THE PROCLAMATION OF THE GOSPEL
The Church is sent by Jesus Christ as the sacrament of the salvation offered by God. Through her evangelizing activity, she cooperates as an instrument of that divine grace which works unceasingly and inscrutably.Wow! What a vocation. Each of us is called to be a channel of grace for others. As evangelizers we have a job to do that the pope articulates:
It means proclaiming and bringing God’s salvation into our world, which often goes astray and needs to be encouraged, given hope and strengthened on the way. The Church must be a place of mercy freely given, where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live the good life of the Gospel.But that hope and encouragement comes through relationships. And the evangelist is called, as a priest friend once told me, to "make a friend, be a friend, and bring a friend to Christ." Evangelization, however, also takes place within different cultures with their various customs and characteristics. The pope compares regional differences in our Church as the bride "bedecked with her jewels." It's a lovely image of the beauty of individual peoples and the way they come to Christ. As Pope Francis puts it:
We cannot demand that peoples of every continent, in expressing their Christian faith, imitate modes of expression which European nations developed at a particular moment of their history, because the faith cannot be constricted to the limits of understanding and expression of any one culture. It is an indisputable fact that no single culture can exhaust the mystery of our redemption in Christ.As for each of us, wherever we are in our faith journey we are called to be "missionary disciples" not letting our "imperfections" prevent us from sharing what we are so blessed to have received.
|The bride and groom are joined with a double rosary "lasso."|
Popular piety enables us to see how the faith, once received, becomes embodied in a culture and is constantly passed on. Once looked down upon, popular piety came to be appreciated once more in the decades following the Council. In the Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, Pope Paul VI gave a decisive impulse in this area. There he stated that popular piety “manifests a thirst for God which only the poor and the simple can know” and that “it makes people capable of generosity and sacrifice even to the point of heroism, when it is a question of bearing witness to belief”. Closer to our own time, Benedict XVI, speaking about Latin America, pointed out that popular piety is “a precious treasure of the Catholic Church”, in which “we see the soul of the Latin American peoples”.The pope stresses the importance of person to person dialogue, a kind of "preaching" that is "always respectful and gentle." There isn't any formula for this. It happens in different circumstances and according to prudential judgment. "At times," the pope says, "the message can be presented directly, at times by way of a personal witness or gesture, or in a way which the Holy Spirit may suggest in that particular situation." But each of us has the grace and charism to be a part of this type of one-on-one evangelization. Pope Francis mentions briefly the importance of a broader evangelization reaching out to "different cultural contexts and groups" in order "to advance dialogue with the world of cultures and sciences" where theologians and Catholic schools and universities play a significant role.
The second major section of Chapter III relates to the liturgy and the importance of preaching. "The homily," the pope says, "is the touchstone for judging a pastor’s closeness and ability to communicate to his people." He apparently sees a serious failure in this area when he says, perhaps somewhat facetiously, that both laity and ordained ministers "suffer because of homilies: the laity from having to listen to them and the clergy from having to preach them!" He then goes on to stress the purpose of the homily which is "not so much a time for meditation and catechesis as a dialogue between God and his people, a dialogue in which the great deeds of salvation are proclaimed and the demands of the covenant are continually restated.” The homily is not a source of entertainment, something showmen priests should remember. Rather:
When preaching takes place within the context of the liturgy, it is part of the offering made to the Father and a mediation of the grace which Christ pours out during the celebration. This context demands that preaching should guide the assembly, and the preacher, to a life-changing communion with Christ in the Eucharist. This means that the words of the preacher must be measured, so that the Lord, more than his minister, will be the centre of attention.The pope goes on to say that the homily should be like the conversation of a mother with her child. The child knows he is loved and that his mother is speaking for his growth and benefit:
This setting, both maternal and ecclesial, in which the dialogue between the Lord and his people 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, the joy of his gestures. Even if the homily at times may be somewhat tedious, if this maternal and ecclesial spirit is present, it will always bear fruit, just as the tedious counsels of a mother bear fruit, in due time, in the hearts of her children....The preacher has the wonderful but difficult task of joining loving hearts, the hearts of the Lord and his people. The dialogue between God and his people further strengthens the covenant between them and consolidates the bond of charity. In the course of the homily, the hearts of believers keep silence and allow God to speak. The Lord and his people speak to one another in a thousand ways directly, without intermediaries. But in the homily they want someone to serve as an instrument and to express their feelings in such a way that afterwards, each one may chose how he or she will continue the conversation. The word is essentially a mediator and requires not just the two who dialogue but also an intermediary who presents it for what it is, out of the conviction that “what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor 4:5).This reminds me of stories of St. Jean Vianney who, although not an inspired preacher, was such a good father to his parishioners that they grew in holiness to imitate their living spiritual father.
