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Gregory Heille on Pope Francis: ‘Instantly on Message’

From his first day in office, Pope Francis translated his Latin American perspective into a global vision for the Catholic Church.


In this Strengthening Preaching conversation series, preachers from a range of Christian traditions and denominations reflect on their growth as preachers through their involvement in the Strengthening Preaching initiative of Lilly Endowment Inc., which is coordinated by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. At the heart of the initiative are preaching peer groups, sponsored by various seminaries, which engage preachers in reading, discussion, preaching, and feedback—all within a collegial circle of support.


In this edited conversation, Gregory Heille of Aquinas Institute of Theology talks about Pope Francis and his vision for engaged discipleship.

The Pope’s Evangelii Gaudium—what is it, and what should we know about it?

Evangelii Gaudium is a document that in English is called The Joy of the Gospel. This Catholic document issued by Pope Francis in 2013 is officially known as an apostolic exhortation, which means that over a period of a few years the Pope engaged a consultative process which included a global meeting on the subject of evangelization. The product of that conversation is this book-length document. Documents like these are named after their first words, and in this case the first words are “The joy of the gospel.”

This profound document is five chapters long, and the third chapter is I think the most cogent Catholic official discussion of preaching I’ve ever seen. The Pope talks in that central chapter very specifically about pulpit preaching, issuing a lot of challenges about it. But he frames the entire discussion—in that chapter and the chapters that surround it—around the call that all Christians have to be missionary disciples with an evangelical spirit.

The Joy of the Gospel is really a discussion addressed to all Christians about engaged discipleship and the evangelical aspect of that. We all, by virtue of our baptism, are called to testify to what we have seen and heard and touched in Jesus Christ (1 John 1:1). When Francis talks about pulpit preaching, it’s only in terms of how the pulpit serves the larger evangelical mission of all the faithful.

“We all, by virtue of our baptism, are called to testify to what we have seen and heard and touched in Jesus Christ.”

Here’s what I learned about Evangelii Gaudium. I teach an integrative seminar with our M.Div. students, and we read this document alongside another document by the Latin American and Caribbean Bishops’ Conference, called the “Aparecida document.” It’s named after a city in Brazil where the Latin American bishops met and wrote it.

The two documents, The Joy of the Gospel and the Aparecida document, are both very compelling and very similar. My students and I realized that Pope Francis—before he was Pope and was the cardinal archbishop in Buenos Aires, Argentina—chaired the committee that wrote the Aparecida document.

Reading that document unlocked understandings about how, when Pope Francis came out on the balcony as a newly elected Pope in March of 2013, he was instantly on message. And he has been on message without faltering from the very first day. We realized that it’s because he had a Latin American “Vatican II vision” of the mission of the church which was articulated in the Aparecida document.

When he wrote The Joy of the GospelEvangelii Gaudium—he was essentially taking a Latin American Vatican II vision of the church and making it a global vision statement for the Catholic Church.

So to understand Pope Francis, it helps a great deal to study Evangelii Gaudium. And again, the core of it is the call to engaged discipleship. He calls it “missionary discipleship.” He says that by virtue of our baptism we are to be missionary disciples with an evangelical spirit, and that we are called by faith to testify to what we have seen and heard and touched in Jesus Christ.

So Pope Francis, who is a Jesuit, seems to have an incredible, instinctive understanding of preaching, of baptismal discipleship, and—as the document also makes plain—of going to the peripheries. Our natural movement is from the churches out into the neighborhoods and out into the peripheries among the dispossessed and the poor, which is how he lived his life in South America. And we see it in his instincts today.

A phrase I see a lot in reading the materials surrounding your work is “the new evangelization.” Is that on the same order as “the Joy of the Gospel”? Are those related?

They are related, and it’s a real breakthrough. The first persons to bring “evangelization” into contemporary parlance in the Catholic Church were Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II. They first spoke of the “evangelization of culture.” John Paul first used the expression in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 1980, in the context of the approaching anniversary of the 500th anniversary of the discovery of the Americas.

 I remember John Paul II preaching about the new evangelization in St. Louis in January 1999. This was just after he had been in Mexico City; here he issued his apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in America, in which he emphasized the church’s call in a positive sense to cultural encounter and ecclesial communion. For many of us, this expression “new evangelization” was confusing, because for us the word evangelization was associated with people like Jimmy Swaggart, and we had a negative cultural read on the word.

We had to struggle to realize that what John Paul was doing was reappropriating an ancient ecclesial word into contemporary parlance. He used the word very much in terms of the mutually enriching dialogue between church and culture.

Nonetheless, I remember again and again people expressing frustration: What is this? Really intelligent, seasoned Catholic theologians and ministers were asking, what is this “new evangelization”?

But I think it is Pope Francis who has made it plain. He’s dropped the word “new.” He’s simply saying “evangelization.” Evangelization is now being talked about by Catholics less vis-à-vis church and culture, although Francis is all over that in terms of going to the peripheries. But it really is about the evangelical vocation of all Christians to witness to Jesus Christ with our lives and with our testimony and action.

The penny has dropped with that. This makes sense to people.

Secularization and the culture of indifference (discussed here) are huge and real. And yet it also sounds like this is a transformative time in the Catholic Church, a time when there’s a lot of energy and enthusiasm and hopefulness—around preaching and maybe more generally. Is that fair to say?

It’s full of contradiction, I suppose. Most Catholics are probably less than enthusiastic about a lot of the preaching they hear. But for the Dominican Order, this whole movement toward evangelization is very animating. It’s cross-generationally animating, and I am excited to see how Pope Francis’s call to evangelization is an invitation to our youngest members, who are digitally savvy and are entrepreneurial and creative around this.

There is also a growing investment in campus ministry on the part of Dominicans across the United States. There’s a growing commitment and a growing prioritization and consolidation around ministry to young people—figuring out what this means in terms of engaged discipleship on one hand and what it might mean for us disciples of the Word to engage with a growing number of disaffiliated “nones” and alienated Catholics on the other hand. All of that is happening on campus, and for many Dominican men and women, the campus is their pulpit.


Read the full text of the Pope’s Evangelii Gaudium document.

Read a précis of the Pope’s document on the National Catholic Register.

Explore Gregory Heille’s book The Preaching of Pope Francis.