From the Cardinal: Pastoral Conversion in a Missionary Key | May 31, 2024

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Vol. 5. No. 18 

My dear sisters and brothers in Christ,

Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), calls all of us—lay faithful, priests and deacons, bishops, and even the pope himself—to a profound pastoral conversion “in a missionary key.” To accomplish this challenging goal, we must place ourselves in God’s hands, relying on the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

In his first chapter, the pope writes: “Life in the Spirit, which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ,” is the opposite of the anxious, guilt-ridden, superficial way of life that far too many of us experience. “That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life,” the Holy Father tells us. “It is not God’s will for us” (#2). The alternative is the meaningful, joy-filled way of life that Christ taught us by his words and his example.

In his final chapter, Pope Francis exclaims: “How I long for the right words to stir up enthusiasm for a new chapter of evangelization full of fervor, joy, generosity, courage, boundless love and attraction! Yet I realize that no words of encouragement will be enough unless the fire of the Holy Spirit burns in our hearts” (#261).

The pope challenges all of us—no matter who we are—to be “Spirit-filled evangelizers,” disciples of Jesus Christ whose hearts are on fire, who have a keen sense of mission, and who never hesitate to proclaim the Good News (#259).

In the sacraments of baptism and confirmation, we received the gifts of the Holy Spirit. We are members of the community of faith, the Church, and have accepted the responsibility that Christ entrusted to all his disciples: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19-20). This great commission has been given to each one of us individually as well as to the whole Church. We fulfill this responsibility, each in our own way, according to the gifts and talents given to us as stewards of our baptismal calling.

Most of us have never considered ourselves “missionaries,” let alone “Spirit-filled evangelizers.” The image of evangelizing seems strangely contrary to the Catholic ethos. Something in us protests: We are not fundamentalists. We do not wear our faith on our sleeve. We were taught to be more reserved in our witness to the faith.

While it’s true that we Catholics have always “stood out” from other Christians in our worship, our devotions (especially to Mary and the saints) and our observances (Lenten abstinence and meatless Fridays, for example), we have never been “in your face” when it comes to sharing our faith. And now, we are challenged “to regard ourselves as sealed, even branded, by this mission of bringing light, blessing, enlivening, raising up, healing and freeing” (#273). This is where pastoral conversion becomes absolutely necessary. This is when we most need to receive from the Holy Spirit the missionary zeal that makes it possible for us to proclaim our Redeemer, the Crucified and Risen Christ, to all nations and peoples.

Pope Francis knows that he is calling us to move beyond “our comfort zones” and define ourselves not as Catholics who simply do what is expected of us but as people who acknowledge and accept a very different role as missionary disciples of Jesus Christ.

“My mission of being in the heart of the people is not just a part of my life or a badge I can take off,” the pope says. “It is not an ‘extra’ of just another moment in life. Instead, it is something I cannot uproot from my being without destroying my very self. I am a mission on this Earth; that is the reason why I am here in this world” (#273). Strong words from a man who believes passionately that he (like all of us) is called to burn with the fire of God’s love and to live the Gospel in every fiber of his being.

This is an impossible expectation for us fragile, sinful human beings unless we are filled with the grace of the Holy Spirit. “Christ, risen and glorified, is the well-spring of our hope,” the pope assures us. “He will not deprive us of the help we need to carry out the mission which he has entrusted to us” (#275). We have received His Spirit, and so we have the power to cast off the chains we have forged for ourselves and to work wonders in Jesus’ name.

Let’s look to the example of the Virgin Mary. “With the Holy Spirit, Mary is always present in the midst of the people. She joined the disciples in praying for the coming of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:14), and thus made possible the missionary outburst which took place at Pentecost” (#284).

With Mary’s help, let’s place ourselves in the hands of Divine Providence. Let’s ask for our Blessed Mother’s intercession as we allow the Holy Spirit to stir our hearts and lead us along the path of pastoral conversion and missionary zeal.

Sincerely yours in Christ the Redeemer, 

Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, C.Ss.R. 
Archbishop of Newark  

A Message from Pope Francis: Words of Challenge and Hope  

(A selection from the homily given by Pope FraA selection from the Apostolic Exhortation of Pope Francis Evangellii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) #’s 25–33).)