The pope emphasizes the importance of the homily and provides suggestions for proper preparation. Prayer to the Holy Spirit and contemplation of the Biblical text come first approached from an "attitude of humble and awe-filled veneration of the word." Homilists should "study it with the greatest care and a holy fear lest we distort it....and we need to be patient, to put aside all other concerns, and to give it our time, interest and undivided attention." The pope goes on saying:
Preparation for preaching requires love. We only devote periods of quiet time to the things or the people whom we love; and here we are speaking of the God whom we love, a God who wishes to speak to us. Because of this love, we can take as much time as we need, like every true disciple: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” (1 Sam 3:9).There is an intimacy in the pope's advice to the homilist, a kind of gentle admonishing to respect the text and reflect on the purpose of the author:
[O]ur most important goal is to discover its principal message, the message which gives structure and unity to the text....The central message is what the author primarily wanted to communicate; this calls for recognizing not only the author’s ideas but the effect which he wanted to produce. If a text was written to console, it should not be used to correct errors; if it was written as an exhortation, it should not be employed to teach doctrine; if it was written to teach something about God, it should not be used to expound various theological opinions; if it was written as a summons to praise or missionary outreach, let us not use it to talk about the latest news....One of the defects of a tedious and ineffectual preaching is precisely its inability to transmit the intrinsic power of the text which has been proclaimed.The pope calls on his spiritual sons to grow in love for the word, to have a great familiarity with it. Although he doesn't quote St. Jerome, I recalled the statement of the great translator of the Bible, "Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ." The pope writes that "The Sunday readings will resonate in all their brilliance in the hearts of the faithful if they have first done so in the heart of their pastor....Whoever wants to preach must be the first to let the word of God move him deeply and become incarnate in his daily life."
Good preaching grows out of a relationship of love with Christ and the pope believes the practice of lectio divina is essential to building that relationship. Lectio divina is a Benedictine method of prayer and meditation that treats scripture, not as a passage to be studied, but as the "living word." The person reads the scripture, meditates on it reflecting on the meaning, prays and contemplates (seeing himself personally present at the scriptural moment). Pope Benedict XVI urged all Christians, including the laity, to practice lectio divina in a message he gave on the 40th anniversary of Dei Verbum:
I would like in particular to recall and recommend the ancient tradition of Lectio divina: the diligent reading of Sacred Scripture accompanied by prayer brings about that intimate dialogue in which the person reading hears God who is speaking, and in praying, responds to him with trusting openness of heart (cf. Dei Verbum, n. 25). If it is effectively promoted, this practice will bring to the Church - I am convinced of it - a new spiritual springtime.Pope Francis echoes this message. If, as some say, holy scripture is God's love letter to each one of us. Lectio divina urges us to respond personally. Pope Francis makes that clear when he writes:
In the presence of God, during a recollected reading of the text, it is good to ask, for example: “Lord, what does this text say to me? What is it about my life that you want to change by this text? What troubles me about this text? Why am I not interested in this? Or perhaps: What do I find pleasant in this text? What is it about this word that moves me? What attracts me? Why does it attract me?” When we make an effort to listen to the Lord, temptations usually arise. One of them is simply to feel troubled or burdened, and to turn away. Another common temptation is to think about what the text means for other people, and so avoid applying it to our own life. It can also happen that we look for excuses to water down the clear meaning of the text. Or we can wonder if God is demanding too much of us, asking for a decision which we are not yet prepared to make. This leads many people to stop taking pleasure in the encounter with God’s word; but this would mean forgetting that no one is more patient than God our Father, that no one is more understanding and willing to wait. He always invites us to take a step forward, but does not demand a full response if we are not yet ready. He simply asks that we sincerely look at our life and present ourselves honestly before him, and that we be willing to continue to grow, asking from him what we ourselves cannot as yet achieve.As I write this, Ash Wednesday is a few weeks off. Imagine the impact of a Lent where one chooses the gospels, especially the Passion narratives, and reflects on them every day according to the lectio divina method. How could one fail to know Christ better after 40 days of imitatin Mary by magnifying God's word? What a glorious Easter Sunday that soul would experience rising with the Lord!
Although the pope is writing primarily for the homilist preparing to preach, all of us as missionary disciples can benefit from his instruction. Focusing on "what the faithful need to hear" is a duty of a pastor but also parents in a family or a friend sharing with a friend. "Evangelical discernment" is for all who wish to share the Lord in a way that encourages a response to God's love. When the pope says, "we need to develop a broad and profound sensitivity to what really affects other people’s lives" his words apply not simply to the pastor of a parish, but to all the people of God.
