Monday, 21 April 2014

A joy that’s made for sharing

Francis eg

[Guest post: The following is a talk about Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium, given by my bestie, Dr. Ján Morovič, at a retreat. Reproduced here with the author’s permission]

Among papal documents, apostolic exhortations serve the purpose of calling to action, and Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium (The joy of the Gospel) does exactly that - it invites us to share with others the joy we have received from putting the Gospel into practice. It also shows us that sharing is a direct consequence of joy, and that such sharing is preceded by God’s presence in the life of every person.

Evangelii Gaudium is in many ways an extraordinary text. First, because of its directness, e.g., when Pope Francis says that “neither the Pope nor the Church have a monopoly on the interpretation of social realities or the proposal of solutions to contemporary problems” (§184), and when he laments the “unwelcoming atmosphere of some of our parishes and communities, or [… a] bureaucratic way of dealing with problems.” Second, because of its eclectic imagery, e.g., warning us against becoming “sourpusses” (§85) or suggesting that the Church “is not [like a] sphere […], where every point is equidistant from the centre, and [where] there are no differences between them[ … but instead that it is like a] polyhedron, which reflects the convergence of all its parts, each of which preserves its distinctiveness” (§236). And third, because of the broad variety of topics that Pope Francis covers there:
  • He emphasizes the importance of reaching out to those who live at the peripheries - both in economic and spiritual terms, (§20)
  • he desires a Church that “has been out in the streets” instead of one that is entangled in “obsessions and procedures,” (§49)
  • he speaks out against today’s “throw away culture” and the fiction of “trickle down theories of economic growth” leading to justice and inclusion (§54),
  • he warns against the worldliness of “a purely subjective faith” or of a “self-absorbed […] trust in [one’s] own powers” (§94),
  • he calls for “a more incisive female presence in the Church” (§103),
  • he provides practical tips for giving better sermons (§135),
  • he highlights the need for not only embracing the poor but also for learning from them and being evangelized by them (§198),
  • he talks about the principles of “building a people in peace, justice and fraternity,” (§221)
  • he underlines the importance of dialogue with science, other Christians, other religions and those with no religious beliefs, (§257)
  • and he reflects on the role of Mary, as the “Mother of the living Gospel” (§287).
Pope Francis’ thoughts on each of the above subjects are true gems - full of insight, derived from putting the Gospel into practice and presented with razor-sharp clarity, directness and vivid imagery. Each of them - and others besides - could be taken as a starting point for deeper reflection and be further studied, elaborated and put into practice.

While I found Francis’ words on topics like the economy, dialogue, peace and the poor very enriching, and while these stood out for me when I first read Evangelii Gaudium, I would instead like to focus now on three themes that emerged for me when I re-read the exhortation’s 52 000 words a second time. I have since also seen these popping up in his more recent talks and have also found them when reading the sermons from his time as the archbishop of Buenos Aires.

The three themes are:
  • what Christian joy means and how experiencing it compels us to share it,
  • how such sharing is directed absolutely at every single person - without exception, and
  • how the desire to share the joy of the Gospel leads to the realization that God is already present everywhere, and that it is not only a matter of us bringing his gifts to others but that he has given them gifts for us too.
It is an image of a virtuous cycle of light, radiating from the Trinity and infinitely reflected and amplified in all of creation. I believe, these themes are also the roots of the analyses and recommendations that make up the exhortation’s 100 pages and that they can therefore also serve as keys for later reflecting on them.

