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. acrabahyioupse

    I see nothing positive in his envisioned changes. I see him giving up on the best of what the Catholic church used to be, and not improving on any of the RCC's failings.

    November 27, 2013 at 11:01 am |
    • ??

      You really believe that the RCC has been anything but marginalized over the past 2o years??? He is reviving the message of the original church!!

      November 27, 2013 at 11:39 am |
    • Prime

      Yeah because the status quo was working sooooooo well.

      Get real.

      November 27, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
    • andrew

      best of what it used to be??? – a bunch of kiddy fiddlers & bible haters?

      November 28, 2013 at 4:41 am |
  2. hisgoodteenr

    pope: "the rich should give more to the poor".

    the Catholics net worth is about 400 billion usd...
    a UN study estimated it would take 30 billion usd to solve world hunger, maybe they pope can donate 1/10th of its holdings to the poor? doubt it.

    November 27, 2013 at 9:52 am |
  3. Sean

    Only time will tell if this pope is a heretic but it is really starting to look more and more like a possibility. If that turns out to be the case it wouldn't be the first time by any measure and historically the best medicine for Catholics is to hold to 2000 years of tradition which isn't broken and doesn't need fixing. What is truly sad though is this pope seems to have bought hook, line and sinker into the Catholic-hating modernist's game of them pretending they would be Catholics "if only the Catholic church would (insert something that totally violates 2000 years of Christian teaching here)". These people are not EVER going to be Christians unless THEY have a change of heart. I applaud you Francis if you are trying to give them a change of heart, I really do. But it is sounding more like you want to change the Church to make them happy rather than change their hearts so they can be happy in the Church. Dear Frances you cannot change the Church to make these people happy as it will no longer then be the Church that you were entrusted to lead. Jesus did not instruct his apostles to make disciples of people by changing God's teachings to suit the human desires of non-believers. It saddens me that well-meaning and good-hearted Christians, regardless of denomination, can be so naive as to think you accomplish anything by compromising on belief to appease these people. Having a new strategy to catch more fish is a fine thing Pope Francis. Just remember not to sink the boat you were allowed to captain in the process. It appears that you are being played like a fiddle Pope Francis! Dear Francis I pray for you to understand that you can make concession after concession for the demands of these people whose real goal is to destroy the church.. No matter what you do they will simply then find yet more reasons why the Church is not for them anyway. I can hear it now "OK yeah it is great the Catholic church isn't against abortion or contraception anymore, and it is great they recognize gay marriage, and it is great they ordain women too – but why do you even need a pope anyway for the sky-daddy?" Their goal is to destroy the Church dear Francis, not to join it. Can you really be so naive at your age or is that your goal too? If you are going to continue to let the modernist media set your agenda Francis you will be their heretical representative on earth, not that of Jesus, and I will not follow you into that modernist pseudo-catholic abomination.

    November 27, 2013 at 9:36 am |
    • Madtown

      I will not follow you into that modernist pseudo-catholic abomination.
      Right. The nerve of him, to attempt to remove reasons for you to feel superior to others!

      November 27, 2013 at 10:58 am |
    • Mrs. Buttersworth

      There is no 2000 years worth of Catholic anything. Everything in the RCC DEVELOPED over many centuries, and changed many times. Any thought their is, is simply ignorance of historical reality. Read the proceedings of the councils, where HUMANS cooked up all the bs, then voted, non-unanimously on it.

      November 27, 2013 at 5:28 pm |
  4. Scott

    History will remember this Pope as being one who saved the Church from becoming irrelevant.

    November 27, 2013 at 9:27 am |
    • Nada

      ummm it has already been irrelevant. His mis sion is a "sa lva ge" mis sion.

      November 27, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
    • cronchloc

      Being irrelevant to what? You seem to be making Sean's point for him. His point was that in the attempt to become "relevant" to modern society the church is in danger of giving up on those beliefs which define it.

      November 29, 2013 at 11:17 pm |
    • bibletruth

      Irrelevant? Nothing could be further from the truth. This is Satan's masterpiece of deception. The Roman Catholic church is becoming stronger and stronger and is fulfilling her role in Bible prophecy as we speak. She will continue to gain strength and will last to the end. You don't want to be a part of her.

      December 22, 2013 at 11:03 pm |
  5. William1444

    At least this pope is following true Christian principles as compared to the phony christians in
    US churches which are just republican political organizations hating middle class American
    workers and the poor.

    November 27, 2013 at 9:14 am |
  6. JW

    Have you ever asked yourself,
    Why do we suffer? What is the purpose of life? What can we expect for the future?

    The bible provides these, and many more answers to other questions.

    Jehovah witnesses will be happy to study the bible with you, at a time and location of your convenience.
    Our bible education is totally free. As Jesus. Said in Matthew 10:8:" You received free, give free"

    November 27, 2013 at 9:07 am |
    • Madtown

      There will be missionaries arriving at your house later this afternoon. They wish to discussion their preferred religion with you, it is the correct and only true way, as given by God(as they will tell you). Will you accept what they say, and convert to this new religion? Your eternal salvation depends on it(as they will tell you).

