Recently I was asked to participate in a panel discussion on Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. The instructions one usually receives upon agreeing to be part of such an activity normally only extend as far as: “Just make a brief presentation on something that struck you in the text.” The instructions in this case would be no different. The following, therefore, is a short mediation on what I understand to be a great lesson to be learned, or reminder to be noted, from Evangelii Gaudium.
When one normally conceives of evangelization, a phrase often used is “handing on the faith.” While a good phrase, a temptation can be to understand faith strictly as it relates to the intellect. In other words, faith relates to what we believe, what we know as disclosed by divine revelation. Accordingly, missionary and evangelizing activity can be seen strictly as a task which communicates these truths to others. I am not attempting to disparage this task. In fact, this is precisely what I do every day in the classroom, i.e., communicate the truths of the faith as intelligibly as I can for my students. But the goal of evangelization is not a full understanding of the Catholic faith, rather, it is communion: communion with God and one another in the Church.
In this apostolic exhortation, Pope Francis is reminding us that “handing on the faith” is not simply an intellectual activity. Rather, and primarily, “handing on the faith” is the communication of God’s love for us; a love which is personal. As St. Paul wrote: “I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me” (Gal 2:20). For Pope Francis, as for St. Paul, faith cannot be separated from love in our evangelizing activity. It is “the love of Christ [that] urges us on” (2 Cor 5:14) in our missionary vocation, and impels our desire to seek out the least of Christ’s brothers (cf. Mt 25:40).
One passage of Evangelii Gaudium which, I think, points to this relationship between communion, love and evangelization, is the first section of chapter one, entitled, A Church which Goes Forth (Una Chiesa in uscita). This is more strictly translated as “A Church Going Forth,” a church active and in the process of reaching out. In this section Pope Francis mentions that the missionary impulse of the Church stems from the love of God who loved us first (cf. 1 Jn 4:19), and who calls us to be servants of one another (cf. Jn 13:17); thus forming an evangelizing community which “goes forth” in service. This service is not a disengaged and aloof didacticism, but an immersion in and among the evangelized, a taking on of “‘the smell of the sheep,’” a forming of communion in the one who has laid down his life for his sheep (cf. Jn 10:15).
This is the great reminder, I believe, of this apostolic exhortation: that the goal of evangelization is not knowledge but communion in love. This is the joy of the Gospel, that “God never tires of forgiving us” (§ 3) and constantly calls us into communion with Himself and, thereby, with one another.
Anthony Coleman teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.