Initial Proclamation of the Gospel: A Non-Negotiable

How do you share the Gospel with someone?

I’m not talking about context–like how or where you meet them, or what your relationship with them is like–but the words. The content. What do you say?

If someone was to ask, “I’ve been thinking about God a lot recently. You’re Catholic and go to church a lot, right? What do you believe?” Where would you start? How would other people from your parish begin to answer? What topics would come up?

When I ask this theoretical question to participants in classes or faith formation settings, I get a wide range of answers. A really wide range. Some people start with Jesus Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist. Sacraments and God’s love rank high in initial answers. Living morally, and occasionally, even “belief in the Pope” (whatever that means) are mentioned too.

These answers reveal that generally speaking, as Catholics in the U.S., we need to heed Pope Francis’ warning in Evangelii Gaudium not to forget, neglect, or fail to emphasize the initial proclamation or first announcement of the Gospel–the keryma. He’s talking to us. We don’t make the first proclamation enough. We don’t proclaim it clearly, and instead bury it inside of all sorts of other (good!) catechetical teachings, but bury it nonetheless, in a way that those in need of hearing the first proclamation–young children, the unchurched, and many self-identified Catholics–miss it, even when we think we’re proclaiming it.

Pope Francis writes, “on the lips of the catechist the first proclamation must ring out over and over” (§164). This applies to all of the baptized, not just those in “formal” roles as catechists. When a co-worker or acquaintance asks us about our faith, Catholicism, Jesus, or God, this first proclamation must really come first. Before we move deeper into the riches of our faith and share solid catechesis, our first obligation is to proclaim the Gospel. I love Pope Francis’ “ring out over and over” ideal–yeah, it sounds a bit boring. But the Gospel proclamation is the most important thing, it’s so important that we can’t think by saying it once a year (say, at a kick-off meeting with Confirmation parents each September) we’re done–no, it must truly ring out. It must be impossible to miss in parish life.

Pope Francis offers a simple outline for initial proclamation, “Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you’” (§164). In our setting, we often have to start with God’s relationship to Jesus Christ, since we can’t take belief in God for granted. But this doesn’t have to become overly complicated. Every Catholic can do it, and there are great resources out there to help you find the words.

St. Paul Street Evangelization has this great looking step-by-step presentation of initial proclamation and suggestions of how to respond. Every person in our parishes must hear this proclamation, and by hearing it over and over, be able to share it, to become an evangelist–since a person is not truly an evangelist if he or she cannot make the initial proclamation and simply prefers, out of habit or comfort, to talk about, say moral teachings or Mass (both good things, but not the initial proclamation).

If you’re a teacher, leader, or volunteer in a school, parish, or organization, I challenge you to stop and honestly assess–can most people in our community share the Gospel easily? Make a clear initial proclamation? If not, then stop what you’re doing and attend to this. No, some might think…we’re more advanced than that, we have lots of devout people….but listen to what Pope Francis says, he explains, “We must not think that in catechesis the kerygma gives way to a supposedly more ‘solid’ formation. Nothing is more solid, profound, secure, meaningful and wisdom-filled than that initial proclamation” (§165). Words to ponder for each of us, in our ongoing individual and communal faith formation.

a version of this essay originally appeared at NewEvangelizers.com

Touching Suffering as Evangelization

Evangelization runs much deeper than just sharing the Gospel (though that’s an essential part, don’t get me wrong). Sometimes, it’s probing the depths of human experience that can be the most challenging to each of us personally as disciples of Christ.

For many of us, it’s easy to explain Scripture passages or comment on Church teaching, but to be deeply involved in someone’s life? That’s a tall order.

In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis reminds us:

“An evangelizing community gets involved by word and deed in people’s daily lives; it bridges distances, it is willing to abase itself if necessary, and it embraces human life, touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others” (§24).

Touching suffering. For many of us, that’s what makes getting deeply involved in the lives of others so hard.

Suffering is complex, especially in our relatively affluent western culture. Suffering is mental anguish, pains of family separation and discord, isolation, intense feelings of inadequacy, and more. It’s not always easy to detect.

Despite the ubiquitous communication of social media and more, many sense that there’s something wrong with suffering—it’s not to be shared at the root level—maybe just venting about the symptoms is okay. That’s all friends want to hear, right?

But, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI challenges us, “It is when we attempt to avoid suffering by withdrawing from anything that might involve hurt, when we try to spare ourselves the effort and pain of pursuing truth, love, and goodness, that we drift into a life of emptiness” (Spe Salvi,§37).

Coming face-to-face with suffering, through friendships and authentic companionship is what starkly reminds us that we do not have the power to end suffering in this world, “only God is able to do this: only a God who personally enters history by making himself man and suffering within history. We know that this God exists, and hence that this power to “take away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29) is present in the world” (Spe Salvi, §36).

Cultivating the compassion, tenderness, and audacity to actually care in a world that wants to turn away from suffering is what keeps us from becoming, “that kind of Christian who keeps the Lords’ wounds at arm’s length” (Evangelii Gaudium, §270).

Can we be joyfully proclaim the Gospel and still have the capacity to grow closer in love to those who suffer? Of course.

Living a more authentically Christian, evangelical life is rarely an either-or proposition.We encounter and grow in personal relationship with Jesus as we unite ourselves with those who suffer. We share the truth of the Gospel all the more earnestly because we’ve experienced Jesus Christ in the raw, complex, troubling, and heartbreaking moments of life when we can do nothing more than surrender to our Messiah, the one who truly knows human suffering.

So run out and find someone who’s suffering, right? No—probably not. There’s someone in your life already who is suffering. Pray that God will lead you to them and strengthen you to go toward, and not run from the suffering. In doing this, step-by-step, relationship-by-relationship, we become a truly evangelization community.

 

This post also appeared today at NewEvangelizers.com. 

God Knows My Name?!?!

“the sheep hear his voice, as he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (John 10:3)

While assisting in a Catechesis of the Good Shepherd atrium, I watched as a catechist read this passage from the Gospel of John to a group of preschool aged children. One boy immediately responded with a combination of curiosity, disbelief, and delight, “He knows my name?”

And when we allow it to sink in–that Jesus the Good Shepherd calls us by name–it should provoke a reaction. Why would God bother to specifically call me? To care for someone like me, who is doing okay on my own? Do I even know what that voice might sound like, or how to listen for it? Yet so often, our proclamations of the Gospel aren’t so bold, they don’t get personal, they don’t provoke a response.

Moving from faith in the cultural, civic, or abstract sense to personal relationship with Jesus is at the heart of the New Evangelization. In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis writes:

“On the lips of the catechist the first proclamation must right out over and over: ‘Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you’” (§164).

Pope Francis doesn’t let us forget that each individual, a unique you, is the object of each of Jesus’ saving actions. And he warns us not to skip over this or to stop repeating it, explaining:

“We must not think that in catechesis the kerygma gives way to a supposedly more ‘solid formation. Nothing is more solid, profound, secure meaningful and wisdom-filled than that initial proclamation” (§165).

This applies to evangelization quite broadly. At the individual level, it means that when God gives me the opportunity to share the Gospel kerygma I must be bold enough to make it personal, and not merely the recitation of some abstract faith. My message should have the potential to evoke the same curiosity demonstrated by the preschooler upon hearing that Jesus knows his name.

In parish communities, it means not shying away from asking and allowing people to share and speak openly about when they have heard the voice of Jesus calling their name, so that others might wonder, “have I heard that voice?”

In catechesis and preaching it means repeating the kerygma again and again—since for many, it will take many messages to even begin to believe that God really would draw near to them, and respond to this proposition with curiosity.

As evangelists, we can all be reminded that our message is not one of facts, apologetics, or even the history of the Church, but that Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you. When we proclaim this boldly, never tiring of the simple, yet provocative message, curiosity will follow.

This post originally appeared at New Evangelizers

Is Discipleship Too Much?

This is the second post in a series examining concerns and cautions about evangelization voiced by Fr. Francis P. DeSiano, CSP, President of the Paulist Evangelization Ministries.

As I discussed in Part 1 of this series, authentic evangelization is never elitist. True evangelists are humble, projecting the goodness of God in Jesus Christ and not their own accomplishments, while increasing in love for every person they seek to share Jesus Christ with.

