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December 7, 2013

Evangelizing communities described in Pope Francis' apostolic exhortation -
What a good homily is -
Evangelization fosters evangelizers' growth -
Parishes and evangelization

In this edition:
1. Papal exhortation seizes attention.
2. An evangelizing community.
3. Why your faith story matters.
4. Quotes from the apostolic exhortation:
a) Trickle-down economic theories.
b) Evangelizers, people who grow.
c) Women and church decision making.
d) Church decentralization.
5. Priests and mission.
6. Parishes today.
7. Features of good homilies.

1. Papal Document Seizes World's Attention

"I am a mission on this earth; that is the reason why I am here in this world." Those words of Pope Francis are found in the apostolic exhortation he issued Nov. 26 on proclaiming the Gospel in the world today.

The exhortation reflects upon the new evangelization, which was the theme of the October 2012 world Synod of Bishops in Rome. The new document encourages evangelizers to draw close in caring ways to this world's people and to enter a respectful dialogue with them.

In this way, the pope suggests, faith is shared not only because of the words used to express it but because it becomes visible in those who evangelize. He describes evangelization both as essential for the church and as the task of every member of the faith community.

"My mission of being in the heart of the people is not just a part of my life or a badge I can take off; it is not an 'extra' or just another moment in life," Pope Francis says. Rather, he states, "it is something I cannot uproot from my being without destroying my very self."

It is said that in preparing this apostolic exhortation, Pope Francis declined to work from a draft prepared by the Synod Secretariat. It certainly does seem that the document reflects his thinking. And if it contains much that is new, it also appears to sum up much that this pope has been saying since his election.

"It is clear when you read [the apostolic exhortation] . . . that it is pure Pope Francis," Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, Fla.," wrote in his blog on that diocese's website. He proclaimed the pope "absolutely amazing."

Bishop Lynch thought "there were probably few ghostwriters" for the exhortation. He described the document as "a challenge to the church from a shepherd who lived and worked in a large urban environment in the new world where everything does not work or look like it might in Europe."

Bishop David Ricken of Green Bay, Wis., chairman of the U.S. Catholic bishops' Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis, said upon the document's release that "Pope Francis is a living model of the new evangelization." The pope, he said, "is showing us how to live the Gospels and reach out to the world with what every person needs, a relationship with God."

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, retired archbishop of Washington, said during a Dec. 2 program at Jesuit-run Georgetown University in Washington that Pope Francis is insisting with the apostolic exhortation that "the Gospel is good news, and we ought to act like it is. Pope Francis is not ashamed to say he wants a church of the poor and for the poor."

2. What Evangelizing Communities Do

"An evangelizing community," according to Pope Francis' apostolic exhortation, "gets involved by word and deed in people's daily lives." That means, he writes, that "it bridges distances, it is willing to abase itself if necessary, and it embraces human life, touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others."

Thus, he added, evangelizers "take on the 'smell of the sheep' and the sheep are willing to hear their voice."

That remark reflects one Pope Francis made in March during the Holy Week Chrism Mass he celebrated at the Vatican. Speaking to priests, he said: "This I ask you: Be shepherds with the 'odor of the sheep' . . . shepherds among your flock, fishers of men."

Pope Francis dreams, he says in his new document, "of a 'missionary option,' that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything so that the church's customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today's world rather than for her self-preservation."

A renewal of church structures for pastoral purposes "can only be understood in this light," the pope believes. Such renewal needs to be understood as part of an effort to make structures "more mission oriented, to make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open, to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth and in this way to elicit a positive response from all those whom Jesus summons to friendship with him."

The accent Pope Francis places on evangelization as a means of drawing closer to others extends, of course, to the poor. "For the church, the option for the poor is primarily a theological category rather than a cultural, sociological, political or philosophical one. God shows the poor 'his first mercy,'" the pope says.

"I want a church which is poor and for the poor," Pope Francis writes. For, "they have much to teach us." Notably, for example, the poor "know the suffering Christ." So "we need to let ourselves be evangelized by them."

Pope Francis considers the new evangelization "an invitation to acknowledge the saving power at work" in the lives of the poor "and to put them at the center of the church's pilgrim way."

So much has been written about the apostolic exhortation in the short time since its release! For awhile around the time of Thanksgiving it seemed that every publication I picked up, along with every TV news program and a great many news-related websites were discussing the document.

