Pope Francis challenges the Church to recover its role as “a community of missionary disciples”
When Jorge Mario Bergoglio entered the Society of Jesus at the age of 21, he dreamed of serving as a missionary in Japan. As it turned out, health worries kept him home in Argentina. Though he eventually became the archbishop of Buenos Aires, the commitment to mission never left him.
At the conclave where he was elected pope last year, Cardinal Bergoglio delivered brief remarks outlining his vision for the Church.
Evangelization, he proclaimed, is the Church’s reason for being. But to realize this purpose, the Church must “come out of herself ” and “go to the peripheries, not only in the geographic sense but also the existential peripheries.” His remarks struck an enthusiastic chord with the assembled cardinals, contributing to his election as pope.
Since then, as Pope Francis, he has captured the hearts of many others, both within and beyond the Church, through his humility, his embrace of poverty and his evident love for all humanity. In all this, he has fulfilled the promise implied in his choice of name. It was St. Francis of Assisi, after all, who renewed and reformed the Church of his time by recalling the memory of Jesus in his poverty and compassion for the sick and marginalized.
But behind all the pope’s words and gestures there is the deeper challenge he poses to all of us who constitute the Church: to recover our true purpose as a “community of missionary disciples,” a phrase borrowed from the final statement of the Aparecida document, which Cardinal Bergoglio drafted for the Latin American bishops in 2007.
This is the theme of his first Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”).
This document, a kind of blueprint for the Church, abounds in examples of the pope’s characteristic, seemingly unguarded, voice: “There are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter,” he laments. “I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber.” He decries a “spiritual worldliness” that “hides behind the appearance of piety,” warns against “sourpusses” who would substitute love of Jesus Christ with a love of the Church, and rejects a “tomb psychology” that would transform Christians into “mummies in a museum.”
Most media attention focused on those few pages—from a document of 50,000 words—that critique the global economic system. “Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.” He rejects a consumeristic culture that deadens our conscience and our capacity to identify with other people—especially those of “no account.” As he said in a homily for African migrants who drowned at sea, “Has anyone wept in our world?”
But by far the major emphasis of Evangelii Gaudium lies with the missionary vocation of the Church. For Pope Francis, this is not a matter of proselytism, but of proclaiming and bearing witness to the Gospel message of love and mercy. It is for this purpose that the Church is called into being; this is the principle by which it must be judged; and this is the standard that should measure all efforts at reform and renewal.
First off, a missionary church must go out of itself to meet the world in all its joys and sorrows. This does not just mean going to geographical frontiers but to the “existential peripheries” where people are hurting or feeling excluded.
In Pope Francis’ view, the “greatest evil that can befall the Church” does not come from outside, whether from secularism or hostility to religion. Instead, it comes from “ecclesial introversion”—the temptation to preach the Church rather than Jesus Christ.
Secondly, the missionary option requires a focus on what is essential rather than on “a multitude of doctrines to be insistently imposed,” he says. Mercy comes first. When the Church instead focuses on “small-minded rules,” the entire edifice is in danger of collapsing “like a house of cards.”
Mission, of course, has many dimensions. Building on previous Church teaching, Pope Francis covers the tasks of proclamation, interreligious dialogue, inculturation, and the obligation of all Christians to work for the “liberation and promotion of the poor.” “Without the preferential option for the poor, proclamation of the Gospel risks being misunderstood or submerged by the ocean of words.”
But above all, Pope Francis aims for a change of attitude and an atmosphere of spiritual renewal. The missionary option requires that the Church embody the good news it proclaims, hence, “the joy of the Gospel.” “An evangelizer must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral!”
The leaven of the Gospel, reflected in the lives of “spirit-filled evangelizers” helps us overcome the “globalization of indifference,” encouraging us to share one another’s burdens, to feel connected with others in their joys and sufferings.
The Church in a missionary key values boldness, creativity and the exercise of hope. Rather than a “laboratory faith,” where everything is clear-cut and well-defined, he celebrates a “journey faith,” which involves risk, a willingness to make mistakes and the capacity to find God “along the path.”
At the end of his exhortation, Pope Francis moves the theme of mission from the ecclesial to the personal note. “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. Instead, it is something I cannot uproot from my being without destroying my very self. I am a mission on this earth; that is the reason why I am here in this world.”
Already Pope Francis has appeared on the cover of major magazines, from Time to Rolling Stone. The test of his papacy will be whether other Christians are moved not just to admiration of Pope Francis, but to discover their own mission and reason for being in this world.