Address to the Women’s Commission


The Marian Style tone of the “Joy of the Gospel” (Evangelii Gaudium), Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation, 2013.

* I’d like to thank the Archdiocesan Commission for Women for inviting me to talk to you on the Pope’s Apostolic Exhortation The Joy of the Gospel (Evangelii Gaudium).  This Apostolic Exhortation is being well received around the world and particularly here in Australia.  As I go around the parishes of the Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn I hear of many small groups taking parts of the document for their prayer or reflection.  Most people find this papal document very accessible.  There seems to be a non- technical and accessible language used.  The tone is pastoral and direct.  People in Australia respond to such a style of writing.

* The Pope makes it quite clear that “missionary outreach is paradigmatic for all the church’s activity”. (paragraph 15)

* Pope Francis states that “we need to move from a pastoral ministry of mere conservation to a decidedly missionary pastoral ministry.” (paragraph 15)

He also indicates that missionary outreach in the Catholic Church is quite particular in its exercise.  The Church never imposes itself or the centrality of Jesus Christ upon people.  The Church however, never stops proposing Jesus Christ in word and deed.  Pope Francis says, “it is not by proselytising that the Church grows, but by attraction.” (paragraph 15).

This expression by “attraction” is an important one.  It does separate us from more evangelical missionary approaches.  Our Catholic approach is very subtle.  It’s by “perfuming” the world with the radiance of God’s glory that we win people over to Christ.  This is one of the main reasons why we get involved in our ministry to the poor and the marginalized especially in education, health and social services.  By being the radiance of God’s presence with the marginalized we are most obedient to the Gospel.

* Before I go any further, I would like to make one theological observation.  It is foundational to the way we Catholics think about matters.  Put simply, it is we are a “both-and” people theologically.  We are not a “either-or” theological community.

For example, we say in the doctrine on the Trinity that we believe in both one God and three persons.  We do not say we believe in one God or three persons.  We also say that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine.  We do not say he’s either human or divine.  We also say that Mary is both Virgin and Mother.  We don’t say that Mary is Virgin or Mother.

This is an important aspect.  It avoids different forms of dualism.  It also avoids all types of ideology or over politicising the Gospel message.  In Australia this is important to state.  We are very much a dualistic culture.  We say “you are either this or that.”  We rarely say you are both this and that.  Many examples come to mind.

All of this really is summarised in the insight of Saint Paul.  For example, in his Letter to the Galations, chapter 3, v 28 he says that ”There can be neither Jew nor Greek, there can be neither slave nor freeman, there can be neither male nor female – for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3/28).   Let’s keep this in mind as we proceed.

* As a result of this theological insight, we Catholics say the Church is both Peter and Mary.  By this I mean that she is both Peter in her institutional hierarchical sacramental and creedal profile.  And at the same time the Church is fully Mary.  We are a Church of the Holy Spirit.  The charisms of the Holy Spirit are alive amongst us.  We are a communitarian people.  We are Marian in our spirituality and in our way of understanding Church.  If the Petrine profile is understood as a pyramid then the Marian profile is understood as a circle.  Keep in mind that it is both Petrine and Marian.  They are distinct but they are certainly not separate.

* I hope this is not getting too complicated, however we can now look at “The Joy of the Gospel” with this theological foundation.  “The Joy of the Gospel” really doesn’t focus in any great length the issues of women in the Church.  There are some important comments made in paragraphs 103 and 104.  They discuss the feminine genius of women in life and society.  And then there are some important but short comments on the legitimate rights of women.  There is also some comments about the reservation of the priesthood to males and the discussion on being careful not to confuse “sacramental power too closely identified with power in general.”  (n.104.)

But the section on preaching is one that I would like to focus on at greater length.  It is found in paragraph 139-141.

* Here Pope Francis describes “The Church is a Mother,” when it comes to preaching.  He says preaching is like the way a mother speaks to her child.  “A good mother can recognize everything that God is bringing about in her children, she listens to their concerns and learns from them.”  (n.139.

He then says that something similar happens in a homily.  He describes the homily in very maternal and Marian terms….  He says a homily is like “the dialogue between the Lord and his people.  It takes place, should be encouraged by the closeness of the preacher, the warmth of his tone of voice, the unpretentiousness of his manner of speaking, and the joy of his gestures.”  (n.140.).  He then goes on to say “I believe that the secret lies in the way Jesus looked at people.” (n.141.)

In paragraph 142 he says “that preaching which would be purely moralistic or doctrinal, or one which turns into a lecture on biblical exegesis, distracts from this heart to heart communication which takes place in the homily…” (n.142)

I just briefly mention these descriptions that Pope Francis makes of the Homilist.  This is because he describes them in very Marian terms.  In a sense he is trying to insist that the preacher should move away from an overly Petrine profile in his homily and move towards a homily that is both Petrine and Marian.  He emphasises the Marian connections of the homily in such a way that I haven’t read before in a papal statement.  I think this is a wonderful example of the both “both and” in the way we go about our ministry.  He uses in this case the exercise of preaching but I am sure it could be said about our Christian life in general.  It should be both Petrine and Marian.  Good examples are given in this section  with the example on preaching.

