Many images have been filling ecclesial cyberspace over the last few days: Pope Francis sending a video to a Kenneth Copeland charismatic rally of Evangelical Christians in Texas, the creation of new Cardinals from around the world, his homilies, his Angelus message and so much more. During the Angelus this weekend, for example, the Pope observed that “a community does not belong to the preacher, but to Christ”.
Pope Francis has become renowned for his preaching: not just in his content, but in the way he does it. Want to preach like the Pope? Francis gives us all a homiletics class in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, so I’d like to take a closer look at that section of the Exhortation.
The pope’s teaching on the homily is part of a grand chapter on “The Proclamation of the Gospel.” The chapter consists of four major sections, each of which demands significant attention: “The Entire People of God Proclaims the Gospel,” “The Homily,” “Preparing to Preach,” and “Evangelization and the Deeper Understanding of the Kerygma.” The homily is the heart of the chapter. But this heart beats within the larger body of the Gospel, so let’s look a bit at the first section of the chapter. That will be the subject of this blog post; I’ll follow up with another on the homily itself.
The Entire People of God Proclaims the Gospel
Pope Francis begins by reminding his readers that “the Church. . . is more than an organic and hierarchical institution; she is first and foremost a people advancing on its pilgrim way toward God.” Acknowledging the Church as a Trinitarian mystery, the pope emphasizes that “she exists concretely in history as a people of pilgrims and evangelizers, transcending any institutional expression, however necessary.”
Everything about the Church begins with God: not simply a human desire for community, but God’s offer of communion and eternal life, an offer that the pope stresses “for everyone”:
Jesus did not tell the apostles to form an exclusive and elite group. He said: “God and make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19). St. Paul us in the people of God, in the Church, “there is neither Jew or Greek. . . for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).
Not long ago, reports emerged from several locations about bishops who were objecting to certain songs and hymns on theological grounds. One example was the song, “All are Welcome.” The apparent argument is that, in fact, NOT “all are welcome.” I do not critique the musical appropriateness of certain hymns and songs, but certainly a theology which suggests that the Church is not a place where “all are welcome” is certainly flawed. All of us are sinners, and all of us need the “hospital” that is the Church. And, despite recent liturgical translations to the contrary, Christ did indeed die and rise for all. To suggest that his soteriological mission was selective in intent and effect is likewise flawed. This is not a facile “universalism”; rather it speaks to the scope and intent of Christ’s kenosis and mission.
The great themes of the Second Vatican Council have always formed the foundation of this pope’s teaching. Consider this paragraph from Vatican II’s Gaudium et spes, #40:
Coming forth from the eternal Father’s love, founded in time by Christ the Redeemer and made one in the Holy Spirit, the Church has a saving and an eschatological purpose which can be fully attained only in the future world. But she is already present in this world, and is composed of men, that is, of members of the earthly city who have a call to form the family of God’s children during the present history of the human race, and to keep increasing it until the Lord returns. United on behalf of heavenly values and enriched by them, this family has been “constituted and structured as a society in this world” by Christ, and is equipped “by appropriate means for visible and social union.” Thus the Church, at once “a visible association and a spiritual community,” goes forward together with humanity and experiences the same earthly lot which the world does. She serves as a leaven and as a kind of soul for human society as it is to be renewed in Christ and transformed into God’s family.
Now, here is Pope Francis, fleshing out that last sentence:
Being Church means being God’s people, in accordance with the great plan of his fatherly love. This means that we are to be God’s leaven in the midst of humanity. It means proclaiming and bring 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.
The Pope then turns to the role of culture in evangelization, stressing that no one culture incarnates the Gospel; rather, “Grace supposes culture, and God’s gift becomes flesh in the culture of those who receive it.” He speaks of the “logic of the incarnation,” the whole design and effect of God’s becoming human: “Evangelization joyfully acknowledges these varied treasures which the Holy Spirit pours out upon the Church. We would not do justice to the logic of the incarnation if we thought of Christianity as monocultural and monotonous. . . . it’s content is transcultural.”
Such a teaching raises many questions, challenges and opportunities, of course. Take just one example from the so-called “liturgy wars”: the elements of liturgy are nothing if not culturally expressive! While a particular culture may find meaning through particular forms of chant or movement, other cultures — expressing the same religious truths — would be better served by their own cultural lens. For example, a European-based community might find Gregorian chant and processions evocative and full of meaning. A Hawaiian community might find mele and hula better suited to expressing the richness of Christianity. The gesture of striking one’s breast as a sign of penitence has meaning in certain cultures, but in certain African traditions the same gesture is a sign of threat and challenge: to prescribe one gesture over another would make no cultural sense and might actually serve to distort religious truth! The Pope puts its this way:
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 in 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.
The pope then turns to the notion that all are missionary disciples, each and every baptized person. Furthermore, “all of us are called to mature in our work as evangelizers. We want to have have better training, a deepening love and a clearer witness to the Gospel. . . . Our falling short of perfection should be no excuse; on the contrary, mission is a constant stimulus not to remain mired in mediocrity but to continue growing.”
Finally, Pope Francis presents a strong reflection on “the evangelizing power of popular piety.” More than simple expressions of faith, forms of personal piety incarnate powerful theological richness: “Nor is it devoid of content; rather it discovers and expresses that content more by way of symbols than by discursive reasoning, and in the act of faith greater accent is placed on credere in Deum than on credere Deum.” It appeals to the heart as well as the head.
In his treatment of personal testimony and the charisms available to each one as an evangelizer, the pope stresses a mufti-faceted approach: through the specific forms of each culture and the varied means of communication: “We should not think, however, that the Gospel message must always be communicated by fixed formulations learned by heart or by specific words which express an absolutely invariable content. This communication takes place in so many different ways that it would be impossible to describe or catalogue them all, and God’s people, with all their many gestures and signs, are its collective subject.”
It is within this context that the Pope turns his attention to the subject of the liturgical homily. So do we.