Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation represents a summons of all Christians to mission and so in one way or another every section of this somewhat lengthy document is directed towards preaching the Gospel. Yet if I were to pick out one strand of thought that seemed to me to be particularly relevant, it would be Pope Francis’s warning that a crippling inferiority complex has emerged among Catholics in the scandal-hit West that threatens to suffocate the proclamation of the Gospel. In short, the Pope warns, we are in danger of being shamed into silence.
Few people would deny, I suspect, that a perception has emerged among many Catholics and non-Catholics alike in parts of Western Europe and the United States that the Church has lost both its authority to speak and the right to be heard. In the face of such public disapproval, there can be and often are prudential reasons to remain silent for a time, there can also be good reasons for choosing our words with tact and care. But there is a vast difference between, on the one hand, a heart that responds to our own sin or the sin of our fellow Christians with humility and contrition, and on the other a heart that responds fearfully when confronted with the same issues and attempts to hide.
The first letter of St. John tells us that ‘there is no fear in love, but love casts out fear’ (1 John 4: 18). There is a warning here and it is a warning that Pope Francis is asking us to take to heart. A fearful response to our present trials casts out the love that is necessary for true repentance and reform. A true and lasting turn away from evil and towards the Good that is God can only be driven by a deep love of God and a recognition that the faith we have been given, the life with God that we share, is something so valuable and precious that it is worth devoting our entire lives to and in the end something worth dying for.
The key to overcoming an inferiority complex and shame, then, the key to overcoming our fear, is to learn again the value of what God has already given us. If we can grasp even a glimmer of how much we are loved by God, then this will be a love that we want to share. This does not change the reality that our society may still not be ready to listen. There is much hard work to be done ahead proving our faith, proving our love, and proving our hope by deeds: by Christ-like service of our neighbour. But if we recommit to a new thirst for holiness, then this labour will not be a burden but something that we choose because we want to share the gift we have received. In this generosity and self-giving, God’s power will be manifested in our weakness.