A copy of the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) by Pope Francis is seen during a news conference at the Vatican Nov. 26. In his first extensive piece of writing as Pope, Pope Francis lays out a vision of the Catholic Church dedicated to evangelization, with a focus on society’s poorest and most vulnerable, including the aged and unborn. Reaction has been positive from Canadians like Jesuit Father Bill Ryan and theologian Catherine Clifford. CNS photo/Alessandro Bianchi, Reuters

Plenty for Canadians to like in Evangelii Gaudium

  • December 8, 2013

The Church of Pope Francis’ dreams, a Church that is poor and for the poor, is becoming the dream of Canadians, many of whom, from all across the spectrum, have been left smiling by Pope Francis’ love letter to the Church on the new evangelization.

“A lot of people are going to read it and that makes me smile,” Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops’ president Archbishop Paul-André Durocher told The Catholic Register as he was working his way through the 50,000 words of Evangelii Gaudium.

“My heart just grew several sizes… God is at work in His Church,” said St. Augustine’s Seminary professor of homiletics Deacon Peter Lovrick.

“These are things that are exactly what needs to be said in these times,” said London, Ontario’s King’s College University theologian Carolyn Chau.

“I love the title of his exhortation, which is ‘The Joy of the Gospel.’ What a lovely message,” said Saint Paul University theologian Catherine Clifford.

From ecumenists to missionaries, lay people to archbishops, there’s something for every Catholic in Evangelii Gaudium, published Nov. 26. But the real story of the document may lie in its footnotes.

“If you read the footnotes then you know what the text is,” said Jesuit Father Bill Ryan of the Jesuit Forum for Social Faith and Justice.

As a former general secretary of the Canadian bishops’ conference, Ryan couldn’t help noticing the 21 footnotes that reference statements by conferences of bishops or regional groupings of bishops’ conferences.

“He’s listening to all those different conferences. This is, in other words, a different way to write a document,” said Ryan.

Quoting the bishops of Congo, the United States, France and Latin America didn’t happen by accident. The Pope is trying to make a point, said McGill University theologian Gregory Baum, a former advisor to the bishops at the Second Vatican Council.

Rather than just talking about decentralization, Francis is showing the Church what it would look like. “Francis really does hope to have collegiality. He talks about it and he makes such public gestures,” said Baum.

In the 1970s and ’80s bishops’ conferences in the United States, Brazil and Canada were a larger part of the public face of the Church. The Canadian bishops’ New Year’s Day statement in 1983, “Ethical Reflections on the Economic Crisis,” sparked a nation-wide debate in Canada, to say nothing of widespread contempt heaped on the bishops by politicians and Bay Street.

Since the 1990s the Vatican has kept a closer eye on what bishops’ conferences do and say. Apostolos Suos in 1998, a statement from Pope John Paul II, gave juridical status to the conferences in a way that sharply limited their ability to teach. Without criticizing the direction under the two previous popes, Francis calls for an expanded role for bishops’ conferences.

“Excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church’s life and her missionary outreach,” writes the Pope.

But any return to the 1970s and 1980s, when the CCCB had more than twice the staff it does today, is unwise and impossible, said Durocher.

“The reality in the Church in Canada is that we are poorer than we were 20, 30, 40 years ago,” said the CCCB president. “We no longer have those resources.”

It’s not just the conference that doesn’t have money for a large research staff and professional lobbying organization. Most parishes and dioceses in Canada are shrinking, and with the shrinkage comes smaller bank accounts, smaller staffs. The only way for the CCCB to grow would be to take a bigger share off collection plates.

“What we have to ask ourselves is, how can we respond to the reality of today’s world with the new methods of communication that we have now?” said Durocher. “Ask ourselves how we can better use the resources we have to do the mission of the Church. The Pope speaks about evangelizing — on the one hand bring the people to Christ but also bringing Christ to people, particularly the poorest, through our love and our solidarity. How we do this is the challenge before us.”

The Pope does not mention budgets — he’s more concerned by the dignity and the freedom of bishops to teach as an authoritative body, said Clifford.

“This decentralization he’s hoping to accomplish is a kind of devolution of teaching and discernment to the worldwide episcopate,” she said. “And in his own teaching he is giving voice to the living faith of the Catholic world and the wisdom of his fellow bishops from around the world. I think that’s an interesting development. It’s a reversal of dynamics, isn’t it?”

It’s not as if Francis is foisting extra responsibility on bishops who would rather have Rome do and say everything.

“The men who elected him have given him a very clear mandate to move in this direction,” said Clifford. “We know that from the kind of conversation that took place in the general congregation that preceded the conclave of election.”

When the Pope says it’s not necessary for Rome to decide every question, it’s not just a challenge to bishops’ conferences. Francis is also asking lay people to break with a clerical mindset.

“For those who long for a monolithic body of doctrine guarded by all and leaving no room for nuance, this might appear as undesirable and leading to confusion. But in fact such variety serves to bring out and develop different facets of the inexhaustible riches of the Gospel,” Francis writes.

“As Catholics we tend to be either solely focused on our parish or solely focused on the Pope,” said Durocher. “There’s either an incipient congregationalism or an ultramontanism that makes us look to Rome.”

Rediscovering mission as the most direct way of defining what the Church is and is not has enormous potential to recalibrate Catholic thinking, said Chau.

“It does a lot to counter this notion of the Church as the Church of rules, not only the Church of rules but the Church of archaic rules,” she said. “Just as they were saying at Vatican II, it’s not just the responsibility of the hierarchy and the clergy. It’s really about the whole people of God recognizing that mission is part of their baptismal responsibility.”

For a modern missionary, hearing the Pope say the Church is missionary is like water in the desert.

“If you don’t paint an ideal, how are you going to aspire to it,” said Fr. Brian Swords, moderator of Scarboro Missions. “He’s etching out an ideal. It has multiple applications…. This is crucial to our ongoing. If we don’t have it we’re going off on our own into the desert. We have to be in the world.”

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