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)

    Obadiah 1:15 King James Version (KJV)15 For the day of the Lord is near upon all the heathen: as thou hast done, it shall be done unto thee: thy reward shall return upon thine own head.

    December 16, 2013 at 6:12 pm |
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    December 15, 2013 at 11:34 am |
  3. jrt1098

    If NOT for capitalism the Roman Catholic church would never have become the largest landowner in the WORLD ... and thus be able to bestow so much charity on the poor and down trodden !

    LIBERAL DEMOCRATS give you a nanny state, ... Occupy Wall St. which has NEVER created ANYTHING, ... 7.5% UNEMPLOYMENT as the new norm ... and GENERATIONAL WELFARE !

    December 13, 2013 at 10:12 am |
    • A. Reasoner

      Suppose there's any relationship between the poor being poor and the church being filthy rich to "give to the poor?" How many were impoverished, died and were maimed constructing temples for "the glory of god" i.e. the clergy? I suppose they could have objected unless they expected the Spanish Inquisition, but nobody expects that.

      December 15, 2013 at 9:42 pm |
      • bibletruth

        Everyone sounds happy/glad to see changes coming. One big problem. All the talked about change is the way they will do things. No word about an attempt to start teaching biblical truth of which the Roman Catholic church teaches almost zero.

        December 22, 2013 at 9:06 pm |
    • Ted

      Time for you to get on back to Glenn Beck University.

      December 15, 2013 at 11:05 pm |
  4. Glenn

    YouTube Cosmic conflict

    December 12, 2013 at 11:03 pm |
  5. Glenn

    YouTube The great controversy

    December 12, 2013 at 11:01 pm |
  6. A. Reasoner

    If god loves the poor and powerless in a "special way," wouldn't you think the RCC would have an interest in appearing a bit more poor? Even Goldfinger had the good taste not to wear enormous gold hats and gowns. Though Goldmember did seem to enjoy a little bling.

    December 12, 2013 at 11:27 am |
  7. Jems Coghlan Romero

    As we are an ever changing race as a species, in an ever changing and dynamic universe, only logic tells us that we must also adapt to continuing changes of the dynamic universe our CREATOR has given us. Let us be thankful to the Lord and our fellow humans, and revolutionize our essence to allow us a total grasp of what life really means..

    December 9, 2013 at 12:34 pm |
    • bibletruth

      Really? How has the race changed? The Bible says the human heart (fallen human nature) is full of deceit and desperately wicked, who can know it. Nothing has changed except for the worse. And the only way humanity can change is to "let this mind be in you which is in Christ Jesus" . No other possible way. Education, culture, technology, science, all has its place, but absolutely nothing will change the human heart to the good except the divine love of Jesus implanted by the Holy Spirit. All else re human development, improvement, etc. is just noise which at the heart level accomplishes zero.

      December 22, 2013 at 9:13 pm |
  8. devent

    the Pope is enlightened by God,he is choosen and selected leader to effect the evolutionary stage of hastening the dialectical process towards Pantthrotheism,a belief that God will give to us in the future the power and responsibility to guide our historical destiny.Conservationists,environmentalist,scientific theologians and many science oriented religions will evolve inthe near future to conform with the evolving cultures and knowledge as a prelude to complete unity.he is sent by God to start this process,modern technologies like the internet will unite us all for the challenge of exploring the whole universe.thats why we have to unite,not only in culture,etc but foremost is religion

    December 7, 2013 at 8:45 pm |
    • bibletruth

      Spoken like a true agent of Satan. Have you no understanding of what you have just said.

      December 22, 2013 at 9:16 pm |
      • knowmoststuff

        I completely agree! Sheesh!

        December 26, 2013 at 2:31 pm |
  9. Angelina



    December 5, 2013 at 6:08 pm |
    • oo oo

      Prison and lawsuits Dorothy

      December 6, 2013 at 4:20 pm |
  10. johnnie

    amazing isn't it brethren? our heathen infidels blame their god because their biblical god is sending them to hell.

    yellow fingered smoking girl is looking up to me

    December 5, 2013 at 3:16 pm |
  11. truthprevails1

    Hell not nice place for xhildren

    December 5, 2013 at 7:35 am |
  12. sam stone

    And he shall reign forever and ever

    December 5, 2013 at 12:31 am |
  13. MAX

    When I was 7 my mother married a gay transgendered lesbian who loved dogs. I mean he really loved dogs. We took him to a Hindu priest and he got worse

    December 3, 2013 at 8:45 pm |
    • Maddy

      I fell into gold mine

      December 3, 2013 at 8:47 pm |
  14. MAX

    When I was a priest, many gay atheists converted under my ministry. Most became priests and highly intolerant of gay atheists.

    December 3, 2013 at 8:37 pm |
    • MAX

      Two lesbian gypsies became nuns and hated gay men until they passed away

      December 3, 2013 at 8:39 pm |
      • MAX

        One lesbian soviet communist became a baptist preacher, married, had 6 kids all turned out to be capatilist hogs

        December 3, 2013 at 8:43 pm |
  15. Ryan

    Hope and Change. Sound familiar? John the 23rd said Vatican II was going to be great and it is a total disaster. Some parishes near Dublin Ireland had near 90% attendance at Mass in the 1970's, now they are at 3 to 5%. Total number Nuns in the 1970, in the US, was 179,000 now there are 51,000 with numbers dropping fast. SADLY, I COULD GO ON!
    SOMEONE Please show me why we are 'doubling down' on that failure. Blindness? Stupidity?

    December 3, 2013 at 2:44 pm |
    • Sara(swati)

      The same has happened in other sects. It had nothing to do with Vatican II.

      December 5, 2013 at 7:47 am |
      • Ryan

        Why CAN'T I blame Vatican II? So goes Christ's Church so goes the world.

        December 5, 2013 at 4:12 pm |
  16. Jonah

    Congratulations from a Mormon to Catholics. You have a great Pope! I always admired Pope John and I think Pope Francis May be his equal in other ways. He really seems to understand the joy and happiness that comes from the teachings of Jesus.

    December 1, 2013 at 11:49 am |
    • Bubba

      Pope Francis is going to redefine the Catholic Church, and his influence will redefine other aspects of Christianity (which needs to grow some legs).
      The Christian Right has become an organization for Tax Evasion, and not for the COMPLETE vision Jesus left us with. I look forward to Pope Francis' influence.

      December 1, 2013 at 10:42 pm |
      • Science Works

        Pope has really BAD vision better get his eyes checked and who is in control ?

        Hint not some god(s)

        ACLU Sues, Claiming Catholic Hospitals Put Women At Risk

        December 02, 2013 4:42 PM


        December 3, 2013 at 1:31 pm |
    • truthprevails1

      I used to be Hungarian bar tender. Now, drink beer and half drunk atheist, no dues and lots of pretty boys

      December 5, 2013 at 7:34 am |
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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.