The first Apostolic Exhortation of the Holy Father Francis
being projected into the dilemmas of the UMC:
„A Church, which goes forth“
The Church’s closeness to Jesus is part of a common journey; “communion and mission are profoundly interconnected”. In fidelity to the example of the Master, it is vitally important for the Church today to go forth and preach the Gospel to all: to all places, on all occasions, without hesitation, reluctance or fear. The joy of the Gospel is for all people: no one can be excluded. That is what the angel proclaimed to the shepherds in Bethlehem: “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people" (Luke 2:10). The Book of Revelation speaks of “an eternal Gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tongue and tribe and people" (Rev 14:6).
The Church which “goes forth” is a community of missionary disciples who take the first step, who are involved and supportive, who bear fruit and rejoice. An evangelizing community knows that the Lord has taken the initiative, he has loved us first (cf. 1 John 4:19), and therefore we can move forward, boldly take the initiative, go out to others, seek those who have fallen away, stand at the crossroads and welcome the outcast. Such a community has an endless desire to show mercy, the fruit of its own experience of the power of the Father’s infinite mercy. Let us try a little harder to take the first step and to become involved. Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. The Lord gets involved and he involves his own, as he kneels to wash their feet. He tells his disciples: “You will be blessed if you do this” (John 13:17). 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. It is familiar with patient expectation and apostolic endurance. Evangelization consists mostly of patience and disregard for constraints of time. Faithful to the Lord’s gift, it also bears fruit. An evangelizing community is always concerned with fruit, because the Lord wants her to be fruitful. It cares for the grain and does not grow impatient at the weeds. The sower, when he sees weeds sprouting among the grain does not grumble or overreact. He or she finds a way to let the word take flesh in a particular situation and bear fruits of new life, however imperfect or incomplete these may appear. The disciple is ready to put his or her whole life on the line, even to accepting martyrdom, in bearing witness to Jesus Christ, yet the goal is not to make enemies but to see God’s word accepted and its capacity for liberation and renewal revealed. Finally an evangelizing community is filled with joy; it knows how to rejoice always. It celebrates at every small victory, every step forward in the work of evangelization. Evangelization with joy becomes beauty in the liturgy, as part of our daily concern to spread goodness. The Church evangelizes and is herself evangelized through the beauty of the liturgy, which is both a celebration of the task of evangelization and the source of her renewed self-giving.
This quote from the Apostolic Exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” is very close, to what we as United Methodists would say about the Church.
From the beginning of his ministry, the Pope was showing by his lifestyle that he is a messenger of change. He speaks about the Church as being driven too much by its survival instinct and has to find a renewed approach to self-denial and self-giving. The Church needs a missionary transformation.
He is underlining the Churche's option for the poor and the marginalized. That is how he interprets the life of Jesus as the heart of the Gospel.
For United Methodists this does not sound revolutionary. But we have to confess, that we struggle also with the difference between ‘knowing the way’ and ‘walking the way’. We are in similar ways convinced, that we cannot continue to speak about the challenges of today’s world without a strong will to go forth as a Church.
The Holy Father speaks in a programmatic way:
I have chosen to present some guidelines, which can encourage and guide the whole Church in a new phase of evangelization, one marked by enthusiasm and vitality. In this context, and on the basis of the teaching of the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, I have decided, among other themes, to discuss at length the following questions:
a) the reform of the Church in her missionary outreach
b) the temptations faced by pastoral workers
c) the Church, understood as the entire People of God which evangelizes
d) the homily and its preparation
e) the inclusion of the poor in society
f) peace and dialogue within society
g) the spiritual motivations for mission.
I have dealt extensively with these topics, with a detail which some may find excessive. But I have done so, not with the intention of providing an exhaustive treatise but simply as a way of showing their important practical implications for the Church’s mission today.
The Pope is not writing in the old style of the pluralis majestatis, he is showing a very personal style „I have done so...I have the intention”... His words have the potential to reach the people of God, from the Cardinals to the Laity.
It is not all new. He is referring to the Results of the Second Vatican Council. After 50 years he is working towards a realization of the pathways the Second Vatican Council was leading to.
One thing is striking me strongly as a United Methodist Bishop and a Bishop in a Church, which is struggling with the reality of becoming and being a Global Church:
The Pope is writing openly about „a sound decentralization“! The Bishops and the regional councils of Bishops should have a broader spectrum of power and decision-making in order to respond to challenges of the world and the differences of culture in North and South, as well as in urban and rural cultures.
Our center in the UMC is not Rome, but the General Conference and the process and understanding of legislation.
We also need more ‘decentralization’ in order to respond to the challenges in the different cultures. In the ecumenical field, we have been learning slowly but steadily, that different global regions and different cultivations of Christian Faith need different ways to respond to the developments and challenges of the society.
But it is clear that the regional conferences could respond more effectively to the many issues, which surround us. The framework of legislation does not uphold the Unity of the Church. The Unity dwells in Christ and his call to mission.
Our political processes around legislation are leading to divisions and separate those, who are within the framework from those, who are not.
The Office of Christian Unity and Interreligious Relationships of the Council of Bishops of the United Methodist Church (OCUIR) has not only a task to help the UMC to develop sound ecumenical relationships with other denominations and helpful dialogues with other religious communions, but also to ferment and develop the understanding inside our denomination, how we can deal with differences and stay together in Christ’s mission.
The Pope does not believe that the papal magisterium should be expected to offer a definitive or complete word on every question, which affects the Church and the world. It is not advisable for the Pope to take the place of local Bishops in the discernment of every issue, which arises in their territory. In this sense, I am conscious of the need to promote a sound “decentralization”.
By this he will disappoint those who are expecting every decision and a final solution from Rom. But he is convinced, that the Church in permanent transition for mission has to be creative and open and must not defend itself behind monastic walls. Each Christian and every community must discern the path that the Lord points out, but all of us are asked to obey his call to go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach all the “peripheries” in need of the light of the Gospel.
Traditional Roman Catholic believers will have to learn a lot about the ‚Church going forth’ as the holy father is describing it.
We will check the fruits of this opening: Will the Church allow in certain contexts, for example that women may be ordained as priests? It does not seem, that the transitions will perform in high speed, but ways for transitions are in preparation. And if the Pope himself is not able to change things in a revolutionary way, he is now picking up the decisions of the Second Vatican Council and is setting landmarks for change in “Evangelii Gaudium”. This gives us hope for upcoming transitions.
Heinrich Bolleter November 29, 2013
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