Pope Francis has become known since his election for many things, but not the least of these are his homilies. Whether at the chapel at the Casa Santa Marta, at Lampedusa, at World Youth Day in Rio, or in St. Peter’s, his direct, engaging style is a superb model for all preachers. As we continue our stroll through his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (EG), he begins to offer some specific ideas about HOW we communicate the “joy of the Gospel.” As Pope John XXIII remarked in his opening address to the bishops at Vatican II in 1962, “The deposit of the faith is one thing. . . how it is expressed is another.” Once again, we find Francis echoing John.
In paragraph #33, the Pope writes, “Pastoral ministry in a missionary key seeks to abandon the complacent attitude that says: “We have always done it this way.” I invite everyone to be bold and creative in this task of rethinking the goals, structures, styles and methods of evangelization in their respective communities.” He goes on to say that if we’re going to approach everything is this “missionary key,” then the ways (media) we use to communicate will be affected. In days of instant communication, distortions can easily occur, resulting in misunderstanding. For example, he notes, “The biggest problem is when the message we preach then seems identified with those secondary aspects which, important they are, do not in and of themselves convey the heart of Christ’s message.”
Pastoral ministry in a missionary style is not obsessed with the disjointed transmission of a multitude of doctrines to be insistently imposed. When we adopt a pastoral goal and a missionary style which would actually reach everyone without exception or exclusion, the message has to concentrate on the essentials, on what is most beautiful, most grand, most appealing and at the same time most necessary (#35).
Francis then discusses at some length the long-standing attitude of the Church that there is a hierarchy of truths. While “all revealed truths derive from the same divine source and are to be believed with the same faith, yet some of them are more important for giving direct expression to the heart of the Gospel. In this basic core, what shines forth is the beauty of the saving love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ who died and rose from the dead. The existence of a hierarchy of truths, he writes, “holds true as much for the dogmas of faith as for the whole corpus of the Church’s teaching, including her moral teaching” (#37).
The pope then becomes a teacher of homiletics. While he will provide a more extensive “curriculum” later in the document, he introduces the subject here in paragraphs ##38-39. First, he writes, “in preaching the Gospel a fitting sense of proportion has to be maintained.” He brings up a very interesting approach: how often do we preach on certain subjects, perhaps to the exclusion of others? This struck home with me in a particular way.
Once, while serving as the Director of Deacons for a large Archdiocese, I was approached by a man interested in discerning a possible vocation to the diaconate. As we were talking, I asked him what he thought he might do as a deacon that he was not already doing as a committed lay person in the Church. He responded immediately, “Preaching!” I acknowledged that preaching was certainly one of the deacon’s ministries, and asked him what he thought the topic of his first homily might be. He responded with great passion that he would preach about the evils of abortion as the topic of his first homily. I asked him why, and he said that the rest of us (current priests and deacons) were not preaching about it, and that he wanted to correct that omission. OK, then. So I asked him to continue: what would he want to talk about in his next homily? Once again: the evils of abortion. And your third? Same answer. It became obvious to both of us after a while that he really was not responding to a possible call to the diaconate, but to his great passion for trying to eliminate abortion; his was a single-issue focus, and I tried to explain to him that, as clergy, we have an obligation to try to be as comprehensive as humanly possible in dealing with the totality of what the church teaches. However, his comments were still challenging to me. Was I guilty of NEVER discussing certain moral issues in my preaching or teaching? Was I being, in the words of Pope Francis, “proportionate” in my preaching? The pope’s examples are on point:
For example, if in the course of the liturgical year a parish priest [or deacon] speaks about temperance ten times but only mentions charity or justice two or three times, an imbalance results, and precisely those virtues which ought to be most present in preaching and catechesis are overlooked. The same thing happens when we speak more about law than about grace, more about the Church than about Christ, more about the Pope than about God’s word (#38).
Francis is very concerned that “the integrity of the Gospel message must not be deformed. . . . Before all else, the Gospel invites us to respond to the God of love who saves us, to see God in others and to go forth from ourselves to seek the good others. Under no circumstances can this invitation be obscured” (#39)!
Do I see pastoral ministry in a missionary key? How faithful have I been in proclaiming the Gospel with balance and integrity? While this section has clear resonance for the ordained who preach in the midst of our assemblies on a regular basis, it applies to each of us as disciples as well. When we’re “preaching” about our faith at work, in school, at home, do we do so in a balanced way? If we completely ignore our relationship with God in the “secular” aspects of of lives, what does THAT say about the importance of the relationship? Does that kind of compartmentalization also “deform” (to use the pope’s word) the integrity of the Gospel? Do we have pet opinions about certain church teachings that are the only things we want to work on or to be profess? How might I become more balanced and integrated in my own mission territory?