Evangelii Gaudium - The joy of the Gospel

To start off this new issue of the Bulletin of the AIM let us listen to the Exhortation of Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, apply it to our own context and allow ourselves to be influenced by it.

The joy of the Gosepl in the meeting with Jesus Christ

The Pope insists first of all on a personal meeting with Jesus Christ and on the joy which it gives, free from discouragement at our mistakes and failures: ‘Some Christians give the impression of Lent without Easter’ (#7). It is worth reminding ourselves again at this point that St Benedict in his rule mentions joy precisely in connection with Lent. This liturgical season is shot through with the vivacity of spiritual longing, with the approaching joy of the Holy Spirit in expectation of Easter (RB 49). ‘May the world of our day, which is searching sometimes in suffering, sometimes in hope, receive the Good News not from sad and discouraged, impatient and anxious evangelists, but from ministers of the Gospel whose life radiates fervour which they have themselves first received in the joy of Christ’ (#10).

Monastic tradition normally demands from a monk a certain gravity. St Benedict bids the monk to avoid gross laughter and distasteful humour, but monks and nuns are not forbidden, rather they are encouraged to have a welcoming, open appearance, lit by a smile full of graciousness. Furthermore, it very often happens that when lay people have personal meetings with monks they find them generally joyful, but possessed of a great spirit of poise which gives them a necessary and comforting sense of humour. Yes indeed, even monks and nuns, brothers and sisters in St Benedict, live their lives in the joy of spiritual longing under the guidance of the Gospel.

An outgoing Church

The first chapter of the exhortation concerns the fact that the Church must not be turned in on itself, but must constantly be outgoing, especially towards those who are distant and normally isolated. ‘An evangelising community plays a part in the life of others by its works and its deeds; it shortens distances; it lowers itself even to the point of humiliation if necessary and embraces human life which touches suffering human flesh in people’ (#22). The expression ‘goes out’ does not necessarily involve an external movement, but rather a state of mind which is not wholly focused on the internal organisation of the community. A monastic community must be able to consider itself as missionary if it does not turn in on itself, in communion with other communities, caring for all those who come to it, often from a distance, and all those whom it accompanies in one way or another.

Evangelisation through the liturgy

Within the framework of monastic life the witness of the liturgy is particularly important. On this point the recommendations of the exhortation are deeply in tune with the concerns of monastic communities. They try to work towards beauty and goodness of the members and of all who accompany them, at the heart of an existence which sets itself to be truly the work of God, Opus Dei. ‘Evangelisation with joy becomes beauty in the liturgy, as part of our daily concern to spread goodness. The Church evangelises and is herself evangelised through the beauty of the liturgy, which is both a celebration of the task of evangelisation and the source of her renewed selfgiving’ (#24).

Some important projects

From #52 onwards the Pope stresses some projects which cannot be neglected by monks and nuns:

Refusal of an economy of exclusion: ‘just as the commandment “Do not kill” lays down a clear boundary to protect the value of human life, so today we must say “No” to an economy of exclusion and of social inequality.’ Such an economy kills. It is not acceptable that the fact of an elderly person reduced to living in the street dies of cold is not news while a drop of two points on the stock exchange is news. This is exclusion. It is not tolerable that food is thrown away while there are people suffering from hunger. This is what social inequality means. Today everything is at stake in the game of competition and in the powerstruggle where the strong devour the weak. In consequence of this situation large sections of the population find themselves excluded and marginalized, lacking work, prospects or escape. Humanity itself has become a commodity to be used and then thrown away. We have launched a culture of waste which is even encouraged. We are talking not simply of the phenomenon of exploitation and oppression but of something quite unprecedented: exclusion radically affects membership of society itself in which life occurs, from the moment when this life is no longer in the underworld, on the margins and powerless, but right outside. Anyone who is excluded is not simply exploited but is wastage, mere ‘leftovers’. This first point is completed by a few paragraphs of which we give here only the headings, which speak for themselves: ‘No to the new idolatry of money’, ‘No to money which rules instead of serving’, ‘No to social inequality which breeds violence’.