* Throughout the whole of the Encyclical it has been observed that he uses so many Marian words and phrases. It actually gives a great “softness” or “Marian feel” to the document.

Some academic with possibly a lot of time on his hands (thanks be to God!) has tallied up some of these words and the number of times they are used in the Apostolic Exhortation.  I offer them as just giving an example of the real Marian style of evangelization offered in the papal document.  For example, the word beauty is used 26 times, dialogue 59, encounter 34, solidarity 19, joy over 100 times and mercy 32 times.

Not only in this document but throughout his emerging pontificate, Pope Francis uses the word “mercy” as almost one of his favourite expressions.  It’s interesting to note that one of the biblical words that defines what mercy is in the bible is the word “nurturing womb.”  That is a wonderful Marian expression!  God is merciful to us and therefore we should be merciful to others.  This means that we are a “nurturing womb” in the world.  What a wonderful description of the Church! A merciful and nurturing womb means that we wait for the seed of God’s love to impregnate us with all that God wants to give us.  This is called Grace.  We then allow through faith to respond to this great grace and nurture all that God gives us.  This is expressed in a way that gives birth to our apostolic missionary activity centered on love and care to the poor and marginalized.

* I’d like to conclude my talk by just making two brief observations of all that is said above about the Marian tone of the Apostolic Exhortation.

* The Marian and Petrine profile that I have described above has actually been an important theme in Catholic theology over many decades now.  It is seen particularly in the writings of the great Catholic theologian Hans urs von Balthasar.  He has written much about this.  I would just like to refer to a couple of his writings.  It will  assist us in giving a broader context to the Petrine and Marian profiles not only in the papal document but in Catholic life in general.

He says in one of his books “In a male functionist world there is a risk that to a large extent we have become a Church of permanent discussions, organizations, advisory committees, congresses, synods, commissions, academics, parties, pressure groups, functions, structures and re-structuring, sociological experiments, statistics, that is, more than ever a male church lacking the Marian soul…. without Mariology, Christianity threatens imperceptibly to become inhuman.  The Church becomes functionalist, soulless, a hectic enterprise without any point of rest, made unfamiliar by the planners.  And because in this manly masculine world, all that we have is one ideology replacing another, everything becomes philanthropic critical, bitter, humanless, and ultimately boring, and people in their masses run away from such a Church.”

Von Balthasar says, on the other hand, “The objective Petrine holiness of the Church is, of course, a vital aspect of the mystical body, but it is not the whole Church.  The Marian dimension needs to be discovered, because it is only in her Marian essence that the Church is comprehensible in all her hierarchical offices and functions.”

They are very strong comments aren’t they from a leading Catholic theologian of the last century!  I think on reflection we could really understand what he talks about if we exercise an exaggerated Petrine dimension in our Church.  The Marian dimension “softens” the Church.  Mary, the Mother of God, in her “attracting power” is able to give a merciful and tender heart to the Church.  The Church becomes most strong when both the Petrine and the Marian sing together the praises of God!

* And my last point is to make a brief comment about the social dimensions of the Marian profile of the Church and society.

The Marian profile is certainly NOT the following.  The Marian profile in the world has got nothing to do with pornography or abortion or women acting like men.  We have to be careful here to see there is no Marian triumph in society when women are used commercially and their dignity is accosted by societal attitudes that insists that she jettison unwanted human life.  Nor is it helped by politicising or making an ideology of women trying to be as controlling or more controlling than men.

But what the Marian profile exactly is in the way we live out our Church life in society is summarised in that beautiful expression used earlier “nurturing womb”.  The Marian profile of the Church champions mercy in our meetings, champions human concern in our structures, champions forgiveness over hatred or bitterness.

The contemplative leadership of the Marian profile can never be underestimated.  It certainly can be seen as contemplative leadership in the Marian profiles in some of our great women saints.  For example there is St Therese of Lisieux, St Theresa of Avila, Edith Stein, St Theresa of Calcutta, and also our own Mary MacKillop and Carolyn Chisholm.  But we have tended to emphasise this contemplative dimension when we only ponder upon the Saints. But  Marian dimension should also be thought of especially when we discuss the meaning being the Church.  All of us are called to be contemplatives in an active world.  An active world/Church or a busy world alone tends to produce spiritual pigmies. It becomes an unreflected response that changes no human heart to encounter Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour.  That is the essence of evangelization both in its Marian and Petrine profiles.  It is to bring people to a living active and real relationship with Jesus Christ our Lord and God alive in the Catholic Church.

This wonderful balance between these two profiles can be lived out in an extraordinary way in married life and family life.  Here dialogue and listening becomes so important in living out the Marian dimension in family life.  It is where vulnerability becomes a strength not a weakness.  In becoming vulnerable to another human being particularly in family life and where that vulnerability is responded with the vulnerability of our spouse or our family members, a real family intimacy grows.

* Thank you so much for inviting me.  There is quite a lot to digest there but I’ve been delighted to be with you.  We’ll have a break now for a short time and then we’ll have a question and answer session.

(End of talk).