Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at The University of Chicago and one of the most prominent interpreters of religion and culture today.

Martin E. Marty

Martin E. Marty

By Martin E. Marty

As Pope Francis was an exhorter bidding for attention last month, not only Roman Catholics were his exhortees. Count us in. The dictionary tells us that adding “-ee” to a word turns it into one which means a person or thing that is the object of that verb. The pontiff issued an “apostolic exhortation,” Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), whose 85 pages have inspired uncommon attention in the media. It was clear that he focused on Catholics, but he probably wouldn’t mind if the rest of us joined his faithful in heeding the exhortation. The document concerned “economic inequality,” “unequal wealth,” and in it he denounced the current economic system as “unjust at its roots” because it defends “the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation.” He calls the result “a new tyranny,” which “unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules.”

Elsewhere I’ve briefly commented on his main theme, I’ll here focus on the very important but easily overlookable sub-theme: what all this means for the system, structures, practices, and soul of the Catholic church and for all manners of Christians. We are all in this together. Should we look for possible gains in a culture of indifference? Here is one possibility: that his form of ministry, we are told, is leading hundreds of thousands of disheartened, semi-lapsed, or former Catholics back to the sanctuaries, the sources, and the message of the church. Might we line up with them? A seminary professor whose word lingers in my mind sixty-plus years after he exhorted us, told us Protestants that we should consider ourselves lucky if we would serve parishes visibly in the neighborhood of Catholic churches.

Why? Because back then, when Catholic church parking lots were still  characteristically full on Sunday morning, it might occur to drowsy late-rising Protestants that something was going on nearby in the name of God, something which just might help awaken curiosity about the act of worship or inspire others by the example of faithful participation. Today, the Sunday morning marathons and soccer-parent occasions  compete for attendance at Mass, so the vision is not as vivid as it was. But exhorter Pope Francis would like to invite back today’s wandering and dispirited Catholics and, if and as he succeeds in any small way, also non-Catholic worshipers who might take clues and cues from reawakened Catholics. There is New Testament language for the fact that we are all members of the one Body and members one of another, so why not begin recognizing this at worship?

The Pope had many more things in mind as he thought and wrote about the Church in the economic order. He even commented on the posture and mien of worshipers in relation to it. If they wanted to evangelize, he exhorted, they have to learn that “an evangelizer must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral.” He was critical of those who were not ready to sort out which customs and structures, beautiful though they may be, “no longer serve as means of communicating the Gospel, and need reexamination.” As all who pay attention to news know, the Pope even suggested that some “rules or precepts” that had been effective in their time, no longer served. We have heard that some non-Catholic Christians also have to do some examining and revising.

Nobody’s perfect, say Catholics and others who say he is just plain wrong in insisting on the policy of not ordaining women. One would wish that he might see how systems and structures more than readings of the Gospel inhibit Catholics from ordaining them. But that is another topic, an urgent one, for another day. For now:

Some of Pope Francis lines’ are likely to be long remembered and used to measure gains and losses among those who would “evangelize” in the future. Try this: the Church should not be afraid to “get its shoes soiled by the mud of the street.” Christians had to overcome the fears that kept them from evangelizing: ‘More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which gives us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving.”

While debates will continue over Pope Francis’ political inspiration, he may serve his church and The Church best by the way he talks about the human person in an alien culture. He is, first of all, a pastor of a sort about which he writes and for whom he hopes, one who is “interested only in helping all those who are in thrall to an individualistic, indifferent and self-centered mentality to be freed from those unworthy chains and to attain a way of living and thinking that is more humane, noble, and fruitful.” Exhortees arise! Consider yourself helped by the Bishop of Rome.

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