Pope Francis and the New Evangelization

By Fr. Peter Dugandzic
Pastor's Columns from the Fall 2013
N.B. There is a link to a PDF of the whole document below.

  • Introduction

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    “Oh, what a breath of fresh air.” I cannot tell you how many times someone has said this to me in recent weeks regarding Pope Francis. Since being elected as the Successor to St. Peter, Pope Francis has given several interviews in which he made comments that made the covers of newspapers around the world. When asked what they like about Pope Francis, many who find him refreshing quote the sensationalized headlines. In reading the secular newspapers, it would seem this “down-to-earth pontiff” is about to change everything in the Church, including much of Her doctrine. However, many of the secular authors have ignored the various times he has explicitly stated he is a man of the Church and completely faithful to Her. Thus, in reading the whole texts of the interviews given, it is clear he has no intention of changing what the secular media thinks he is changing. In fact, if one is paying attention to everything he has said, the only thing he really wants is to challenge the faithful to proclaim the Gospel and return once again to being a missionary Church.

    In the secular publications, the authors have been claiming that Pope Francis is pursuing a completely different agenda from his two immediate predecessors. While it is true that his style has been different, when it comes to his sense of mission and love for the Church, he is thinking along the same lines. Like his immediate predecessors, Pope Francis has said we must break out of our mediocrity and once again begin to proclaim the Gospel message bodly, and we need to do so with a renewed vigor. In perhaps a more blunt and direct way, he has been reminding us that
    we are all sinners and need to walk the journey of Faith together, that is, as sinners striving to receive the mercy of Christ and attain holiness of life. In this regard, we are all equally wounded by Sin and are all thus in need of the healing Grace of God’s Mercy. In this regard, Pope Francis and his predecessors have asked for basically the same thing – for the Church to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ.

    In fact, both of his immediate predecessors made similar comments, although these are not the type of comments that make headlines. For instance, Pope John Paul II called for a new evangelization by stating,

    A new apostolic outreach is needed, which will be lived as the everyday commitment of Christian communities and groups. This should be done however with the respect due to the different paths of different people and with sensitivity to the diversity of cultures in which the Christian message must be planted.

    Similarly, when instituting the Year of Faith, Pope Benedict said, “The renewal of the Church is also achieved through the witness offered by the lives of believers: by their very existence in the world, Christians are called to radiate the word of truth that the Lord Jesus has left us.” The content of our proclamation is captured in the Gospel according to Luke (24:46-48) when Jesus said, “Thus it is written that the Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day and that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, would be preached in His name to all the nations… You are witnesses of these things.”

    As fresh as Pope Francis may seem, if any one studies the history of the papacy, he or she will find that every pope has desired the same mission given to the disciples – Go forth and preach the Good News. Yes, Pope Francis has garnered a great deal of attention in some of the comments he has made, and I hope and pray the attention awakens the sleeping giant called the Holy Roman Catholic Church. For the most part, his challenge has not been directed to those outside the Church but to those who practice the Faith regularly. He is trying to get you and me to
    live more fully the Gospel values and mandate. The highest Gospel value is the commandment to love and the most important mandate is to preach Christ’s mercy to the whole world. Thus, it should be evident that Pope Francis is not seeking to change “the what” or “the why” of Catholicism but “the how.”

  • Pope Francis and "The How"

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    Pope Francis and “The How”

    In light of what was mentioned above, clearly there have been many varied, mostly mistaken, interpretations of some of Pope Francis’ recent remarks. Unfortunately, certain authors have quoted him out of context in order to favor their perspective. However, if one reads the whole interview that was released on September 24, as well as spends time getting to know Pope Francis through other statements he has made, that person will find that he is not about to change the doctrine or purpose of the Church, that is, “the what” or “the why” of the Church. Instead, he is asking Catholics to become better at spreading the Good News. As disciples commissioned by Jesus Christ, we are to live the Love and Mercy of God, and preach repentance for the forgiveness of sins. In this regard, he has been speaking a great deal about changing “the how” of the Church.

