What I’m Reading: The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis

Author: William Schmitt

The media continually dissect statements from Pope Francis. When he says, “Who am I to judge?” or “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion,” they speculate: Is Francis reversing Church teaching?

What I was reading and hearing about Pope Francis made me hungry to read his own words, minus the media slant. I was grateful when his The Joy of the Gospel was published last year. Now I’m poring over this “apostolic exhortation” in some depth, with the fellowship of my brothers and sisters professed in the Secular Franciscan Order (SFO). In small group chats during our monthly local fraternity meetings, my hunger is being satisfied.

I’m thinking that this pope, like the patron saint of ecology whose name he adopted, sees connections everywhere. He ponders a reality of infinite diversity amid compatibility. Good news and bad news are mysteriously linked, but good news wins. He embraces the handicapped, washes the feet of prisoners and answers reporters’ questions with spontaneous honesty.

However, a friend of mine in our SFO group this month reported with dismay that paragraph 54 (papal exhortations come in paragraphs, not sound bites) in The Joy of the Gospel complains that “some people continue to defend trickle-down theories”; they assume economic growth is the best, automatic answer to poverty. My friend feared Francis might be waxing political here, implying a socialist panacea to replace Reaganomics.

I’m not finding politics or panaceas as I read Francis’ actual words. Even paragraph 54 quickly moves ahead to focus on how “the culture of prosperity deadens us.” The latest luxuries and toys woo and distract us, and we forget “all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity.” He’s talking about how human hearts must become instruments of hope, allowing people to genuinely encounter each other.

Popes have warned of “the culture of death.” Francis may be suggesting this problem goes deeper, to a disturbing truth we share but seldom admit — our culture’s materialism and narcissism. Our worship of the golden calf named Supersizeme deadens us and hardens our hearts.

Tough stuff. But I’m drawing joy from seeing this high-definition big picture spelled out by Pope Francis. It outshines the little-picture thinking of those reporters who want only a news hook. Reading The Joy of the Gospel is broadening my own perspective. Unfiltered, the pope is a caring holistic doctor who provides both a depressing diagnosis and a sustainable, desirable cultural cure. He’s reminding us all to build healing relationships, not from positions of strength but from positions of vulnerability.

“In the prevailing culture, priority is given to the outward, the immediate, the visible, the quick, the superficial, and the provisional,” Francis says in paragraph 62. I can’t wait to get to paragraph 288, which ends the book with a prayer. And I’m glad that books like this one exist to give voice to a person’s full story, with peripheral vision. In a culture that could be called dis-integrated, Francis reminds me it’s time to focus on connectedness.

William Schmitt is the communications/media specialist of the Institute for Educational Initiatives/Alliance for Catholic Education at Notre Dame.