The Church’s purpose
As Francis enters the third year of his Pontificate, the media’s interest in him has yet to abate. Indeed, coverage of the Pope’s activities continues to rise, often focusing on how we are supposed to understand this man whose popularity has extended beyond the visible confines of the Catholic Church. And yet the Pope has stated time and time again what his main concern is: namely, a need to witness to and proclaim the Gospel, which is the perennial aim of Christ’s Church, however marked by the inevitable imperfections of humanity.
Two years ago, in the preparatory meetings prior to the conclave, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires said it beautifully in a brief speech that, once elected Pope, he entrusted to Cardinal Ortega y Alamino, and which was quickly and widely disseminated thereafter. “The Church’s reason for existing,” Bergoglio said with regard to evangelization, adopting a phrase from Paul VI, “is the sweet and comforting joy of evangelizing.” He went on to use this phrase in the title of the document outlining the program of his Pontificate (Evangelii Gaudium).
Mission, then, is the key to understanding what drives the Pope. This is indeed consistent with a long history preceding him. From the first seeds of Christian preaching — which was initially aimed at the conversion of the Jews — to the expansion of the missionary field and back to Europe itself as the Church addresses the modern phenomenon of a dramatic de-Christianization. And as the breath of Catholicism becomes more global, the Church, since the mid-19th century, has been working assiduously to renew its presence in the world; for from the eve of the Council, Christianity “seemed more and more to be losing its power,” as Benedict XVI wrote.
This is why, in 1957, Giovanni Battista Montini, as Archbishop of Milan, wanted to establish a mission specifically directed toward our “distant brothers”. He adhered firmly to Vatican ii from the beginning, and then, after being elected Pope, Paul VI directed the Council’s implementation by bringing it to a happy conclusion and overseeing its initial application. “The Church,” Cardinal Bergoglio said two years ago, “is called to come out of herself and go towards the outskirts, not only in the sense of location but also of existence as well: those of the mystery of sin, of suffering, of injustice, of ignorance and of religious indifference, of thought and of all wretchedness.”
The Church runs the fatal and ever-recurring risk of becoming self-referential, of looking at herself and not at Christ, the only true centre, as Pope Francis never tires of repeating. Under this light alone will we understand the truly global vision of his pontificate and his daily work for renewal: a renewal which is the duty of anyone desiring to be faithful to the Word of the one Lord.
St. Peter’s Square
Feb. 20, 2019
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