Now that academic term has finished – and many students have left Manchester, I have a little bit of space and have decided to slowly read through Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) - Pope Francis’s rather lengthy exhortation. It has been reported as the Pope’s dream for the church – and as you would expect there is some dynamite there.
In the Introduction the Pope reminds us how Joy is at the centre of the Gospel message, giving many examples of this. I think Joy is a rare experience for many people, but when they meet someone is authentically joyful it makes a powerful impression. I have always argued that there is a profound difference between joy and happiness – happiness is something that so many strive for, and can achieve when they have a good job, a nice house, financial security and meaning. So happiness is like a transaction – and it is great when people achieve it. However Joy is like an unexpected gift – there is nothing that we can do to earn it – only having a heart that is open to God – our creator. We were created for joy. Francis reminds us that the sharing of what is really important to us brings joy. It also strikes me that when we live joyful lives – people are fascinated, attracted, and – that is when we have to be ready to account for our joy. This is a different type of evangelisation than bible bashing or door stepping, people coming to us and asking us – why are you so joyful? I remember a young man from Spain coming last year and asking for the sacrament of confirmation. When I asked him why now? ( he was in his late twenties ) he replied that he had seen some of the students faces who came to mass and the chaplaincy and ‘their eyes were shining’. (I immediately checked that we had no drug dealers on site…. :) )
However Francis is also gently chastising a distorted type of religion and religiosity. We are warned about this with the great line ‘There are Christians whose lives seem like Lent rather than Easter’ (6) . Reminding us that the Gospel offers us the chance to live life on a higher plane he then investigates what might prevent this joy. Francis’s previous job as Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires led to him being a key figure in the last general assembly of the Conference of Latin American Bishops (CELAM). Bergoglio, who was a cardinal at the time was the key figures who helped prepare the final document, the ‘Aparecida’ document. One of the most interesting quotes is lifted directly from that – :
“Life grows by being given away, and it weakens in isolation and comfort. Indeed, those who enjoy life most are those who leave security on the shore and become excited by the mission of communicating life to others” EG 10 , Aparecida 360
So the more security, the more comfort and the more isolated we become the more sterile our faith is. We become like spiritual ‘gated communities’ (my words not the Pope’s). There is an ecclesiology here that is challenging for many of us who have a default position of seeing the world as hostile. To a Jesuit ear however you can hear so much of the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius. Particularly his meditation on The Two Standards (click here if you would like to find out more). So the opening theme of his exhortation is Joy – and people are thirsting to encounter authentic joy. One of the most popular posts in this blogs archives is an article about the joy of the fourth week of the exercises, with currently (Dec 2013) over 7,000 individual hits, called a Joy that Surpasses all Joys. We all need more joy in our lives!