      November 27, 2013 at 11:05 am |
    • G to the T

      Why do we suffer? Attachment
      What is the purpose of life? Non-sequitor
      What can we expect for the future? Nirvana

      November 27, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
    • cronchloc

      Many of the same questions (Why do we suffer? What is the purpose of life?) are answered by philosophers as well. Plato and Socrates addressed these questions without drawing on the bible. So you might just go read an introduction to philosophy book.

      November 29, 2013 at 11:25 pm |
    • bibletruth

      I have studied with Jehovahs Witnesses, on several occasions. Every one of them, and their doctrine, relegates Jesus to a basically don't be concerned about Him position, a lesser "god". They do the same work as RCC only on a different branch. Go with the bible, every word of it. The bible is Crystal Clear that Jesus is the Son of God equal with the father, from all eternity.

      December 22, 2013 at 11:08 pm |
  7. rad666

    Pope Francis is exactly what the Catholic Church needed. it's about time

    November 27, 2013 at 8:53 am |
  8. brainwashed christians

    What's with all the friggin pope articles?...... delusion to the max!

    November 27, 2013 at 8:39 am |
    • bibletruth

      ...and the world shall wonder after the beast...
      Its all according to prophecy....the beast power (papal Rome mostly) shall continue to gain in strength to the end of time. Pay attention, you havn't seen anything yet.

      December 22, 2013 at 11:11 pm |
  9. Honey Badger Don't Care

    Let me translate for the pope. The catholic church is losing people in droves, faster than any other xtian denomination, because they are irrelevant and outdated. They must change with the times or go the way of the dinosaurs.

    It’s time for all religions to become extinct so that they can stop holding us back. Until the blight of religion is removed from the face of the Earth there is no chance for us as a society to advance.

    November 27, 2013 at 8:11 am |
    • Scuromondo

      You sound zealous enough to start a new religion.

      November 27, 2013 at 1:01 pm |
  10. Shihan


    November 27, 2013 at 8:09 am |
    • Honey Badger Don't Care

      For what?

      November 27, 2013 at 8:12 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      To whom and why?
      Quetzlcoatl forgives the occasional lapse in blood sacrifices.
      Becuase He isn't a jealous God (unlike certain others), He understands if a spend the weekends worshipping at the altar of Bacchus.

      November 27, 2013 at 8:58 am |
  11. Perhapsif

    I grew up as a catholic youth for the same reason kids of all faiths get their religion. It is chosen for them by their parents. As a teen I began to question why we couldn't eat meat on Friday when the Non-catholic Christian family next door could. I asked my mother if they were going to he'll for eating meat on Friday and her reply was, "maybe"! What hogwash! As an adult, I got divorced and I am now unable to "legally" take communion in the catholic church. I refused to pay the church money to have my marriage annulled, so we could all "pretend" like it did not happen. It's funny that I cannot take communion, but for years, the church knew of, and purposely hid it's pedophile priests that were serving communion. And now read about Catholics who want to keep the status quo? I no longer attend church, period. And though I am now an atheist, I applaud this pope for trying to change the stale, cult-like organization that he was elected to run. You go pope!

    November 27, 2013 at 7:40 am |
    • Brian

      Cool...So you don't understand your "Faith" or attempt to understand it so you kick it to the curb...laziness, but ROCK ON!

      November 27, 2013 at 8:32 am |
      • Perhapsif

        I didn't rock on, I moved on. Did you miss the part about me being an atheist? Not sure how you associate atheism with laziness, but as you say Brian, Rock On!

        November 27, 2013 at 8:42 am |
      • Sean

        Agreeing with Brian 100%!

        November 27, 2013 at 8:44 am |
        • Perhapsif

          That is so good to know. I am so happy for you! So happy that you still have faith in your religion. I mean that. Your parents raised a good boy. By the way, what is Santa bringing you this year?


          November 27, 2013 at 9:05 am |
    • joe916

      As a kid I asked my mom, is evolution true? And she said if it is then your great grand parents were monkeys and I was like what hogwash. This science crap is not true. Well actually I didn't. I took the time to study it and not just move on.. That is called seeking the truth. Faith & religion is also something you need to spend time learning about and studying. Did you ever look into the tradition of abstaining from meat on Fridays. Why Catholics do it?

      November 27, 2013 at 12:04 pm |
  12. eveningstar1

    Reblogged this on Flat Rock Creek Notebook.

    November 27, 2013 at 7:22 am |
  13. Why does Ben feel the need to lie to prove his faith?

    Doesn't he realize that his vapid burblings only ensure that everyone knows he's off balance, mentally?

    Poor Ben. It's too bad that Pfizer can't invent a drug that will cure people of the disease called religion.

