December 05, 2013
Evangelii Gaudium: exhorting a self-referential Church
By Father Thomas Berg *

By Father Thomas Berg *

In his hand written notes that formed the basis of his presentation during the General Congregations prior to the Conclave, then Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio penned the following:

“When the Church does not go out of herself to evangelize, she becomes self-referential; she grows ill (like the stooped woman in the Gospel). The evils which appear throughout history in Church institutions are rooted in this self-referentiality – a kind of theological narcissism.”

This theme – the dangers of self-referentiality – has often been the subtext of much of Francis’ teaching to date. It has flavored his preaching and contributed greatly to the public perception of Papa Bergoglio as “the new management” at the Vatican, the one who has come to “shake things up.”

Hence, Evangelii Gaudium can very rightly be interpreted – for all else that it is – as Francis’ antidote to Catholic self-absorption.

And if we are hearing Francis, it would seem that this message is especially directed to priests and bishops, far too many who minister in the Church as joyless managers who fail to communicate Jesus Christ. I cannot help but think especially of careerist clerics turned bureaucrats who sustain a Kafkaesque labyrinth of inefficiency, priests who consider themselves members of a privileged caste, living in pursuit of power and perks, absorbed in their self-referential ecclesial existence.

But again – this is a problem in all sectors of the Church, not merely amongst the clergy. The self-referentiality and spiritual narcissism, the focusing on institutional self, the clinging to tried and failing methods, the focusing on means, instruments and institutions, on turf, control, and self-importance: these enemies of evangelization have plagued laity, apostolic movements, religious communities and clergy for centuries.

Of course, self-absorption is not a uniquely Catholic problem. To be sure, it constitutes a fundamental temptation of the human spirit. Observes Francis:
Every period of history is marked by the presence of human weakness, self-absorption, complacency and selfishness, to say nothing of the concupiscence which preys upon us all. These things are ever present under one guise or another; they are due to our human limits rather than particular situations (EG, 263).

What then does Evangelii Gaudium prescribe as a first step beyond this Catholic – and especially clerical – self-absorption? Nothing less, and nothing more than a renewed personal experience – encounter – with “the beauty of the saving love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ” (EG, 36). 
In moving terms, Francis explains the profoundly renewing impact such an encounter (or re-encounter) can have:

Thanks solely to this encounter – or renewed encounter – with God’s love, which blossoms into an enriching friendship, we are liberated from our narrowness and self-absorption. We become fully human when we become more than human, when we let God bring us beyond ourselves in order to attain the fullest truth of our being. Here we find the source and inspiration of all our efforts at evangelization. For if we have received the love which restores meaning to our lives, how can we fail to share that love with others? (EG, 8).

Enemy of "theological narcissim," Francis, in Evangelii Gaudium, has thrown down the gauntlet before a self-absorbed Church, calling her to reencounter Christ and in so doing to recover a more authentic visage of herself. Indeed, as George Weigel has aptly put it, the exhortation “should be read and appreciated for what it manifestly is: a clarion call for a decisive shift in the Catholic Church's self-understanding, in full continuity with the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI.”  The ‘shift’ Weigel has in mind—and I believe he absolutely right—is  “the great historical transition from institutional-maintenance Catholicism to the Church of the New Evangelization.”

In a word, Francis believes that institutional-maintenance Catholicism needs a makeover. 

That can only begin, in Francis’ estimation, with a shift away from self-referentiality in all its forms in the Church whether that be clericalism, or the internecine fighting and turf battles in our ministries and chancery offices, or the spiritual narcissism and lack of ecclesial communion in our movements and apostolates, or our fatal focusing on pessimism and cynicism. 

This must be accompanied by a shift toward remembering and reconnecting with the vitality of the early Church in her nascent state: 

Memory is a dimension of our faith which we might call “deuteronomic”, not unlike the memory of Israel itself. Jesus leaves us the Eucharist as the Church’s daily remembrance of, and deeper sharing in, the event of his Passover (cf. Lk 22:19). The joy of evangelizing always arises from grateful remembrance: it is a grace which we constantly need to implore. The apostles never forgot the moment when Jesus touched their hearts: “It was about four o’clock in the afternoon” (Jn 1:39). Together with Jesus, this remembrance makes present to us “a great cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1), some of whom, as believers, we recall with great joy: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God” (Heb 13:7). Some of them were ordinary people who were close to us and introduced us to the life of faith: “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice” (2 Tim 1:5). The believer is essentially “one who remembers”(EG, 13).

The evangelizer is essentially one who remembers what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. And nourished each day by personal contact with Him in prayer, “when evangelizers rise from prayer, their hearts are more open; freed of self-absorption, they are desirous of doing good and sharing their lives with others” (EG, 282). 

Each and every one of us faces the temptation to self-absorption in bigger or lesser ways every day; if we are honest, we know we all too often succumb.  Perhaps that is why Evangelii Gaudium feels like the jab of a Shepherd’s staff, and resonates like a shepherds terse call to the sheep—but for these too we need to be thankful, for they are intended to return us to the spontaneous joy of the Gospel.

Father Thomas Berg is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York and Professor of Moral Theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie). More of Fr. Berg’s publications are available at www.fatherberg.com.

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