The Little Flowers of Pope Francis

by Bishop James D. Conley
The personally convicting message of Evangelii Gaudium

There is a point to the popular mythology about Saint Francis of Assisi. Obviously, the emasculated bard of the 1972 film Brother Sun, Sister Moon is a mostly insipid caricature. Saint Francis of Assisi was much more than an animal-loving peacenik with an odd haircut.

But the popular mythology is symbolic of the prevailing reality of Francis of Assisi: He lived a policy of joyful and intense engagement with the real world. He was a missionary disciple of Jesus Christ: alive, open, and convicted. He proclaimed the mercy of God, manifested in the incarnation of Christ His son, and he proclaimed our sinfulness. He was aware of our mortality, and he was aware of our eternal destiny.

Saint Francis was a poet, a pastor, and an evangelist: He stood before sultans and saints, beggars and bishops, and he preached Jesus Christ crucified. And Saint Francis lived a Gospel that was unnuanced, optimistic, and ceaselessly demanding. Saint Francis was the man who said that “pure joy” would come through being tossed from a monastery, left in the snow, denied, and abandoned. Some would say he was insane, a madman — others that he was a passionate Christian. I prefer the latter perspective.

But I think Saint Francis is reduced to a caricature to diminish the radical call of his life. It’s easier to recast the saint as a medieval flower child, preaching unbridled sentimentality, than it is to take seriously the witness of solidarity and fidelity he lived.

Pope Francis’s recently released apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, reflects the charism and dynamism of his namesake. The document sketches an expansive vision of the Church — joyful, missionary, and charitable.  

Evangelii Gaudium does not present a new ecclesiology: We’ve long known that the Church is its mission. And the text upholds a hermeneutic of continuity with the historical doctrine of the Catholic faith. But what makes this text remarkable is its candor, breadth, and expectations. No one can read Evangelii Gaudium without being reminded of God’s love.

But like the Gospel that Saint Francis preached, Evangelii Gaudium is demanding. Anyone who reads it honestly will be convicted. The Holy Father unmasks the false rigidity, the relativism, the consumerism, and the complacency that hampers the Christian life. Evangelii Gaudium identifies the temptations and pitfalls of Christians, with insight garnered from decades in leadership. Only a pastor, and a very good one, could have written such a thing.

Among other things, the pope critiques the belief that unregulated free markets will “inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world.” The Holy Father criticizes those who place “crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”

Thoughtful Catholics, thoughtful economists, and thoughtful policymakers know that there is no perfect economic system. They observe that markets cannot be totally rational, or totally just. Even when markets are self-correcting, they note, consequences for greed, undue excess, or irrational speculation are spread among real human beings, with real families and real dignity at stake. Most reasonable conservative leaders recognize the value of limited government regulation, even in mostly free markets, as essential for protecting the most vulnerable.

Evangelii Gaudium did not reject capitalism, or even particular market theories. Instead, it rejected idolatry of any economic system as a panacea, and it called Catholics to human solidarity in the context of public policy. The pope affirmed that markets must be understood and administered in justice, with due regard for the sovereignty and solidarity of families and human dignity. Pope Benedict XVI presented similar ideas in depth in 2009, as did Saint Thomas Aquinas and Saint Augustine. Evangelii Gaudium’s economic message was particularly powerful because it called all of us to consider the consequences of our own financial decisions.  

The personal and convicting message of Pope Francis requires us to examine carefully the humanity of our public policy, and of our private lives. It calls us to self-examination, and, more important, self-denial. It calls us to temper the pursuit of our own prosperity by our obligations to our fellow human beings. But Pope Francis is not calling for an advent of socialist economic policy or radical income redistribution. The Holy Father has lived through Latin America’s 50-year cycle of extremist economic policies. He’s calling for moderation, for freedom, and above all, for virtue.

But because Pope Francis’s message is personally convicting, it is now being reduced to a sophomoric caricature.

Last week, one conservative commentator called Pope Francis’s message “pure Marxism.” He said the pope is “dramatically, embarrassingly, puzzlingly wrong,” and suggested that Pope Francis is ignorant of basic economics and has no business even raising the subject. Why? To ensure that the Holy Father’s message, like Saint Francis’s, won’t be taken seriously. Eight hundred years after his namesake, Pope Francis is reduced to a cartoonish socialist to quiet consciences rankled by exhortation.

The Holy Father is not a politician or an economist. But he is a very good pastor. He recognizes the sinfulness of Christians and the shortcomings of the Church. He recognizes our vices and our temptations. He calls us to be the best of our humanity: He calls us to discipleship in Jesus Christ and solidarity with our brothers and sisters. The invitation of Evangelii Gaudium is challenging and discomforting. We can accept the challenge of his message, or we can neuter it of meaning. But however we respond, the invitation to virtue, solidarity, and sanctity will remain an invitation to a Gospel of pure joy.

— The Most Rev. James D. Conley is bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Lincoln, Neb.