The joy of feeling loved

Already in it’s first paragraph, Evangelii Gaudium highlights that joy is a consequence of meeting Jesus, who has a “boundless and unfailing love” for us that “fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter” him. The result is a “joy [that] is constantly born anew” (§1) and that leads to a “personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved” (§6). This in turn leads Pope Francis to extending an invitation “at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter [us]” (§3). Taking up this “most exciting invitation” then leads to the presence of “God with his people in the midst of a celebration overflowing with the joy of salvation” (§4) that Pope Francis let’s the prophet Zephaniah describe for us:
“The Lord, your God is in your midst, a warrior who gives you the victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing, as on a day of festival” (Zephaniah 3:17)
Francis then proceeds to underline the ubiquity of such joy derived from God’s presence among us and of it being right to delight in it:
“This is the joy which we experience daily, amid the little things of life, as a response to the loving invitation of God our Father: “My child, treat yourself well, according to your means… Do not deprive yourself of the day’s enjoyment” (Sirach 14:11, 14). What tender paternal love echoes in these words!” (§4)
Not only is joy a clear theme already for the people of Israel, but it is repeatedly underlined by Jesus too during his time with the apostles:
“The Gospel, radiant with the glory of Christ’s cross, constantly invites us to rejoice. […] His message brings us joy: “I have said these things to you, so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11). Our Christian joy drinks of the wellspring of his brimming heart.” (§5)
The joy of the Gospel that Francis speaks about is not a naïve escapism, or only a perk of good times. Instead, it must permeate all of a Christian’s life, like it did that of Jesus:
“I realize of course that joy is not expressed the same way at all times in life, especially at moments of great difficulty. Joy adapts and changes, but it always endures, even as a flicker of light born of our personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved. I understand the grief of people who have to endure great suffering, yet slowly but surely we all have to let the joy of faith slowly revive as a quiet yet firm trust, even amid the greatest distress.” (§6)
Francis reminds us that the promise of joy comes from Jesus himself, who said “You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy” (John 16:20) and that a lack of trust in it “is a defeatism which turns us into querulous and disillusioned pessimists, “sourpusses”,” (§85) it makes our “lives seem like Lent without Easter” (§6).

Personally, Francis’ words have been an examination of conscience for me and I have found his positioning of joy as a benchmark of a genuine relationship with Jesus and those around me a great help. It also reminded me of a chat I had with Hans (the responsible for men focolarini) when I was around 20 years old, who told me - in the context of discerning my vocation - “You will know that you have made the right choice, because you will be happy.” These words have stayed with me since and have proven invaluable in trying to understand God’s will at particularly important moments. In this sense, and well aligned with Francis, joy is not only a reward and an effect, but can also be an indicator.

Thinking about what Francis emphasizes about joy, I am struck not only by its clear logic, but also by its close harmony with the Ideal. Already in the first six paragraphs, which have provided all of the above insights, there is reference to life in the present moment, to the presence of Jesus in the midst, to starting again, to joy flowing from suffering and to the primacy of love.

Joy compels us to share itself with everyone

A rich and deep joy, like the one Francis describes, is something that cannot be contained, something that we can’t keep just for ourselves. It is a joy that compels us to share itself with others. As Francis puts it:
“Thanks solely to this encounter […] with God’s love, which blossoms into an enriching friendship, we are liberated from our narrowness and self-absorption. We become fully human when we become more than human, when we let God bring us beyond ourselves in order to attain the fullest truth of our being. Here we find the source and inspiration of all our efforts at evangelization. For if we have received the love which restores meaning to our lives, how can we fail to share that love with others? […] What kind of love would not feel the need to speak of the beloved, to point him out, to make him known?” (§8, 264)
Such a joy-inducing encounter with Jesus cannot be lived alone; it would make us burst if we didn’t share it and pass it on to others.

