Preface I: “A Joy Ever New, A Joy Which is Shared” [nos. 1-8]
That Pope Francis’s Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium opens with a focused concern on the state of the world today as it is shaped by consumerism is no accident. In recent years it has become more and more clear that the ill effects of capitalism, which has been far-too-often viewed as a remedy for and better response to the option of communism during and after the Cold War era (as if capitalism and communism were the only two economic options), cannot be ignored. In this sense Pope Francis joins the chorus of Roman Pontiffs who have raised concerns and questioned the economic priorities that have increased inequality and systems that benefit the wealthy while further impoverishing the poor. The way the world operates economically – particularly the so-called “Western” or “Developed” world –is not sufficient and must change. For Christians this means returning to faith in Christ found in the Good News in the Gospel rather than embracing the free-market faith found in unregulated capitalism.
In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argued that happiness is the end, goal, telos of the human person. Happiness is what people desire for its own sake. Although this axiom has served as a cornerstone for a great deal of the “Western” philosophical tradition (up through and beyond Thomas Aquinas), Pope Francis proposes a different starting point, a presupposition that is tied to the fullest revelation of God in Christ Jesus: Joy. Pope Francis asserts that, “with Christ joy is constantly born anew” (no. 1). Not that happiness as such is a bad thing, but it is not the ultimate thing we should seek. Happiness can be fleeting, but joy – as Pope Francis will state later on in Evangelii Gaudium – is present even when happiness is not. The joy of the Gospel, the joy that is found in Christ, is not extinguishable.
But this joy can be difficult to recognize when our goal is happiness identified according to capitalism and our desire is shaped by the spirit of consumerism. Pope Francis sees this as both a personal and a collective “danger.” It is not just something to be avoided, but something against which Christians, as well as all women and men of good will, should protest. Pope Francis explains:
Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry, and listless. This is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ (no. 2).
Personal happiness, that drive to fulfill our own individual desires and take care of our own particular interests, is not what being a Christian is about. It is not, the pope explains, what God desires for us nor is it truly part of what it means to be authentically human. If, as Christians, we believe that Jesus Christ is “fully divine and fully human,” then we must take seriously the full implications that claim presents. Not only does Christ reveal to us who God is, what God’s priorities are, how God acts, but Christ also reveals to us who we are, what our priorities should be, and how we should act. This is what it means to have a “dignified and fulfilled life,” to live as “God wills for us,” to “live in the Spirit,” and to ground our lives in the “heart of the risen Christ.” For this reason, Pope Francis calls all Christians to, as his namesake St. Francis of Assisi once said: “begin to serve the Lord God, for up until now we have done little or nothing.”
The twenty-first century Francis writes: “I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailing each day” (no. 3). Here we see the echo of the Saint from Assisi resounding in the call for all Christians to seek renewal, to “begin again,” to remember what is really important and to seek that above all else. I believe that renewal is the central theme of Evangelii Gaudium. It appears frequently in an explicit manner, but it also pervades the text in the way the Bishop of Rome is encouraging us to return to our roots and core of our faith: Christ and the Gospel.
True renewal can only happen if we are able to let go of that which holds us back. If we are burdened by the chains of sin, held down by the weight of our shame or regret, and afraid to come to terms with our failings and weaknesses, there is no hope and no way to move forward in freedom to have “a renewed persona encounter with Jesus Christ.” This is why Pope Francis, after naming this encounter as the source of our ongoing and life-giving joy, states that God’s mercy is always already available to us. Seeking this renewal in Christ is a risky business – “The Lord does not disappoint those who take this risk” (no. 3) – but one that is nevertheless life changing and worth the chance. Pope Francis continues: “Whenever we take a step toward Jesus, we come to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms” (no. 3). This embrace is the embrace of a father who unconditionally welcomes back his son, who had turned his back and abandoned him. This embrace is the embrace of a shepherd who discovers the lost sheep. This embrace is the embrace of one who knows us better than we know ourselves, and loves us anyway; who loves us no matter what we think can get in the way. This embrace is the experience of the forgiveness that the Gospel proclaims and that Pope Francis reiterates when he affirms that, “God never tires of forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy” (no. 3).
