction. We have a treasure of life and love which cannot deceive, and a message which can­not mislead or disappoint.  It penetrates to the depths of our hearts, sustaining and ennobling us. It is a truth which is never out of date be­cause it reaches that part of us which nothing else can reach. Our infinite sadness can only be cured by an infinite love.”

On the one hand, this is a good reminder for Lutherans like myself, because it is very easy for us to simply focus on the fact that those in darkness are, as Paul says, rebels and enemies towards God – that it, those who can only be broken and raised to eternal life through the work of God’s Spirit.  Even if people might be seeking a “God” of their own liking and escape from only certain sins, all sense that death should not be the end and that we were made for something more, for eternity is in the heart of every human being. 

On the other hand, I think it is more interesting to think about how this must necessarily go hand in hand with what Francis says a few paragraphs later: Beyond all our own pref­erences and interests, our knowledge and moti­vations, we evangelize for the greater glory of the Father who loves us. It seems to me that this is the even greater motivation to evangelize: to proclaim and shout out the all-encompassing love of the Father shared in Jesus Christ for the whole world – a death for the forgiveness of the “sins of the world” – which includes even us and our sins.  Even me!

Further discussing the Christian’s motive for the evangelistic task, Francis goes on to write:

But this conviction has to be sustained by our own constantly renewed experience of savouring Christ’s friendship and his message. It is impossible to persevere in a fervent evange­lization unless we are convinced from personal experience that it is not the same thing to have known Jesus as not to have known him, not the same thing to walk with him as to walk blindly, not the same thing to hear his word as not to know it, and not the same thing to contemplate him, to worship him, to find our peace in him, as not to. It is not the same thing to try to build the world with his Gospel as to try to do so by our own lights. We know well that with Jesus life becomes richer and that with him it is easier to find meaning in everything. This is why we evangelize.   A true missionary, who never ceases to be a disciple, knows that Jesus walks with him, speaks to him, breathes with him, works with him. He senses Jesus alive with him in the midst of the missionary enterprise. Unless we see him present at the heart of our missionary commit­ment, our enthusiasm soon wanes and we are no longer sure of what it is that we are handing on; we lack vigour and passion. A person who is not convinced, enthusiastic, certain and in love, will convince nobody.

These are good and convicting words about the importance of a vital spirituality in our lives.  I think that most any Christian can identify with what Francis says here – even if they sometimes do not feel the joy bursting forth from them, but feel like they must, sadly, take Luther to heart as well: “make duty a pleasure”.   Old Adam remains like a yoke upon our new selves, selves that long to be “all in” with God’s will for all the time.  That said, as far as kindling this passion, Francis elsewhere talks about the importance of the Scriptures in the Christian’s life, prayer**, and of course, action – particularly in regards to the “least of these” – even more particularly to the poor who are near to us.

This is where I start to have issues with what Francis has to say – after I read what he says and reflect on the whole of his message and its trajectory, I must say that I bristled a bit as well.  There are three things about this encyclical that bothered me.  The first it that even beautiful exhortations to proclaim Christ can condemn the Christian and load him with heavy burdens.  The second is that Francis eschews the hard words of Christ about the division he brings.  The third is that Francis sometimes seems to pit a love for the lost against salutary traditions to which the faithful might cling.  Tomorrow, I will begin looking at those three things.

FIN

*he continues:  “We know only that our commitment is necessary. Let us learn to rest in the tenderness of the arms of the Father amid our creative and generous commitment. Let us keep marching forward; let us give him everything, allowing him to make our efforts bear fruit in his good time.” (279)

**and he also notes:  “There is always the risk that some moments of prayer can become an excuse for not offering one’s life in mission; a privat­ized lifestyle can lead Christians to take refuge in some false forms of spirituality.” (262)

Francis image: www.crisismagazine.com ; Encyclical image: First Thoughts blog

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Posted by on December 2, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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