Pope John Paul II, no timid soul, was dissatisfied with only looking to a renewal of belief among the baptized. The man who urged casting nets into the deep offers grounding for the 21st century effort in evangelization:
15. John Paul II asked us to recognize that “there must be no lessening of the impetus to preach the Gospel” to those who are far from Christ, “because this is the first task of the Church”.[Redemptoris Missio 34] Indeed, “today missionary activity still represents the greatest challenge for the Church” [Redemptoris Missio 40] and “the missionary task must remain foremost”.[Redemptoris Missio 86]
Theological orthodoxy somewhat overtook this witness over the past fifteen years, possibly to great harm in the Roman Church. Pope Francis suggests we place a different task at the forefront, the basic mission set down by the Lord before his Ascension, and one we should indeed take much, much more seriously:
What would happen if we were to take these words seriously? We would realize that missionary outreach is paradigmatic for all the Church’s activity. Along these lines the Latin American bishops stated that we “cannot passively and calmly wait in our church buildings”;[Aparecida 548] we need to move “from a pastoral ministry of mere conservation to a decidedly missionary pastoral ministry”.[Aparecida 370] This task continues to be a source of immense joy for the Church: “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Lk 15:7).
My friend John speculated this might well be the first time bishops have been cited in a papal document. At least bishops since the early centuries. This shift from preservation to reaching out is certainly the example Pope Francis has given us. No doubt we’ll be reading more of this in Evangelii Gaudium in the weeks ahead.
My sense is that Pope John Paul II had something of the formula, but where he failed was in limiting the evangelical witness to his own ministry. He seemed less concerned about two vital aspects of the ministry of Peter: discerning lieutenants more loyal to the mission and the message than they were to their own interests, and inspiring a wider swath of parish clergy, religious, and laity to be active evangelizers.
For all his gifts of intellect, loyalty, and spirituality, Pope Benedict seemed to go further off the target of evangelization in his eight years. The words were certainly there, but clearly we had a disconnect in both fervor and effectiveness in the outward-looking mission.