Pope Francis spends four paragraphs describing homiletic resources urging priests to seriously consider not just the message, but how the message is presented. He recalls the advice of one of his teachers who urged homilists to present an image to help people understand and accept the message. When you consider Jesus' parables and stories using images of farmers in the field, a woman sweeping her house, a fox in his den, a sparrow falling to the ground, it's easy to understand the message. Jesus was a storyteller, but his stories always had an important point. People remember stories more than lectures. The pope urges language that is simple and direct, that avoids incomprehensible terms, is organized and focuses on only a few major points. And it needs to be positive:
[I]f it does draw attention to something negative, it will also attempt to point to a positive and attractive value, lest it remain mired in complaints, laments, criticisms and reproaches. Positive preaching always offers hope, points to the future, does not leave us trapped in negativity. How good it is when priests, deacons and the laity gather periodically to discover resources which can make preaching more attractive!This is good advice indeed and recalls St. Francis de Sales admonition that one catches more flies with a teaspoon full of honey than with a barrel full of vinegar. What a challenge! St. Robert Bellarmine urged priests to preach at least once a month on hell. How would you approach that subject if you wanted to preach about it in a way that was both challenging and positive? That definitely would require thought and creativity.
The last section of Chapter III discusses kerygma and mystagogical catechesis. I confess I had to smile after reading the pope's admonition against using incomprehensible words in preaching because he doesn't define the terms until well into their discussion. No doubt all the priests reading his exhortation understand, but laity like me could use a little help. So I turned to Webster which defines kerygma as "the apostolic proclamation of salvation through Jesus Christ." Pope Francis calls it "the first announcement... which needs to be the centre of all evangelizing activity and all efforts at Church renewal." According to the Catholic dictionary mystagogy:
comes from a Greek word meaning ‘learning about the mysteries’. During this stage [of the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults or RCIA], the newly baptized person continues to learn about living out the Catholic Christian faith. The stage formally lasts from Easter until Pentecost (50 days after Easter), but all Catholic Christians are always learning and growing in faith. In a way, the rest of our lives is a period of mystagogy.Pope Francis calls it a "progressive experience of formation involving the entire community and a renewed appreciation of the liturgical signs of Christian initiation." He goes on to say that all catechesis should focus on the "way of beauty....capable of filling life with new splendour and profound joy, even in the midst of difficulties." The challenge is laid out:
Rather than experts in dire predictions, dour judges bent on rooting out every threat and deviation, we should appear as joyful messengers of challenging proposals, guardians of the goodness and beauty which shine forth in a life of fidelity to the Gospel.And part of the pope's challenge is urging us to learn the "'art of accompaniment' which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other." Imagine the transformation of the world where everyone considered others as "sacred ground." Love of neighbor takes on an entire new meaning! And this "spiritual accompaniment" is particularly essential for modern disciples:
Today more than ever we need men and women who, on the basis of their experience of accompanying others, are familiar with processes which call for prudence, understanding, patience and docility to the Spirit, so that they can protect the sheep from wolves who would scatter the flock. We need to practice the art of listening, which is more than simply hearing. Listening, in communication, is an openness of heart which makes possible that closeness without which genuine spiritual encounter cannot occur. Listening helps us to find the right gesture and word which shows that we are more than simply bystanders. Only through such respectful and compassionate listening can we enter on the paths of true growth and awaken a yearning for the Christian ideal: the desire to respond fully to God’s love and to bring to fruition what he has sown in our lives.When I consider the most difficult people in my life, I recognize what a challenge this is. How do we learn to listen like this? I think by first listening to God in prayer and meditation which brings us back to lectio divina and its ability to transform the soul who wishes to evangelize. And once we are transformed, we are better able to accompany and even admonish others. The pope does not ignore the Christian's duty to correct. He puts it this way:
The Gospel tells us to correct others and to help them to grow on the basis of a recognition of the objective evil of their actions (cf. Mt 18:15), but without making judgments about their responsibility and culpability (cf. Mt 7:1; Lk 6:37).I think about the women I've counseled at crisis pregnancy centers and in our own home when we sheltered unwed moms. So many of them not only sinned greatly but were greatly sinned against. And I often told them that and urged them to break the cycle. It's hard to heal from abusive situations by abusing others particularly the baby waiting to be born.
Pope Francis sums up Chapter III with the statement that all evangelization is based on the word of God "listened to, meditated upon, lived, celebrated and witnessed to...above all in the Eucharist [which] nourishes and inwardly strengthens Christians, enabling them to offer an authentic witness to the Gospel in daily life....The preaching of the word, living and effective, prepares for the reception of the sacrament, and in the sacrament that word attains its maximum efficacy." He calls on dioceses and parishes to "provide for a serious, ongoing study of the Bible...[to] receive the sublime treasure of the revealed word."
Chapter III of Evangelii Gaudium is a primer on evangelization that deserves serious study and practice of its recommendations by all those who hope to "make a friend, be a friend and bring a friend to Christ!" And that, after all, is the vocation of every single one of us!