PREACHING THE NEW EVANGELIZATION: 10 AXIOMS
1. Know your audience I (“the unevangelized baptized”). Trying to preach the Gospel to people who have been sacramentalized but not evangelized is like trying to plant seeds in concrete – nothing will grow. Many people have been sacramentalized but never evangelized – and they will tell you this outright. An oft-heard refrain is, “I grew up Catholic but became a Christian and met Jesus Christ at ‘x’ Church.” This is because, while a person objectively was encountering Jesus in the sacraments, they had no, or little, subjective awareness that they were meeting Him in the Eucharist, or reconciliation, or confirmation, or marriage. As a result they knew about God but they didn’t know Him. Unfortunately, we have to bear our share of responsibility for this. This needs to be kept in mind when we preach because many or most of the people gathered on Sunday are in this category. Are we facilitating an encounter with the living God through our words?
2. Know your audience II (“the seemingly dead”). Many people at Mass on Sunday simply don’t want to be there. This may sound a bit harsh, but how else to explain why so many come late and leave early, or read the bulletin during the homily, or don’t sing or respond aloud? Mass, and perhaps faith for many, is simply not something that is seen as being life-giving. We need to help change that.
3. Know your audience III (“the spiritual non-religious”). There is a great hunger among many in our culture for spirituality but not faith. Many in the pews are looking for some sort of inner peace that will help them more or less achieve their agenda for their lives. But faith is an entirely new agenda! It means seeing everything new. And this can only happen upon encountering God.
4. Know your audience IV (“the practical ‘atheist’”). Many people live as practical atheists. This might sound far too strong but most have spent more time in front of their computer, tablet, smartphone, and TV than they have with God’s Word or spiritual reading. This constant barrage of a secular, consumer world view simply cannot leave them (or us) unaffected. It is often practically atheistic; it doesn’t outright reject God, but it operates as if He did not exist, or as if He has nothing practical to offer us. Many of our people, for whatever reason, have been programmed to think Mass is a requirement to be met, rather than a potentially life-changing encounter with the living God. It’s common in some Protestant churches for their bulletins to leave the last page blank with “Notes” as its heading. The expectation is people will leave with something – some word, some challenge, some message of comfort, something to do. Rather than dance around this, it can be helpful to simply address it head on. Here is a place where being vulnerable might be helpful. For example, if we ourselves went through a period in our lives either not going to Church, or attending but merely going through the motions, we can witness to our people about what changed for us. Let them know… it might prompt a change for them, too.
5. Know your audience V (“the bored and the blasé”). In truth the Gospel is more, not less, but many people on Sunday see the Gospel as less not more. Jesus, and His Gospel, have been so dumbed down and neutered that for many people the message of the Gospel is simply…boring. As Peter Kreeft remarked, the modern day disciples of Jesus have somehow managed to undo the miracle of Cana: we have turned wine back into water. Frank Sheed once wrote that among Jesus’ followers were tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners. These were all people who were easily bored. They thought the meaning of life was money, sex, or just living for themselves. Until they met Him. As it was with them, so it is with people now…once they truly meet Him.
6. Know your audience VI (“everybody”). They want God, even if they don’t know it. When many of us are young we tend to think we aren’t yet fulfilled because we don’t have the career, the car, the house, the beautiful spouse, or whatever else we might be wanting. But then, when these things come, we find we’re still restless, still hungry, and we wonder why. It’s because none of those things, good as they are (and very good in many cases), are what we’re ultimately made for. We’re made for in-finite love. We’re made for God. Nowhere do people hear this in the world they live in. They need to hear it from us in a way in which it is easy to understand and respond. We need to help them understand what they want. It’s the same thing we all want.
7. Know your audience VII (“the biased”). Faith is reasonable, but many don’t think so. Our media and entertainment industry, not to mention many in academia, convey the notion that there are basically two types of people: there are people who are educated, who are intelligent, who are rational, who know how to think, and then there are people who have faith (and none of the things the first type has). In truth, faith is a way of knowing; it enlightens the mind and enables a person to understand what he or she cannot understand on his or her own. Faith is not blind; it rests on solid, historical realities: God has acted in time and space in the person of Jesus Christ in an absolutely unique way. Help them to see these things.
8. Try preaching in an ordered series. Preaching in a series can be a good use of using new methods. To be sure, the norm is to preach the readings proclaimed at Mass, but many have found it helpful to occasionally preach for three or four weeks in a row more thematically. Topics like discipleship, reasons to believe, the sacraments, and prayer are examples of preaching in a series. This method allows for a bit more depth on a topic and can be very helpful given the makeup of many assemblies (see points 1-7).
9. God wants this to happen. It pleases Him to make Himself known. He delights in revealing Himself to us and He delights in our response. We need to trust this and pray that we will simply get out of His way.
10. Preach Christ and Him crucified. The cross is the single greatest demonstration of love ever seen. Help them to understand it. Repeatedly call their attention to it. Help them to understand God doesn’t simply tell us He loves us; He shows us.
In what to many is a striking summary of the Gospel, The Latin American and Caribbean Bishops Aparecida document from 2007, authored in no small part by now Pope Francis, stated this: “Knowing Jesus is the best gift that any person can receive; that we have encountered Him is the best thing that has happened in our lives; and making Him known by our word and deeds is our joy” (29). May our words and our actions reveal this is true for us as ordained servants of the people of God, and may those words and actions help others to be able to say the same!
Let us hold one another in prayer, especially as we stand at the altar for the Eucharistic Sacrifice and during the times of our visits to the Blessed Sacrament. I promise that for you; please do it for me and for each other – asking the Good Shepherd to make us shepherds after His own heart. He can grant that prayer, and so He will begin to give us the New Pentecost we have implored from Him.
The Most Reverend Allen H. Vigneron
Archbishop of Detroit
June 30, 2015