Pope Francis is on the move. On the eve of his impending Apostolic Journey to these shores, he created some historic mainstream media history with his virtual audience last Friday on ABC’s 20/20. See the video here, and selected commentary here and here. He has extended universal faculties to all priests, not only to forgive the sin and guilt of abortion but to lift the associated sanction for it as it exists under current canon law. Now, earlier today, comes the announcement that tomorrow two documents will be released conveying canonical changes affecting the marriage tribunal processes involving declarations of nullity. UPDATE: Here is a link to the Latin text [a Vatican translation in English is not yet available] for the Latin Church; and here is a link to the Latin text for the Eastern Catholic Churches. With the Ordinary Synod on the Family just around the corner in October, this is an interesting bit of timing, to say the least. Finally, the apostolic journey itself contains so many diverse elements that it is easy to focus on one or two to the exclusion of the others! In short, the Pope has tossed a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle on the dining room table and, as with all puzzles, it is helpful to keep the original “big picture” in mind as we try to fit the pieces together.
The Big Picture: Evangelization
Proclaiming Christ to the contemporary world: that has been the mission of the Church since that windswept morning on the Mount of Olives when Christ ascended to the Father. As has been said, “It is not that the Church has a mission, but that the mission has a Church”!
Pope Francis is — like St. John XXIII — a man with a sharp sense of history and continuity. Everything he has done since his election has demonstrated this, as I hope this essay will in part illustrate. What he is doing now is logical, historical, and consistent with the work of his predecessors. Consider some initial examples.
St. John XXIII ushered in a renewed focus on evangelization when he announced the Second Vatican Council in January, 1959. By the time the Council convened in October, 1962, evangelization had become the cornerstone of the project: how could the Church be a more effective witness of Christ in the contemporary world, especially following the violence, devastation and death inflicted on humanity during the first half of the Twentieth Century? Blessed Paul VI, John’s successor, convened a Synod on Evangelization in 1974 and declared a Holy Year in 1975 to focus on as a way to celebrate the 10th Anniversary of the closing of the Council, referring to the Council itself as “the great Catechism of our time.” In his landmark apostolic exhortation on evangelization, Evangelii Nuntiandi, Pope Paul wrote:
There is no doubt that the effort to proclaim the Gospel to the people of today, who are buoyed up by hope but at the same time often oppressed by fear and distress, is a service rendered to the Christian community and also to the whole of humanity.
For this reason the duty of confirming the brethren – a duty which with the office of being the Successor of Peter . . . seems to us all the more noble and necessary when it is a matter of encouraging our brethren in their mission as evangelizers, in order that, in this time of uncertainty and confusion, they may accomplish this task with ever increasing love, zeal and joy.
Referring back to the Council, he wrote:
We wish to do so on this tenth anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council, the objectives of which are definitively summed up in this single one: to make the Church of the twentieth century ever better fitted for proclaiming the Gospel to the people of the twentieth century.
Pope Paul mentioned that this theme was not a new one, and that even prior to the Synod on Evangelization, he had told the Cardinals:
“The conditions of the society in which we live oblige all of us therefore to revise methods, to seek by every means to study how we can bring the Christian message to modern man. . . .” in a way that is as understandable and persuasive as possible.
The pope then gave three “burning questions” with the 1974 Synod had dealt with:
In our day, what has happened to that hidden energy of the Good News, which is able to have a powerful effect on man’s conscience?
To what extent and in what way is that evangelical force capable of really transforming the people of this century?
What methods should be followed in order that the power of the Gospel may have its effect?
Basically, these inquiries make explicit the fundamental question that the Church is asking herself today and which may be expressed in the following terms: after the Council and thanks to the Council, which was a time given her by God, at this turning-point of history, does the Church or does she not find herself better equipped to proclaim the Gospel and to put it into people’s hearts with conviction, freedom of spirit and effectiveness?
Now consider the challenges posed by Pope Francis in his own first Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, in which he picks up these same themes and asks his to evaluate our own existing ecclesial structures and to change them, even eliminating those which are no longer effective in conveying the joy of the Gospel. It is not insignificant that a preponderance of his references in that part of the document are drawn from St. John XXIII and Paul VI.