    November 27, 2013 at 5:07 am |
    • Ben Valelei

      Listen when Jesus was here, He spoke of things that priests and people knew nothing about. They all thought He was crazy and needed meds, ask the Jews today. Now you Christians believe Him now. When prophet Moses went to bring Jacob's descendants out of Egypt, they all thought he needed medication because they knew Moses was a murderer. And they all thought God would never choose a murderer to be a prophet. When God told prophet Noah to warn the people about The Flood, they all thought he was crazy because he was a drunk, right? When John The Baptist declared he was a prophet, people thought he was mad because he went to no church and lived in the desert, right? So you see fools...I can open my mouth and declare to all that I AM the prophet for Israel and the world for this generation, something you can not do. Be careful now, ok? I understand your frustration...so listen to this warning from Jesus who sent me as Hi prophet or messenger for these last days... " John 5:24 "

      November 27, 2013 at 5:37 am |
    • Ben Valelei

      Listen to this truth...All prophets before me, like Jesus, Noah, Moses, John The Baptist just to name a few were humiliated ill-treated killed and so on because they spoke truths that were not existed at the time. And they all knew that people would hate them for it. But they had to do it to obey Our God. And they were all looking forward for the day that I, The prophet from Zion arrives on Earth. Call me crazy if you like and I understand. But the truth is...the Pope can not open his mouth and say he is a prophet nor anyone else on Earth today. I CAN. Now I command the Pope to APOLOGIZE to God and Jesus for the wrong priests before him did. It's my job and part of my job is not to convince him to believe but to give him the message from Jesus. And like prophets before me, I don't go church or belong to no religion.

      November 27, 2013 at 6:31 am |
      • See, this is why we should lock people up who are insane

        Society needs to be protected from vermin like you.

        November 27, 2013 at 6:39 am |
      • brainwashed christians

        Ben, "truth" requires evidence..... you have ZERO for your god or ANY god for that matter. The special feelings and the voices inside your head are not evidence..... time to get a grip on REALITY.

        November 27, 2013 at 8:42 am |
  14. BOLD NEW VISION: Lie to them and swear you'll change

    Honest, he will. He promises.

    Meanwhile, an altar boy just found out what an adult's erection looks like.

    November 27, 2013 at 4:51 am |
  15. Ben Valelei

    God sent Jesus to die on the cross and that was his destination. God chose priests and church to fulfill it and hid that truth from priests. Because God and His wisdom knew that if Jesus was killed by taxi driver, police, poor people and so on. Priests will have nothing to preach about but condemn that kind. Priests won't condemn themselves. Now is time for the pope and priests to acknowledge that truth and say sorry to God for killing His son. Now the pope must first condemn himself then call all priests to acknowledge this truth I am revealing to you today. God has been waiting. God will judge you priests first. And His first question will be...Where is the apology for killing My Son? So my advise is for the Pope to do it now before The King who comes in God's name reveals himself and he is not Jesus. To the Pope...Humble and you will be exalted as it is written.

    November 27, 2013 at 3:11 am |
    • You make NO sense

      FIrst you say, "God sent Jeebus to die" and then you say that god is mad that priests killed his son. So which is it? Wouldn't he have to also be mad at himself? If not for sending him to die, he wouldn't be dead.

      That is – if he were real in the first place, which he's not.

      November 27, 2013 at 4:53 am |
      • Ben Valelei

        Do you think man or priest could kill Jesus without God's approval? I will explain all that but the message for today is for The Pope to APOLOGIZE to God and Jesus for The Great Sin committed more than 2000 years ago. Wisdom is for the wise and you are not. It is written...answer a fool according to his foolishness and you become a fool yourself...no more for you

        November 27, 2013 at 5:02 am |
        • So apologize for what god wanted and expected you to do?

          YOU MAKE NO SENSE.

          November 27, 2013 at 5:04 am |
        • What good is an apology from someone in the present for something that happened 2000 years ago?


          November 27, 2013 at 5:05 am |
        • Zeke2112

          I still don't understand how you sacrifice yourself to yourself, and have the "sacrifice" be sending yourself to a perfect plane of existence. That's like saying that I'm going to sacrifice my dinner at McDonalds tonight to go eat at Ruth's Chris on the company dime.

          November 27, 2013 at 9:29 am |
    • brainwashed christians

      Ben = deluded nut job.

      November 27, 2013 at 8:43 am |
      • sam stone

        How atheist of u!

        November 27, 2013 at 10:57 am |
    • cleibow

      Using your logic Ben, it would be more factual to say God was mad at the Romans since they actually killed Jesus, Pontius Pilot was not a priest, niether were the soldiers that did the killin' . I am hoping you haven't just replaced the word priest for jews, because that would just be plain incorrect and could be taken to be a tad anti-semitic. But hold on using your logic and if you haven't noticed, Roman fell. So you could be correct, Roman fell because they killed Yeshua Ben Joseph.

      Ben, a history course can be found on the internet for free. I wish you well.

      November 27, 2013 at 9:40 am |
  16. Amanda

    No need for new visions, the Pope need only look back before the great apostasy of 1054 for the original and full vision of the Christian Church, the timeless truth and wisdom of Orthodoxy!

    November 27, 2013 at 2:54 am |
    • andrew

      It was well before that!! It had to have happened soon after the Apostles died because most were accepting the pagan trinity & hell fire by the time of the assembly of Nicaea in 325 & the church had already started celebrating easter & christmas etc & venerating images!

      November 28, 2013 at 4:37 am |
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