Yet even as we maintain a spirituality of evangelization that leads us further and further away from elitism, difficult questions still follow as we wonder about what discipleship means and the many forms it can take. In the first two parts of his series, Fr. DeSiano challenges us to ask:

  1. If one estimates that most self-identified Catholics are not disciples, then is our definition of discipleship too high or exclusive? (Part 1)
  2. If growing disciples is a slow process, does that mean it’s not a mass movement for everyone? (Part 1)
  3. Does an emphasis on discipleship “marginalize” or possibly “exclude, more and more ‘ordinary’ Catholics?” (Part 2)
  4. Can God’s grace be “far wider than those who are consciously followers?” [i.e. those whom we might call disciples or those who have responded to evangelization] (Part 2)

I’ll take these questions one at a time. First, if one estimates that most self-identified Catholics are not disciples, then is our definition of discipleship too high or exclusive? This question is a critical reminder that “we” (not you, nor I, nor our pastors or our parish council) do not get to decide what discipleship is. Drawing from Scripture our Church teaches that a disciple:

  • Professes, spreads, and lives the faith of the Church CCC §1816)
  • Lives “the simplicity of a life in conformity with the Lord’s example” (CCC §2470)
  • Prays! (CCC §2601, 2612)
  • Is initiated and nourished by the Eucharist (CCC §1275)
  • Responds to Jesus’ invitation to enter His kingdom (CCC §546)
  • Establishes habits befitting a disciple of Christ (CCC §1494)
  • Continues in Jesus’ word (CCC §2466)
  • Witnesses to Christ and works using the gifts received from God, in ecclesial and temporal affairs (CCC §1319, 2427)
  • Imitates Jesus (§2347)

Discipleship is the process of growing more and more as a follower of Jesus Christ. A disciple isn’t perfect. A disciple is, however, growing more and more as a follower of Christ—seeking to be transformed and conformed to Jesus Christ’s image. Is this description from the Church too high or exclusive? Under our own power alone, yes. It would be impossible. But, with the love of God and help of the Holy Spirit, anyone can respond to Jesus Christ as a disciple, an intentional follower of the Lord.

Second, if growing disciples is a slow process, does that mean it’s not a mass movement for everyone? Absolutely not. God’s time is not our time. Many mass movements take years, decades, or centuries to grow—bearing all sorts of fruit along the way. Again, I immediately think of the lives of disciples in the New Testament. We hear of some who have dramatic conversion processes and quickly “drop their nets” and assume a new life. But there are others, hundreds of nameless other disciples of the New Testament who formed the early Churches who probably experienced slower conversions. As each of these new disciples shared their encounter with Jesus Christ with others, the movement grew. Right on down to our generation today. Slow? Yes. Mass movement? Also yes. The two are not mutually exclusive.

Third, does an emphasis on discipleship “marginalize” or possibly “exclude, more and more ‘ordinary’ Catholics?” One of Jesus’ clearest instructions is, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations”(Matt 28:19). If we fail to place an emphasis on discipleship, we are ourselves deliberately choosing not to imitate Jesus, not to follow his command or his example in his earthly life of consistently inviting people to follow him and probing those he converses with to create an place of encounter and response to His love. Discipleship is for everyone and excludes no one. It’s inviting and walking with others to model what the life of a disciple is really like—the ups and the downs, the victories and the suffering. If openly talking about relationship and encounter with Jesus Christ as the “fundamental decision of [a Christian’s] life…which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” is an uncomfortable, unfamiliar, or disconcerting topic for those whom Fr. DeSiano calls “ordinary Catholics,” then all the more reason to emphasize discipleship in a warm, loving, and inviting way, rather than to simply shy away from it (Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, §1). Discipleship is not the same thing as cultural Catholicism, but it by no means excludes Catholics who are enriched by Catholic culture.

Fourth, can God’s grace be “far wider than those who are consciously followers?” Of course! An emphasis on discipling others is in no way a limit or restriction on the mystery of God’s saving power and grace. The teachings of our Church and, as Fr. DeSiano points out, even our liturgical worship point to this blessed reality. Yet, at the same time, as the Venerable Pope Paul VI explained in Evangelii Nuntiandi, “the religion of Jesus,” “objectively places man in relation with the plan of God, with His living presence and with His action” (§53). This is why to be consciously experiencing and responding to the love of God is a truly right relationship, the one each person was designed for.