In the same breath as pointing out the necessity of inviting others to participate in the joy of the Gospel, Francis insists that it is intended for all, without exception. It is not only meant for those whom we like, for fellow Christians, or even for all men and women of good will.
“[I]t is vitally important for the Church today to go forth and preach the Gospel to all: to all places, on all occasions, without hesitation, reluctance or fear. The joy of the Gospel is for all people: no one can be excluded.” (§23)
And he adds later:
“Wherever the need for the light and the life of the Risen Christ is greatest, [the Church] will want to be there.” (§30)
As an example of such great need, Francis provides an analysis of how making everything disposable in contemporary culture leads not only to a marginalization but even to a total exclusion of some people from society:
“We have created a “throw away” culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast, the “leftovers”.” (§53)
Francis’ insistence on universality and on the desire of sharing the joy we have received from Jesus is also very much like how Chiara Lubich saw the consequences of unity, as she describes in a letter from 1948:
“The happiness we experience in the unity that you [Jesus] have given us through your death is something we wish to give to all those who pass next to us! We can’t keep it just for ourselves seeing that there are so many who hunger and thirst for this fullness of peace, this infinite joy that we were experiencing!”
But how do we help others develop a relationship with Jesus that then gives them access to His joy? Here, Francis makes several suggestions throughout Evangelii Gaudium. The first is to think about how it was that we grew our own relationship with Jesus and to pass that on to those we meet:
“All of us are called to offer others an explicit witness to the saving love of the Lord, who despite our imperfections offers us his closeness, his word and his strength, and gives meaning to our lives. In your heart you know that it is not the same to live without him; what you have come to realize, what has helped you to live and given you hope, is what you also need to communicate to others. Our falling short of perfection should be no excuse; on the contrary, mission is a constant stimulus not to remain mired in mediocrity but to continue growing.” (§121)
The second piece of advice is to be attentive to unexpected, informal moments that are open to our sharing of Jesus’ joy with others:
“Today, as the Church seeks to experience a profound missionary renewal, there is a kind of preaching which falls to each of us as a daily responsibility. It has to do with bringing the Gospel to the people we meet, whether they be our neighbours or complete strangers. This is the informal preaching which takes place in the middle of a conversation, something along the lines of what a missionary does when visiting a home. Being a disciple means being constantly ready to bring the love of Jesus to others, and this can happen unexpectedly and in any place: on the street, in a city square, during work, on a journey.” (§127)
The third recommendation, or better put, an invitation, is to imitate Jesus’ own method of sharing his Good News, which is that of “closeness.” Let me quote the entire paragraph in which Francis sets this method out, as I consider it to be one of the great jewels in this document:
“Jesus himself is the model of this method of evangelization which brings us to the very heart of his people. How good it is for us to contemplate the closeness which he shows to everyone! If he speaks to someone, he looks into their eyes with deep love and concern: “Jesus, looking upon him, loved him” (Mark 10:21). We see how accessible he is, as he draws near the blind man (cf. Mark 10:46-52) and eats and drinks with sinners (cf. Mark 2:16) without worrying about being thought a glutton and a drunkard himself (cf. Matthew 11:19). We see his sensitivity in allowing a sinful woman to anoint his feet (cf. Luke 7:36-50) and in receiving Nicodemus by night (cf. John 3:1-15). Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is nothing else than the culmination of the way he lived his entire life. Moved by his example, we want to enter fully into the fabric of society, sharing the lives of all, listening to their concerns, helping them materially and spiritually in their needs, rejoicing with those who rejoice, weeping with those who weep; arm in arm with others, we are committed to building a new world. But we do so not from a sense of obligation, not as a burdensome duty, but as the result of a personal decision which brings us joy and gives meaning to our lives.” (§269)
And finally, Francis also provides a particularly lucid synthesis of the basic principles of how to share the Gospel with others:
“All […] have a right to receive the Gospel. Christians have the duty to proclaim the Gospel without excluding anyone. Instead of seeming to impose new obligations, they should appear as people who wish to share their joy, who point to a horizon of beauty and who invite others to a delicious banquet.” (§15)
And he concludes by paraphrasing Benedict XVI: “It is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but “by attraction”.”

When I think about my own experience in terms of relationships with others and with God, I clearly recognize the closeness that Francis speaks about and that he identifies as Jesus’ method. Spending a Saturday putting up shelves with one person, driving for hours to pick up some leaflets with another, or sharing a room with someone I have never met before but whose obvious love towards me was the start of a strong friendship, are all specific events, with names and dates, that stick in my mind as moments characterized by closeness. Closeness that attracted me to the other person’s choice of God, that filled me with joy and that built a lasting bond.

