VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis issued the mission statement for his papacy Tuesday, outlining how the Catholic Church and the papacy itself must be reformed to create a more missionary and merciful church that gets its hands dirty as it seeks out the poor and oppressed.
In the 85-page document, Francis pulled together the priorities he has laid out in eight months of homilies, speeches and interviews and put them in the broader context of how to reinvigorate the church's evangelical zeal in a world marked by indifference, secularization and vast income inequalities.
He explained his most controversial remarks criticizing the church's "obsession" with transmitting a disjointed set of moral doctrines, saying that in the church's "hierarchy of truths," mercy is paramount, proportion is necessary, and that what counts is inviting the faithful in.
He went even further Tuesday, saying some of the church's historical customs can even be cast aside if they no longer serve to communicate the faith. Citing St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, Francis stressed the need for moderation in norms "so as to not burden the lives of the faithful."
At the same time, Francis restated the church's opposition to abortion, making clear that this doctrine is non-negotiable and is at the core of the church's insistence on the dignity of every human being.
The document, Evangelii Gaudium, (The Joy of the Gospel), is the second major teaching document issued by Francis but is the first actually written by him since the encyclical "The Light of Faith," issued in July, was penned almost entirely by Pope Benedict XVI before he resigned.
Francis wrote the bulk of it in August, during the Vatican's summer lull, said Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi.
Francis' concerns are laced throughout, and the theological and historical citations leave no doubt about his own points of reference and priorities: Popes John XXIII and Paul VI, who presided over the Second Vatican Council, which brought the church into the modern world, are cited repeatedly.
And in a first for an apostolic exhortation, as this type of papal pronouncement is called, Francis cited various documents of bishops' conferences from around the world, an indication of the importance he places in giving the local church greater say in church governance and decision-making.
"I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security," he wrote. "I do not want a church concerned with being at the center and then ends up by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures."
He added: "More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us, 'Give them something to eat.'"
In the frank and often funny style that has come to define Francis' preaching, the Argentine Jesuit chastised priests for their complacency, giving them a lesson on preparing homilies that don't put the faithful to sleep. He reminded them that confession shouldn't be "torture," and told them to get out of their sacristies, get their shoes muddy, get involved in the lives of their faithful and not be defeatist "sourpusses."
He said their greatest concern must be the poor and marginalized, since they are victims of an unjust, global economic system that prizes profit over people. He said the poor need the tender, merciful love that the church can provide.
While again ruling out women's ordination, Francis called for greater role for women in making decisions in the church and said the faithful ought not to think that just because priests preside over Mass that they are more important than the people who make up the church itself.
"The church, as the agent of evangelization, is more than an organic hierarchical institution; she is first and foremost a people advancing on its pilgrim way towards God," he wrote.
Francis cited Vatican II documents calling for a more decentralized church authority and said he too must rethink the papacy to achieve the goals of spreading the faith. He noted that Pope John Paul II had asked for proposals to rethink the way the primacy of the pope is exercised, a delicate and potentially revolutionary issue that hasn't yet been resolved.
Francis is currently overseeing a major overhaul of the Vatican's dysfunctional administration, but he said that he was "open to suggestions" about how to change the very nature of the papacy and its relation to the world's bishops conferences, to make the papacy reflect better what Jesus intended and what the church needs today.
"Excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the church's life and her missionary outreach," he said.