The AIM is not blind to situations which the exhortation addresses as a consequence of action taken by several bishops on different continents concerning the major cultural challenges of the future:

• The bishops of Africa, picking up the encyclical Sollicitudo rei socialis of a few years ago, have shown that there have been frequent attempts to transform the countries of Africa into mere cogs, pieces in a gigantic machine. This is often the case also in the field of means of social communications. Most of these are administered by centres in the northern hemisphere which do not pay due attention to the needs and problem of these countries, and do not respect their cultural pattern.1

• Similarly, the bishops of Asia have drawn attention to ‘external influences which are pressing on Asian cultures. New behaviour patterns are appearing as a result of excessive exposure to the media [...] resulting in negative aspects of the media and advertising campaigns which threaten traditional values’2

• ‘The Catholic faith of many peoples is challenged today by the proliferation of new religious movements, some tending to fundamentalism and others which seem to further a godless spirituality. The latter form part of the result of a widespread reaction to a consumer, materialist and individualist society, and at the same time exploit the needs of a population which survives in marginal societies and impoverished areas. They feed on great human suffering and their search for quick solutions to their own needs. These religious movements, marked by their subtle methods fill, within a predominantly individualistic culture, a vacuum left by secularist rationalism’ (#63).

These points seem to me important with regard to the challenges facing our monasteries throughout the world. Will our communities find a way of harmonizing the development of the human person and its position in the web of a community? This is certainly one of the most important concerns for the future of monastic life.

The challenge of globalisation

In the chapter on the proclamation of the Gospel the Pope turns to cultural diversity. This is a matter of real concern to our communities. We repeat here several paragraphs of the apostolic exhortation which can have direct application to our communities.

The People of God is incarnate in the peoples of the earth, each of which has its own culture. The concept of culture is valuable for grasping the various expressions of the Christian life present in God’s people. It has to do with the lifestyle of a given society, the specific way in which its members relate to one another, to other creatures and to God. Understood in this way, culture embraces the totality of a people’s life. Each people in the course of its history develops its culture with legitimate autonomy. This is due to the fact that the human person, ‘by nature stands completely in need of life in society’ and always exists in reference to society, finding there a concrete way of relating to reality. The human person is always situated in a culture: ‘nature and culture are intimately linked’. Grace supposes culture, and God’s gift becomes flesh in the culture of those who receive it (#115).

When properly understood, cultural diversity is not a threat to Church unity. ... Evangelisation joyfully acknowledges these varied treasures which the Holy Spirit pours out upon the Church. We would not do justice to the logic of the incarnation if we thought of Christianity as monocultural and monotonous. While it is true that some cultures have been closely associated with the preaching of the Gospel and the development of Christian thought, the revealed message is not identified with any of them; its content is transcultural. Hence in the evangelisation of new cultures, or cultures which have not received the Christian message, it is not essential to impose a specific cultural form, no matter how beautiful or ancient it may be, together with the Gospel. The message that we proclaim always has a certain cultural dress, but we in the Church can sometimes fall into a needless hallowing of our own culture, and thus show more fanaticism than true evangelizing zeal (#117).

The Bishops of Oceania asked that the Church ‘develop an understanding and a presentation of the truth of Christ working from the traditions and cultures of the region’ and invited ‘all missionaries to work in harmony with indigenous Christians so as to ensure that the faith and the life of the Church be expressed in legitimate forms appropriate for each culture’. We cannot demand that peoples of every continent, in expressing their Christian faith, imitate modes of expression which European nations developed at a particular moment of their history, because the faith cannot be constricted to the limits of understanding and expression of any one culture. It is an indisputable fact that no single culture can exhaust the mystery of our redemption in Christ (# 118).

Proclamation of the Gospel in social contexts

Chapter 4 of the apostolic exhortation which discusses the care for evangelisation of cultural media is absolutely brilliant, and should inspire the attitude of our communities in sociocultural contexts of their own. To profit fully from this chapter the whole passage must be read.

Spiritual emphases

Chapter 5, for its part, gives the spiritual bases of the work

of evangelisation. It constitutes on its own a short treatise in which brothers and sisters of the Benedictine tradition will have no difficulty in finding themselves at home. They will find there a source of renewed inspiration.

Whenever we say that something is ‘spirited’, it usually refers to some interior impulse which encourages, motivates, nourishes and gives meaning to our individual and communal activity. Spiritfilled evangelisation is not the same as a set of tasks dutifully carried out despite one’s own personal inclinations and wishes (#261).

