Mission and the Worldly Spirit

Author: Father Robert P. Imbelli

Mission and the Worldly Spirit

Father Robert P. Imbelli

The challenge of Evangelii Gaudium

The author of the following article wrote on the same theme in the book, "Rekindling the Christic Imagination: Theological Meditations for the New Evangelization“ (Collegeville, Liturgical Press, 2014).

In mapping the journey of evangelization, Pope Francis warns, discerningly, of obstacles on the way. He cautions about the “dark side” of secularity: the individualism it breeds, the relativism it propagates, the consumerism it celebrates, the “throw away” mentality that follows in its wake. Francis also draws on the church’s teachings on social justice to denounce a rapacious economic system that produces dehumanizing poverty, both material and cultural, for many.

But Francis also bluntly addresses obstacles to the joyful proclamation of the Gospel that reside within the Church itself. Among these he lists the lack of a truly collegial sharing of gifts and a clericalism motivated more by power-seeking than service of the Gospel. And his discernment probes deeper still.

The Pope frequently warns of a “worldly spirituality” that has lost its anchor in Christ and the Spirit and drifts aimlessly. Too often we permit others to set the agenda rather than allow Christ and his Gospel to direct our undertakings. He laments:

At times our media culture and some intellectual circles convey a marked skepticism with regard to the Church’s message, along with a certain cynicism. As a consequence, many pastoral workers, although they pray, develop a sort of inferiority complex which leads them to relativize or conceal their Christian identity and convictions. This produces a vicious circle. They end up being unhappy with who they are and what they do; they do not identify with their mission of evangelization and this weakens their commitment. They end up stifling the joy of mission with a kind of obsession about being like everyone else and possessing what everyone else possesses. Their work of evangelization thus becomes forced, and they devote little energy and very limited time to it (79).

The only remedy for such alienation is conversion: turning again to the person of Jesus Christ and to the joy of encounter with him. Thus the Pope writes: “I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them. I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since “no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord” (3).

Francis reiterates here what he has often stressed in homilies and talks: the heart of the Gospel is mysticism more than moralism. Of course, Christians must come to the aid of the poor and oppressed. They must be concerned about environmental degradation and religious intolerance and persecution. But this moral sensibility flows from a compelling and sustaining vision: the vision of the Lord who was crucified for our justification and raised to life for our salvation. Ultimately, the love of Jesus impels us. So Francis writes: “The primary reason for evangelizing is the love of Jesus which we have received, the experience of salvation which urges us to ever greater love of him. What kind of love would not feel the need to speak of the beloved, to point him out, to make him known? If we do not feel an intense desire to share this love, we need to pray insistently that he will once more touch our hearts. We need to implore his grace daily, asking him to open our cold hearts and shake up our lukewarm and superficial existence” (264).

Francis shares with Pope emeritus Benedict XVI the conviction that the evangelical task is to promote a new or renewed encounter with the Mystery of God in Christ. They both insist that our communication must be “mystagogical”: leading into a deeper realization of the inexhaustible Mystery of our saving God. Such communication recognizes the importance of image and symbol, of art and poetry. It urges evangelizers, homilists, and theologians to appeal not only to truth and goodness, but to beauty as well. Francis recommends “a renewed esteem for beauty as a means of touching the human heart and enabling the truth and goodness of the Risen Christ to radiate within it.... A formation in the via pulchritudinis ought to be part of our effort to pass on the faith. Each particular Church should encourage the use of the arts in evangelization, building on the treasures of the past but also drawing upon the wide variety of contemporary expressions so as to transmit the faith in a new “language of parables” (167).

The theme of the “newness” of Jesus Christ permeates Evangelii Gaudium. The risen Jesus is the heart of the Good News we seek to live and to share. Pope Francis quotes St Irenaeus: “By his coming, Christ brought with him all newness”. The Holy Father then comments: “With this newness Jesus is always able to renew our lives and our communities, and even if the Christian message has known periods of darkness and ecclesial weakness, it will never grow old.... Each time we return to the source and recover the original freshness of the Gospel, new paths open — creative methods, different forms of expression, more eloquent signs, words filled with new meaning for today’s world. In reality, every authentic act of evangelization is always ‘new’”(11).

The reason evangelizers can venture forth boldly, even to the farthest peripheries, is that their Center is secure: Jesus Christ “the same, yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb 13:8). Because the risen Lord is ever new, he makes all things new.

L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
10 April 2015, page 9

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