Permanently in a state of mission

I hope that all communities will devote the necessary effort to advancing along the path of a pastoral and missionary conversion, which cannot leave things as they presently are. “Mere administration” can no longer be enough. Throughout the world, let us be “permanently in a state of mission”.

There are ecclesial structures which can hamper efforts at evangelization, yet even good structures are only helpful when there is a life constantly driving, sustaining and assessing them. Without new life and an authentic evangelical spirit, without the Church’s “fidelity to her own calling,” any new structure will soon prove ineffective.

An ecclesial renewal which cannot be deferred

I dream of a “missionary option”, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation. The renewal of structures demanded by pastoral conversion can only be understood in this light: as part of an effort to make them more mission-oriented, to make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open, to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth and in this way to elicit a positive response from all those whom Jesus summons to friendship with himself. As John Paul II once said to the Bishops of Oceania: “All renewal in the Church must have mission as its goal if it is not to fall prey to a kind of ecclesial introversion.”

The parish is not an outdated institution; precisely because it possesses great flexibility, it can assume quite different contours depending on the openness and missionary creativity of the pastor and the community. While certainly not the only institution which evangelizes, if the parish proves capable of self-renewal and constant adaptivity, it continues to be “the Church living in the midst of the homes of her sons and daughters”. This presumes that it really is in contact with the homes and the lives of its people, and does not become a useless structure out of touch with people or a self-absorbed group made up of a chosen few. 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. In all its activities the parish encourages and trains its members to be evangelizers. 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.

Each particular Church, as a portion of the Catholic Church under the leadership of its bishop, is likewise called to missionary conversion. It is the primary subject of evangelization, since it is the concrete manifestation of the one Church in one specific place, and in it, “the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of Christ is truly present and operative.” It is the Church incarnate in a certain place, equipped with all the means of salvation bestowed by Christ, but with local features. Its joy in communicating Jesus Christ is expressed both by a concern to preach Him to areas in greater need and in constantly going forth to the outskirts of its own territory or towards new sociocultural settings. Wherever the need for the light and the life of the Risen Christ is greatest, it will want to be there. To make this missionary impulse ever more focused, generous and fruitful, I encourage each particular Church to undertake a resolute process of discernment, purification and reform.

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 (cf. Acts 4:32). 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. In his mission of fostering a dynamic, open and missionary communion, he will have to encourage and develop the means of participation proposed in the Code of Canon Law, and other forms of pastoral dialogue, out of a desire to listen to everyone and not simply to those who would tell him what he would like to hear. Yet the principal aim of these participatory processes should not be ecclesiastical organization but rather the missionary aspiration of reaching everyone.

Since I am called to put into practice what I ask of others, I, too, must think about a conversion of 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 evangelization. Pope John Paul II asked for help in finding “a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation”. We have made little progress in this regard. The papacy and the central structures of the universal Church also need to hear the call to pastoral conversion. The Second Vatican Council stated that, like the ancient patriarchal Churches, episcopal conferences are in a position “to contribute in many and fruitful ways to the concrete realization of the collegial spirit”. Yet this desire has not been fully realized, since a juridical status of episcopal conferences which would see them as subjects of specific attributions, including genuine doctrinal authority, has not yet been sufficiently elaborated. Excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church’s life and her missionary outreach.

Pastoral conversion in a missionary key

Pastoral ministry in a missionary key seeks to abandon the complacent attitude that says: “We have always done it this way”. I invite everyone to be bold and creative in this task of rethinking the goals, structures, style and methods of evangelization in their respective communities. A proposal of goals without an adequate communal search for the means of achieving them will inevitably prove illusory. I encourage everyone to apply the guidelines found in this document generously and courageously, without inhibitions or fear. The important thing is to not walk alone, but to rely on each other as brothers and sisters, and especially under the leadership of the bishops, in a wise and realistic pastoral discernment.

My Prayer for You  

Please join me in praying these words of Pope Francis:

Holy Mary, Mother of God and our mother, help us to “devote the necessary effort to advancing along the path of a pastoral and missionary conversion which cannot leave things as they presently are.” Mother of the Church, let us be “permanently in a state of mission” throughout the world.