I was a young pastor in Melbourne, Australia when Pope Paul VI wrote an exciting letter (actually called an Exhortation!) to the church. It was called “Proclaiming the Gospel Message”, (Evangelii Nuntiandi) and I took to it with a young priest’s zeal. Since the Dominicans are the “Order of Preachers” it was as though the letter was written for us. When we had a meeting of the Australian and New Zealand province, we took that letter apart and decided how to adapt it to our preaching ministry.
Since this was the time fairly soon after the Second Vatican Council, the Pope used the teaching of the Council to form what he wanted to say. He spoke about the Church as an evangelizing body, but spoke about every baptized person as an evangelist. This was new teaching to a people who had been taught to listen to the clergy – the professionals. Now everyone was involved in this Christian responsibility.
He emphasized the official teachers of the church, the clergy, but spoke of forms of preaching we hadn’t thought of for many centuries – the power of a Christian involved in conversation with another. It reminded me of the powerful evangelizer in my family, my mother! In fact my mother loved everything about this form of sharing the faith, since she was very involved herself in the whole process. We as a parish were working in unison with the teachers in the schools, those involved in the ecumenical movement, and later one of the most powerful tools of the Church, the RCIA, and the adult catechumenate. We were also taught how powerful the youth groups were – using the principles of Cardinal Cardijn, “See, judge and act.” And I was involved in a Basic Christian Community called “Teams of Our Lady, and was thrilled to see these groups emphasized by the Pope as powerful tools of evangelization.
The liturgy was not just to have the benefit of preaching through the homily, but was a tool of preaching as well. The readers, the musicians, the writers of prayers, those giving Communion were all involved in preaching the faith by the way they carried out their responsibilities. People were asked to be a welcoming group to those coming and going. A well prepared and executed liturgy was preaching the Gospel as powerfully as the preacher.
This was exciting to me as a pastor. I was involved in ministry within the parish, but everyone in the parish was involved with me in evangelization. We were not just to preach through our words, but also the example of our lives, and that was our parish. We were engaged in the community, not necessarily preaching, but doing the works of Jesus Christ, healing, serving, loving and just being good Christian neighbors. Everyone was involved, and I was only the figurehead, proud of my army of evangelizers. “Evangelii Nuntiandi” was our justification as a parish, not selfishly self-serving, a community of the elite, but an army of “Christ bearers”.
Another great benefit came from our Dominican Family. We were asked to preach with the sisters. Not only did I get a chance to work with the sisters, but they taught me how to preach, and showed me a different but more powerful way of preaching the Gospel. Using stories and images, realizing that preaching needs to be more artistic and poetic, that like Fra Angelico, you need to use all the senses in preaching and even listening. They also taught me that over half our audience is women and they want to listen to what professional women – the sisters have to say.
But something has gone horribly wrong! Our numbers have been decimated; the very people who shared our mission have gone elsewhere. Why has this happened? And what are the bishops of the Synod going to come up with to reinvigorate this real vision we had in the 70’s?
One point the Pope made was that we had to be a united church. That has palpably been destroyed. I personally believe that we have not been encouraged to be one with the Pope, the Bishops and the people, but sadly one under the Pope and the bishops, collegiality has been abandoned. The divisions that have wracked our church have destroyed the enthusiasm that united us. We are suspicious of one another, with a number of groups saying, “I am right and you are wrong!” Where have the “many right ways” gone? Jesus said so powerfully, “Anyone who is not against me is with me!” Do we dare say that anymore?
The Pope also allowed for different spiritualties and devotions within the Church. We can cope with variety, not all are called to be charismatics, some people like the Eucharistic devotions others like the Rosary – there is room for all. There is only one devotion that unites us all, gathered around the altar as we celebrate the Eucharist. Now, even the Eucharist divides us, those who sit, stand or kneel being intolerant of each other, those demanding only one style of hymns, or one way of receiving the Eucharist. How can this have happened??
I love my work of preaching. Preaching the Gospel has been a lifetime dream, and in many ways it has been realized after many years of active ministry and preaching in different ways. But my preaching is now controversial, some people come to take notes and criticize rather than listen to what I say from the depth of my heart. This has been difficult for me to deal with, and I have heard it said that preaching is not for the fainthearted! What about the enthusiasm of Paul VI?
But the hardest issue for me to cope with is that we are not involved in evangelization in the strict sense of witnessing to non-believers, but rather we have to re-evangelize those who have left our Church. Many of those who shared my faith have gone from the active ministry. The numbers are quite startling, 80% of baptized Christians no longer practice their faith, no longer belong to a Eucharistic community, no longer want to be sacramental people. It is hard to believe that all those young people would prefer a non-sacramental wedding, so many of the elderly would prefer a non-church funeral. I have to be realistic in acknowledging that most of my preaching is to the converted. I have watched the diminishment in those wanting the sacrament of Penance, saying, “no thanks” to the forgiveness of God through Jesus Christ!
We blame “secularization” for all of this. No doubt it has played its part. But I also believe we have been responsible as ministers – Pope, bishops, priests, official teachers. The tragedy of sexual abuse, the arrogant dismissal of those who have made complaints, the exclusivity of hierarchy have all had an evil effect. Fr Jim Dunning, one of the outstanding teachers of the RCIA process said, “I am proud to be a priest, I am ashamed of being called a cleric.” I thought it was gone but clericalism is back with a vengeance. As Fr Joseph Champlin once said, “We need to roll out the red carpet, not the red tape!” Since when have canon lawyers become the theologians of the Church? It seems now a precondition for being appointed bishop!
However, I am still optimistic! I know the world needs Jesus Christ, who came not to condemn but to proclaim the marvelous love of God through Jesus Christ. St Paul was annoyed with his detractors, but that did not stop him preaching the Gospel, even when he was in chains. We have to continue to think that we have something great to give, and that the people of the world need what we have to give, the love of God.
I don’t know what the Synod of Bishops will decide, I hope it is positive, and that the Pope listens to their collected wisdom. I think it was St Peter who spoke of the “cloud of witnesses”! They are there, and we who are them need to proclaim what wonders the Lord has worked for us. I hope I never lose that enthusiasm!