The Pope’s bold new vision
Pope Francis during his Sunday Angelus address at St. Peter's Square in April.
November 26th, 2013
12:11 PM ET

The Pope’s bold new vision

Opinion by the Rev. James Martin, Special to CNN 

(CNN) - Pope Francis on Tuesday issued a bold new document - in Vatican parlance an “apostolic exhortation” - called Evangelii Gaudium or “The Joy of the Gospel.”

In this document, he sets out an exciting new vision of how to be a church. In all my years as a Catholic, I cannot remember a papal document that was so thought-provoking, surprising and invigorating. Frankly, reading it thrilled me.

To me, it seems that with each new homily, address, interview, general audience message and letter, Francis is challenging himself - and us - with three questions, each of which flows naturally from the other:

First, why not look at things from a new perspective? Second, why not be open to doing things in a new way? And third, why not have a new vision for the church?

And what is Francis' vision for the church?

It is to be a joyful community of believers completely unafraid of the modern world, completely unafraid of change and completely unafraid of challenges. Not everyone will like this document. Some may find it frightening. For it poses a fierce challenge to the status quo - explicitly: “Pastoral ministry in a missionary key seeks to abandon the complacent attitude that says: ‘We have always done it this way,’ ” he writes in a section titled “Ecclesial Renewal.”

The document’s overall message is that Catholics should be unafraid of new ways of proclaiming the Gospel and new ways of thinking about the church. In fact, such new ways are essential if we are to spread the Gospel at all. This may sound like boilerplate talk expected in a document on the “New Evangelization,” but it is not; for in the document Francis identifies areas of petrification in the church, areas where he wants to see real change.

This is not to say that the Evangelii Gaudium seeks to overturn traditional church teachings. Instead it seeks to overturn the way that we have done things, and to be fearless in doing so. For example, while he reaffirms the church’s inability to ordain women as priests, he also invites the church to think about their place in the church in new ways, to imagine “the possible role of women in decision-making in different areas of the Church’s life."

Over and over, the Pope takes aim against such longstanding roadblocks to growth as “complacency,” “excessive clericalism,” and even Catholics who act like “sourpusses.” (That’s the official English-language translation.) About that last roadblock, he says that there are Christians whose lives are like “Lent without Easter.”

Nor does the Pope have patience for people who are “tempted to find excuses and complain.” Essentially, he contrasts this dourness and pessimism with the joy of living a life centered in Christ and focused on the hope of the resurrection. It is a hope-filled, positive and energetic view of the church actively engaged with the world.

Evangelii Gaudium is difficult to summarize, so wide-ranging is it. Ironically, something that would at first appear to be a narrow topic - how to spread the Gospel today - offers Francis the latitude to address many topics in his trademark open style. The exhortation moves easily from a discussion on joy as a requirement for evangelization, to how “personal dialogue” is needed for any authentic invitation into the faith, to the difficulty of being a church when Catholics are “warring” against one another, to the need for priests and deacons to give better homilies, to an overriding concern for the poor in the world - the last being a special concern of the Pope.

To that end, some will be surprised that Francis champions an idea that has lately been out of favor: the church’s “preferential option” for the poor. “God’s heart has a special place for the poor,” the Pope says. But it is not enough simply to say that God loves the poor in a special way and leave it at that. We must be also vigilant in our care and advocacy for them. Everyone must do this, says the Pope.

“None of us can think we are exempt from concern for the poor and for social justice.” And in case anyone misses the point, after a critique of the “idolatry of money” and an “economy of exclusion,” the Pope says: “The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor. I exhort you to generous solidarity and a return of economics and finance to an ethical approach which favors human beings.”

What’s more, this does not mean simply caring for the poor, it means addressing the structures that keep them poor: “The need to resolve the structural causes of poverty cannot be delayed.”

This joy and confidence needed to tackle these challenges - both inside and outside the church - is rooted and grounded in a deep relationship with Jesus Christ. Without that “personal encounter” with Jesus trying to spread the Gospel is useless. We must have what he calls a “constantly renewed experience of savoring Christ’s friendship and his message.”

Most Catholics will, like me, read the letter with enthusiasm. But some Catholics have criticized the Pope for trying to change too much in the church - even though no dogma has been altered. A few Catholics are not only beginning to critique him, but even worse, fear him. Change seems to be something to fear. As one of my Jesuit friends used to say, playfully, “I’m against change; even change for the better!” But the church must change if it is to grow - not in its core beliefs, but in the way that it lives out and shares those beliefs.

My advice to Catholics would be: Read the entire document. Take your time. Be generous with it. Let it excite you. Pray with it. And be open to the Holy Father’s call 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.”

Finally, as Jesus said, “Fear not.” We can change the way we do things in the church - the spread of the Gospel demands it. So be confident in God’s desire for the church to grow and change. Besides, as Francis says, “Nobody can go off to battle unless he is fully convinced of victory beforehand.”

