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Daniel Ang: A pontificate of mercy and mission to the margins

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Pope Francis greets a boy as he arrives to lead his general audience in the San Damaso courtyard at the Vatican on 9 September 2020. PHOTO: CNS/Paul Haring

We cannot miss the moment, even if Pope Francis represents neither the first or the last word in the Church’s reflection on evangelisation in our time. He has brought to the fore and explicated the concept of “missionary discipleship” like no other pontiff (most notably in Evangelii Gaudium).

The Holy Father has grounded the Church’s missionary mandate in the personal: the human response and inner conversion of each believer is fundamental to the evangelising mission of the Church as a whole.

As a consequence, there is no reliance on technique or manuals for the spread of the Gospel but rather the renewal of our inner life in Jesus Christ that prepares us for full contact with the world as missionary disciples, as followers and witnesses.

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So, it is no surprise that in Pope Francis’ preaching there is the tone of a spiritual director, one who diagnoses our human condition as the faithful and preaches as a cure of souls for the sake of the world.

“In Pope Francis’ preaching on missionary discipleship, he affirms that the Gospel contains within it a power that is beautiful and attracts.”

By instruction, sermons and admonitions, fraternal correction, symbolic actions and explicit invitation, he has called Catholics and others beside to recognise God’s mercy and imperatives in our life. This recognition becomes the motive for mission and mercy with and to others.

In Pope Francis’ preaching on missionary discipleship, he underscores that the Gospel addresses our affectivity, not simply our moral responsibility or our intellect. Like his late predecessor, he affirms that the Gospel contains within it a power that is beautiful and attracts and which the Church is called to make transparent as a part of its commission.

Hence, the Church’s announcement of the Gospel must be marked by joy, mercy and tenderness. In upholding these qualities as constitutive of authentic outreach and in his allied denouncement of proselytism, Pope Francis’ primary frame of reference is as a Latin American pastor.

Pope Francis kisses the foot of a refugee during Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper at the Center for Asylum Seekers in Castelnuovo di Porto, north of Rome on 24 March. Photo: CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano

No other region has seen more organised and aggressive campaigns of proselytism in the last few decades, with many millions of Catholics in South America having left their Church of origin and joined home-grown Evangelical and Pentecostal movements.

Reflecting this context, Pope Francis has also brought forward popular piety as a source of the Church’s life, an inspiration for mission and as a proper expression of the inculturation of the Gospel.

As Cardinal Archbishop Bergoglio, he affirmed in 2012 that popular piety amidst the poor is “life in a transcendent key” and that such practices express a life that “reaches out for something beyond this life. Life depends on Someone, and this life must be saved . . . the antithesis of the secularism that is spreading in modern societies.”

“When eyes are set on distant invisible horizons, we can be tempted to dismiss the unwelcomed complexity of the facts …”

Of course, for Pope Francis it is the peripheries that are prophetic. He has recalled for us the essential centrifugal or outfacing nature of the Church in mission and the call to vacate any space that keeps us secure and buffered against the reality of the margins, whether “the margins” entail a poverty of spirit or circumstance.

This posture informs his desire to rebuff any form of utopianism or approach to evangelisation that refuses to first see “what is”, an increasing danger in an increasingly ideological age.

When eyes are set on distant invisible horizons, we can be tempted to dismiss the unwelcomed complexity of the facts – and the vast majority of the facts are men and women.

Pope Francis has invited of all the faithful to adopt a missionary posture and shed closed or complacent dispositions. It is a much needed contribution as the whole body of Christ meets what he describes not merely as an era of change but a change of era.

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