Wherever we go, Jesus is already there

Leaving our excursion through Evangelii Gaudium at this point - after having looked at what Francis means by the joy of the Gospel and how he sees it as something that we want to and must share with all - would already be an enriching experience. However, I believe that there is a third strand in Francis’ thought that very much complements the first two and that gives them a new dimension, which is both humbling and empowering. This third dimension is the realization that our efforts to share the joy of the Gospel with others aren’t a matter of us being in possession of Jesus and playing the role of grandees whose generosity provides Him to others. Francis puts it very clearly already in the third paragraph of Evangelii Gaudium:
“The Lord does not disappoint those who take this risk [- the risk of being open to an encounter with Him]; whenever we take a step towards Jesus, we come to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms.” (§3)
When I read these words now, they strike me as having great importance, but I have to admit that they only made me stop when I read them a second time, after hearing the talk Francis gave to missionary families from the Neocatechumenal Way, before their setting off for faraway destinations. There he expands on the idea of God always preceding us:
“[W]herever you may go, it would do you well to think that the Spirit of God always gets there ahead of us. The Lord always precedes us! ... Even in the most faraway places, even in the most diverse cultures, God scatters everywhere the seeds of his Word. [… We need to learn] how to recognize the need of the Gospel, which is present everywhere, but also that action that the Holy Spirit has accomplished in the life and in the history of every people.”
These words immediately resonated with the relationships I have with friends from other religions, agnostics and atheist. It seemed to me like Francis put my own experiences in new terms, yet terms that fit them like a glove. Thinking about the close friends I have who are agnostics or atheist, and reflecting on the gifts I have received from them, I can identify features in them that do indicate actions of the Holy Spirit and seeds of the Word.

Armed with this insight from the talk to the Neocatechumenal Way, re-reading Evangelii Gaudium now looked like it was peppered with references to evangelization being a following after Jesus rather than a striking out into the unknown or a bringing of light into total darkness.

In fact, Francis takes this idea even further, by insisting that the gifts God gave others are there also for us to discover and enjoy:
“If we really believe in the abundantly free working of the Holy Spirit, we can learn so much from one another! It is not just about being better informed about others, but rather about reaping what the Spirit has sown in them, which is also meant to be a gift for us.” (§246)
He then proceeds to apply this insight also to the followers of non-Christian and non-Abrahamic religions by saying that:
“God’s working in them tends to produce signs and rites, sacred expressions which in turn bring others to a communitarian experience of journeying towards God. While these lack the meaning and efficacy of the sacraments instituted by Christ, they can be channels which the Holy Spirit raises up in order to liberate non-Christians from […] immanentism or from purely individual religious experiences. The same Spirit everywhere brings forth various forms of practical wisdom which help people to bear suffering and to live in greater peace and harmony. As Christians, we can also benefit from these treasures built up over many centuries, which can help us better to live our own beliefs.” (§254)
In other words, the Holy Spirit guides the followers of other religions too on our collective journey towards God and helps them along the way with gifts that are treasures for us too and that also enrich our own beliefs and lives.

Finally, and more surprisingly, Francis looks for the footsteps of the Holy Spirit not only in other religions, where he follows the clear example of Vatican II, but also in secularized urban environments, where he encourages us to develop a new optics:
“We need to look at our cities with a contemplative gaze, a gaze of faith which sees God dwelling in their homes, in their streets and squares. God’s presence accompanies the sincere efforts of individuals and groups to find encouragement and meaning in their lives. He dwells among them, fostering solidarity, fraternity, and the desire for goodness, truth and justice. This presence must not be contrived but found, uncovered.” (§71)
Reading the above passage made me think, e.g., of Grayson Perry’s Reith Lectures from last year, where he spoke about art and where he noted the challenges of an artist’s pursuit of their calling in a world whose default method is “detached irony.” His response was to declare that “perhaps the most shocking tactic that’s left to artists these days is sincerity.” To my mind this is very much aligned with Francis’ words.

I also see the above passage as a concrete plan for how I can better relate to my colleagues and acquaintances in whose lives I see a great deal of good, often sought under challenging family and personal circumstances, but very clearly lived both for individual good and for the good of all. Instead of only feeling a desire to share Jesus’ love with them, I can also be more attentive to recognizing God’s presence in their lives - an aspect that I was already aware of but that Francis’ words have brought out with greater clarity.

In summary, Francis places repeated emphasis on God’s preceding us wherever we go to spread the joy of the Good News. Be it far away lands with cultures very different from our own, or the cities we live in and from whose culture religion is largely absent. In all of these cases the Holy Spirit is at work though, for the good of those, whose lives he enters without their even being aware of it, but also for our own benefit. God’s presence among all who sincerely seek meaning, harmony, peace, beauty and goodness awaits us with open arms and is ready to reciprocate our sharing of the joy of the Gospel.