The first exhortation from Pope Francis – the title of this post – called the church to a conversion from a concern for self-preservation to a missionary outlook, sharing the gospel of life. Among the many wonderful insights in this document is the reminder that there is a ‘hierarchy of truth’ in Christian thinking – some things are more important than others. And in this time of challenge and crisis, it’s right that we should be giving a lot of thought to exactly what it is that matters most.
Pope Francis would probably say that the answer to this is rather simple. Indeed, it’s vital that the essence of the Gospel is not obscured by an undifferentiated mass of complex ideas, customs and language. The simple answer Francis gave at the outset of his exhortation was that one is set free by an encounter with Jesus. Everything else flows from this. Yes, the church is important in its institutional or communal form – we do not believe in a disembodied ideal – but it is important because it is a realm of encounter with the Risen Jesus. Everything else – community, ethics, structures – flows from this.
In describing the freedom found in an encounter with Jesus, Pope Francis specifies a number of ‘diseases’ from which we are liberated: sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. The freedom is renewed each day when one is open to the possibility of a fresh encounter with the Risen One each and every day. No one is excluded from this offer and ‘no one can strip us of the dignity bestowed upon us by this boundless and unfailing love.’ (EG 3)
But how does one encounter the living Jesus? Mostly, we do so when we encounter someone who has already encountered him and has been transformed by his tender mercy, but also through the proclamation of the Gospel and the celebration of the paschal mystery, primarily in the Eucharist. Francis talks of a ‘gift of beauty’ as a primary mode of encounter. By this he does not mean a narrow aesthetic, but the beauty of a transformed life, transformed by joy, gratitude and self-forgetfulness. The constant challenge to the church is to ensure that every decision is made so as to facilitate such encounters. To do this requires spiritual discernment, not programmes, slogans or political manoeuvring. In practice, I see in Pope Francis a commitment to discernment that does not exclude and is based on both-and thinking rather than either-or thinking. This is because the very manner of our encounters with each other must also reflect the tenderness and the mercy of Christ.