Pope Francis and the evangelicals, part two Print
Word on Fire
Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016 -- 12:00 AM

Part two of a two-part series.

In his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), displaying his penchant for finding the memorable image, Pope Francis excoriates Christians who have turned "into querulous and disillusioned pessimists, 'sourpusses,'" and whose lives “seem like Lent without Easter."

Such people might be smart and they might even be morally upright, but they will never be successful evangelists.

A Church filled with joy

Once this basic truth is understood, the rest of the Church's life tends to fall more correctly into place. A Church filled with the joy of the resurrection becomes a band of "missionary disciples," going out to the world with the good news.

Ecclesial structures, liturgical precision, theological clarity, bureaucratic meetings, etc. are accordingly relativized in the measure that they are placed in service of that more fundamental mission.

The pope loves the liturgy, but if evangelical proclamation is the urgent need of the Church, "an ostentatious preoccupation with the liturgy" becomes a problem; a Jesuit, the pope loves the life of the mind, but if evangelical proclamation is the central concern of the Church, then a "narcissistic" and "authoritarian" doctrinal fussiness must be eliminated; a man of deep culture, Pope Francis loves the artistic heritage of the Church, but if evangelical proclamation is the fundamental mission, then the Church cannot become "a museum piece."

This last point calls vividly to mind something that Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli said on the eve of the conclave that would elect him Pope John XXIII: "We are not here to guard a museum, but rather to cultivate a flourishing garden of life."

Church looks beyond herself

When he spoke at the General Congregations, the meetings of Cardinals in advance of the conclave of 2013, Cardinal Bergoglio reportedly brought to his brothers’ attention with great passion the need for the Church to look beyond herself.

This preoccupation is echoed in paragraph 27 of Evangelii Gaudium: "I dream of a 'missionary option,' that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today's world rather than for her self-preservation."

And this in turn echoes a word that John Paul II spoke to the bishops of Oceania in 2001: "All renewal in the Church must have mission as its goal if it is not to fall prey to a kind of ecclesial introversion."

And the mission, once again, is none other than drawing the entire human race into a relationship with the living Christ. There is much here, I would suggest, with which evangelicals can resonate.

The way of beauty

Pope Francis realizes that in our postmodern framework, appeals to the true and the good often fall on deaf ears. Indeed, if the dictatorship of relativism obtains, then who are you to tell me what I ought to think or how I ought to behave?

This is why the pope calls for an active exploration of the via pulchritudinis (the way of beauty). It is best for the evangelizer to show the splendor and radiance of the Christian form of life, before he or she would get to explicit doctrine and moral commands.

This involves the use of classical artistic expressions of the Christian faith as well as contemporary cultural forms. Indeed, says the pope, any beautiful thing can be a route of access to Christ.

Strides in ecumenism

If I might end on a note of challenge, or better, of invitation to further and deeper conversation. Along with so many others, I was encouraged by the late Bishop Tony Palmer's outreach to Pope Francis and his ecumenical graciousness. But when he told the gathered ministers that, in the wake of the famous 1999 joint declaration on justification, Luther's protest is effectively over, I was, to say the least, not convinced.

We have made enormous strides in the last 50 years, and as I’ve suggested here, the papacy of Francis represents another astonishing leap forward. Nevertheless, as we approach the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, significant differences remain at the doctrinal level, including and especially in regard to the issue of justification and its appropriation.

In the early 1940s, the Protestant theologian Karl Barth conducted a seminar in Basel on the texts of the Council of Trent, and to that seminar he invited Catholic thinker Hans Urs von Balthasar.

I’m not at all sure that these two giants resolved anything, but I remain entranced by the image of the greatest Protestant theologian of the 20th century and arguably the greatest Catholic theologian of the 20th century coming together for serious conversation regarding the central issues of the Reformation.

I am exceptionally glad that in many circles we have moved well beyond the stage of hurling invective at one another and that we have indeed found many, many points of contact, especially concerning the centrality of evangelization.

But I would still welcome more and more encounters along the lines of the Barth-Balthasar seminar. Toward that end, may we all follow the evangelical drumbeat of Pope Francis.


Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. Learn more at www.WordOnFire.org