The Joy of the Gospel and the Church of the Poor
As the new Year of the Laity unfolds, we recall Pope Francis’ compelling invitation to the joy of the Gospel and the joy of Evangelization1. We are invited to turn away from our sadness, our discouragement, and our despair at the manner in which life for us is unfolding, and return to joy. We all yearn for joy. We work for joy. Yet, in its quest we have often failed to find it. We are bundles of shattered dreams; or we are showcases of fulfilled dreams, which leave us empty. We have worked hard, but are frustrated; we have struggled, but feel the weight of disappointment. We are victims of calamities, natural or man-made, or victims of our own coldness in the face of overwhelming suffering.
Pope Francis invites us to return to the joy that comes from the Gospel and from sharing the Gospel. That is a joy that comes neither from a covetous heart nor from the frivolous pursuit of pleasures, nor from a blunted conscience. It comes rather first and foremost from a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ. This is joy real and deeply personal in a social world. Consequently, it is a joy which needs urgently to be shared today in all its fullness, challenge and joy – no matter the danger, no matter the ridicule, no matter the dying. This is the joy of evangelization: the joy of sharing Jesus Christ. It is a joy that cannot be contained, cannot be tamed, cannot be restrained, cannot be boxed in; it is signed with the foolishness of the Cross and rooted in the splendor of the Resurrection.
Return to Jesus
Crucial in the return to joy, is the return to Jesus Christ. Catholic country as we may be, we may have come to think that joy is suppressed by Jesus and his imperatives, and so have begun to pursue joy by walking away from him in fashionable secular modernity. Pope Francis is inviting us to turn around, and return to Jesus, who is not just a cold concept, not just an old memory, not just a set of ethical demands, but the God who encounters us from the Cross, gazes into our hearts with love, accepts us unconditionally, and moves us profoundly. It is love that calls forth our response of love. “If in love you have done this for me, Lord, what have I done for you? What am I doing for you? What ought I do for you?”2
A response may be a resolution never again to walk away from the Lord. The resolution may be to spend more quality time with him, to converse with him more regularly, to find silence to listen to him more intimately, to “waste time” with him more liberally, to experience more deeply the joy of knowing him personally, of being truly shaken by his love, infected by his values, influenced by his choices, and being convinced in his love of the love of the Father. This is a response we must all consider, be we bishops or priests, religious or lay, married or single. We have all too easily walked away from Jesus, and walked into protected comfort zones, cultures of institutionalized hypocrisy, selfishness and sloth; we have found solace in superficial ideologies or shallow religiosity that but mimic the Gospel. We must turn back to Jesus. Turn back to his Gospel.
Impelled by Conscience to Share
The elation within of having encountered Jesus compels us to share. It is not possible to have met Jesus, then hoard the joy of this encounter for oneself. The encounter with Jesus is genuinely personal, but intensely moving in his love not only for me but for all others– lay, religious, priests, bishops, Catholics and non-Catholics, Muslims and Lumad. It is the joy of this gratuitous personal encounter that impels us to share it, to break out of our zones of comfort, our parish turfs, our intimidating conventos, our moldy libraries and tired ways of thinking in order to share of this joy with those who cry out for it in need. For Pope Francis, this is not just a matter of choice; it is a matter of conscience. “If something should rightly disturb and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, and without meaning and goal in life” (EG, 49). In going forth, in opening the doors of God’s love to them, in facilitating grace, not being its arbiters, we should not fear for ourselves, but fear to fail those Jesus leads to us in need. “More than a fear of going astray,” Pope Francis says, “my hope is that we will be moved by a fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within habits that make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: ‘Give them something to eat’ (Mk 6:37)” (ibid).
