The one thing, as it shows up in The Joy of the Gospel

As I outlined in the last post, I think Francis’ central message is that grace is more central than law. Here, let me show you.

Our message as Christians to the rest of the world (and even to each other), needs to skew heavily toward the joy of the forgiven and away from the guilt of the disobedient. “The Good Shepherd…seeks not to judge but to love.” (125) “Instead of seeming to impose new obligations, [evangelizing Christians] should appear as people who wish to share their joy, who point to a horizon of beauty and who invite others to a delicious banquet. It is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but ‘by attraction.’” (15) “The message has to concentrate on the essentials, on what is most beautiful, most grand, most appealing and at the same time most necessary.” (35) “If this invitation [to respond to God’s love with love in return] does not radiate forcefully and attractively…it would mean that it is not the Gospel which is being preached, but certain doctrinal or moral points based on specific, ideological options.” (39)

To do that effectively, we need to bury our desire to judge others and focus on loving them. “The Church must be a place of mercy freely given, where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live the good life of the Gospel.” (114) “Rather than experts on rooting out every threat and deviation, we should appear as joyful messengers of challenging proposals, guardians of the goodness and beauty which shine forth in a life of fidelity to the Gospel.” (168) “Even people who can be considered dubious on account of their errors have something to offer which must not be overlooked. It is the convergence of peoples who, within the universal order, maintain their own individuality; it is the sum total of persons within a society which pursues the common good, which truly has a place for everyone.” (236) Referencing the Gospel story of the wheat and the weeds, Francis says we need to be patient with those who are slow to respond as we think they should. An evangelizing Church “cares for the grain and does not grow impatient at the weeds.” (24)

Francis has some pretty harsh words for Christians who miss this point. “There are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter.” (6) “Certain issues which are part of the Church’s moral teaching are taken out of the context which gives them their meaning. The biggest problem is when the message we preach then seems identified with those secondary aspects which, important as they are, do not and on and of themselves convey the heart of Christ’s message.” (34).

This is especially true for priests, by the way. “For example, if in the course of the liturgical year a parish priest speaks about temperance ten times but only mentions charity or justice two or three times, an imbalance results, and precisely those virtues which ought to be most present in preaching and catches is are overlooked. The same thing happens when we speak more about law than about grace, more about the Church than about Christ, more about the Pope than about God’s word.” (38) And not just in the pulpit: the Catholic sacrament of reconciliation (or Confession), should be about grace, too. “I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy which spurs us on to do our best…Everyone needs to be touched by the comfort and attraction of God’s saving love, which is mysteriously at work in each person, above and beyond their faults and failings.” (44) “Frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than it’s facilitators. But the Church is not a tollhouse; it is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems.” (47)

But if we do focus on the gospel, it doesn’t mean we ditch the law. Instead, it gives the law a more joyful, positive purpose. The hearts of the faithful, “growing in hope from the joyful and practical exercise of the love which they have received, will sense that each word of Scripture is a gift before it is a demand.” (142)

The kerygma, or central Church teaching, “has to express God’s saving love which precedes any moral and religious obligation on our part; it should not impose the truth but appeal to freedom; it should be marked by Joy, encouragement, liveliness, and a harmonious balance which will not reduce preaching to a few doctrines which are at times more philosophical than evangelical.” (165)

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