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12/5/2013 10:16:00 AM
Focus on mercy
Catholic News Service
Pope Francis walks past a crucifix during event at Vatican.
Catholic News Service
Pope Francis walks past a crucifix during event at Vatican.

In a relatively brief treatise, Pope Francis has clarified and energized the mission of all Catholics.

His apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, The Joy of the Gospel, emphasizes mercy and calls for the People of God to live out faith not only at Mass, but among the poor and oppressed.

The pope made it clear that he is less afraid of going astray on church rules than he is of failing to live up to Jesus' commands to welcome and care for those on the margins. This is exhilarating. But make no mistake, it's a serious challenge to every Catholic. Thanks to the pope, we all will take a closer look at the way we live.

There will be undereducated pundits who will call this a break from the past. That is not true. While the pope is emphasizing certain parts of our big, beautiful and wide-ranging tradition, it is important to know that he is not altering teaching.

What he is doing is saying things differently than popes have in the past. His natural funny candor is an effective tool for getting the message through to the secular media and probably to people who tend to dismiss the church as out of touch. For example, he warned priests against being "sourpusses."

The pope has put forward the church's longstanding critique of systems that seem to love money over humans. Again, this was best expressed by Jesus two millennia ago and has been carried on ever since, from the Acts of the Apostles to Francis of Assisi to Leo XIII in the 1890s to the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. Only in places like the United States, where unbridled capitalism trumps too much, will some readers grumble.

Pope Francis affirmed the church's teaching on abortion, of course. Those who thought he'd do otherwise don't know how deeply that conviction goes in doctrine and history.

Francis called for recognition of the large role women play in leading the church. No one should think that just because priests preside at Mass that they are more important than the other People of God.

The pope left the door open to changing some church customs, which will excite some and frighten others. But his point is that these practices are not the core of who we are. As Archbishop Alexander Sample says, what is central is Jesus Christ and carrying his saving message forward. The pope seems willing to pare off whatever impedes the mission. The papacy itself might take on a new shape, perhaps sharing more authority with the collective voice of bishops.  

He reminded us what Lumen Gentium said so well after Vatican II — the church does have institutional structure, but it's primary identity is as "a people advancing on its pilgrim way towards God."

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