The bottom line here is simple, direct and graphic: the proclamation of Christ to the world is our mission, and we do that with joy, courage, hope and mercy. In fact, mercy is not simply one of several attributes associated with evangelization, it is the heart of evangelization itself: God loves us and showers us all constantly with mercy, and there are no exceptions and no one is excluded from God’s mercy. We who claim to be disciples can do no less in imitation of Christ.
With evangelization as the foundation, let’s turn to recent events, especially the upcoming Apostolic Journey.
The Apostolic Journey #1: It’s not all about the USA
The first thing to consider is how the Pope views his trip. Is he coming to United States? Of course, but that’s not where it begins. The official title of his sojourn is, according to the Vatican website: “APOSTOLIC JOURNEY OF HIS HOLINESS POPE FRANCIS TO CUBA, THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA AND VISIT TO THE UNITED NATIONS ORGANIZATION HEADQUARTERS on the occasion of his participation at the Eighth World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia.”
Cuba? Cuba?? I can hear some eyes rolling: Aren’t there direct flights from Rome to Washington or New York? Is this all part of President Obama’s new relationship with Havana? Is the Pope taking sides in such political issues? Is the Pope a Democrat??? [I know that we must be careful here; I hope readers realize that I’m trying to be somewhat humorous in those questions!] Rather we must again look at history.
It’s 1962. Following the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, the US and Cuba entered a new level of tension when the Soviet Union began installing nuclear-capable missiles on the island. The week after the opening of the Second Vatican Council in October 1962, the crisis exploded, and we were all on the brink of disaster. Behind the scenes, both President Kennedy and Premier Krushchev approached Pope John XXIII for whatever assistance he could offer in mediation. Working both publicly and behind the scenes, John did just that. In fact, you can listen to one of his public efforts from Vatican Radio here. Once the crisis had passed, due in no small measure to the pope, he decided that he had to write what many now consider his most significant encyclical, Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth). This was a direct result of the missile crisis. Since that time, popes have worked to continue to ease the tension between our two countries.
The fact that Pope Francis is beginning his apostolic journey with a visit to Cuba is most significant. I am convinced that we will hear more about Pope John XXIII and his efforts from Pope Francis and the longstanding desire of the papacy that peaceful solutions be found. When he arrives in the United States, It think it is a safe bet that he will “report” on his visit to Cuba, especially perhaps, in his speech later at the United Nations.
Proclaiming Christ in the world today: Evangelization.
The Apostolic Journey #2: It’s not all about the big ticket events
Take a good look at the agenda for the apostolic journey here. Notice the times throughout that Pope Francis will be visiting with young people, with the poor, with immigrants, with prisoners and the ill. I hope that the media will not simply keep their cameras focused on the huge papal Masses and the public addresses to the Congress and the United Nations — as critical as those will be. At the heart of the pope’s visit, however, will be those far more intimate and direct contacts he will have with people most in need of God’s healing and merciful touch. Much as we saw in the recent 20/20 “virtual papal audience” this is where the pope feels most at home, and where he feels he — and we — need to be!
Proclaiming Christ in the world today: evangelization.
The Apostolic Journey #3: The Canonization of Junipero Serra
Living and working right now in California, in fact, in the Diocese in which Father Serra is buried, it has been fascinating to watch the reactions to this canonization. I was born and raised in central Illinois, and all we learned were the basics: that Spanish Franciscans led by Fra Junipero Serra had established a series of missions along the California coast during the Spanish Colonial period in the late 18th Century. That was pretty much it, or at least as much as I remember. Now, of course, we have become much more attuned to the complexities of this matter, with many native peoples objecting vigorously against what they characterize as an oppressive and murderous regime. Father Serra himself is sometimes even cited as a culprit or even as a “devil” in this regard.
Other Native peoples, however, support the canonization. In particular, there have been very fruitful conversations between church authorities and the leaders of the Peoples who are descendants of the groups who were actually involved in the situations described. They are actively involved in promoting and in planning for the canonization itself. A number of respected scholars of the period, the peoples, and the archaeology, continue to examine the evidence in a comprehensive and nuanced way. For me at least, it has been this this renewed sense of dialogue and scientific and historical research that has made the event of the canonization of Junipero Serra fruitful. Several of these scholars even admit that when they began their work on the missions that they were negative toward the mission system but, after their analysis, actually come to hold the opposite view: that, in fact, the missions served a positive role in the history of the region and its peoples.
