That’s the title of the first chapter of Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (EG): “The Church’s Missionary Transformation”. The title alone is pregnant with possibility. The chapter covers paragraphs 19-49.
The overarching theme is MISSION — being sent out. While the Pope begins with the Great Commission of the apostles to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” he also cites the calls of Abraham, Moses and Jeremiah. He quickly links this missionary spirit with the JOY that goes along with it. He recalls the joy of the returning 72 disciples, the joy of the first converts on Pentecost, and the joy of Jesus that God has revealed God’s very self to the poor and little ones. This missionary attitude never ends: “Once the seed has been sown in one place, Jesus does not stay behind to explain things or to perform more signs; the Spirit moves him to go forth to other towns” (#21).
I hear again an echo of Pope John XXIII when Pope Francis speaks next of the unpredictable power of God’s word, “a seed which, once sown, grows by itself, even as the farmer sleeps” (Mk 4:26-29). Francis writes, “The Church has to accept this unruly freedom of the word, which accomplishes what it wills in ways that surpass our calculations and ways of thinking.” Now read the words of Pope John XXIII from his opening address to the bishops of the Second Vatican Council:
We feel we must disagree with those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand. In the present order of things, Divine Providence is leading us to a new order of human relations which, by men’s own efforts and even beyond their very expectations, are directed toward the fulfillment of God’s superior and inscrutable designs. And everything, even human differences, leads to the greater good of the Church.
No one is to be excluded from the missionary activity and concern of the Church: “In fidelity to the example of the Master, it is vitally important for the Church today to go forth and preach the Gospel to all: to all places, on all occasions, without hesitation, reluctance or fear. The joy of the Gospel is for all people: no one can be excluded” (#23). He recalls this non-exclusionary stance by recalling the angel’s proclamation to the shepherds in Bethlehem (“a great joy which will come to all the people”) all the way to the book of Revelation: “an eternal Gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tongue and tribe and people” (Rev 14:6).
The pope then lays out four characteristics of this universal missionary task, and they are all, not surprisingly, eminently practical in approach.
1. Taking the first step
Evangelizers know that God has taken the initiative already, so we are simply following that lead by going out to others. As he has already said repeatedly, the pope does not want people waiting in church for people to come in; just as God already ran out to meet us, so too we are to run out to meet others where they are.
2. Getting involved and being supportive
Once we’ve reached people, the next step is to get involved with them and their lives. He writes, “Let us try a little harder to take the first step and to become involved. . . . An evangelizing community gets involved by word and deed in people’s daily lives; it bridges distances, it is willing to abase itself if necessary, and it embraces human life, touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others.” This is where we begin, to use his famous phrase, repeated here, to take on “the smell of the sheep.” An evangelizing community is one that gets involved and is supportive of people, whatever their struggles and circumstances, “standing by people at every step of the way, no matter how difficult or lengthy this may prove to be.”
3. Being fruitful
We seek to bear fruit because Christ wants us all to be fruitful. It is here that the pope offers some very interesting words of encouragement:
It cares for the grain and does not grow impatient at the weeds. The sower, when he sees weeds sprouting among the grain does not grumble or overreact. He or she finds a way to let the word take flesh in a particular situation and bear fruits of new life, however, imperfect or incomplete these may appear. The disciple is ready to put his or her whole life on the line, even to accepting martyrdom, in bearing witness to Jesus Christ, yet the goal is not to make enemies but to see God’s word accepted and its capacity for liberation and renewal revealed.
4. Being joyful
An evangelizing community is filled with joy, knowing “how to rejoice always.” Here the pope become Eucharistic in tone, reminding his readers that this rejoicing finds expression in the liturgy as “evangelization with joy becomes beauty in the liturgy. . . . The Church evangelizes and is herself evangelized though the beauty of the liturgy, which is both a celebration of the task of evangelization and the source of her renewed self-giving.”
I’m going to stop here now before getting into the specific structural ideas the pope presents next. I think it would be a mistake not to pause and reflect here, especially as we begin the season of Advent. Can we can find ourselves on this road map of joyful evangelization the pope is describing? I ask myself: Am I truly missionary? Do I leave behind my own “comfort zones”? Do I focus on inclusion, or exclusion? Am I a risk-taker, especially with regard to what the Pope calls “the unruly freedom of the world”? What about those four additional characteristics? All of these are characteristics of every evangelizing community. Are they evident in ourselves and in our own local parishes and communities? What would it take to make them even more readily present, active and apparent?