Vatican II - Voice of The Church
Vatican II - Voice of The Church

Towards Reform for Mission –
Pope Francis as Witness and Evangelist


In just over a year in office Pope Francis has captured the imagination of the world with his plain style and emphasis on the poor. Hopes have been raised for reform and renewal in the Church although to date it is based mainly on style rather than substantive reforms.

Vatican II, as the first council with fathers from across the world, established a global or universal Church bringing to an end its Eurocentric focus and triumphalism. Mission was widely seen as an extension of European colonialism through the perception that Christianity brought civilisation to pagan territories. All has now changed. The universality of the Church is now beginning to be actualised with the first Latin American pope 'from the ends of the earth' and, in one of the early acts of Pope Francis, by establishing a council of cardinals coming from all the continents, to advise him on reforming the Roman Curia '“ a tentative step towards collegiality.

Steps are being taken to reform the IOR (Vatican Bank) and address financial mismanagement within the Holy See through the formation of a Council and Secretariat for the Economy (for the Holy See and Vatican City State) under the Australian Cardinal George Pell. The formation of a Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors where half the membership is female, including an abuse survivor, has been widely welcomed and may be indicative of the pope's intention of involving women in the governance of the Church. The process of consulting with the faithful, however imperfect the exercise, in preparation for the forthcoming extraordinary synod on the family presented another sign of inclusivity and viewing the Church as the People of God.

The pope's initiatives to date, although appearing to concentrate on internal reforms, have significance for the mission of the Church. The Church's message particularly in sexual, economic and social ethics will only have credibility if it is seen to be living what it teaches. Pope Paul VI remarked, in his 1975 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi (Evangelization in the Modern World), that people in the contemporary world are more willing to listen to witnesses than to teachers. Pope Francis elected a lifestyle which makes him a credible witness to the Gospel. More importantly, his continual emphasis on God's mercy also shifts the emphasis from a juridical approach to projecting the embrace of God's love especially to those on the periphery. Pope Paul's remark has been reiterated in the first document wholly authored by Pope Francis, an apostolic exhortation on the proclamation of the gospel in today's world, entitled Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) as a follow-up to the 2012 synod on the new evangelisation. This work has also contributed to the re-kindling of a more hopeful and refreshing spirit akin to that in the immediate post-conciliar period.

Evangelii Gaudium is the latest magisterial document in a line on mission and evangelisation by Paul VI and John-Paul II growing out of the Vatican II decree Ad Gentes (The Church's Missionary Activity). Ad Gentes provided a fuller theology of mission in chapter 1 of the document by rooting mission in the Trinity - as the Father sends the Son and the Spirit, God is missionary in His very essence and so the Church, reflecting the life of the Trinity, is also missionary in its very nature. In its opening statement describing the Church as a universal sacrament of salvation to preach the Gospel to all people Ad Gentes re-iterates Lumen Gentium in which the sacramental character, sign and instrument, of communion with God and unity among all men and women calls the Church to effect what it signifies and so is essentially missionary. The term evangelisation was not used in Ad Gentes but was employed by Paul VI in Evangelii Nuntiandi in 1975. However, it was Pope John-Paul II's 1990 encyclical, Redemptoris Missio (On the Permanent Validity of the Church's Missionary Mandate), marking the 25th anniversary of Ad Gentes, that developed the concept of a 'new evangelisation'. He said that 'in countries with ancient Christian roots', where entire groups of the baptised have lost a living sense of the faith, or even no longer consider themselves members of the Church, and live a life far removed from Christ and his Gospel. In this case what is needed is a 'new evangelisation' or a 're-evangelisation'.' (n.33).

The concept of new evangelisation gradually took hold in thinking at the centre, especially as it applied to Europe, so much so that Benedict XVI's papacy could be regarded as particularly Eurocentric. It became a focus for the 2012 synod on The New Evangelisation for the Transmission of the Christian Faith. Although the synod was the occasion for Pope Francis's Evangelii Gaudium it was not titled a post-synodal exhortation, indicating that he wanted to widen the scope of his letter. Some regard it as a manifesto for his pontificate. As he says, 'I intend to express my own concerns about this particular chapter of the Church's work of evangelisation'. He goes on to expound on how he sees the task of the papacy as he does not 'believe that the papal magisterium should be expected to offer a definitive or complete word on every question which affects the Church and the world. It is not advisable for the Pope to take the place of local Bishops in the discernment of every issue which arises in their territory. In this sense, I am conscious of the need to promote a sound 'decentralization''. (n.16).

Pope Francis sees the Church's mission in more comprehensive and inclusive terms. Rooting his remarks in Vatican II's Lumen Gentium, he lists the following as his concern: the reform of the Church in her missionary outreach; the temptations faced by pastoral workers; the Church, understood as the entire People of God, which evangelises; the homily and its preparation; the inclusion of the poor in society; peace and dialogue within society; the spiritual motivations for mission (n.17). The text presents a challenge to all in the Church and in its encounter with the world.

Evangelii Gaudium has generally been well received and its style and propositions have given fresh hope and a new impetus in the Church. As we approach Easter and enter into the mystery of the dying and rising of Jesus Christ so we see a dying and rising in the Church accompanied by hope of new transformed life. A re-vitalised Church will be in a better position to proclaim the Gospel of Christ crucified and risen.

Paul Paniccia
April 2014

Further Recommended Reading

The Francis Factor '“ A New Departure , John Littleton & Eamon Maher (eds.), 2014, Columba Press, Blackrock