But the bigger issue, perhaps, the “big picture,” needs to be remembered. To declare someone a saint has never meant that the church considers that person to be perfect in every way. Pope Francis understands that. He has been highlighting people who have left their own homeland, left their previous “comfort zones”, and preached Christ. Last January,the pope canonized Father Joseph Vaz, an Indian-born priest who came to Sri Lanka during the 17th century, at a time when Dutch colonists conducted a brutal persecution of Catholics. It was on the papal plane flight leaving Sri Lanka that embarked reporters asked the pope about the canonization. He replied that he was seeking to hold out examples of courageous evangelization, and for that reason, he hoped to canonize Junipero Serra during his visit to the United States. The ultimate message, then, is not to portray Junipera Serra as a perfect, sinless man. The pope hopes that the known positive aspects of his life and ministry will inspire today’s Christians to leave our own comfort zones to offer Christ to the modern world.
Proclaiming Christ in the world today: evangelization.
The Apostolic Journey #4: The Speech to Congress
This will be a particularly fascinating and historic event! Reports out of Washington suggest that some legislators are concerned that the pope’s address will result in unseemly behavior, as members of one political party rise to applaud certain items in the address while the other party remains seated. It has been suggested the no one rise during the speech itself and then applaud only at the end of it. In any case, we may be assured of one simple fact. The pope will challenge each and every member of Congress, as well as all of us who will be following along. He is neither Republican or Democrat, and he will undoubtedly be an equal opportunity prophet: preaching against abortion and for immigration reform; criticizing any economic systems (including capitalism) which harm the human person and challenging the lawmakers to find ways to help the poor and those caught in despair. When considering the normal camera angles used for similar events (such as the President’s annual State of the Union address), it will be most interesting to see the pope at the podium, flanked by Vice President Biden on the left and Speaker Boehner on the right. Both men, as Catholics, might well offer interesting visual responses to the challenges to the topics sure to be raised by the pope.
Proclaiming Christ in the world today: evangelization.
The Apostolic Journey #5: The Speech to the UN General Assembly
Here we have another interesting papal precedent. It was fifty years ago, almost to the day, that Pope Paul VI addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations. During that famous speech, which would have great influence on the Second Vatican Council, which was at the same time completing its own work on the section of Gaudium et Spes dealing with war and peace, Pope Paul passionately reminded the Assembly:
These are the words you are looking for us to say and the words we cannot utter without feeling aware of their seriousness and solemnity: never again one against the other, never, never again!
Was not this the very end for which the United Nations came into existence: to be against war and for peace? Listen to the clear words of a great man who is no longer with us, John Kennedy, who proclaimed four years ago: “Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind.” There is no need for a long talk to proclaim the main purpose of your Institution. It is enough to recall that the blood of millions, countless unheard-of sufferings, useless massacres and frightening ruins have sanctioned the agreement that unites you with an oath that ought to change the future history of the world: never again war, never again war! It is peace, peace, that has to guide the destiny of the nations of all mankind!
And in a classic comment, he proclaimed, “If you want to be brothers, let the arms fall from your hands. A person cannot love with offensive weapons in his hands.”
It seems very safe to predict that Pope Francis will make direct references to Pope Paul’s address, and that he will build upon it. His message will be, like Pope Paul’s, about the responsibilities that nations have to their people and indeed all people.
Proclaiming Christ in the world today: evangelization.
The Apostolic Journey #6: The World Meeting of Families
Finally we come to the event which initiated the pope’s visit to the United States in the first place. Naturally we will see and hear the pope offering inspiration and encouragement to the assembled families. While he may not get into specifics, it would seem natural that he might aver to the upcoming Synod on the Family. He will certainly speak of the multiple stressors on the family today and challenge all in attendance to strengthen the family and offering his own personal and prayerful support. The family will also be presented as the domestic Church, echoing Vatican II, reflecting in itself the loving nature of God and God’s own relationship with God’s creation.
Proclaiming Christ to the modern world: evangelization.
And so, as we head into this remarkable journey with Pope Francis, may we all keep the completed puzzle in mind: It is all about how WE, today, carry the merciful Christ into the world today. Our Holy Father is giving us a stunning demonstration of how that looks on a global scale: EVANGELIZATION!