    I truly believe if one wants to understand Pope Francis, he or she must begin with the first question and answer he gave during the interview. The Pope was asked, “Who is Jorge Bergoglio [which is Pope Francis’ given name]?” After a few pensive moments, he responded, “I do not know what might be the most fitting description.... I am a sinner.” Could not every one of us say the same thing, “I am a sinner”? For many Catholics, such an answer seems counter to what a pope would say of himself. In their minds he should say, “I am the Vicar of Christ on earth”, or, “I am the successor to St. Peter”. Yet Pope Francis said exactly the same words as St. Peter when Jesus called him to be a fisher of men – I am a sinner. In this simple answer, the Pope has offered us an example of where each of us should begin if we are to become effective evangelists in the world today.

    Such an admission, however, is not enough. Pope Francis continued the response by describing St. Matthew as depicted in the Caravaggio masterpiece entitled
    The Calling of St. Matthew. In the painting, Jesus is pointing directly at St. Matthew who appears reluctant to give up his money and leave his tax collecting post. Like any sinner, even though we may recognize our state in life as missing the mark, there is a side to us that prefers to cling to the familiarity of our sins. Having pondered this painting many times, the Pope said he is like St. Matthew in the image who has Jesus looking directly at him. From this, he concluded, “This is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze… I am a sinner, but I trust in the infinite mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ, and I accept in a spirit of penance.” If one can understand the spirit of this response, then one can begin to understand “the how” our pope has placed before us – an experience of God’s mercy and an acceptance of it in a spirit of penance.

    However, this initial insight is insufficient by itself. Taking it a step further, we must also look at his answer to the question, “What does the Church need most at this historic moment?” In his response, he said,

    The thing the Church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds....

    Many people today suffer great pain due to Sin and the only cure for these wounds is God’s abundant grace and mercy. The Pope is asking us to identify what has been wounded by Sin and seek healing, both for ourselves and those around us. The only way to be truly healed is through a direct experience of God’s mercy.

    To make his point, the Pope included a description of the Church as field hospital. To be honest, my first reaction was to reject the image as too narrow and one that does not have a basis within the Tradition. I thought maybe he was being a consummate Jesuit and attempting to be spontaneously creative. However, after considering the response more carefully, there are some great insights that can be derived from this image. To derive these insights, we must place his chosen image within a larger context by recalling the traditional teaching on the Sacrament of Confirmation. Lest we forget, it is through this sacrament that a believer receives the Holy Spirit and “is strengthened in grace and is signed and sealed as a soldier of Christ… It confers a character which is, as it were, the military credentials of a soul in constant warfare with the enemies of God.” In this regard, the Church has always understood the need to acknowledge and prepare the Faithful to engage in the great spiritual battle. One only needs to look at recent decades to see the many wounds that are the direct result of the great spiritual warfare and the toll it has taken in so many lives.

    By choosing to describe the Church as a field hospital, the Pope has invoked this notion of a battle. As Catholics, we should always remember we are on the front lines of a great spiritual battle. In this regard, in 1886 Pope Leo XIII formulated the prayer to St. Michael after an experience he had during Mass one day. While there are many pious assertions about what he actually experienced, the key for our discussion is that he penned a prayer asking St. Michael to “defend us in battle” and ordered the whole Church to recite the prayer at the end of Mass. Indeed, from the late nineteenth century until now we can see that the intensity of the spiritual battle has been increasing and the toll on believers has been growing. Unfortunately, in recent decades there have been many Catholics who may have received their “military credentials” through Confirmation but have been sorely unprepared to engage in battle. Yes, many have received the weapons for battle, but they have not been taught how best to use them.