Most of that reporting related to Pope Francis' discussion of the workings and nonworkings of the economy. So in this edition of the jknirp.com newsletter I want to explore a few of its less-well-covered points, but points nonetheless of real importance in the pope's mind and from pastoral points of view.

3. Evangelization and Your Faith Story

Self-awareness is valuable for people of faith when it comes to carrying out the mission of evangelization, Pope Francis suggests in "The Joy of the Gospel," the just-released apostolic exhortation. In recognizing the role that Christ and faith have played in their lives, people also recognize what it is about faith that they are ready and able to share with others.

"In your heart you know that it is not the same to live without [the Lord]; 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," the pope writes.

He says that "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."

To persevere in evangelization, Pope Francis considers it essential that "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."

We evangelize because "we know well that with Jesus life becomes richer and that with him it is easier to find meaning in everything," according to the pope. He says that "every Christian is challenged, here and now, to be actively engaged in evangelization."

Moreover, he advises, "anyone who has truly experienced God's saving love does not need much time or lengthy training to go out and proclaim that love."

Since Pope Francis cautions in the document against self-centered approaches to spirituality, it seems safe to say that his observations about the value in recognizing personal experiences of God's love are not meant to give rise to evangelizers whose message is all about themselves, so to speak.

The apostolic exhortation is clear that the focus in evangelization is on Jesus Christ, the Gospel message and dialogue with the others one encounters. It is essential, the pope makes clear, to learn "to find Jesus in the faces of others, in their voices, in their pleas." Thus, it would seem, evangelization never could be a self-focused endeavor -- all about oneself.

Still, the apostolic exhortation indicates that it is important that those who evangelize be aware of their own story of faith and recognize why they value faith. The hint here, as I see it, is that evangelizers need to take time to reflect on their faith. In becoming aware of the role Christ has played in their lives and of faith's importance to them, they will become more effective evangelizers.

4. Quotes From "The Joy of the Gospel"

Trickle-down Economics: "Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed." (No. 54)

Evangelizers, People Who Grow: "When we live out a spirituality of drawing nearer to others and seeking their welfare, our hearts are opened wide to the Lord's greatest and most beautiful gifts. Whenever we encounter another person in love, we learn something new about God. Whenever our eyes are opened to acknowledge the other, we grow in the light of faith and knowledge of God. If we want to advance in the spiritual life, then, we must constantly be missionaries. The work of evangelization enriches the mind and the heart; it opens up spiritual horizons; it makes us more and more sensitive to the workings of the Holy Spirit, and it takes us beyond our limited spiritual constructs." (No. 272)

Women and Church Decision Making: "The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion, but it can prove especially divisive if sacramental power is too closely identified with power in general. It must be remembered that when we speak of sacramental power 'we are in the realm of function, not that of dignity or holiness.' The ministerial priesthood is one means employed by Jesus for the service of his people, yet our great dignity derives from baptism, which is accessible to all. . . . This presents a great challenge for pastors and theologians, who are in a position to recognize more fully what this entails with regard to the possible role of women in decision making in different areas of the church's life." (No. 104)

Decentralization in the Church: "It is not advisable for the pope to take the place of local bishops in the discernment of every issue which arises in their territory. In this sense, I am conscious of the need to promote a sound 'decentralization.'" (No. 16)

5. Priests and Mission

Pope Francis prefers "a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security," he writes in "The Joy of the Gospel."

In today's world, where so many feel anonymous and overlooked, and even disrespected, "ordained ministers and other pastoral workers can make present the fragrance of Christ's closeness and his personal gaze," the pope says. However, he advises, "the church will have to initiate everyone -- priests, religious and laity" into the "'art of accompaniment,' which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other (cf. Ex 3:5)."

A "dearth of vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life" is experienced in many places nowadays, the pope notes. This, he says, "is often due to a lack of contagious apostolic fervor in communities that results in a cooling of enthusiasm and attractiveness."

He expresses confidence that "wherever there is life, fervor and a desire to bring Christ to others, genuine vocations will arise." Even if the priests of some parishes "are not particularly committed or joyful, the fraternal life and fervor of the community can awaken in the young a desire to consecrate themselves completely to God and to the preaching of the Gospel," the pope writes.

However, "despite the scarcity of vocations, today we are increasingly aware of the need for a better process of selecting candidates to the priesthood," he says. "Seminaries," he adds, "cannot accept candidates on the basis of any motivation whatsoever, especially if those motivations have to do with affective insecurity or the pursuit of power, human glory or economic well-being."

