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From the heart of the bishop of Rome

Once again it is joy - that characteristic sign of Christian witness - which marks the title of a papal document. Vatican II from beginning to end is, as it were, contained in this one simple word. Indeed, John XXIII began his memorable opening address with the words Gaudet mater ecclesia [Mother Church rejoices], and Gaudium et Spes, its Constitution on the Church in the modern world, expressed in its opening lines the Church's desire to share this joy and hope with the men and women of our time.

Ten years after the close of Vatican II, Paul VI's Gaudete in Domino , the only papal text to be entirely dedicated to joy, opened with with St Paul's impassioned invitation from the Letter to the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always; the Lord is near to all who call upon Him in truth ”. It is no accident that Montini's text is the the first to be cited by Pope Francis in Evangelii gaudium to underscore that “no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord”.

This Apostolic Exhortation, consigned at the conclusion of a Year of Faith which had been convoked by Benedict XVI in memory of a Council that providentially renewed the Church, is an exceptional document. First, because it comes from the heart of the bishop of Rome, the fruit of first hand experience and prolonged meditation on the urgent need to proclaim the Gospel in today's world. Pope Francis' unmistakable message and style distinguish the text and attract the reader.

In the opening pages the Pope of course recalls the synod on the “new evangelization” and states that he reaped the rich fruits of the Synod’s labours. However, the document – which, in any case, is not presented as “post-synodal”, as if to stress its personal origins - expresses his concerns “about this particular chapter of the Church's work of evangelization”. But at the same time, he says, “it is not advisable for the Pope to take the place of local Bishops in the discernment of every issue which arises in their territory”, he needs rather “to promote a sound 'decentralization'”.

The Bishop of Rome states that it was not his intention to write a theoretical treatise, but to show the “important practical implications” of the subjects touched upon in the text. And he does it with a very specific aim: to help “give shape to a definite style of evangelization”, which Pope Francis asks be adopted “ in every activity which [we] undertake”. A style which may be represented through the image of a Church that is truly open: to proclaim the Gospel by accompanying the humanity of today “at every step of the way, no matter how difficult or lengthy this may prove to be”.

The prose of this magna carta for the Church today is striking. The text explicitly states that it has “a programmatic significance and important consequences”, for it is not possible “to leave things as they presently are”. The entire Church must place herself “permanently in a state of mission” with the goal, as he implores in the document's concluding prayer to the Virgin, “to seek new paths,that the gift of unfading beauty may reach every man and woman”.

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Dec. 12, 2019

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