Spiritfilled evangelisers are evangelisers who pray and work. Mystical notions without a solid social and missionary outreach are of no help to evangelisation, nor are dissertations or social or pastoral practices which lack a spirituality which can change hearts. These unilateral and incomplete proposals reach only a few groups and prove incapable of radiating beyond them because they curtail the Gospel. What is needed is the ability to cultivate an interior space which can give a Christian meaning to commitment and activity (#262).

We do well to keep in mind the early Christians and our many brothers and sisters throughout history who were filled with joy, unflagging courage and zeal in proclaiming the Gospel. Some people nowadays console themselves by saying that things are not as easy as they used to be; yet we know that the Roman empire was not conducive to the Gospel message, the struggle for justice, or the defence of human dignity. Every period of history is marked by the presence of human weakness, selfabsorption, complacency and selfishness, to say nothing of the concupiscence which preys upon us all. These things are ever present under one guise or another; they are due to our human limits rather than particular situations. Let us not say, then, that things are harder today; they are simply different. But let us learn also from the saints who have gone before us, who confronted the difficulties of their own day. So I propose that we pause to rediscover some of the reasons which can help us to imitate them today (#263).

Two of these points may be mentioned here:

The presence of Jesus:

A true missionary, who never ceases to be a disciple, knows that Jesus walks with him, speaks to him, breathes with him, works with him. He senses Jesus alive with him in the midst of the missionary enterprise. Unless we see him present at the heart of our missionary commitment, our enthusiasm soon wanes and we are no longer sure of what it is that we are handing on; we lack vigour and passion. A person who is not convinced, enthusiastic, certain and in love, will convince nobody (#266).

The spiritual pleasure of being a people:

The word of God also invites us to recognise that we are a people: ‘Once you were no people but now you are God’s people’ (1 Pet 2:10). To be evangelisers of souls, we need to develop a spiritual taste for being close to people’s lives and to discover that this is itself a source of greater joy (#268).

Sometimes we are tempted to be that kind of Christian who keeps the Lord’s wounds at arm’s length. Yet Jesus wants us to touch human misery, to touch the suffering flesh of others. He hopes that we will stop looking for those personal or communal niches which shelter us from the maelstrom of human misfortune and instead enter into the reality of other people’s lives and know the power of tenderness. Whenever we do so, our lives become wonderfully complicated and we experience intensely what it is to be a people, to be part of a people (#270).

Missionary prayer:

One form of prayer moves us particularly to take up the task of evangelisation and to seek the good of others: it is the prayer of intercession. Let us peer for a moment into the heart of Saint Paul, to see what his prayer was like. It was full of people: ‘…I constantly pray with you in every one of my prayers for all of you… because I hold you in my heart’ (Phil 1:4, 7). Here we see that intercessory prayer does not divert us from true contempl

This attitude becomes a prayer of gratitude to God for others. ‘First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you’ (Rom 1:8). It is constant thankfulness: ‘I give thanks to God always for you because of the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus’ (1 Cor 1:4); ‘I thank my God in all my remembrance of you’ (Phil 1:3). Far from being suspicious, negative and despairing, it is a spiritual gaze born of deep faith which acknowledges what God is doing in the lives of others. At the same time, it is the gratitude which flows from a heart attentive to others. When evangelisers rise from prayer, their hearts are more open; freed of selfabsorption, they are desirous of doing good and sharing their lives with others.

The great men and women of God were great intercessors. Intercession is like a ‘leaven’ in the heart of the Trinity. It is a way of penetrating the Father’s heart and discovering new dimensions which can shed light on concrete situations and change them. We can say that God’s heart is touched by our intercession, yet in reality he is always there first. What our intercession achieves is that his power, his love and his faithfulness are shown ever more clearly in the midst of the people (#281283).

Encouraged by such an exhortation, monks and nuns are invited to become missionaries by their life itself, in the joy of the Risen Christ, careful not to be turned in on themselves, conscious of the great challenges of our time and of certain priorities written deep into the struggle against injustice and rooted in an experience coming from the Holy Spirit and nourished by the Word of God, prayer and the liturgy. In this way they will be true witnesses to the populations around them and to the many guests who ‘are never lacking in a monastery’. ation, since authentic contemplation always has a place for others.

1. John Paul II, PostSynodal Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Africa (14th September, 1995) # 52: AAS 88 (1996), 3233; Encyclical Letter Sollicitudo rei socialis (30th December, 1987), #22: AAS 80 (1988), 539.

2. John Paul II, PostSynodal Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Asia (6th November, 1999), #7: AAS 92 (2000), 458.