The ordained priest's configuration "to Christ the head -- namely, as the principal source of grace -- does not imply an exaltation which would set him above others," Pope Francis states. He explains that "even when the function of ministerial priesthood is considered 'hierarchical,' it must be remembered that 'it is totally ordered to the holiness of Christ's members.'"

The "key and axis" in this regard "is not power understood as domination, but the power to administer the sacrament of the Eucharist; this is the origin of its authority, which is always a service to God's people."

6. Parishes Today

The importance of parishes in these times is addressed by the apostolic exhortation. Pope Francis writes:

"The parish is not an outdated institution; precisely because it possesses great flexibility, it can assume quite different contours depending on the openness and missionary creativity of the pastor and the community.

"While certainly not the only institution which evangelizes, if it proves capable of self-renewal and constant adaptivity, it continues to be 'the church living in the midst of the homes of her sons and daughters.' This presumes that it really is in contact with the homes and the lives of its people, and does not become a useless structure out of touch with people or a self-absorbed cluster made up of a chosen few."

A parish, Pope Francis comments, "is the presence of the church in a given territory, an environment for hearing God's word, for growth in the Christian life, for dialogue, proclamation, charitable outreach, worship and celebration." He says that "in all its activities the parish encourages and trains its members to be evangelizers."

For the pope, a parish "is a community of communities," it is "a sanctuary where the thirsty come to drink in the midst of their journey and a center of constant missionary outreach." However, he thinks it must be admitted "that the call to review and renew our parishes has not yet sufficed to bring them nearer to people, to make them environments of living communion and participation, and to make them completely mission-oriented."

7. Features of Good Homilies

"The homily is the touchstone for judging a pastor's closeness and ability to communicate to his people," according to Pope Francis. Many may not realize that preaching is a major concern in "The Joy of the Gospel," treated at length in a section accenting the importance of preparing homilies and assuring that they relate to the needs of actual worship communities.

"Preparation for preaching is so important a task that a prolonged time of study, prayer, reflection and pastoral creativity should be devoted to it," says the pope.

A good homily "is positive," he notes. "It is not so much concerned with pointing out what shouldn't be done, but with suggesting what we can do better." Even when a homily "does draw attention to something negative, it will also attempt to point to a positive and attractive value, lest it remain mired in complaints, laments, criticisms and reproaches," he adds.

"Positive preaching," he explains, "always offers hope, points to the future, does not leave us trapped in negativity."

It is known that the church's people "attach great importance" to homilies, Pope Francis says. It is known, too, "that both they and their ordained ministers suffer because of homilies: the laity from having to listen to them and the clergy from having to preach them!"

However, he stresses, "the homily can actually be an intense and happy experience of the Spirit, a consoling encounter with God's word, a constant source of renewal and growth."

The homily is a form of dialogue, according to Pope Francis. He thinks "it is worth remembering that 'the liturgical proclamation of the word of God, especially in the eucharistic assembly, is not so much a time for meditation and catechesis as a dialogue between God and his people, a dialogue in which the great deeds of salvation are proclaimed and the demands of the covenant are continually restated.'"

However, he points out, "the preacher must know the heart of his community in order to realize where its desire for God is alive and ardent." The pope says that "the Lord truly enjoys talking with his people," and "the preacher should strive to communicate that same enjoyment to his listeners."

The dialogue that takes place with a homily "is much more than the communication of a truth," the pope makes clear. He says that this dialogue "arises from the enjoyment of speaking, and it enriches those who express their love for one another through the medium of words."

He cautions that "a preaching which would be purely moralistic or doctrinaire, or one which turns into a lecture on biblical exegesis, detracts from this heart-to-heart communication which takes place in the homily."

A preacher's "greatest risk," Pope Francis cautions, "is that he becomes so accustomed to his own language that he thinks that everyone else naturally understands and uses it." The pope says that "if we wish to adapt to people's language and to reach them with God's word, we need to share in their lives and pay loving attention to them."

In the pope's mind a homilist risks speaking as "a false prophet, a fraud, a shallow imposter" when he does not take "time to hear God's word with an open heart," when he "does not allow it to touch his life, to challenge him, to impel him" and "does not devote time to pray with that word."

Those who preach "are not asked to be flawless, but to keep growing and wanting to grow" as they "advance along the path of the Gospel," Pope Francis states. "What is essential," he adds, "is that the preacher be certain that God loves him, that Jesus Christ has saved him and that his love has always the last word."