This renewal, this embrace of God is not reserved just for Christians, nor is it reserved for just human beings. “All creation shares in the joy of salvation,” Pope Francis reminds us. We see this cosmic vision of God’s love, embrace, and joy in the way the Hebrew Prophets announce the will of God and the coming of the Messiah. We also see this in Paul’s letter to the Romans when we hear that the whole created order is groaning for the salvation – the returning back to God – God has in store for everyone and everything. This renewed sense of the relationship we have to the rest of creation is another reminder, albeit a subtle one, of the ill effects of consumerism. Our world has and continues to suffer because of the misunderstanding that generations of human beings have perpetuated regarding our self-appropriated sovereignty and dominion over the rest of God’s creation. When we seek the joy of the Gospel through encountering Christ and allowing God to forgive us with a loving embrace, our eyes can be open to the suffering that we have inflicted on this planet, other humans, and the other-than-human creatures.
Pope Francis highlights so many ways that the true joy of Christ is present to us all the time, but we are often so unwilling to acknowledge it. “Why should we not also enter into this great stream of Joy?” Pope Francis asks (no. 5). It seems, he continues, that “There are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter” (no. 6), people who complain and who “are tempted to find excuses” (no. 7) to not seek, embrace, and participate in joy. There is a very pastoral tone to Pope Francis’s acknowledgement that joy can be legitimately difficult to discover, particularly for those who suffer or are oppressed. Even for those who do not face such tragic burdens, the ebb and flow of life affects the way we might see joy. He writes: “I realize of course that joy is not expressed the same way at all times in life, especially at moments of great difficulty. Joy adapts and changes, but it always endures, even as a flicker of light born of our personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loves” (no. 6). Life is not always easy, nor can it be consistently so, but we can be assured of God’s unending love for us. While still pastoral in tone, Pope Francis is also offering Christians something of a “tough love” message here. It falls to us to both seek the joy (as opposed to the fleeting happiness of this world) and help others to recognize the joy amid the ordinary shifts, ups and downs, and trials of life.
Citing Pope Paul VI’s Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete in Domino (1975), Pope Francis reiterates the challenge many contemporary people face in confusing iterations of happiness and pleasure for joy: “To some extent this is because our ‘technological society has succeeded in multiplying occasions of pleasure, yet has found it very difficult to engender joy’” (no. 7). In a sensitive way, Pope Francis recalls that some of his most moving experiences of authentic joy have occurred in the presence and in relationship with those who were materially poor. While abject poverty, the lacking of those basic things needed for human flourishing, is something always and everywhere to be condemned, there is something insightful about simplification and avoidance of the “multiplying occasions of pleasure” that the marketers, businesses, and “technological society” sell the modern person in place of the true joy for which we long.
This joy is not found in some schema or according to a set of “orthodox teachings,” but in the encounter and embrace of another. It is only in relationship with Christ that one is able to discover this joy. “Thanks solely to this encounter – or renewed encounter – with God’s love, which blossoms into an enriching friendship, we are liberated from our narrowness and self-absorption…For if we have received the love which restores meaning to our lives, how can we fail to share that love with others?” (no. 8).
Relationship is at the heart of joy: Relationship with God, relationship with others, and relationship with all of creation. Pope Francis’s opening paragraphs draw our attention to the dangers and challenges of the cultures in which we live and according to which our focus has been shifted away from true joy toward the fleeting pleasures and experiences of happiness that require a high cost of admission. The cost is to those who suffer the inhumane effects of global poverty, the cost is to the rest of creation, the cost is to our own sense of humanity, contentment and joy. The call is for us, not to do or have or buy something “new,” but to renew ourselves in relationship to Christ by allowing God to embrace us in mercy and forgiveness for what we have done and for what we have failed to do. Only then will we find the true joy of the Gospel.
This is part of an ongoing commentary and reflection on Pope Francis’s Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, which will be published in sections over a period of time.
 For some recent theological treatments of consumerism and Christianity, see Vincent Miller, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2005); William Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2008); and Daniel Bell, The Economy of Desire: Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012).
 All references to Evangelii Gaudium will be cited parenthetically by the document’s paragraph number.