By Fr Peter Fitzsimons
POPE Francis begins his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium with these words:
“The Joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew. In this Exhortation I wish to encourage the Christian faithful to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by this joy, while pointing out new paths for the Church’s journey in years to come.”
The Holy Father repeats three times the central theme of the Exhortation – the joy that we should have as people who have encountered Jesus and that this joy has to be the mark or particular characteristic of the new evangelisation to which we are all called.
As one commentator, Michael Pakaluk, pointed out, Catholics have not been engaged in spreading the good news, even though Blessed John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI also preached on, and encouraged, this evangelisation.
Some would argue because of the lack of catechesis, some the breakdown of the family, and some the lack of beauty in modern churches and liturgy.
Pope’s Francis, while acknowledging these as contributions, goes further to the heart of believers and sees our lack of evangelical zeal being the result of our lack of joy.
If we have found joy in our faith – if it fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus – then we will naturally want to spread the faith, in the same way that we spread our joy about other things which give us joy (such as a good movie, a good holiday spot, an enjoyable activity).
For he tells us, “Goodness always tends to spread” (no. 9). If we’re not spreading our faith to others then there’s a good chance we don’t have joy in ourselves.
How do we discover this joy and as a result become evangelisers?
First, we have to renew our personal encounter with Jesus, and to do so each day (no. 3). For most of us this will require as a starting point that we come back to him and ask him for forgiveness.
It’s useful to recall that the first words of Our Lord in his public life recorded by St Mark were not, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand, believe in the Good News” but rather, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.”
Our Lord first asks us to repent in order to go to the next step of belief in him, in following him, in giving witness to him.
In other words, to turn away from what stops us having the joy of being close to him. The Pope commented (no. 2):
“The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ.”
A resentful, angry and listless person is hardly likely to spread joy to those around him or her, let alone be the instrument to bring others closer to Christ.
The opposite is true. Such a person will drive people away from faith in Christ. For as the Pope says, “It is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but “by attraction”.
I remember meeting a young student from Tampa, Florida a good number of years ago who was a Pentecostal Christian.
He told me his impression of Catholics were those who said Hail Marys and got drunk.
This was not an attractive model for him nor is it for anyone who seeks God and neither is a person who is materialistic, selfish and moody.
One of the best ways to begin to live the joy of the Good News, to overcome a “covetous heart”, avoiding being caught up with our “own interests and concerns”, and avoid ending up “resentful, angry and listless” is to make a good examination of conscience (to that end Archbishop Mark Coleridge has provided to the Archdiocese a form of examination of conscience based on Evangelii Gaudium which will be helpful for a good confession together with an examination of conscience based on the Commandments) and to make a deep confession (and to do so regularly).
Lent is a great time for this, particularly if you have not been for a while.
A good example of the value of a deep confession is given by a young woman called Laura Johnson in a story related in Surprised by Truth 2, edited by Patrick Madrid:
“Laura had attended a Methodist church with her parents… Yet she could not find God.
I talked to the preacher about my desolation, but to no avail. I grew afraid of going to Hell, because I knew that I was not living as God wanted me to. But how to follow Him?
All this changed for me when I made an impulsive decision. I decided to go to confession.
I wanted to tell someone my sins in an anonymous setting, that was all…After I made my confession and told God how sorry I was that I failed Him, and said that I longed for purpose to my life, the priest prayed over me.
He did not absolve me, because I had told him that I was not a Catholic.
However, his prayer did something to me: I felt the presence of God. I knew He had forgiven me and that He loved me.
The feeling was so powerful that I cried.
From that moment, I have never doubted the existence of God, nor His personal interest in me as His daughter.
If anyone is tempted to think that Confession is not necessary, ponder my experience. I had been to therapy – which has its place in healing people – but only God can heal the soul.
That’s why He has given us the ultimate “therapy” in the sacrament of Confession. Jesus knows human nature in its mental as well as physical needs. We need to confess our sins aloud, talk about the pain of sin, and hear that we are forgiven.
Moreover, in Confession we receive grace. The sacrament isn’t essentially a release of mental distress, but is rather a real encounter with God’s healing hand.
Am I capable of giving witness to the joy of being close to Jesus? If I go to confession regularly and make a deep confession it will be the starting point for my own personal joy and evangelising with that joy. As Pope Francis says (no. 3):
“How good it feels to come back to him whenever we are lost! Let me say this once more: God never tires of forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy. Christ, who told us to forgive one another “seventy times seven” (Mt 18:22) has given us his example: he has forgiven us seventy times seven. Time and time again he bears us on his shoulders. No one can strip us of the dignity bestowed upon us by this boundless and unfailing love. With a tenderness which never disappoints, but is always capable of restoring our joy, he makes it possible for us to lift up our heads and to start anew.”
Fr Peter Fitzsimons is a priest based in Sydney.