A Reflection on Pope Francis’ First Exhortation

and How Catholic Extension Is Spreading the Joy

Supporting missionary work – like that of Catholic Extension – is not just another option for Catholics to live out their faith. It is our way of being Catholic. That is the implication of Pope Francis’ recent apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, as well as the message he has communicated in his own ministry during this first year of his papacy.

Pope Francis writes that the task of evangelization includes all members of the Church, and in turn must be inclusive in its reach, for “every person is worthy of our giving.” He adds, “Therefore, we must look beyond physical appearance, abilities, language, way of thinking, and especially concern for any satisfaction that we might receive,” instead being of service to others solely because “they are God’s handiwork, his creation.”

Demonstrating a personal commitment to the words he has written, last November, news services worldwide broadcast the image of Francis as he comforted Vinizio Riva, the 53-year-old Italian suffering from a disease that has left his skin badly disfigured. In a simple gesture that seemed unthinkable to some, the pope embraced Riva, holding him tenderly and speaking quietly.

That simple embrace of a man others may have held at arm’s length illustrates perfectly a “method of evangelization” of which “Jesus himself is the model.” Francis regards it as a method “which brings us to the very heart of his people,” because the Lord “looks into their eyes with deep love and concern.”

Francis’ commitment to this personal style of evangelization was evident again in December, when the pope visited a pediatric hospital to meet with sick children and their families. The event took place a few days before the pope’s birthday, and the staff had prepared a party, complete with cake and presents. The media quoted Francis remarking on “the joy of these children, the gifts, the cake,” and described how he thanked all present for their generosity. Then, it was reported, before he left, “he greeted the children one by one.”

In these, and many other encounters, the pope responds to the human need to which Jesus responded – our need to be seen and known – and demonstrates the “art of accompaniment which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other (cf. Ex 3:5).”

And so it was again, in January, that Pope Francis visited Rome’s Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a parish with a large homeless and migrant population. As reported by John L. Allen on the website of National Catholic Reporter, one of the “guests of honor” at Mass that day was an elderly homeless woman, “who was allowed to bring a shopping cart with her few possessions into the church.”

In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis challenges the Church to reach out to those on the periphery of society, but to do so in a personal and direct manner, for “the Gospel tells us constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others.” Only through such “close and continuous interaction with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas,” are we likely to be “infected” with their joy.

Francis’ example brings legitimacy to the words of Evangelii Gaudium. So when he speaks of “the joy which enlivens the community of disciples” in the Gospels, he is speaking from personal experience, and calling us to join him in that missionary spirit.

In that effort, the Gospels are clear that our first concern must be “the poor and the sick, those who are usually despised and overlooked, ‘those who cannot repay you’(Lk 14:14).”

So our call as Catholics is to reach beyond the safe boundaries of our parishes and communities, to strive to be a Church for others, for “life is attained and matures in the measure that it is offered up in order to give life to others. This is certainly what mission means.” This is the work of Catholic Extension.

This idea involves a reorientation of our understanding of church – a turning “inside-out” of the experience. We will have grasped his message when we recognize that our purpose in gathering for Eucharist is to be nourished and strengthened for our missionary apostolate to those in need. Only then will our energies and talents be directed toward what is most meaningful and lasting; only then will our lives glow with the “fervor” of those “who have first received the joy of Christ.”

Read how Catholic Extension is Spreading the Joy of the Gospel in the full issue of Extension Magazine

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