    As we look around today, we can see evidence of the many wounds that have been inflicted by Sin, some quite obvious and others more subtle. Even as I think of some of the wounds that have been inflicted and how extensive the pain must be for many today, it is even more distressing to think of how many do not realize the extent of the wounds they have received, or how much it has affected them. Sadly, as the spiritual battle continues to rage, many do not know where to go for healing, or are afraid for one reason or another to turn to the Church for help. In choosing the image of field hospital, the Pope is reminding us that the Church is the place of healing for the victims who have been wounded in the great battle.

    Implicit in what the Pope is saying is that you and I have been, or can be, wounded victims in need of healing. Our own sinful choices, or those of another, may have wounded us. The Pope is reminding us of how important it is to seek healing for those wounds by submitting them to the mercy of God. Sadly, as the Pope has noted on several occasions, there are wounded souls who do not believe they can even dare to enter God’s field hospital. In this regard, you and I must seek out and bring the wounded in for immediate treatment – for a strong dose of God’s love and mercy. When fellow soldiers bring an injured soldier to a field hospital, the first order of business is to extend a compassionate hand to help and dress the wound. Only in this way can the healing process begin, and only in this way can there be hope that in time their “brother-in-arms” can be restored to health.

    As an extension of this image, however, we should note that a field hospital only represents the first contact of the injured with treatment. When a person comes to the Church, the first order of business is to heal the most serious wounds first. An injured person may need long-term care as he or she convalesces, and it is during this period that true healing takes place. Some may need extended therapy to restore them to wholeness. Some may be affected by the injury for the rest of their life. The therapeutic course that will follow will eventually be determined, but that course of action is not the first thing offered to an individual. As the ongoing healing process takes place, it is necessary to have others who help the injured person along the road to recovery.

  • A Pope with Jesuit Roots

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    A Pope with Jesuit Roots

    Flowing from the image of the Church as field hospital, we see that Pope Francis views the Church as a primary source of healing for those who have been wounded in the spiritual battle. For any attempt at healing, it is important to determine the extent and type of injury in order eventually to heal it. In presenting the Church as a field hospital, the Pope is asking us to be part of a process that leads to spiritual health, which in turn allows each Catholic to pursue the universal call to holiness. Upon examining this image more closely, it should come as no surprise that the first Jesuit Pope would liken the Church to a field hospital, for anyone who has ever visited Loyola in Spain, or read St. Ignatius’ biography can figure out that this image could be drawn from the life of St. Ignatius.

    In short, in 1521, a young soldier from an affluent family was seriously injured during a battle in Pamplona, Spain. The soldier’s name was Ignatius and at the time he was living a very worldly existence. During one of the fierce battles, the young Ignatius was struck by a cannon ball and both his legs were seriously broken. In many ways, the injury was devastating to this robust young man and could have left him a cripple for life. He was treated immediately at a field hospital, but his legs were poorly set. It was decided later that he needed further medical treatment if he were ever to walk again. Because this would take time, Ignatius returned to his family home in Loyola, where he spent several years convalescing.

    Initially, Ignatius spent many hours daydreaming about worldly things and the possibility of returning to his old way of life. Eventually, however, in his boredom he began reading the only books he could find:
    Life of Christ and The Golden Legends. Interestingly, the latter book depicts the saints as “knights of God dedicated to their eternal Lord Jesus Christ.” Anyone who is familiar with the life of St. Ignatius knows that his reading of these books had a tremendous impact on him and marked the beginning of a new direction for him.

    It was from pondering these great works that Ignatius began thinking about Jesus and the saints. As his daydreaming turned from worldly conquests to spiritual conquests, Ignatius underwent a tremendous conversion. He had come to recognize the evils and sins he had done during his life, especially the sins of the flesh, and the tremendous need he had for God’s mercy. Having received a great deal of physical treatments, he came to understand his need for spiritual healing as well. In the course of time, he realized he needed to go for a different kind of treatment and decided to return to the Sacraments of the Church. This extended period of physical convalescence became the opportunity for his radical conversion and spiritual discernment. It was during this time that St. Ignatius penned his greatest work, known as the
    Spiritual Exercises. To this day, every Jesuit is required to make a four-week silent retreat based on these exercises.