Poverty Still Scandalous
In our personal encounter with Jesus, we know ourselves uplifted, we know all humanity is uplifted in dignity because of Jesus’ loving gaze from the Cross for us all. We must abide in this joy in “evangelical discernment,” and not allow ourselves in a confusing world to be led astray by spurious joys. While we gratefully recognize advances in Philippine society in such areas as basic education, fundamental aspects of the economy, the struggle for elusive peace in Mindanao, the war against corruption, and in all the shameful slime uncovered in connection with the now unconstitutional Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), we cannot help but admit with Pope Francis that twenty-eight percent of our people3 still “are barely living from day to day.” The poorest of our people are in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao with 47% of the people living below the poverty threshold of PHP 5,458 pesos/month, in Region XII and Region IX with 38% and 37% respectively of the populations still living in absolute poverty. The income gap between our rich and poor has not closed: the richest ten percent of our population is earning ten times more than the poorest ten percent, with the income of the richest families soaring way beyond the income of the poorest.4 These are figures that have not yet captured the devastation wrought by the standoff in Zamboanga, the earthquake in Bohol, and Typhoon Yolanda in the Visayas.
This is a social scandal for which we cannot just blame government. We need to understand our role in it, our personal responsibility for it in our individual lives and shared cultures, and return to Jesus.
The Encounter with Jesus: Root of our Love for the Poor
It is the fundamental encounter with Jesus that must guide our response to the poor. The poor are not just curious ciphers on a statistical report. The poor are not just the unlettered, the unwashed, the uninitiated, the uneducated, the unhealthy, the naked, the exploited, the trafficked, and the infirm gazing into our eyes for human recognition. They are those about whom Jesus said, “Whatever you have done or not done to one of these the least of my brothers and sisters, that you have done or not done to me” (cf. Mt. 25:40). Jesus makes himself one with the poor. From his Cross, Jesus gazes into our eyes and touches our hearts with love. It is his love which calls forth our response in love. It is his love which allows us to admit our personal faults in our shared social woundedness. It is his love which quietly says: “Go forth, and heal!”
From the poverty or wealth of our lives and personal situations, how do we love our neighbor? How especially do we love our poor, God’s poor? Recalling the words of the 1971 Synod of Bishops, “Our relationship to our neighbor is bound up with our relationship to God; our relationship to the love of God, saving us through Christ, is shown to be effective in the love and service of people. Christian love of neighbor and justice cannot be separated” (34). An honest assessment of our ways of dealing with the poor whom God brings in our lives – our neighbors, our colleagues, our students, our employees, our parishioners, our political constituencies – is called for, especially when these ways impact not just on individual lives but on the common good. To the poor, we owe love as God loved us first. That entails not just sentimentality. That entails justice.
Action Against Exclusion, Injustice Poverty– Part of Preaching Gospel
If God loves us so all-inclusively, why are so many excluded? If God’s justice is wrought so marvelously in compassion, why are so many victims of heartless injustice? If God loves us so lavishly, why are so many yet victims of driving poverty? There is no full answer to these questions. Our faith tells us God is love but our Catechism of the Catholic Church also says God’s love is mysterious. We do know for certain that while God permits much evil he also wished to overcome evil – but only with our cooperation. He wants our active love to show his love. He wants to draw from us love in response to all these evils. Thus “where sin has abounded grace has abounded all the more” Rom 5:20.
In returning to the joy of evangelization, we return joyfully to the memorable words of that same Synod of Bishops, “Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel, or, in other words, of the Church’s mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation” (#6). There is no Christianity without love. There is no love without justice. There is no integral proclamation of Christianity without effective action for justice. The Church’s mission of redemption is tied up with liberation from injustice and oppression. In this light, unmistakably, Pope Francis is saying, “Go forth!”(5)
No to an Economy of Exclusion
Evangelize, not only in words, but evangelize in action that brings justice to all! The Gospel is of God’s love for all that touches all and uplifts all. It excludes no one. Therefore Francis forbids an economy of exclusion. “‘Thou shall not,’” he says, support, abet, encourage “an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.” (6) We must understand what an economy of exclusion means for us in the Philippines. It is an economy which pampers the wealthy with mansions, multiple cars, yachts, helicopters, exotic food, outstanding education, state-of-the-art gadgetry, influence and power, but excludes others, especially the poor, from regular jobs that generate more than subsistence, from liberating education, minimum health care, decent and safe housing, and modern modes of communication. It concentrates decision making in the wills of an entrenched elite, and reduces participation of the poor in these decisions to empty formalities. It serves the interests of the global economic elite, as these benefit the local elite, defends these interests with political, military and media power, and disenfranchises poor people who stand in their way of their rights – even of their right to life. Indigenous peoples are pushed off their lands, their defenders are killed. Meanwhile, laws enacted to close the gap between included and the excluded, the wealthy and the poor, the powerful and the disempowered, the housed and the homeless7 are sluggishly implemented or implemented in the breach.
