By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.

Director, Yeshua Institute

In the process of preparing for a small group discussion series in our parish this summer on Bishop Robert Barron’s new book Letter to a Suffering Church: A Bishop Speaks on the Sexual Abuse Crisis, my thoughts drifted back to a year ago when we held our first ever parish small group discussion and the text we used was The Joy of the Gospel (Evangelii Gaudium) by Pope Francis.

This year’s discussion of Bishop Barron’s book went very well. It gave people an opportunity to share their heartbreak and anger over the clergy sexual abuse crisis – and in most cases their commitment to remain faithful, active Catholics even when many are jumping ship.

Are they outraged at the failures of leadership so evident across the nation and, indeed, around the world? Absolutely. But their faith is strong – owing to a lot of various reasons and influences over the years -- and not rooted in the acts or failures to act of men.

Our participants all have a personal relationship of some sort with Jesus, and most were eager to express their resolve to remain faithful despite a deep sense of betrayal by church leaders.

Among other things, the experience of those discussions took me back a year ago when our discussion topic was much more upbeat – and applicable to an audience much broader than the ones we have actually attracted to either discussion.

A broader crisis … but some hope

In The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis offers awe-inspiring visions for both the Catholic Church and its individual members.

And those visions, in turn, offer faithful – if often disillusioned – Catholics hope for the future despite the dreadful statistics regarding declines in the practice of the faith among the baptized, and especially among young adults.

The statistics regarding participation are discouraging across the board and throughout the developed nations of the world. Not only are there fewer people at weekend Masses, there are fewer baptisms, fewer church weddings and fewer church funerals. Enrollment in Catholic schools is a fraction of what it once was, as are the number of schools themselves.

Is it time to just turn off the lights and lock the doors?

Not yet!

Indeed, not ever if Pope Francis’ visions for the church and its members finds a home in that church, among its remaining active members.

Pope Francis speaks of a call to members to become missionary disciples. His message is that God expects more – much more -- from us than to just pray, pay and obey. But he doesn’t expect us to spiritually develop on our own, in isolation.

He expects our development to happen in parishes – true faith communities where we support one another, contribute to each other’s ongoing development, and find ways to serve God and his creation that we could never accomplish alone.

Ready for renewal?

If you’re ready for a little spiritual renewal, a little rejuvenation in the face of all the bad, often shocking news swirling around us today, let me recommend that you pick up a copy of The Joy of the Gospel and read it.

Better yet. Find others to read it and discuss it with you.

And if you can’t do that before you start reading, certainly consider trying to put together a discussion group after you’ve finished the book. Pope Francis’ vision for us and our church is just too valuable not to share with other Catholics – both the eager and, most especially, the disheartened.

Free Study Guide

For starters we offer you a Free Study Guide for The Joy of the Gospel. It will save you a lot of work if you’re able to put together a small discussion group. In the meantime, it will give you plenty to ponder as you consider what’s in store for you as a Catholic, perhaps as a “missionary disciple” -- and most certainly as someone called by God to be a Jesus-like Leader in all your relationships.

I often share three quick little prayers I say many times a day to remind me of the God-filled context in which we all always live:

  • Do not be afraid.
  • You are not alone.
  • God will provide.

As I read – and then reread – The Joy of the Gospel, I had the deep sense that there is no reason to fear, that we are certainly not alone on our quests to live out the gift of our lives, and that God is indeed providing rich graces in this visionary, hope-filled work by the Holy Father. 

Whether or not you’re familiar with it, it’s time to get more familiar. Consider it a roadmap for what could be ahead for all of us … and all creation.