    Anyone who meditates on the life of St. Ignatius will see that the road to his conversion and eventual life journey to holiness went through a field hospital, first on a physical battlefield and later on a spiritual battlefield. I am sure that during his formation as a Jesuit, Pope Francis spent a great deal of time reflecting on the life St. Ignatius. From these reflections, it is quite possible that he saw the parallels between the great saint’s worldly battles and spiritual battles. It is only a small step further to arrive at the image Pope Francis has offered us – the Church as field hospital. Thus, the image he has given us is not one that is limited but expansive, especially with regard to the ongoing healing and treatment one needs after arriving at the field hospital.

  • Dreaming Evangelical Dreams

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    Dreaming Evangelical Dreams

    Beyond the shadow of doubt, Pope Francis has a specific vision for the Church, a vision that has been influenced by his formation as a Jesuit. One of the specific charisms of the Jesuits is Evangelization, that is, the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ. In the nearly 500 years since St. Ignatius underwent his conversion, the Jesuits have established missions around the world in order to help people come to Christ. In light of the Jesuit mission, it appears the Pope is asking every one of us to do his or her part to assist in accomplishing the mission of the Church, that is, to spread the Good News by word and action. By following his lead, we can help those who are spiritually wounded come to the place of healing – the Catholic Church. A significant part of this mission is to cultivate a healthy spiritual environment where healing can take place. For us, it begins with the Sunday Mass and the Sacrament of Reconciliation, but does not end there. We must know and celebrate both of these very well, but we must also be prepared to share with others what we have received.

    In conjunction with asking what the Church needed most, the interviewer also asked, “What kind of Church do you dream of?” Pope Francis responded by saying,

    How are we treating the people of God? I dream of a church that is a mother and shepherdess. The church’s ministers must be merciful, take responsibility for the people and accompany them like the Good Samaritan, who washes, cleans and raises up his neighbor. This is pure Gospel. God is greater than sin.

    If we accept the premise that the Pope is addressing “the how” of the Church, then we should come to realize he is asking you and me to be agents of healing, to be the doctors and nurses of God’s mercy. Here is a real challenge for you and me: How do we take up this responsibility as a parish or as individual members of the Church?

    For some time now, many pastors and parishioners thought “the how” was to have an open door policy in which they proclaimed, “All are welcome!” While there is some merit to this thinking, it is ineffective to offer an empty smile if and when the wounded come to our door. To keep inviting everyone in without being poised to offer treatment leaves the invitation empty. Due to the ever-expanding secularization of modern culture, Catholics have become hesitant about digging deeper because it is very difficult to deal with another’s wound, especially when our own wounds remain unhealed. The modern individualistic dictum is to mind your own business. In addition, we are often conditioned to believe that we must take care of our own problems by ourselves. Yet despite our reticence, we must have strength and resolve, even to the point of becoming vulnerable, in our hope to help heal the wounds. To this end, Pope Francis said,

    Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent. The ones who quit sometimes do it for reasons that, if properly understood and assessed, can lead to a return. But that takes audacity and courage.

    Extending the image of field hospital, someone has to bring the wounded to the source of healing. So often the last thing a seriously wounded person wants is an empty greeting and a pat on the back wishing him or her good luck in dealing with his or her problems. Instead, he or she wants someone who sympathizes and understands his or her plight, and then, like the Good Samaritan, takes responsibility for the course of treatment and walks the journey with him or her. Only those who encounter Christ and have an intimate personal relationship with Him can be that agent of healing. The injured do not come looking for a handshake and a smile but an agent of God’s Mercy and Grace.

