Encountering Christ through life changes Print
Bishop Morlino's Column
Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013 -- 12:00 AM
This column is the bishop’s communication with the faithful of the Diocese of Madison. Any wider circulation reaches beyond the intention of the bishop.

Dear Friends,

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;

upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone.

You have brought them abundant joy and great rejoicing!

(IS 9:1-2)

The Lord our God has truly brought us abundant joy and great rejoicing in the person of Jesus Christ. It is a joy and a light which dispels all darkness, and it is a joy and a light which must be shared. It is the joy and light which is our Gospel!

Most of you have surely heard of the apostolic exhortation of Pope Francis, released at the end of our Year of Faith, which was just about month ago.

The Exhortation is titled Evangelii Gaudium -- the Joy of the Gospel, and it begins like this, “The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness, and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew (EG, 1).”

Living the joy of the Gospel

The purpose of the exhortation, Pope Francis continues, is to urge the Christian faithful to live the joy of the Gospel and to reapply ourselves again to sharing that Gospel and that joy. That the document is a letter of encouragement is an important first note.

In recent years we have grown very used to the weighty documents (usually encyclicals) of Blessed John Paul the Great and Pope Benedict.

Those encyclicals are teaching documents about the doctrine of the Church. And before, when you’ve got a teaching document about doctrine, the proper response was to give it willing assent, and to say, “yes, that’s the doctrine.”

Pope John Paul was a great philosopher, and also a great theologian. Pope Benedict is a great theologian, and also a great philosopher. We have a long time, say 35 years or so, of documents from popes that teach us about doctrine. They could not be clearer.

Believing what Catholics believe

And since we’ve had Pope Francis, many have been asking, including some in the media, “will you change any doctrine? Are you going to change the Church’s doctrine about marriage?” To such questions, Francis doesn’t give a direct answer. He just says, “look, I’m a son of the Church. I’m Catholic. I believe what Catholics believe, alright?”

And what Catholics believe is spelled out beautifully in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and almost endlessly in the beautiful teaching documents about doctrine of John Paul and Benedict.

Francis does not see himself principally as a teacher of doctrine. In Evangelii Gaudium, several times he emphasizes that this exhortation is not a doctrinal document. Now when he says that, the mass media says, “Oh look at that! He’s against doctrines! He’s against obedience! He is just so cool! The lid is really off!”

His actual point, of course, is that Evangelii Gaudium is a document which applies established doctrine to the work of evangelization in our time. It’s a program of evangelization that will have serious consequences. Yet within it, we don’t really find a program, per se, because evangelization is not a program.

This document is a “program” for evangelization, the Pope says, but he presumes that we know that evangelization is not a program.

In this document, Pope Francis is touching on so many topics that he’s already covered, especially in his morning Masses, but he’s also telling us that which he’s been showing us. And he has to show us, because evangelization is something you do, and he’s doing it!

Pope teaches by actions and example

Pope Francis may not be the theologian -- and philosopher -- pope that Pope Benedict and Blessed John Paul were, but he does quite a job at teaching by his actions and example. He tries to live evangelization.

What Pope Francis is trying to do, both in this document and in almost every action of his pontificate, is to evangelize. He’s setting the example.

And what does he think evangelizing is? He thinks evangelizing is helping people to get freed up enough to look the merciful face of Jesus right in the eye. He wants them -- wants us -- to look at the merciful face of Jesus; to “behold the man” and to be changed by Him. That’s what he’s doing. Over, and over, and over again (as well it should), everything he says and does comes back to, “get close to Jesus. Close enough that you change.”

So, being evangelized is staring into the merciful eyes of Jesus in such wise that we are changed. That’s what it is. Now, in order to do that, we’ve got to be freed up to do so.

There are tons of things that keep people, especially those who might be “culturally Catholic,” or “cradle Catholics,” from being free enough to be changed by Jesus. But for these types especially, Pope Francis is really disturbed about the division in the Church.

So often our Church today looks like the political field -- it’s the “liberals” and the “conservatives,” and everybody is trying to make a loser out of somebody else. It’s no wonder the Church can’t accomplish its mission of evangelization; so much time is spent fighting with each other and trying to win.

One of the main tactics of those who fight with each other is gossip, and so Francis, about once a week, mentions (with real noticeable passion), how terribly harmful gossip is.

And if you look around at the average parish, what is the most plentiful fuel for conflict and division? It is gossip. “Do you know what Father told so and so?” “Oh I can’t believe it.” “Well he did!”

In order to get to a point of freedom so that the Church can evangelize, we have to get out of the trenches of battle against each other. We’ve got to stop the gossip.

Catholics need to get out of their ruts

We’ve got to get out of our trenches of battle against one another, but we’ve also got to get out of our own personal ruts.

This is something else that Pope Francis has been talking about and doing, and in Evangelii Gaudium it is the same story -- people have to get out of their ruts. To be evangelized is to be changed. And to be changed we need to get out of the ruts of our own ideologies. All of us -- myself included -- have to dislodge ourselves from our ruts, by God’s grace.

And so, what Francis does in Evangelii Gaudium is to say one thing after another -- from comments on respect for the unborn, to those on justice for immigrants, to sections on greater charity in our economic systems -- in order to shake somebody (everybody) up.

Everything he says is designed to dislodge someone from his or her secure places. In terms of conflicts among Catholics, one minute he’s upsetting “Bobby liberal,” the next minute he’s upsetting “Betty conservative.” It leaves everyone feeling a little uneasy, and if we’d take hold of that uneasiness, it would help us to get out of our ruts.

Encountering Christ in new, deeper ways

I could go throughout the document and detail all of those points, but I’m sure you’ve already heard and read so many of the examples. The point here though is that the Pope is trying to shake us up, to dislodge us from our ruts, so that we might encounter Jesus in new and deeper ways. And encountering Him in new and deeper ways means finding joy in new and deeper ways.

That’s precisely what the Incarnation and Christmas are all about -- encountering God in new and deeper ways, so that “the people in darkness might see the light,” and that the Lord might bring us “abundant joy and great rejoicing.”

So despite all the comforts we enjoy in this season, lets allow ourselves to be shaken up a little bit, to be shaken out of our ruts, so that we might see Jesus face-to-face, and be changed by Him.

Continued blessings to you and your loved ones in this Christmas season and into the New Year! Thank you for taking the time to read this! Christ is born! With joy, let us adore Him!