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The Pope with a mission to upset

30 November, 1999

Thirty years after the publication of Pope Paul VI’s Apostolic Exhoration ‘Evangelii Nuntiandi’ many still seem to see “evangelization” in the restricted sense of winning individual converts to the Church.

Do you remember what happened in 1975?  Life was very tough in some parts of the world.  The communist Khmer Rouge seized control of Cambodia, and the Pol Pot regime inaugurated ‘Year Zero’. Beirut erupted in civil war between Christians and Moslems. Spain reverted to a monarchy after the death of General Franco. Margaret Thatcher was elected first woman leader of the Conservative Party. A referendum in Britain ensured that the country remained part of the European Community.

The city of Rome was once again a centre of pilgrimage; the year had been declared a Holy Year by Pope Paul VI. It was this year that the same Pope, released his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi. The year 1975 also marked the 10th anniversary of the end of the Second Vatican Council.

This document, known in English as Evangelisation in the Modem World certainly reflects much of the spirit of Vatican II. The Pope emphasises once again that the Church is to be involved in social, economic and political life and describes ‘salvation’ as this great gift of God which is liberation.from everything that oppresses humankind, but which is above all liberation from sin and the Evil One.

It is unusual for Popes to use the word ‘liberation’ twice in the same sentence, but we must remember that this document is also the fruits of a Synod of Bishops which met the year before in 1974. Some of these bishops, in turn, had been influenced by the gathering of the Latin American bishops in Medellin in Columbia in 1968. Pope Paul had joined them for part of their meeting, and had been very moved by the commitment of many there to find ways for the Church to be close to the poorest people in those countries.

There were four main themes running through the Medellin Conference: Structural Injustice – they realised that poverty was not God’s will, but is the result of decisions made by human beings; a Poor Church – bishops and priests must live more simply and  work to redistribute wealth to help the poor, an idea which was to become a ‘preferential’ choice in years to come; Conscientisation – becoming deeply aware of what is really going on in the lives of the poorest people; The Struggle for Liberation – the phrase picked up by Pope Paul in his letter.

There is a further rather unusual word a little later in the Letter. The Pope. exploring how the Church can ‘renew humanity’, wrote: “For the Church it is a question not only of preaching the Gospel in ever-wider geographic areas or to ever greater numbers of people; but also of affecting and as it were upsetting, through the power of the Gospel, humankind’s criteria of judgment, determining values, points of interest, lines of thought, sources of inspiration and models of life, which are in contrast with the Word of God and the plan of salvation.”
It is not often that there is an invitation from a Pope to ‘upset’ people! He worded it carefully but the invitation is there to look at decisions and policies through the lens of the Gospels and comment with conviction if those decisions and policies are not just.
There are a few other memorable quotations from the Letter which may well stand the test of time for ever: “The split between the Gospel and culture is, without doubt, the drama of our time, just as it was in other times”. It is fair to say that Pope John Paul must have admired this quote, because he used it himself 16 year later in his letter Centesimus Annus in 1991.

Pople Paul VI is also very clear on what he called ‘the witness of life’. He expected people with influence to support religious liberty, non-violent means of solving problems, those in the media to contribute to the building of community, those with catechetical gifts to explore the meaning the faith in real terms. He said: “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.”

The Pope was further influenced by the Latin American Church in his reflections on the development of ‘small groups’ within which the Scriptures and Liturgy could be studied and celebrated. He wanted these smaller faith communities to encourage and support lay people in their discipleship within the affairs of the world.

He also had great respect and hope for dialogue with other faiths, and said of them: “They are all impregnated with innumerable ‘seeds of the Word’ and can constitute a true ‘preparation for the Gospel’, to quote a felicitous term used by the Second Vatican Council and borrowed from Eusebius of Caesarea.

It is right to end with Pope Paul VI quoting Vatican II himself.   His letter shares the hopeful tone of that Council and certainly warrants re-reading and further study of its 30th anniversary.

Article Credits
This article first appeared in Mission Today and later in Pastoral Renewal Exchange.



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