At the beginning of a New Year, we can turn to the words of Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium (Joy of the Gospel) for inspiration as we tighten up our commitments, forge into new territory, and pray together for lives filled with joy — of all kinds — in 2014.
Resolution #1: Be Joyful
Obviously this is at the heart of the papal message in Evangelii Gaudium, and something Pope Francis professes himself. It’s not always easy to be joyful, especially when we are in physical pain or when someone hurts our feelings. But Francis reminds us that:
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.
And he furthers this point powerfully later in his apostolic exhortation:
There are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter. I realize of course that joy is not expressed the same way at all times in life, especially at moments of great difficulty. Joy adapts and changes, but it always endures, even as a flicker of light born of our personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved. I understand the grief of people who have to endure great suffering, yet slowly but surely we all have to let the joy of faith slowly revive as a quiet yet firm trust, even amid the greatest distress.
This is a faith statement. We are joyful because we know and feel in our bones God’s redemptive power. Evil’s grasp is strengthened by believing that there is no hope, no joy, no redemption in any given situation. We need to practice a joyful faith which truly believes that God can redeem suffering and pain as well as our own pettiness.
Resolution #2: Share Your Joy
Joy cannot be hoarded for its own sake, but rather, joy needs to be shared. This is not a mere superficial statement that says, “Hey, I’m happy!” Rather, true joy is transformative, meaning joy changes us and calls us to make changes in our lives and the lives of others.
We take notice when a friend or colleague is joyful. Perhaps we wonder why and hope to find out what is the source of their joy. It’s contagious! Joy often spreads first from an individual to a small community. A group of women I know shared a retreat experience and upon returning home, they began organizing their community in an effort to provide housing for elderly homeless in their city. Their joy for this work spread and now they have an entire coalition dedicated to it, and the hallmark of this is in fact their joy!
What if Catholic parishes could act like this? At a not-so-recent conference someone remarked that parishes spend 75% of their time maintaining programs and practices and 25% of their time doing outreach to those outside of the parish structure. If we could do the reverse, we would be doing something transformative. The Pope reminds us that to even attempt this we must start with our joy:
An evangelizing community gets involved by word and deed in people’s daily lives; it bridges distances, it is willing to abase itself if necessary, and it embraces human life, touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others. Evangelizers thus take on the “smell of the sheep” and the sheep are willing to hear their voice. An evangelizing community is also supportive, standing by people at every step of the way, no matter how difficult or lengthy this may prove to be.
Resolution #3: Exclude No One and Restore Dignity
In our desire to be transformative, we cannot simply tramp after those we feel an affinity for; we also need to go to places where we would rather not go. In doing this we meet Jesus in the faces of those we serve.
Can we continue to go to places where we would rather not go and more importantly, be moved by the experience of seeing those in poverty as Christ in our midst? Pope Francis calls us to do this often, not as an “add-on event” in our lives but as a regular practice, a fundamental to our lives:
…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. It is a struggle to live and, often, to live with precious little dignity.
When someone doesn’t have the basics, they are unable to live in a dignified way. Everyone deserves dignity, and this year we should work hard at remembering that, and at restoring dignity to others wherever we can do so.
Resolution #4: Diet From Devouring
Is our drive to protect our money pushing us to devour the poor? Do we think about our purchases? Do we hold the companies we buy things from accountable? As a resolution, can we think about two things when we go shopping: “Do I want it?” and “Do I need it?” This can become a prayerful mantra. It’s OK to want something, but we need to ask ourselves if we can do without it. This gets at the source of what we truly need.
Pope Francis has been hammering home this point about responsible consumption throughout his papacy and reminds us:
The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.
We can apply this idea of “devouring” to food, as well, and eat simply, so others can simply eat. No matter the specific details, examining our wants vs. our needs can have a profound effect on our lives.
Resolution #5: Serve, Don’t Rule
The Pope reminds us that ethics is paramount to a just society:
Money must serve, not rule! The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor. I exhort you to generous solidarity and to the return of economics and finance to an ethical approach which favours human beings.
This reminds me of the many mission trips that I took to Nicaragua. Often, we tended to be “ugly Americans” who knew better than the Nicaraguans and served not their needs, but our own. We would fail to include those we thought we were serving in decision-making; we would make choices unilaterally about how their chapel should look, or what needed to be repaired, or even how often the children should play! Our dollars and our efforts were better received when we worked in conjunction with the staff of the orphanage we were visiting. This is ethics. A threefold process of help, respect and promotion is needed to lift people from poverty and to serve their needs well.
Resolution #6: Practice Non-Violent Communication
Inequality is the root of violent conflict, and violent communication is a learned behavior which comes from the prevailing culture. These structures trickle into our families and begin to effect how we treat those closest to us. As we treat them, so will we treat others also; and the cycle of violence continues. How can we practice non-violent communication in our lives, telling people our needs and listening to theirs in turn? Can we make an effort to not “blow our tops” each time we don’t get what we want? Can we work together calmly with those we disagree with, seeking solutions on matters of justice and restoring the dignity that all deserve?
Pope Francis says:
Inequality eventually engenders a violence which recourse to arms cannot and never will be able to resolve. It serves only to offer false hopes to those clamoring for heightened security, even though nowadays we know that weapons and violence, rather than providing solutions, create new and more serious conflicts.
Our words can be used as weapons against one another. Let’s lay them down this year.
Resolution #7: Combat the Tendency Toward Extremes
There’s a tendency today for people to either eschew religion altogether or become zealous in the pursuit of God. Most people, however, fall in between these two extremes. These people in the middle often feel the need to align with one of these two extremes in order to get along in social circles and even local parishes — resulting in exasperation. From Pope Francis:
The Catholic faith of many peoples is nowadays being challenged by the proliferation of new religious movements, some of which tend to fundamentalism while others seem to propose a spirituality without God. This is, on the one hand, a human reaction to a materialistic, consumerist and individualistic society, but it is also a means of exploiting the weaknesses of people living in poverty and on the fringes of society, people who make ends meet amid great human suffering and are looking for immediate solutions to their needs.
The truth is that we need a patient spirituality rooted not in our own self-serving desire for comfort, but in the discomfort of serving others and being in a community. Spiritual growth takes time, patience and mature development. God does not solve all our problems overnight. Pope Francis warns us to be wary of those who may be trying to sell us a spirituality that is devoid of this kind of maturity. The pope is calling us to patiently discover the joy of the gospel. A good starting point would be to read some of the efforts of the early Christian communities in the Acts of the Apostles or some of the letters of St. Paul. A good exercise in this new year could be to read these with a good study Bible or with An Introduction to the New Testament by Raymond Brown. In them, we will discover the joys of being committed to our faith — and also the difficulties. In those difficulties we will find God lurking, and revealing to us what Pope Francis hopes to share: The Joy of the Gospel.