(Second of three parts)
Now comes the hard part. After extolling the joy of the Gospel and the Church’s mission to spread it, Pope Francis’s “apostolic exhortation” minced no words about the gross failings of today’s economics and Catholics. In the second chapter, he echoes last Sunday’s first reading from Isaiah 58:7-10: “ . . . share your bread with the hungry and satisfy the afflicted; then light shall rise for you in the darkness.” Thus, Christians heed Christ’s call in Sunday’s Gospel to engender goodness as “salt of the earth” and “light of the world.”
From Chapter II of the Holy Father’s first encyclical, here then are key points to think about and, more important, act on:
First, the world economy, this system of distributing and utilizing global resources, is snuffing out life among billions of our fellow human beings. They are denied basic needs, dignity, justice and opportunity, and robbed of material and spiritual vitality.
“In our time humanity is experiencing a turning-point in its history, as we can see from the advances being made in so many fields. … At the same time we have to remember that the majority of our contemporaries are barely living from day to day, with dire consequences. A number of diseases are spreading. The hearts of many people are gripped by fear and desperation, even in the so-called rich countries. The joy of living frequently fades, lack of respect for others and violence are on the rise, and inequality is increasingly evident…
“Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality.”
Second, the “culture of prosperity” amid appalling worldwide poverty also deadens humankind by engrossing the affluent with possessions, comforts and exciting experiences, and killing their compassion, sense of justice, and spirituality.
“I exhort you to generous solidarity and to the return of economics and finance to an ethical approach which favours human beings. … Today’s economic mechanisms promote inordinate consumption, yet it is evident that unbridled consumerism combined with inequality proves doubly damaging to the social fabric. … The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.”
Third, in this deathly world, Christians must not hide in cocoons of individual religiosity, shutting out the Gospel’s call to serve Christ through others in concern, caring and communion, especially for and with the least of our brethren.
“The Christian ideal will always be a summons to overcome suspicion, habitual mistrust, fear of losing our privacy, all the defensive attitudes which today’s world imposes on us. Many try to escape from others and take refuge in the comfort of their privacy or in a small circle of close friends, renouncing the realism of the social aspect of the Gospel. For just as some people want a purely spiritual Christ, without flesh and without the cross, they also want their interpersonal relationships provided by sophisticated equipment, by screens and systems which can be turned on and off on command.
“Meanwhile, the Gospel tells us constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction. True faith in the incarnate Son of God is inseparable from self-giving, from membership in the community, from service, from reconciliation with others. The Son of God, by becoming flesh, summoned us to the revolution of tenderness.”
In sum, we believers in Jesus Christ must strive to restore the fullness of life and humanity in a world deadened by mass poverty and privileged self-indulgence, by sharing the joy of the Gospel through word and action in service and solidarity with others.
After spelling out the world’s ills, Pope Francis devoted the rest of Chapter II warning the faithful of the various forms of pseudo-spirituality. Many clergy and laity may recognize these “temptations facing pastoral workers”.
Selfishness and spiritual sloth: “many lay people fear that they may be asked to undertake some apostolic work and they seek to avoid any responsibility that may take away from their free time.” Francis cites the lack of trained catechists willing to serve beyond a year or so. Some priests too jealously guard their free time.
Sterile pessimism: Often, Francis points out, clergy and laity lose spiritual fervor and find pastoral work tedious in the face of social and ecclesiastical ills. The Pope admonishes: “The evils of our world – and those of the Church – must not be excuses for diminishing our commitment and our fervor. Let us look upon them as challenges which can help us to grow.” Quoting a homily by Benedict XVI, Francis adds: “it is starting from the experience of this desert, from this void, that we can again discover the joy of believing, its vital importance for us men and women.”
Spiritual worldliness: This temptation afflicts even successful, dynamic bishops, priests and lay leaders. It “hides behind the appearance of piety and even love for the Church, consists in seeking not the Lord’s glory but human glory and personal well-being. … It is a subtle way of seeking one’s ‘own interests, not those of Jesus Christ’ (Phil 2:21).”
Conflict with Christians: “Spiritual worldliness leads some Christians to war with other Christians who stand in the way of their quest for power, prestige, pleasure and economic security. Some are even no longer content to live as part of the greater Church community but stoke a spirit of exclusivity, creating an ‘inner circle’.”
Which temptations do we see in our church, our parish, and ourselves? And, as will be discussed on Wednesday, what should we do about it?
(The first part was published last Friday; the last part will run on Wednesday.)