Preaching the New Evangelization

Recently I attended a preaching conference held at the University of Notre Dame from June 25-27, 2014, on “Preaching and the New Evangelization”. I would like to share some of the ideas presented with those who were unable to attend this conference. These are talks which I attended; many other workshops were given. I beg pardon of the speakers for not doing justice to their fine talks.

Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., gave the keynote address on Friday evening, June 25, on “Preaching: Conversation in Friendship.” He believes that conversation is at the heart of Evangelization. We need to listen and speak. We cannot be Christians without it. He used the example of the Emmaus story. Joy filled the hearts of the disciples when they listened to Jesus and said, “Where not our hearts burning within us as he spoke to us?” (Lk 24:32). A preacher and teacher need to convey this. Augustine called it hilaritas. This is the experience of grace and ends with the silent joy of beholding God. Preachers and congregations need to ignite each other.

Even though the disciples didn’t know who Jesus was, it became evident through the gesture of breaking the bread. Gesture is difficult to articulate. He gave the examples of Pope Paul VI offering his episcopal ring to Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey, also of Pope Francis washing the feet of prisoners on Holy Thursday.

He emphasized the importance of doctrine and how much prejudice there is against it. There can be no evangelization without doctrine. Christianity is intellectually challenging. We need to think to help us to preach doctrine. We have more than two thousand years of the deepest thinking. When we preach doctrine, it will help Christians deepen their faith.

Dialogue will enable us to live with truths that are irreconcilable or conflicting. We have to go deeper and draw people out of their comfort zones by our preaching. We need to give them their authority and they will give it back to us. Dialogue is the spiritual experience of grace and of being liberated from self. We must grapple with unknown truths, but still preach boldly what the Church teaches and what we believe.

La Virgen de Guadalupe

Father Virgilio Elizondo gave a keynote speech on “La Virgen de Guadalupe: Icon for the New Evangelization.” He began by telling us how, when someone asked him to bless a tattoo, he could not find any prayer in the book of blessings. Father Virgilio gave an extensive history of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and the important role she plays in peoples’ lives. This devotion has spread worldwide. He pointed out how it is not a dogma, but its true meaning is that only Christ is necessary.

Preachers need to point out how Our Lady combines the names of God into one, referring to God as the God of life — not punishment. In 1531, she appeared in the middle of the continent to a poor peasant man, Juan Diego (now St. Juan Diego). This generated the conversion of Mexico and Latin America to Catholicism. Our Lady of Guadalupe became the central figure of Mexico itself and the patron saint of the Americas. Preachers and missioners invited people into this devotion through ritualization, music and poetry.

According to Father Virgilio, her greatest power is in her eyes where she shares in the divinity of Christ. Her dress is earthy with a black sash around her waist signifying that she was pregnant. She invites us to conversion, to bring out the goodness of others, to help us to accept diversity. Pope Francis has encouraged us to bring together Indians, Spaniards and Mexicans. We need to listen to cries of poor, marginalized immigrants and welcome them. Preachers need to encourage people to put aside their prejudices and urge them to work together.

Christian Smith, a Notre Dame sociologist, gave a workshop on “Whom Are We Evangelizing?” Starting in 2003, he did a sampling of 3,000 teenagers and their parents, tracking them as they grew up. Smith defined a real adult as someone who has a real job, a place to live, and is engaged in family and having children. Many teenagers and emerging adults are in a limbo area, going through a Gobi desert, with much uncertainty and upheaval in their lives.

The consequence to the Catholic Church and our preaching is their inability to commit themselves, to settle down and get involved. They continue to explore things and are often disconnected. They are relativists and don’t trust authority.

They can talk about religion and politics, but are indifferent to formal religion. When they become adults, they might be able to figure out religion. Ninety-percent think religion is good, but it does not have a monopoly on their lives. Why be involved in a church? They say that is for children and are mainly interested in economic success and having fun.

He maintains that American youth have common religious beliefs which he defines as a moralistic, therapeutic, deist creed: a God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth; God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions; the central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself; God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when needed to resolve a problem; good people go to heaven when they die.

This, he believes, is what we are preaching, but we need to confront this. Christianity has nothing to do with being nice. We need to refrain from moralistic homilies and attack it at every turn. We need to challenge young people to greater heights.

Say the Hard Things

Sister Jamie Phelps, O.P., from Xavier University in Louisiana, gave a keynote address on “Contextual Preaching in an Intercultural Society.” As preachers we need to be aware of the context of the multicultural congregations we address. She stressed the importance of having a cultural informant. We can form a team made up of the parish council, or a cross section of people representing the various cultures. All that happens in the world impacts us. A preacher has to know the context of the parish, its social, cultural background, and what is going on in the neighborhood. We also have to make sure that we are bringing the central context of the biblical word. The key to this is prayer.

Preachers have to touch the ordinary experiences of peoples’ lives, especially if there is some crisis in the community or the world. We need to challenge people, say the hard things they need to hear, especially concerning immigration, racism, sexism. We are a diverse society, but we need to help people move out of their comfort zones.

Curtis Martin, President and founder of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, gave a workshop on “Made for Mission: Evangelizing Young Adults.” “I don’t know, and I don’t care,” characterizes many adults. Much apathy exists among them because they don’t care and find the Mass boring. But the biggest issue is that they don’t know God. They need to establish relationships because everything we love is done in midst of relationships. Our relationships are determined by our encounters. Then they become friends, love people where they are, and are able to share the Good News. Pope Francis encouraged youth that they are not made for comfort, but for greatness. As preachers we have to show them that their relationships with others can be true of their encounters with Christ. The Scripture stories are a primary way to accomplish this. The Gospels and the Acts are five books of encounter.