At one point, Francis uses a famous quote from Pope John XXIII, who noted at the opening of the Second Vatican Council that many doubted things could change for the better. Too many people at the time - 1962 - were predicting doom and disaster for the church and for the world. But John disagreed. “We feel that we must disagree with those prophets of doom who are always forecasting disaster.”

Evangelii Gaudium is Francis’ own ringing response to prophets of doom.

The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest, is editor at large of America magazine and author of "The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything." This article will also appear on America’s blog “In All Things.”

- CNN Religion Editor

Filed under: Belief • Catholic Church • Pope Francis

soundoff (554 Responses)
  1. ardvrk


    It's simple. If complaints are made about child molesters – just have that diocese file for bankruptcy like the one in Montana is doing RIGHT NOW because of its hundreds upon hundreds of child molestation charges that have been brought against its priests.

    That's right – while your cult sits on trillions upon trillions in art treasures, gold & real estate – claim you're bankrupt so you can sidestep the responsibility of the child molesters in your ranks.

    That's a pretty bold new vision – alright!!!

    February 1, 2014 at 1:14 am |
  2. maurice

    in my humble opinion its not just a case of opening the chruch to the outside new world but also of finaly brining th e old beliefs and evangelical cornerstones back into the forefront. finaly the church is telling the world and its own memmbers that preaching a thing and acting in contrast to that wat u preach is simply no longer accepted its own clergy should praktis wat they preach members of government should start acting like the responsible persons they are swonrn to be not just enabling legislation because some big business payed them a big paycheck to pass it and we the citizens should start acting like responsible folks and consider wat we see as the core belief no mater wich religion u uphold in other words no mater wat u beleief consider why u belief it instead of blindly following the lore of clergy men that most of the time have a hidden agenda dear to ask that most horible of questions to any person in power WHY!!

    January 11, 2014 at 7:47 pm |
  3. CurtisG

    "This is not to say that the Evangelii Gaudium seeks to overturn traditional church teachings."

    If it is the same teachings, then it is neither bold nor new.

    January 6, 2014 at 11:59 am |
  4. Brien

    This 'religion' must give proof to it's claims of "truth" before any credibility be given to it; otherwise this religion is a fraud and must be declared illegal. And parents charged with child abuse for 'brain-washing' with fallacies.

    January 1, 2014 at 3:48 pm |
  5. dannyboy

    I'm not at all accepting yet of Pope Francis because how he treats conservatives in the church but seems liberal friendly. I'm not impressed

    December 29, 2013 at 1:12 pm |
  6. desertvoice

    Bravo to Pope Francis! I agree with his bold vision a 99%. The remaining 1% is a grave concern that reality may threaten the Church! I exemplify this on the Holy Father's own words: " that the Evangelii Gaudium seeks not to overturn traditional church teachings." As some of you may have heard, this very moment, the European Union is threatening Poland that it accept the "gender ideology", destroying all that is Catholic teaching with respect to traditional family! ! Is this not an attempt to overthrow traditional church teachings? It is! But the Pope has mot yet noticed the mortal danger, and keeps saying: "ignore the gender ideology"! Focus on the poor! I am in agreement: the poor are a priority. But should not the Church also focus, at least in 1% on those dangerswho threaten her very being?

    December 29, 2013 at 12:36 pm |
  7. deeterrocks101

    I used to be a hindu believer who around 7 years ago, made the change over to atheism. I always supported the right for people to believe in a religion, regardless of how crazy or illogical it might be. Ideally and theoretically, religion gives an overall positive force to the universe. For me personally, however, experiences in life and my fascination with history have taught me that most of the time, nothing good comes of religion.

    If feel that its the same today with people proclaiming themselves to be Hindu or Christian or Muslim or Jewish or believers of any other religion, and they commit horrible atrocities against humanity in the name of that religion. With the decreasing morality of society in terms of barring civil rights and people everywhere running down the person next to him rather than helping him, especially at an economic level, with the change from doing things for the common good or for the good of the country to doing things selfishly, I always thought religions was just a way to justify crimes and atrocities. It was a figment of the imagination of millions of people to help people live with what they've done.

    But Pope Francis? I have to say, he is the one true hope for religion I have seen in a very long time. He gives religion a good name. He truly stands for what religion is all about. To help those in need, to help those who have committed crimes to repent, and to bring more peace and harmony to the world. To bring mercy and forgiveness, charity and heart, spirituality and love.

    December 21, 2013 at 3:14 am |
    • knowmoststuff

      Yes, but he says it all while living in a palace...whats up with THAT!!!

      December 26, 2013 at 2:24 pm |
  8. Keith

    This pope is great

    December 19, 2013 at 1:44 pm |
  9. Keith

    I really like what he is doing.

    December 19, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.