What is the Gospel? It’s an important question. What, in other words, is the “Good News,” the content of the message that we, the baptized, are to proclaim to the nations? We hear a lot in the Church these days about the need for evangelization, about the need to be missionary disciples – Pope Francis’ exhortations to show the “joy of the Gospel” and to act with the “flavor of the Gospel.” What does this mean?
What is the Good News? It is a question every Christian ought to be willing and able to answer. Each of us ought to be ready to give an account, as Peter tells us, of the hope that is in us.
God so loved the world that he sent his only Son, incarnate of the Virgin, to suffer, die, and be raised again on the third day to save us from sin. What is more, in His goodness, God sent His Holy Spirit to guide and protect the Church – one, holy, catholic, and apostolic – to pour out His mercy and grace through the Sacraments, that we might grow in love of Him and of one another. This same God, the God who created us out of his love and pursues us, sinners that we are, through history, will raise us from the dead and be our just judge.
This is the Good News. This is the faith we proclaim in our Creed. This is the faith of the Church, professed before the first Gospels were written or the New Testament compiled. And as we read in Dei Verbum:
[I]n order to keep the Gospel forever whole and alive within the Church, the Apostles left bishops as their successors, “handing over” to them “the authority to teach in their own place.” This sacred tradition, therefore, and Sacred Scripture of both the Old and New Testaments are like a mirror in which the pilgrim Church on earth looks at God, from whom she has received everything, until she is brought finally to see Him as He is, face to face.
Ten years into the pontificate of Pope Francis, the Holy Father’s focus remains what it was the day he first took office. How can the Church become better at proclaiming the Good News? The themes of his current catechesis, delivered at his Wednesday general audiences, is the passion for evangelization and apostolic zeal. All of his emphasis on mercy, his desire for a Church that is poor and for the poor, his insistence on going to the peripheries, his pursuit of the idea of a synodal Church, even his reform of the Roman Curia – every major initiative of his pontificate has been intended to serve a more efficacious proclamation of the Good News.
What Pope Francis perhaps did not expect, is that his pontificate – whether by style or substance – has revealed a Church that is deeply divided, not merely about the best way to proclaim the Gospel, but about just what the content of that Good News is. And so we find ourselves living in an age in which fundamental matters of faith and morals are openly contested even at the highest levels of the episcopate.
To say that this state of affairs is less than edifying would be something of an understatement. Nor is it apparent that the result has been as Pope Francis has hoped all along: a clearer proclamation of the Good News. The tendency for the Church to be inward-looking and self-referential, a tendency Pope Francis so ardently (and rightly) desires to change, has, for the time being, been exacerbated – at least in the West where the divisions are most starkly evident.
But unedifying or not, clarifying or not, this is the situation many of us find ourselves in. It can be particularly unnerving for ordinary Catholics who feel helpless in the face of the great controversies of our day – controversies that seem both desperately important (this is the Faith we’re talking about, after all) and utterly remote. Every Catholic is responsible for living and preaching the Gospel, but it is a rare Catholic who will ever set foot in a synod hall.
I offer no easy answers here, except to say that the anxieties – humiliations even – that the Lord allows us to suffer are not without purpose and meaning. Lent, if nothing else, ought to remind us of that. Lent is a time to remind ourselves of the importance of humility, docility, and obedience. I admit these virtues are hard for me, being both a descendant of Adam and an American.
We all know that Lent is a season of repentance and conversion. We undertake practices of mortification and sacrifice, not for their own sake, but in order to experience, embrace, and share the mercy that God desires to shower upon us, and which he implores us to show to others. Lent is a time to make a careful examination of conscience and a good Confession.
At the risk of seeming a spiritual exhibitionist, here’s an examination of conscience I came up with for myself. Maybe it will help you, maybe it won’t. But I know it is one I ought to be making more often than I’d like to admit.
Do I sincerely invoke and trust in the Holy Spirit to guide and protect the Church and her leaders? Do I allow these disconcerting and tumultuous times to become an excuse to insist more on my own righteousness and judgment than on God’s own promises of fidelity? Do I try to mask the weakness of my own faith by pointing to the all-too-real failings or errors of others – especially others who ought to know better?
And if my answers to these questions are not what I know they should be, then can I really claim to be doing my part to fulfill the mission laid on me at my baptism? Am I really, unreservedly, proclaiming the Good News in word and deed?
*Image: Christ and the Samaritan by Paolo Veronese and workshop, c. 1585 [Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna]
You may also enjoy:
St. Augustine of Hippo’s At the Start of Lent
St. John Henry Newman’s Unlearning Ourselves in Lent