The liturgy has become a veil of familiarity. They don’t know what they are looking for. Don’t know what they are praying in the creed. We need to break open the prayers and take a deeper look at what we are saying. He suggested inviting young adults to the rectory and show them that we are a welcoming community.

Some of their cultural struggles are: religious beliefs are cognitive assents, not life drivers; “What seems right to me,” is authority for them; evidence and proof trump “blind faith;” no way to finally know what’s true. These are challenging topics to address.

Father Gregory Heille, O.P., gave the keynote address on Friday morning entitled, “The Preaching of Francis.” He pointed out how Pope Francis gave a three-minute homily on Holy Thursday saying that he was at the service of the prisoners. Pope Francis states that our preaching should not be naval gazing. His preaching is very conversational. The Pope preaches daily to about 50 people in a small chapel.

As brought out in “Fulfilled in Your Hearing,” preaching starts with the assembly. We are not Church for the Church’s sake, but we need to reach out to the periphery as Pope Francis insists. As preachers we are mediators of meaning and do so with unction, touching peoples’ daily lives, bringing light where there is darkness, hope where burdens become heavy. Heile believes that the section on preaching in Gaudium Evangelium is the best interpretation of preaching since “Fulfilled in Your Hearing.”

He quoted passages from Pope Francis’s exhortation, stressing that we do not preach ourselves but Jesus Christ. The preacher who does not prepare is not spiritual. The homily is not a lecture. The need to give time and prayer to the text is most important, and people prefer to listen to witnesses.

Heille also quoted extensively from Pope Francis’s Lumen Fidei, pointing out how important hearing, seeing and touching are for the preacher. He believes that we need to combine the terms missioner and discipleship. Pope Francis insists that all of us are agents of evangelization, missionary–disciples. He ended by sharing Pope Francis’s homily on Easter Sunday where he insisted that we need to go back to Galilee, our first love.

In the Heart

Father Donald Senior, C.P., shared with us the “Preaching the Mystery of Faith and the New Evangelization.” He focused on the bishops’ statement “Preaching the Mystery of Faith,” which brought out the theology and spiritual basis of the homily. The homily is the most important encounter people have with Christ. It can breathe new life into them.

The key components of the Church’s theology of God’s Word are: the life of the Trinity; the Bible portraying the human person, male and female, as made in the image of God; once God creates, God does not stay aloof, but is immersed in human history; the culmination of human history comes with Christ who is the Word embodied and made flesh.

Father Senior also considered some key spiritual qualities of a preacher: the preacher as a person of holiness; the preacher as a person of Scripture and tradition; the preacher as a person of communion who respects and loves people. He believes that preaching should be evocative, inspiring, not condemnatory, not moralistic but prophetic. He ended with a quote from St. Ephrem and St. Augustine how “Mary conceived the Word in her heart before she conceived the Word in her womb.”

Benedictine Father Jeremy Driscoll’s workshop was “Preaching the Resurrection: the Central Content of New Evangelization.” Christ’s death and resurrection are the central events of His life. We are inserted into this new life and need to preach how other events converge into the death and resurrection of Jesus. The absolute novelty of the Resurrection needs to be made more explicit. If Jesus really rose from the dead, that changes everything.

Pope Francis puts it in the front and center of Gaudium and Evangelium. The disciples met the risen Lord, which changed their lives. It is the distinctive Good News that needs to be preached more often. Pope emeritus Benedict XVI writes that the Resurrection is a new kind of event, an evolutionary leap that affects everyone. Go make disciples of all nations comes from the Risen Lord. Evangelization is part and parcel of the Resurrection.

Resurrection opens the mystery of the cross and gives a new perspective to the Gospel. Every day we are inside the enigma of the cross. It is a crisis template which God answers. Once we grasp who Jesus is as risen Lord, we will more willingly carry on His work. The New Evangelization shows the beauty of the cross and the Resurrection. A Christian is called to witness to Jesus, the only one who said, “Once I was dead, now I am alive forever and ever” (Rv 1:18).

Driscoll then spent time on 1 Cor 15 about Paul’s passages, “If there is no resurrection, then neither has Christ been raised.” If the dead are not raised, then Christ is not raised. All hope, joy and freedom are shattered if there is no resurrection. What happened to Christ will happen to us.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl gave the last keynote talk on “Preaching, Teaching and the New Evangelization.” He believes that Pope Francis will highlight preaching at the Synod in Rome. The New Evangelization, according to Gaudium Evangelium, will try to reach out to those who have never heard the Gospel, those who are catechists, those who are baptized but have drifted away. The catechetical experience has to possess content which needs to be woven into our homilies.

He maintains that a tsunami of secularism has swept our nation. The challenges we face as preachers are: a secular culture, a materialistic and individualistic society. The Francis effect has given a new face to the world. We must preach and focus on joy and God’s love for us.

We need to know our audience and what we want to say, and then preach only Jesus Christ. Jesus announced a kingdom of justice, peace and love. Cardinal Wuerl emphasized the need to return to the core of the kerygma. Pope Francis makes it clear that we cannot experience new life outside of the Church. Preachers need to invite people to understand Christ’s message. Preachers need to avoid theological verbiage like ecclesiastical or soteriological, which people don’t grasp. We need to preach, he said, with boldness, courage, enthusiasm and a sense of urgency.

FATHER HART, O.F.M. Cap., Capuchin Franciscan preacher and author Richard Hart has preached worldwide. A frequent contributor to The Priest magazine, Hart resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.