Here, the economy of exclusion take on its own lethal life. To this, Francis quietly states: “As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of the markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solutions will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems. Inequality is the root of social ills. “The dignity of the human person and the pursuit of the common good are concerns which ought to shape all economic policies,” no matter how “irksome.”8
No to the Idolatry of Money
For Francis we must go back to the love of Jesus. Only then can we understand its social imperative. As in love we must reject an economy of exclusion; in the experience of Jesus’ love we must reject its driving daemon, the idolatry of money.9 “We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex. 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose” (55). If in the pursuit of private interest, money has taken over life, has co-opted substantial time in our loving and space in our thinking, is more demanding than family, more consoling than friends, determines what is right and what is wrong, is able in importance to push God into a corner, if not into oblivion, for as long as I can push my interests to the exclusions of others’, money has become an idol. Before this idol, both humanity and divinity are sacrificed. As God says, “Thou shall not kill in an economy of exclusion!” he also says, “Thou shall not have money as a false god before me!”
Only in the love of Jesus which expresses the Father’s love for all, can we return to the human finality of money, the human core of private property. It is not humanity that serves money, but money that serves humanity. We must recall the social teaching of the Catholic Church. There is a social mortgage on private property. While the Church recognizes the validity of sufficient money and private property for the human being’s fulfillment of personal and family needs, private property is encumbered by a “social mortgage” and must contribute to the common good(10). Short of this, the legitimacy of accumulated money and private property is lost: “The right to private property is subordinated to the right to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone” (ibid). This is a powerful doctrine inviting urgent reflection on the manner we relate with money and private property in our lives. It is embedded in the principle called the “universal destination of all created goods”(11), the doctrine that all goods created by God are for the good of all. Money is a means. It is not an end. It is certainly not God. Avarice is idolatry (Cf. Col 3:5). Selfishness is a sin. The return to the joy of encounter with Jesus cannot force conversion. But it does invite it.
Challenges in the Year of the Laity
The invitation to conversion, to return to Jesus and to the joy of bringing him into our world, is issued to all members of the Church, including bishops, priests and religious. But in the Year of the Laity, when we are specially aware of the valued role the laity play in the proclamation of Jesus and the transformation of our Philippine cultures according to the heart of Jesus, allow us only to invite the laity to urgent action in three areas:
The immediate responsibility for our Catholic families belongs to the laity. Lead our families back to Jesus! Here, nothing is more urgent than that parents introduce their children credibly to the compelling love of Jesus, and that children see their parents as exemplars of human goodness and responsibility impelled by the love of Jesus. No Christian family can flourish without prayer, worship, service to each other, and service to others. No family can be Christian reared only on junk food, trashy media, selfishness, and indifference to the needs of others.
