“An authentic faith – which is never comfortable or completely personal – always involves a deep desire to change the world, to transmit values, to leave this earth somehow better than we found it.” (p. 131)
Before launching into an in-depth review of the Joy of the Gospel by Pope Francis, some of you may be asking why I chose this book. Simply put, I chose it wholly based on the cover. I know, I know, you’re not supposed to do that. While this book did not turn out to be quite what I expected, the investment was well worth the return which pays dividends in joy, openness to new paths, and inspiration.
I am not attempting to evangelize Christianity, although this is the over-arching theme of this book. Rather, I hope to point out the universal message of peace and love contained within the covers:
“If we are to share our lives with others and generously give of ourselves, we also have to realize every person is worthy of our giving. Not for their physical appearance, their abilities, their language, their way of thinking, or for any satisfaction we might receive, but rather because they are God’s handiwork, his creation…every person is immensely holy and deserves our love.” (p. 184)
Whether you are religious or not, whether you are Christian or not, this book contains wisdom that transcends all divisions. Let me offer another sentiment – pulled from the pages without losing any veracity – with a timely yet universal appeal:
“We human beings are not only the beneficiaries but also the stewards of other creatures. Thanks to our bodies, God has joined us so closely to the world around us that we can feel the desertification of the soil almost as a physical ailment, and the extinction of a species as a painful disfigurement.” (p. 150)
But perhaps I am getting ahead of myself here. Those who know me well would agree I am the most Catholic Buddhist you’ve ever met. Writers such as Thomas Merton, Hildegard von
Bingen and Kathleen Norris are on my shelves right next to Pema Chodron, and Pope Francis’ The Joy of the Gospel belongs next to The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama.
The Dalai Lama’s 1998 best-seller is about the same height and width as the new Pope’s 2013 encyclical. Both books give us so much hope simply by their titles and the radiant, smiling faces of their authors warming the front covers. This hope builds an expectation that in these books we may find something of the secret behind their smiles…some key to finding our own lasting joy and happiness. Further parallels may be drawn between the sentiments that both authors elicit regarding non-violence and the compatibility of science and religion: “Faith is not fearful of reason; on the contrary, it seeks and trusts reason…” (p. 163) I was, however, caught off guard by the structure and tone of the first chapters of The Joy.
Evangelii Gaudium, the Latin translation of this book, is a special kind of Papal document called an “apostolic exhortation” drafted in response to a synod – or gathering of the world’s bishops in Rome – in 2012. As one who is not familiar with this type of document, Evangelii Gaudium feels very much like a point-by-point response to questions and issues raised at the synod, formatted by category and numbered 1 through 288 (within 196 pages) – sans the context of the actual questions. While the new Pope has received much acclaim for his independent actions and personal involvement, it is not an easy read for the “uninitiated.” The unsuspecting reader is faced with a seemingly disjointed conversation that hops from topic to topic with very little context from which to draw meaningful conclusions.
Many of the topics covered (ranging from the role of women in the church to ecclesiastic conduct to voluntary re-distribution of wealth) require a basic knowledge of Catholic dogma and recent history. The first chapter is pocked with biblical references (well…what did I expect? “…don’t judge a book by its cover…”) that had me tripping over paragraphs and going back and forth to my pocket bible just to stay on the same page. Granted, the book is not really addressed to the general public. Chapters two and three in particular are directed to those with professed vocations within the church, exhorting them to share the faith with joy, and to be living examples of the Gospels for others to follow.
This book is a must read for ALL Christians – the Pope finds a way to speak directly to the concerns of evangelizing from the heart in our modern times. For my non-Christian readers who are willing to take a chance, here’s my recommendation: start with the afterword by James Martin, where he lays out a succinct and down-to-earth summary of the book. Then turn to chapter five, “Spirit-filled Evangelizers”, and read it as many times as you like (especially #287 and #288 closing with the poetic Marian imagery and reverence for the “Mother of the living Gospel”). There are great moments of lucidity and inspiration throughout, but take the rest with a grain of salt.