These past few weeks I have been talking about the ‘preaching moment’, offering some reflections on what it involves and how that calls for a way of living and a spirituality that is ours: the Dominican job in the Church requires the Dominican way of life to support it. We have considered three aspects of this preaching moment: the Word, the speaker of the Word, and the hearers of the Word. We have considered the mysteries of light as a way of meditating on the ministry of Jesus as a sustained preaching moment. Last week I spoke about the ridiculous 1970s and about some of the difficulties across the years, as styles and emphases change. It can seem that people – even the brethren – are engaged in something quite different when, in fact, all share the same task: preaching the gospel to people. All Dominicans, I presume, think of what they are doing as an instance of that central activity.
Perhaps the greatest Church document of the 1970s was Evangelii nuntiandi [EN], which appeared in 1975. It is an apostolic exhortation of Pope Paul VI following on the synod of bishops in 1974 and issued to mark the end of the holy year of 1975 as well as ten years since the end of Vatican II. Just as one might legitimately argue that the work of Vatican II is heralded and in many ways anticipated in the great encyclicals of Pope Pius XII on the liturgy, on the bible and on the Church, so the focus on a new evangelisation that came to prominence in the second half of Pope John Paul II’s pontificate is heralded and more than anticipated in this document from Paul VI. It is worth looking at, or looking at again if you have read it before.
For EN Jesus is the great evangeliser who gathers round him a community of evangelisers, the Church, whose task is to evangelise and to send out evangelisers into the world. ‘Evangelisation’ often seems to me to be one of those magic words at the sound of which everybody nods in approval but which is actually difficult to explain when you are asked to do so. What does it mean? What does one seek to do in seeking to evangelise another person? What entitles a person to think they have the right or duty to attempt such a thing? EN speaks of it like this: to bring the good news everywhere so that it might transform humanity from within, to sow the seed of the Word in the hope that it will take root and blossom in the hearts and lives of those who come to believe in it.
Bringing the good news everywhere refers not just to geography but also to every aspect of human culture. Every generation is a new continent to be won for Christ: so Paul VI. The task of the evangeliser, he says, is to ‘upset’ humankind, to question our criteria of judgement, our determining values, our points of interest, our lines of thought, our sources of inspiration, and our models of life, whenever these are in contrast with the Word of God and the plan of salvation.
EN also contains an early response to the theologies of liberation that had emerged, confirming a legitimate use of the term ‘liberation’ as a way of speaking about a goal of evangelisation but warning about identifying human liberation with salvation in Jesus Christ.
The world pays more attention to witnesses than to teachers: this is perhaps the phrase most often quoted from EN. If teaching is to be effective it must be supported by a way of living, confirmed as it were by the way of living of the preacher or teacher. Preaching is still important and necessary, even in a culture of too many words and too many voices. ‘It is the Word that is heard that leads to belief: St Paul said this and it is still true whether it happens in the liturgical homily, in catechesis, or in one to one teaching as Jesus with the Samaritan woman, with Nicodemus, and with others, or St Dominic staying up all night arguing with the innkeeper, bringing the word to bear on individual circumstances and situations.
Evangelisation is another way of talking about the mission of the Church, its responsibility to preach the gospel to every creature, seeking to bring it to new believers, to strengthen those who already believe, and to bring the truth of the gospel into dialogue with unbelief and secularisation.
Who evangelises, EN asks? The Church, in the first place, so wherever the gospel is preached the Church is present. Evangelisation cannot be just the inspiration and initiative of individuals since each individual who preaches the gospel acts in communion with the Church as a whole.
EN 63 says that evangelisation loses much of its force and effectiveness if it does not take into consideration the actual people to whom it is addressed, if it does not use their language, their signs and symbols, if it does not answer the questions they ask, and if it does not have an impact on their concrete life. But on the other hand, evangelisation risks losing its power and disappearing altogether if one empties or adulterates its content under the pretext of translating it in order to make it ‘relevant’. This is the tension I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, in the argument about preaching at the Krakow general chapter.
Certain internal attitudes ought to animate the evangelisers. Above all – and this is simply the teaching and example of St Paul as recorded in 1 Thess 2:1-8 – they must love the people they seek to evangelise. Such love is made up of the following: concern to give the truth, concern to bring people into unity, devotion to the proclamation of Jesus Christ, respect for the religious and spiritual situation of those being evangelised, respect for their tempo and pace, respect for their conscience and convictions, concern not to wound the other person, and the effort always to transmit solid certainties anchored in the Word of God. The preacher of the gospel ought to be living in joy, the joy of his own belonging to it, even when he is sowing in tears, confident of greater joy when the harvest comes.
So off you go on your summer placements when the time comes. You will be out and about, with opportunities to see what it is like, what is possible, what people’s situations and questions are, how the preaching of the gospel might be undertaken, what way of living is required if teaching is to be effective. Holiday time is never completely such for us, of course, because even among family and friends one is the religious, the priest, the Dominican, and inevitably people will be relating to you and thinking of you in those terms. That may seem to mean not very much at times but at other times it may come to mean a lot. If on pastoral placements you get opportunities to speak to groups of people – and I hope you do – in other circumstances you may well encounter a Nicodemus or a Samaritan woman, and a one-to-one conversation will be important for them and for you.
We seek to go about our work as St Paul did, out of love, and not from error or uncleanness, nor out of guile or flattery or greed, nor to seek glory from the world. We do it to please God who tests our hearts, and he will test our hearts as we do it. St Paul’s final comment is startling: his preaching to the Thessalonians was not for any of the reasons mentioned (error, uncleanness, etc.) but because he fell in love with them, full of affection and desire to share not just the gospel of God but his very self with people whom he came to think of as his beloved.