Catholic families have responsibility for the life of the Church community. Get involved in the Church’s parishes, the Church’s organizations and the Church’s schools. Make sure that they are not turned in on themselves, missing to bring the life of Jesus to those in our world who need Jesus most. Help them in the spirit of Francis to “Go forth!” Recall the challenge of Francis to the youth of Brazil!(12)
The Catholic laity has immediate responsibility for a just social order, which we in the Philippines have far from achieved. In carrying out this responsibility, it should not only be guided by the social doctrine of the Church, but spread it.13 Through a return to Jesus, we must beg to be converted from the idolatry of money and the obsession with private property and private gain. In God’s love for all, we must recover not only our sense of the common good, but our obligation to work for it and achieve it,14 even at the cost of personal convenience or of personal treasure. This entails not only turning away from the corruption that has so shamefully marred our history, but to embracing positive action for the good of all. This means acquiring the learning, gaining the skills, cultivating the wisdom, and making the hard choices that the common good entails. It also means acknowledging humbly and respecting the cultural, religious, confessional and ideological diversity that belongs to human and Philippine society today. The shared pursuit of the common good through dialogue hopes for an ever-improved synthesis in human community15 and community with the environment”16
MARY, BEARER OF THE JOY OF THE GOSPEL, Mother of the Poor
Francis ends his apostolic exhortation on the Joy of Evangelization by pointing to Mary, Model of Evangelization. She is mother of Jesus, to whom we return. She is mother of Jesus, whom we share with those in need. Her “style” of evangelization is of humility and tenderness, which are “not virtues of the weak but virtues of the strong who need not treat others poorly in order to feel strong themselves.” Mary “who praised God for ‘bringing down the mighty from their thrones’ and ‘sending the rich away empty’ (Lk 1:52-53) is also one who brings a homely warmth to our pursuit of justice” (288). Let us entrust ourselves to her, who so specially shares our history as a Filipino People. Let us learn patience from her. But let us also learn to say, “Be it done to me according to your will” (Lk 1:38). Let us ask her to bring us back to her son. Let us entreat her to show her son’s liberating face to all in our afflicted nation. Let us beg her to return us all to the joy of evangelization.
For the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines:
+SOCRATES B. VILLEGAS, D.D.
Archbishop of Lingayen-Dagupan
January 27, 2014
 Francis. Evangelii Gaudium. Apostolic Exhortation. Nov. 24, 2013.
2 Colloquy, Week I, Exercise 1, Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius
3 National Statistics Coordination Board (NSCB), 2013. A family of five can be considered poor if it is earning PHP 5,458 a month or just enough to put food on the table. The same family has to earn PHP 7,821 if it wants to satisfy other non-food needs such as clothing.
4Family Income and Expenditure Survey, NSCB, 2012
5 Francis, ibid., 20-24, 49
6 Ibid., 53
7 E.g. Comprehensive Agrarian Refrom Program with Extension and Reforms (RA 9700), Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act (RA 8371), Urban Development and Housing Act (RA 7279), Fisheries Code (RA 8550), Kasambahay Law (RA 10361), magna Carta of Women (RA 9710), Anti-Violence Against Women and Children (RA 9262), Family Courts (RA 8369), Social Reform and Poverty Alleviation (RA 8425).
8 Francis, ibid., 202-203. “How many words prove irksome to this system [economy of exclusion]? It is irksome when the question of ethics is raised, when global solidarity is invoked, when the distribution of goods is mentioned, when reference is made to protecting labor and defending the dignity of the powerless, when allusion is made to a God who demands a commitment to justice…” (203).
9 Ibid., 55-56
10 John Paul II, Laborem Exercens, 14
11 John Paul II, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 42. Cf. also: Compendium of the Social Teaching of the Church: “Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute and untouchable…” (177).
12 Challenging the youth of Brazil on Sept. 20, 1013 to get involved in the Church through living the radical Gospel of Jesus Christ, Pope Francis said, “I want a mess!”
13 “…To teach and to spread her social doctrine pertains to the Church’s evangelizing mission and is an essential part of the Christian message, since this doctrine points out the direct consequences of that message in the life of the society and situates daily work and struggles for justice in the context of bearing witness to Christ the Saviour” (Compendium of the Social Teachings of the Catholic Church, 67).
14 ” It is the primary task of the lay faithful, formed in the school of the Gospel, to be directly involved in political and social activity. Hence they need suitable formation in the principles of the Church’s social teaching. (Benedict XVI, Verbum Domini, 100)
15 Cf. “Social Dialogue as a Contribution to Peace,” Evangelii Gaudium, 238-258.
16 Cf. Caritas in Veritate: “The way humanity treats the environment influences the way its treats itself and vice versa. this invites contemporary society to seriously review its life style, which, in many parts of the world, is prone to hedonism and consumerism, regardless of their harmful consequences….” (51).