Pope Francis has called for a reorientation of the Catholic church's way of educating people in the faith, saying the process of catechesis should steer away from using "simply the scholastic sphere" in order to teach people to encounter and follow Christ.
The pontiff has also offered a new definition for a term that has long befuddled many church observers, redefining the "new evangelization" as an effort by Catholics to evince their faith by working to help those on society's peripheries.
Speaking in an audience Friday with participants of a meeting of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, Francis first said that the times in which we live are ones of "great changes."
"Truly, these changes are a happy provocation to gather the signs of the times that the Lord offers the Church so that it may be able ... to bring Jesus Christ to the people of our time," said the pope. "The mission is always identical, but the language with which to announce the Gospel asks to be renovated, with pastoral wisdom."
"This is essential, both to be understood by our contemporaries and because the Catholic tradition might speak to the cultures of today's world and help them to open themselves to the perennial fruitfulness of the Christ's message," he said.
"We must not have fear to make the times of great challenges ours," he continued.
Francis then said that people today are waiting on the church, "that it may know to walk with them, offering the company of the witness of faith that offers support with all, in particular with the most alone and marginalized."
"How many poor people are waiting for the Gospel that frees!" the pope said. "How many men and women, in the existential peripheries generated by the consumer society, wait for our closeness and our solidarity!"
"The new evangelization therefore is this: to take awareness of the merciful love of the Father to truly become ourselves instruments of salvation for our brothers," he said.
The term "new evangelization" was used frequently by Pope Benedict XVI, who created the pontifical council on the issue in 2010 and held a global meeting of bishops in Rome to discuss the matter in 2012. The exact meaning of the term and directive for the council have, however, remained a bit unclear.
Francis' redefinition of the term seems to place the emphasis on evangelizing by example and in showing mercy and care for the poorest in society.
Touching on the process of catechesis later in his talk Friday, the pontiff said the question of how to educate the faithful "is not rhetorical but essential."
"The answer requires courage, creativity, and decision to undertake paths sometimes yet unexplored," he continued. "The catechesis, as a component of the process of evangelization, needs to go beyond simply the scholastic sphere to educate believers, from childhood, to meet Christ, living and working in his church."
"The challenge of the new evangelization and of catechesis, therefore, is at stake truly on this fundamental point: how to meet Christ, what is the most coherent place to find him and follow him," said the pope.
Francis' emphasis on taking catechesis beyond the academic sphere could represent a significant shift for the global Catholic church, where educators and bishops frequently refer to the rather regimented and lengthy Catechism of the Catholic Church in their teachings.
The pope on Friday also spoke on the role of the Holy Spirit, saying the Spirit is "the architect of the growth of the Church in understanding the truth of Christ."
"It is He that opens the heart of believers and transforms it so that the forgiveness received may become an experience of love for [our] brothers," the pope continued. "It is always the Spirit that opens the mind of the disciple of Christ to more fully understand the commitment required and the forms which give depth and credibility to the [Christian] witness."
Adding a phrase off the cuff, Francis said: "We have much need for the Spirit because it opens our minds and our hearts."
The pontiff was speaking to the pontifical council on the occasion of its plenary meeting at the Vatican, which was focused on the theme: "Relationship between evangelization and catechesis."
Francis has also entrusted the council with organizing the upcoming Jubilee year of mercy, which is to formally open Dec. 8.
[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]