An Invitation from an American in Rome to Authenticity, Tenderness, Joy

by Kathryn Jean Lopez

“How indeed can justice exceed, unless compassion rises above judgment?

So asked the Leo the Great in a passage that appeared in the Liturgy of the Hours yesterday.

That, in many ways, is a primary concern of our current pope, and it comes through, not for the first time, in the “apostolic exhortation,” Evangelii Gaudium, “The Joy of the Gospel,”issued this morning.

“If hearts are shattered in thousands of pieces, it is not easy to create authentic peace in society,” he writes at one point in it.

This is Francis’s first solo run at a teaching document as pope; his first encyclical, Lumen Fidei, was actually largely written by Pope Benedict XVI. The message of Evangelii Gaudium is about radical surrender and mission. Written initially in Spanish, the tone is unmistakably Francis’s. As he has again and again since being elected pontiff in March, he pleads that Christians know the mercy of God. He sounds alarms about our culture which sees everything as disposable. These are familiar themes to anyone who has listened in on papal homilies and messages over the last months. His themes are not new — largely elucidating tenets of the Gospel and Catholic social teaching – but express an urgency, in tone and repetition, boldly and even, at times, lyrically.


There are challenges for everyone in the document, which very much speaks to our moment in time and our particular responsibilities. And there is clarity on the Church’s teaching on the moral issues of our day.

On life:

13. Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenceless and innocent among us. Nowadays efforts are made to deny them their human dignity and to do with them whatever one pleases, taking their lives and passing laws preventing anyone from standing in the way of this. Frequently, as a way of ridiculing the Church’s effort to defend their lives, attempts are made to present her position as ideological, obscurantist and conservative. Yet this defence of unborn life is closely linked to the defence of each and every other human right. It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development. Human beings are ends in themselves and never a means of resolving other problems. Once this conviction disappears, so do solid and lasting foundations for the defence of human rights, which would always be subject to the passing whims of the powers that be. Reason alone is sufficient to recognize the inviolable value of each single human life, but if we also look at the issue from the standpoint of faith, “every violation of the personal dignity of the human being cries out in vengeance to God and is an offence against the creator of the individual”.[176]

214. Precisely because this involves the internal consistency of our message about the value of the human person, the Church cannot be expected to change her position on this question. I want to be completely honest in this regard. This is not something subject to alleged reforms or “modernizations”. It is not “progressive” to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life. On the other hand, it is also true that we have done little to adequately accompany women in very difficult situations, where abortion appears as a quick solution to their profound anguish, especially when the life developing within them is the result of rape or a situation of extreme poverty. Who can remain unmoved before such painful situations?

And on marriage:

66. The family is experiencing a profound cultural crisis, as are all communities and social bonds. In the case of the family, the weakening of these bonds is particularly serious because the family is the fundamental cell of society, where we learn to live with others despite our differences and to belong to one another; it is also the place where parents pass on the faith to their children. Marriage now tends to be viewed as a form of mere emotional satisfaction that can be constructed in any way or modified at will. But the indispensible contribution of marriage to society transcends the feelings and momentary needs of the couple. As the French bishops have taught, it is not born “of loving sentiment, ephemeral by definition, but from the depth of the obligation assumed by the spouses who accept to enter a total communion of life”.[60]

While it may read in such parts as an indictment, the document is also a thanksgiving proclamation and a source of encouragement. He writes, at one point:


I feel tremendous gratitude to all those who are committed to working in and for the Church. Here I do not wish to discuss at length the activities of the different pastoral workers, from bishops down to those who provide the most humble and hidden services. Rather, I would like to reflect on the challenges that all of them must face in the context of our current globalized culture. But in justice, I must say first that the contribution of the Church in today’s world is enormous. The pain and the shame we feel at the sins of some members of the Church, and at our own, must never make us forget how many Christians are giving their lives in love. They help so many people to be healed or to die in peace in makeshift hospitals. They are present to those enslaved by different addictions in the poorest places on earth. They devote themselves to the education of children and young people. They take care of the elderly who have been forgotten by everyone else. They look for ways to communicate values in hostile environments. They are dedicated in many other ways to showing an immense love for humanity inspired by the God who became man. I am grateful for the beautiful example given to me by so many Christians who joyfully sacrifice their lives and their time. This witness comforts and sustains me in my own effort to overcome selfishness and to give more fully of myself.

The document addresses the poor in a particularly urgent way. The pain of those who are trafficked, the elderly, the migrant, and the unborn all weigh on the heart of this pastor.

Also, not for the first time in his priesthood or pontificate, Pope Francis offers a good word for politics as a moral matter which we cannot just “opt out” of.

