The Pope’s reform agenda

The Pontiff’s new exhortation is a powerful display of practicality, writes Cathal Barry

With his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), which the Vatican published this week, Pope Francis finally makes his real debut as papal author.

The Pope has already published an encyclical, however, in the opening paragraphs of Lumen Fidei, he explained that the text was essentially the work of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, to whose words Pope Francis had merely “added a few contributions” of his own.

Apostolic exhortations are often based on deliberations of synods of bishops, and this one takes into account the October 2012 synod on the new evangelisation.

However, despite voicing strong commitment to the principle of consultation with fellow bishops and even suggesting that the synod should become a permanent advisory body, the Pope has seemingly tackled this exhortation by himself.

Littered with colloquial phrases, metaphors and musings, Evangelii Gaudium has a distinctly Francis feel. Brimming with enthusiasm for evangelisation, the Pope exudes passion for the transmission of the Faith in this unique exhortation.

From the beginning the Pope makes it clear that reform is on the agenda. He outlines some guidelines which “can encourage and guide the whole Church in a new phase of evangelisation, one marked by enthusiasm and vitality”.  In this context, the Pope discussed at length the following questions:

 the reform of the Church in her missionary outreach;

 the temptations faced by pastoral workers;

 the Church, understood as the entire People of God which evangelises;

 the homily and its preparation;

 the inclusion of the poor in society;

 peace and dialogue within society;

 the spiritual motivations for mission.


Parish Life

“The parish is the presence of the Church in a given territory, an environment for hearing God’s word, for growth in the Christian life, for dialogue, proclamation, charitable outreach, worship and celebration.  

“It is a community of communities, a sanctuary where the thirsty come to drink in the midst of their journey, and a centre of constant missionary outreach. 

“We must admit, though, that the call to review and renew our parishes has not yet sufficed to bring them nearer to people, to make them environments of living communion and participation, and to make them completely mission-oriented.”


“Frequently they bring a new evangelising fervour and a new capacity for dialogue with the world whereby the Church is renewed. 

But it will prove beneficial for them not to lose contact with the rich reality of the local parish and to participate readily in the overall pastoral activity of the particular Church. This kind of integration will prevent them from concentrating only on part of the Gospel or the Church, or becoming nomads without roots.”


“The bishop must always foster this missionary communion in his diocesan Church, following the ideal of the first Christian communities, in which the believers were of one heart and one soul. To do so, he will sometimes go before his people, pointing the way and keeping their hope vibrant.  At other times, he will simply be in their midst with his unassuming and merciful presence. At yet other times, he will have to walk after them, helping those who lag behind and – above all – allowing the flock to strike out on new paths.”

The papacy

“It is my duty, as the Bishop of Rome, to be open to suggestions which can help make the exercise of my ministry more faithful to the meaning which Jesus Christ wished to give it and to the present needs of evangelisation. 

“The papacy and the central structures of the universal Church also need to hear the call to pastoral conversion. 

“Excessive centralisation, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church’s life and her missionary outreach.”


“Pastoral ministry in a missionary style is not obsessed with the disjointed transmission of a multitude of doctrines to be insistently imposed.  When we adopt a pastoral goal and a missionary style which would actually reach everyone without exception or exclusion, the message has to concentrate on the essentials, on what is most beautiful, most grand, most appealing and at the same time most necessary.  The message is simplified, while losing none of its depth and truth, and thus becomes all the more forceful and convincing.”


“The Church is called to be the house of the Father, with doors always wide open.  One concrete sign of such openness is that our church doors should always be open, so that if someone, moved by the Spirit, comes there looking for God, he or she will not find a closed door.  This is especially true of the sacrament which is itself ‘the door’: baptism.”


“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. These convictions have pastoral consequences that we are called to consider with prudence and boldness.  Frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators.”


“The family is experiencing a profound cultural crisis, as are all communities and social bonds.  In the case of the family, the weakening of these bonds is particularly serious because the family is the fundamental cell of society, where we learn to live with others despite our differences and to belong to one another; it is also the place where parents pass on the Faith to their children.” 

Women priests

“The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion, but it can prove especially divisive if sacramental power is too closely identified with power in general.”


“The ministerial priesthood is one means employed by Jesus for the service of his people, yet our great dignity derives from baptism, which is accessible to all.

“The configuration of the priest to Christ the head – namely, as the principal source of grace – does not imply an exaltation which would set him above others.” 


“Wherever there is life, fervour and a desire to bring Christ to others, genuine vocations will arise. Even in parishes where priests are not particularly committed or joyful, the fraternal life and fervour of the community can awaken in the young a desire to consecrate themselves completely to God and to the preaching of the Gospel.  This is particularly true if such a living community prays insistently for vocations and courageously proposes to its young people the path of special consecration. 

“On the other hand, despite the scarcity of vocations, today we are increasingly aware of the need for a better process of selecting candidates to the priesthood.  Seminaries cannot accept candidates on the basis of any motivation whatsoever, especially if those motivations have to do with affective insecurity or the pursuit of power, human glory or economic well-being.”


“Marriage now tends to be viewed as a form of mere emotional satisfaction that can be constructed in any way or modified at will.  But the indispensible contribution of marriage to society transcends the feelings and momentary needs of the couple.”   

Catholic education

“Catholic schools, which always strive to join their work of education with the explicit proclamation of the Gospel, are a most valuable resource for the evangelisation of culture, even in those countries and cities where hostile situations challenge us to greater creativity in our search for suitable methods.”

The poor

“Since this exhortation is addressed to members of the Catholic Church, I want to say, with regret, that the worst discrimination which the poor suffer is the lack of spiritual care.

“Our preferential option for the poor must mainly translate into a privileged and preferential religious care.”


“I ask God to give us more politicians capable of sincere and effective dialogue aimed at healing the deepest roots – and not simply the appearances – of the evils in our world!  Politics, though often denigrated, remains a lofty vocation and one of the highest forms of charity, inasmuch as it seeks the common good.

“It is vital that government leaders and financial leaders take heed and broaden their horizons, working to ensure that all citizens have dignified work, education and healthcare.  Why not turn to God and ask him to inspire their plans?  I am firmly convinced that openness to the transcendent can bring about a new political and economic mindset which would help to break down the wall of separation between the economy and the common good of society.”


“Each meaningful economic decision made in one part of the world has repercussions everywhere else; consequently, no government can act without regard for shared responsibility.  Indeed, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find local solutions for enormous global problems which overwhelm local politics with difficulties to resolve.  If we really want to achieve a healthy world economy, what is needed at this juncture of history is a more efficient way of interacting which, with due regard for the sovereignty of each nation, ensures the economic well-being of all countries, not just of a few.”


“Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenceless and innocent among us.  Nowadays efforts are made to deny them their human dignity and to do with them whatever one pleases, taking their lives and passing laws preventing anyone from standing in the way of this. 

“Frequently, as a way of ridiculing the Church’s effort to defend their lives, attempts are made to present her position as ideological, obscurantist and conservative.  Yet this defence of unborn life is closely linked to the defence of each and every other human right. 

“It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development. 

“Human beings are ends in themselves and never a means of resolving other problems.  Once this conviction disappears, so do solid and lasting foundations for the defence of human rights, which would always be subject to the passing whims of the powers that be.”


This powerful display of practicality from the Argentine Pontiff serves as a subtle reminder to those who have forgotten the Pope’s Jesuit formation. He means business and he is eager to get things done.