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The Church in the World
Pope Francis has announced plans to carry out a “sound decentralisation” of governance in the Catholic Church, saying he wants to promote a revised understanding of papal primacy and increased doctrinal authority for national episcopal conferences.
“Excessive centralisation, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church’s life and her missionary outreach,” the Pope says in a new apostolic exhortation released on Tuesday. The 48,000-word text, Evangelii Gaudium (the Joy of the Gospel), is explicitly focused on evangelisation in today’s world. But it also reads like an overarching “blueprint” or “programme” for Francis’ pontificate.
The Jesuit Pope says the document is based on the teaching of the Second Vatican Council’s constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, and offers guidelines for a “new phase of evangelisation”. It calls for reform of church structures and attitudes, and at the same time critiques some secular theories that he says hinder the spread of the Gospel.
These include “attacks on religious freedom or a new persecution directed against Christians”; an “unwelcoming atmosphere” in Catholic communities; the exclusion of the laity in decision-making because of “excessive clericalism”; cliques, factions and “witch hunts” inside the Church; and Catholics who have an “ostentatious preoccupation for the liturgy, for doctrine and the Church’s prestige”, rather than preaching the main message of God’s love and mercy towards all. On relations with Islam, the Pope makes a special plea: “I ask and I humbly entreat those countries to grant Christians freedom to worship and to practise their faith, in light of the freedom which followers of Islam enjoy in Western countries!”
Pope Francis put special emphasis on the homily at Mass as key means for spreading the Gospel. He says preachers should be “brief”, offer a “heart-to-heart communication” and not be “moralistic or doctrinaire”. He also says there is a need to “re-examine” certain church laws, precepts and customs – even those that are “beautiful” or have “deep historic roots” – because they no longer communicate the Gospel or have “the same usefulness for directing and shaping people’s lives”.
In one of the most striking passages, the Pope says the Church must not close its doors, including those of the sacraments, to anyone. “The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak,” he notes. He urges “prudence and boldness” in reflecting on the “pastoral consequences” of this principle.
Francis again affirms his preference for a “poor Church that is poor” and one that is “bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets”. He warns against “rules that make us harsh judges, while at our doors people are starving”. And he says defence of the unborn cannot be separated from the defence of human rights as a whole: “Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with particular love are unborn children, the most defenceless and innocent among us. Nowadays, efforts are made to deny them their human dignity … Yet this defence of unborn life is closely linked to the defence of each and every other human right.”
Although apostolic exhortations are considered to be a pope’s personal reflection without setting forth any new legislation, this is the most important doctrinal-pastoral document Francis has personally written.
“What I am trying to express here has a programmatic significance and important consequences,” Francis writes of his new document. “I hope that all communities will devote the necessary effort to advancing along the path of pastoral and missionary conversion which cannot leave things as they presently are,” he adds.