On religious liberty, Pope Francis is clear, even giving the United States bishops an endorsement:

The process of secularization tends to reduce the faith and the Church to the sphere of the private and personal. Furthermore, by completely rejecting the transcendent, it has produced a growing deterioration of ethics, a weakening of the sense of personal and collective sin, and a steady increase in relativism. These have led to a general sense of disorientation, especially in the periods of adolescence and young adulthood which are so vulnerable to change. As the bishops of the United States of America have rightly pointed out, while the Church insists on the existence of objective moral norms which are valid for everyone, “there are those in our culture who portray this teaching as unjust, that is, as opposed to basic human rights. Such claims usually follow from a form of moral relativism that is joined, not without inconsistency, to a belief in the absolute rights of individuals. In this view, the Church is perceived as promoting a particular prejudice and as interfering with individual freedom”.[59] We are living in an information-driven society which bombards us indiscriminately with data – all treated as being of equal importance – and which leads to remarkable superficiality in the area of moral discernment. In response, we need to provide an education which teaches critical thinking and encourages the development of mature moral values.

Later he emphasizes:

no one can demand that religion should be relegated to the inner sanctum of personal life, without influence on societal and national life, without concern for the soundness of civil institutions, without a right to offer an opinion on events affecting society. Who would claim to lock up in a church and silence the message of Saint Francis of Assisi or Blessed Teresa of Calcutta? They themselves would have found this unacceptable. An authentic faith – which is never comfortable or completely personal – always involves a deep desire to change the world, to transmit values, to leave this earth somehow better that we found it. 

It’s an exhortation to be real. At one point, he writes:

spirit-filled evangelizers are evangelizers who pray and work. Mystical notions without a solid social and missionary outreach are of no help to evangelization, nor are dissertations or social or pastoral practices which lack a spirituality which can change hearts. These unilateral and incomplete proposals only reach a few groups and prove incapable of radiating beyond them because they curtail the Gospel. What is needed is the ability to cultivate an interior space which can give a Christian meaning to commitment and activity.[205] Without prolonged moments of adoration, of prayerful encounter with the word, of sincere conversation with the Lord, our work easily becomes meaningless; we lose energy as a result of weariness and difficulties, and our fervour dies out. The Church urgently needs the deep breath of prayer, and to my great joy groups devoted to prayer and intercession, the prayerful reading of God’s word and the perpetual adoration of the Eucharist are growing at every level of ecclesial life. Even so, “we must reject the temptation to offer a privatized and individualistic spirituality which ill accords with the demands of charity, to say nothing of the implications of the incarnation”.[206] There is always the risk that some moments of prayer can become an excuse for not offering one’s life in mission; a privatized lifestyle can lead Christians to take refuge in some false forms of spirituality.

Fundamentally – and this was the note Pope Benedict left the chair of Peter on – the Christian is called to a transformative encounter with the person of Christ, the Son of God, drawn into a Trinitarian reality that illuminates everything. The protection and flourishing of human dignity becomes an urgent mission, inviting people to the fullest freedom. We are called to lives of true belief, lives that demonstrate a belief that:

there is no greater freedom than that of allowing oneself to be guided by the Holy Spirit, renouncing the attempt to plan and control everything to the last detail, and instead letting him enlighten, guide and direct us, leading us wherever he wills. The Holy Spirit knows well what is needed in every time and place. This is what it means to be mysteriously fruitful!

There is much more to say – Evangelii Gaudium is, after all, over 47,000 words. Toward the beginning, he writes a prayer (he begins and ends in prayer): “Lord, I have let myself be deceived; in a thousand ways I have shunned your love, yet here I am once more, to renew my covenant with you. I need you. Save me once again, Lord, take me once more into your redeeming embrace.”

Christians are sinners who know they are so and in need of salvation. And they are a people of hope, because salvation is theirs in surrender to the light of faith. “Nobody can go off to battle unless he is fully convinced of victory beforehand,” Pope Francis notes. “If we start without confidence, we have already lost half the battle and we bury our talents.”

The battle is not without pain, but “Christian triumph is always a cross, yet a cross which is at the same time a victorious banner borne with aggressive tenderness against the assaults of evil. The evil spirit of defeatism is brother to the temptation to separate, before its time, the wheat from the weeds; it is the fruit of an anxious and self-centred lack of trust.”

Evangelii Gaudium is immanently realistic. Like the Aparecida document Cardinal Bergoglio was instrumental in putting together while still in Latin America, Evangelii Gaudium aims to help disciples live lives of Christian authenticity, both aware of our challenges and shortcomings and crystal clear about the source of all healing power: God’s grace, available to all, attainable only by focusing hearts and minds on mercy and justice. 

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