SOME CULTURAL CHALLENGES
Where is the Joy of the Gospel in This?
If you just begin reading “The Joy of the Gospel” (Evangelii Gaudium) (EG) by diving into Chapter 2, and picking up this section from paragraphs 59-75 describing the challenges we face in our society, you might find it rather depressing.
You may ask, where is the joy of the gospel in all of this?
I predict some first-time readers of magisterial documents -- folks who dared to venture into reading this large document based on their love for and interest in Francis -- may be tempted to stop their reading because the challenges seem too big, too widespread, and too disparate.
But, intrepid readers, especially those tuned to the current Advent season, know why Francis must speak this way…
To discover the beauty of light, we must experience profound darkness.
To understand redemption we must first know sin.
To find joy in evangelization we must be lovers of the lost, the least, the little, and the lonely.
Francis is a realist, and he offers a reality check for the Church’s mission. Indeed, acknowledging the brokenness of our cultural landscape is not to promote despair, but to chart a reliable plan for repair. In this way Francis can “encourage the Christian faithful to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by this joy, while pointing out new paths for the Church’s journey in years to come (EG, 1).”
Francis outlines some of the systemic and epidemic problems facing our world today…
“…evil embedded in the structures of… society… (EG, 59)”
“…unbridled consumerism… (EG, 60)”
“…deeply rooted corruption found in many countries – in their governments, businesses and institutions… (EG, 60)”
“…attacks on religious freedom or new persecutions directed against Christians… alarming levels of hatred and violence… (EG, 61)”
“…widespread indifference and relativism… (EG, 61)”
“…cultures which are economically advanced but ethically debilitated…(EG, 62)”
“…the negative aspects of the media and entertainment industries are threatening traditional values, and in particular the sacredness of marriage and the stability of the family… (EG, 62)”
“…the proliferation of new religious movements, some of which tend to fundamentalism while others seem to propose a spirituality without God… (EG, 63)”
“…a materialistic, consumerist and individualistic society… (EG, 63)”
Even the Church, despite so much good that she has brought to cultures over the centuries, has still contributed to some problems, rather than helping to solve them. Coupled with a rampant secularism that has weakened many church members, we come to find many Catholics experience a crisis of identity, and malaise toward the moral teachings of the gospel.
“…[some of] our baptized people lack a sense of belonging to the Church… (EG, 63)”
“…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… (EG, 64)”
Finally, rounding out the pains and challenges, Francis returns to a theme he often preaches about: There is no greater suffering than in the heart of families. The fracturing of families, of marriages, again, leads to a weakened cultural life, and the light of faith being dimmed.
“The family is experiencing a profound… crisis, as are all communities and social bonds. In the case of the family, the weakening of these bonds is particularly serious… (EG, 66)”
“Marriage now tends to be viewed as a form of mere emotional satisfaction that can be constructed in any way or modified at will (EG, 66).”
“…there has been a breakdown in the way Catholics pass down the Christian faith to the young. It is undeniable that many people feel disillusioned and no longer identify with the Catholic tradition (EG, 70).”
Again we ask: where is the joy of the Gospel in all of this?
It is not here. Yet.
“It is imperative to evangelize cultures in order to inculturate the Gospel.” (EG, 69). We need inculturation of the Gospel. We must infuse the culture with the light of faith.
Evangelization is more than making the gospel known to all nations, places, and, even to the end of the earth. It is allowing faith in the Gospel be the light that illuminates societies – to seep in and flourish both within the culture and in the personal lives of a people. Inculturation of the faith eventually brings the gift of moral discernment to a culture by allowing the truths of faith to shine.
In Francis’ first encyclical, Lumen Fidei (LF), (“The Light of Faith”), he points out how the power of faith in God is transformative for strong nations, cities, and persons. Let us recall his thoughts.
“When faith is weakened, the foundations of life also risk being weakened…
Faith illuminates life and society. If it possesses a creative light for each new moment of history, it is because it sets every event in relationship to the origin and destiny of all things in the Father. (Lumen Fidei, 55, bold mine.)”
Note well Francis’ reference to the Father. In Lumen Fidei, he wrote that knowing God’s fatherhood is the starting place for understanding other people as our brothers and sisters. To recognize the dignity of the human person in another is to discover the true moral grounding needed to face our challenges.
Faith becomes a light capable of illumining all our relationships in society. As an experience of the mercy of God the Father, it sets us on the path of brotherhood. Modernity sought to build a universal brotherhood based on equality, yet we gradually came to realize that this brotherhood, lacking a reference to a common Father as its ultimate foundation, cannot endure. We need to return to the true basis of brotherhood…
Faith teaches us to see that every man and woman represents a blessing for me, that the light of God’s face shines on me through the faces of my brothers and sisters.
How many benefits has the gaze of Christian faith brought to the city of men for their common life! Thanks to faith we have come to understand the unique dignity of each person, something which was not clearly seen in antiquity. (LF, 54)
Evangelii Gaudium builds on Lumen Fidei. As one reads through this section, we can see how “The Joy of the Gospel” is built on “The Light of Faith.”
In Evangelii Gaudium, Francis identifies how critical the Father is to our communion with others as a basis for our problem solving.
Pastoral activity needs to bring out more clearly the fact that our relationship with the Father demands and encourages a communion which heals, promotes and reinforces interpersonal bonds. In our world, especially in some countries, different forms of war and conflict are re-emerging, yet we Christians remain steadfast in our intention to respect others, to heal wounds, to build bridges, to strengthen relationships and to “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal 6:2). (EG, 67)
Recapping, first, to find and spread the joy of the Gospel amidst our cultural milieu, we must first be in relationship with God our Father, which Christians enjoy thanks to the merits of Jesus Christ.
Second, we not discount the power of the Holy Spirit… especially in places where large groups of baptized Catholics live.
Seeing reality with the eyes of faith, we cannot fail to acknowledge what the Holy Spirit is sowing. It would show a lack of trust in his free and unstinting activity to think that authentic Christian values are absent where great numbers of people have received baptism…
This means more than acknowledging occasional “seeds of the word”, since it has to do with an authentic Christian faith which has its own expressions and means of showing its relationship to the Church. The immense importance of a culture marked by faith cannot be overlooked; before the onslaught of contemporary secularism an evangelized culture, for all its limits, has many more resources than the mere sum total of believers. (EG, 68)
Another section described the benefits of popular piety, or regular religious practice. We ought never underestimate how God might use the church and her sacraments in the midst of a troubled world.
Despite the challenges evangelization faces, I found this quirky line from Francis to be reassuring: “God does not hide himself from those who seek him with a sincere heart, even though they do so tentatively, in a vague and haphazard manner. (EG, 72)”
In the final paragraphs in this section, Francis repeats a theme that he also began in Lumen Fidei: we must look at the problems of our cities by keeping the hope in the Heavenly City – the new Jerusalem -- in mind.
The new Jerusalem, the holy city (cf. Rev 21:2-4), is the goal towards which all of humanity is moving. It is curious that God’s revelation tells us that the fullness of humanity and of history is realized in a city. We need to look at our cities with a contemplative gaze, a gaze of faith which sees God dwelling in their homes, in their streets and squares. (EG, 74)
This hope is a source of joy for those of us who take up the task of evangelizing.
Pat Gohn is a Catholic writer and speaker, and the founder and hostess of the Among Women Podcast and blog. With a Masters in theology and a communications background, her passion for faith formation embraces media for evangelization and catechesis. Her book Blessed, Beautiful and Bodacious: Celebrating the Gift of Catholic Womanhood is published by Ave Maria Press. Learn more at PatGohn.Net.