    For the Pope’s dream to come to fruition, we must constantly remind ourselves of God’s desire to heal us. In this regard, it is Jesus Christ Who turns His gaze to the wounded as He did to St. Matthew and Pope Francis. It is He Who imparts the Grace needed for healing and conversion. As God’s faithful, we must never forget that it is God Who builds the Church and God Who gave Her the commission to bring His Mercy to the whole world. It is by God’s design that the Church is Mother and Shepherdess, that the Church is a refuge for sinners. It is our responsibility to seek the wounded actively and bring them to this place of refuge. It is our responsibility to accept the Grace Christ imparts, but then to help others to “prepare their hearts, minds, and souls to receive the grace of God fruitfully and then cooperate with that grace throughout life.”

  • Conclusion

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    In reflecting on some of the recent remarks made by Pope Francis, we see that the Pope’s vision for the Church is one that requires an active discipleship by every member. As part of his remarks, the Pope told us we need to have audacity and courage in order to accomplish the task Christ has entrusted to us. Yes, the Pope told us we need to have audacity and courage. In this regard, there have been many times I have spoken to someone who has left the Church for some reason or another. More often than not, the question I posed at some point was along the lines of, “So what is your problem with the Church?” This question allows for the obvious responses such as the scandal or the Church’s vast riches, but it does not allow the person to speak of his or her wounds. Upon hearing the response, it is typical to try to explain these realities and, in a sense, to become defensive of the Church I love.

    If I am correct in my assessment, what the Pope is saying is that it is the wrong question to ask, and thus engages in a less than helpful exchange. Being defensive of the Church is a good thing but not in every instance, and certainly not when dealing with the spiritually wounded. Instead, in hoping to address “the how”, the Pope is suggesting we ask questions like those a mother would ask such as, “Where does it hurt? What has wounded you? How can I help?” To ask such questions takes courage and audacity, because with them comes a risk that the person might answer honestly. But once asked and honestly answered, then a real exchange can ensue. Once the wound is identified, then we can suggest the healing Christ offers; then we can bring that person to God’s field hospital and walk with him or her on the road to healing and holiness. It takes audacity and courage to be a disciple of Christ, to be an agent of healing.

    In bringing these reflections to a conclusion, we owe a debt of gratitude to Pope Francis for reminding us of what is at the heart of being Catholic. As the Vicar of Christ, he is certainly a man of the Church and fully appreciates the depth and beauty of Her Tradition. While there are many in the world today who would prefer a different “what” or “why” of the Church, clearly he has concerned himself with “the how.” In this regard, he is not seeking to change anything and has only served to remind us of our duty to go forth and make disciples by helping to heal the wounds caused by Sin. This is a great challenge to a world steeped in individualism and hedonism, because he is asking everyone, particularly those who are Catholic, to deny the self and consider the “other” we find before us. As agents of healing, we first address the wounds, but, once they are addressed, we need to be prepared to walk the journey of healing with that person. Indeed, this is the very same challenge Jesus presented to the people of His time, a challenge laid down by Him saying, “Love one another as I have loved you.” If I truly love you, I do not desire you as “a good”, but I desire your good. If I am to love like Christ, I must be willing to deny myself and take up the Cross.

    In taking up the challenge Pope Francis has placed before us, I ask each of you to consider ways we can reach out and care for the wounded. Each year there are many lost and wounded Catholics who come to our door but do not receive the healing of Christ for one reason or another. Pope Francis is asking us to ensure that we do not interfere with Christ’s healing touch. Instead, he wants us to be more like the Blessed Mother and allow our souls to magnify the greatness of the Lord. As agents of God’s mercy, may we all pray for the grace to grow in courage and audacity as Pope Francis has asked. Unlike many Catholics, past and present, we can no longer wait for someone else to take charge and heal the wounded. Pope Francis is asking every Catholic to stop waiting and start helping. Now is a good time for each one of us to discern what part we can play in “the how” of the Church, and then act with audacity and courage.