Editorial & Opinion

A sense of joy

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In November, when the Vatican released “Evangelii Gaudium” (The Joy of the Gospel), the first official “apostolic exhortation” by Pope Francis, the document immediately caused a sensation.

In it, the Argentine Pontiff who had immediately won the hearts of people everywhere with his simple ways and caring words confirmed in writing that the change in tone and temperament he was bringing to the Catholic Church was not for show. He meant business, and he had very specific ideas about the changes he wanted to see in the Church.

They weren’t doctrinal changes, to be sure. Francis conceded not an inch of the Church’s positions on abortion or the ban on women priests. He didn’t lift the moral injunction against birth control, or rescind the Church’s fierce opposition to same-sex marriage. He pontificated on none of those things. Instead, he said that obsessing over such doctrinal fine print, to the exclusion of everything else such as the Church’s paramount mission to provide succor to the poor and the dispossessed, was a misguided way of serving the Gospel of Christ.

“I do not want a Church concerned with being at the center and then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures,” he said. “In her ongoing discernment, the Church can also come to see that certain customs not directly connected to the heart of the Gospel, even some which have deep historical roots, are no longer properly understood and appreciated.”

In less than a year, the first Pontiff to come from the so-called Third World has demonstrated that he walks the talk when it comes to remaking the Church into a more welcoming, compassionate institution. Unlike his two more doctrinaire predecessors, who maintained that the Church should be a rampart of immovable belief against the evils of secularism and changing social mores, Francis has made being Catholic feel less like being perpetually under siege, and more like being open to the world.

“I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security,” he said.

 

And out on the streets he literally is. Among his first acts as Pope was to visit a youth prison during Holy Week, there to wash and kiss the feet of 12 young prisoners in imitation of what Christ did to His apostles. He has refused the trappings of his high office, preferring to live in spartan quarters and drive around in a beat-up car. He reportedly auctioned off his motorcycle and donated the money to a soup kitchen in Rome. Recently, it has been suggested that he has been going out of the Vatican at night, dressed as an ordinary priest and in the company of another churchman, to mingle with and feed the poor and homeless of the city.

His statements in interviews also underline the new thinking that now emanates from the chair of Peter. To a question about gay people, who have had to live with the Vatican’s description of them as somehow suffering from an “objective disorder,” Francis had a startlingly different response: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has goodwill, who am I to judge?” It was such a radical change in tone from the judgmental pronouncements of earlier papacies that The Advocate, a well-known gay rights magazine, lauded Francis as “the single most influential person of 2013 on the lives of LGBT people.”

In short, wrote the Rev. Thomas Rosica on CNN: “Everything the Pope is doing now is not just an imitation of his patron saint who loved the poor, embraced lepers, charmed sultans, made peace and protected nature. It’s a reflection of the child of Bethlehem who would grow up to become the man of the cross in Jerusalem, the Risen One that no tomb could contain, the man we Christians call Savior and Lord. The one whose birth we celebrate on December 25.”

That date is today. And as we mark the birth of the Savior who preached a new faith based on love and compassion above all, let us say a silent prayer for the humble, smiling man in the Vatican who, by going back to Christ’s example, has in the last nine months restored a great deal of warmth and benevolence–a sense of joy–to the Church. Or as he put it: “An evangelizer must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral!”

 

In “The Joy of the Gospel” he also wrote that “The Son of God, by becoming flesh, summoned us to the revolution of tenderness.” Under Jorge Mario Bergoglio, that revolution has begun, and what a change it has been for a world in dire need of such tenderness. Inquirer.net

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