On December 21, 2019, Pope Francis addressed the Curia in a Christmas message. Unlike many papal homilies, speeches, and addresses that slip silently into the Vatican’s online archives, this address received significant attention from the secular news media. Not surprisingly, these reports contained a mix of helpful factual information interlaced with unhelpful and misleading oversimplifications. The Associated Press published a short article on it, and Francis X. Rocca wrote an article about it for the Wall Street Journal. These were in addition to the usual takes from the perennially critical and reactionary Catholic media outlets.
One reason why this particular address was picked up was that it could easily be construed to be a collection of “quick hits” of many polarizing topics that have marked Francis’ papacy. For example, Francis quoted newly-canonized Saint John Henry Newman from his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. Later, he repeated his “time is greater than space” passage from Evangelii Gaudium. Francis then spoke, respectively, about ecumenism, evangelization, rigidity, care for the environment, and social justice. For the more cynically-minded, given the subjects the address touched upon and the ground it covered, this speech seemed like a tidy Christmas gift package for journalists who cover the Catholic beat.
I won’t explicate the entire address, and it is short enough to read in a few minutes. There is, however, one passage that is especially interesting to me, given my focus on evangelization in the modern western world over recent weeks:
Christendom no longer exists! Today we are no longer the only ones who create culture, nor are we in the forefront or those most listened to. We need a change in our pastoral mindset, which does not mean moving towards a relativistic pastoral care. We are no longer living in a Christian world, because faith – especially in Europe, but also in a large part of the West – is no longer an evident presupposition of social life; indeed, faith is often rejected, derided, marginalized and ridiculed.
With these words, Pope Francis is being practical about the future: the reorganization of the Curia has been designed to incorporate the needed “changes and shifts in focus” that help the Church to work towards its mission of evangelization in the modern world. Primarily, this about achieving a needed “synergy,” especially when it comes to the many communications offices and having a “consistent editorial line.”
Immediately following this statement on evangelization, Francis confronts the plight of the poor and marginalized. He reminds us that the Church “is called to testify that for God no one is a ‘stranger’ or an ‘outcast’. She is called to awaken consciences slumbering in indifference to the reality of the Mediterranean Sea, which has become for many, all too many, a cemetery.” He continues, “Let us not forget that the Child lying in the manger has the face of our brothers and sisters most in need.”
Francis’ focus on the poor and marginalized has often been misunderstood. In his WSJ story, Rocca writes, contrasting John Paul II and Benedict with Francis, “Those popes stressed a need to clarify and reaffirm traditional teachings in response to liberalizing tendencies within the church and wider society. By contrast, Pope Francis has tended to play down such teachings and focus on social causes such as economic equality, the rights of migrants and efforts to counteract global warming.”
The notion that there even can be any sort of incompatibility or mutual exclusivity between “traditional teachings” and “social causes” is one of the greatest teaching failures of the modern Catholic Church! Francis, of course, understands that the two are closely linked. As Francis discusses in Evangelii Gaudium, “We need to let ourselves be evangelized by [the poor].” It is through awakening our hearts to the plight of the poor and growing close to them in love, that Catholics in the West will develop a deeper appreciation for the Faith in its fullness. This truth goes both ways. On one hand, our faith is a gift from God, given freely to us out of his boundless love. If that is the case, then we cannot help but share that love with others (cf. Evangelii Gaudium 8). On the other hand, a nascent faith would be suppressed by the notion that the “other” is anything less than Christ himself (cf. Matthew 25). This incarnational theology, appropriate for Christmas, lies at the heart of Christianity. Evangelization in the modern world absolutely requires a commitment to the poor, both to nurture faith and to prevent the devil from snuffing it out.
Rocca’s ideas on “liberalizing tendencies” have virtually nothing to do with the faith that Francis is trying to teach us, even if Catholicism and liberalism happen to share the common goals of alleviating poverty and caring for the environment. To drive home the point, Francis affirms that these demands of faith in the modern world must not be reduced to a “relativistic pastoral care,” which one can imagine to be any sort of listening or accompaniment that does not facilitate an encounter with the love of God.
“Christendom” may be dead, but Christ still lives and constantly breathes new life into the Church and the world. Our responsibility as Christians in the modern world is still to bring Christ to all nations, evangelizing those around us and those on the periphery. Francis challenges the Curia–and all of us–to continue to think of new, creative ways to move past the obstacles that the modern world has put in our way and to bring Christ to a new generation, including those who are need of being re-evangelized.