Fr. DeSiano’s questions remind us that it’s all too easy for disciple-making to lose focus on Jesus Christ, and instead become about adding membership to a club. When we treat discipleship like a club, people are marginalized, excluded, and the Gospel message becomes obscured by our sinfulness. Discipleship is too important to become “just another club,” another “in-group.” In a nutshell, real discipleship is about not selling ourselves short as Christians. Jesus Christ calls us to follow him as disciples and gives us the Holy Spirit to make discipleship a real possibility, even for the most fainthearted, weak, sinful, unenthusiastic, [insert problem…], of us! This is a wonderful blessing—a joy—as Pope Francis recently reminded the world in Evangelii Gaudium. It’s not too much for us—it’s what Jesus asks of us.

 

Evangelii Gaudium: A Missionary Option That’s Not So Optional

What does it mean to think and live like a Church that exists to evangelize? Check out Evangelii Gaudium §27:

“I dream of a “missionary option”, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.”

Now, we usually think of “option” as being one of many choices. But Pope Francis isn’t telling us that we have a choice to be missionary sometimes, and other times choose some other, equally important, option. “Option” can also mean the act of choosing, and this is what we are called to.

I imagine this “missionary option” to be like putting on a pair of glasses with lenses that fundamentally transform the way we see our parishes. Through these lenses we view customs and routines, how we communicate, what our structures proclaim, and even the simplest decisions on “times and schedules” through the eyes of those in need of evangelization.

Read more…

Sinner’s Prayer from Pope Francis

Lord, I have let myself be deceived;
in a thousand ways I have shunned your love,
yet here I am once more, to renew my covenant with you.
I need you. Save me once again,
Lord, take me once more into your redeeming embrace.

Evangelii Gaudium §3

Pope Francis’ “How to Prepare to Preach”

Here’s a quick outline of Pope Francis’ basic steps for preparing to preach, from the new Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, a fantastic follow-up to the inspiring guidance of Evangelii Nuntiandi. 

1. Call on Holy Spirit in Prayer (§146)

2. Give full, undivided attention to Biblical text. This takes time. Needs to be done seriously, as the biblical text will be the “basis of our preaching.” (§146)

  •  Understand the words, use literary analysis, but don’t get bogged down in the details. (§147)
  • Discover the principal message of the text, “the message which gives structure and unity to the text…what the author primarily wanted to communicate.” (§147)
  • To understand fully the central message of a text, “ we need to relate it to the teaching of the entire Bible as handed on by the Church.” (§148)

 3. Personal preparation of the preacher (§149-151)

  • Prayerful personal encounter with the word
  • Fervor (renewed daily), growing “in love for the word we preach”
  • Allow readings to resonate in one’s heart
  • “What is essential is that the preacher be certain that God loves him, that Jesus Christ has saved him and that his love has always the last word”

 4. Spiritual Reading of the Text (Lectio Divina) (§152)

“This prayerful reading of the Bible is not something separate from the study undertaken by the preacher to ascertain the central message of the text; on the contrary, it should begin with that study and then go on to discern how that same message speaks to his own life. The spiritual reading of a text must start with its literal sense. Otherwise we can easily make the text say what we think is convenient, useful for confirming us in our previous decisions, suited to our own patterns of thought.”

“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.”  

4. Attention to the Hearers (§155)

  • Contemplate the hearers–what do they need to hear?
  • Link to human experience, the situation of the hearers
  • “Let us also keep in mind that we should never respond to questions that nobody asks. “

5. Ways, Methods, and Styles of Preaching (§156-7)

  •  The “way” we preach is “a profoundly spiritual concern”
  • High quality product, use all talents and creativity
  • Concise
  • Use images
  • Simple language, “Preachers often use words learned during their studies and in specialized settings which are not part of the ordinary language of their hearers. These are words that are suitable in theology or catechesis, but whose meaning is incomprehensible to the majority of Christians. The greatest risk for a preacher is that he becomes so accustomed to his own language that he thinks that everyone else naturally understands and uses it.”
  • Concise and simple, without forsaking clarity
  • Positive (“offers hope, points to the future, does not leave us trapped in negativity”)

6. Intentional Improvement (§157)

“How good it is when priests, deacons and the laity gather periodically to discover resources which can make preaching more attractive!”

Note: I numbered the main points for sake of clarity. I don’t think they are intended to be sequential, but more overlapping phases and elements of preparation.