Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Speaking the People's Language

*St. Francis de Sales, Bishop of Geneva in the 1600's, once said that the greatest compliment after having given a sermon is not when people say, "That was beautiful!" but rather when they say, "I will do something!"

Recent Struggles:

The voice of the Church, that oracle of Christ, has been an effective communicator when she has tapped into the deeply held questions and concerns of the people. The Church has done this well throughout history but not so well in previous decades. The last fifty to a hundred years or so are instructive to this end.

The Catholic Church is a divine institution with Christ as her founder. But she, as with individuals, has the blood of Adam running through her veins. The human dimension of the Church sometimes lags behind the Holy Spirit’s promptings and initiatives. To be sure, her members are, by no means, exempt from bad habits.

For instance, in 1965, the Second Vatican Council, inspired by the Holy Spirit, prophetically spoke to this need; the need of putting the Gospel at the service of common concerns and commonly asked questions about this life and the next.

Communicating in New Ways:

In anticipating the Sexual Revolution and the cultural shift to secularism, the Holy Spirit, in 1965, inspired the Second Vatican Council to state the following on evangelization:

“The Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel. Thus, in language intelligible to each generation, she can respond to the perennial questions which men ask about this present life and the life to come, and about the relationship of the one to the other. We must therefore recognize and understand the world in which we live, its explanations, its longings, and its often dramatic characteristics.” (Vatican II: Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Article 4)

In this passage, the Second Vatican Council provides a preamble of how the New Evangelization should proceed. There are three points to remember:

1. Don't only teach about the Gospel but use the Gospel to interpret "signs of the times," that is, what the events of the day mean in light of the Gospel.
2. Use language that is intelligible. Speak the language of the people.
3. Respond to those questions they have about "this life and the life to come."

As to this latter point, the Catholic teachers and communicators, it is all too natural to respond to our own questions, and not the questions of the people.

I am confident that in using these principles, the Church will make up for what she has lost in these last fifty years. These are the ways in which the she has inspired the multitudes in the past. But first we have to know what our weaknesses are.

Church Documents:

By the twentieth century Western Civilization had become biblically and theologically illiterate. After the 1960's, meeting people where they were at became more of a necessity! Stomaching abstract theological truths and topics unrelated to the circumstance of the day would become increasingly more difficult for the average person; especially in our entertainment culture of sound bites. In many respects, however, the Church continues to use a theological language, sometimes elevated, in preaching and communicating the Gospel to world just as she did before.

Case and point: As much as I love reading the papal encyclicals and ecclesial documents of the last two hundred years, I do know that the average Catholic has a hard time understanding its content. Moreover, the man in the pew has an equally difficult time reading through the thick volume of pages contained these documents. Indeed, it requires considerable time just to read one papal encyclical or Church document. If we were to be honest with ourselves, we would have to admit that these documents reach a limited audience because of such length and theological jargon (especially the more recent ones). They may appeal to the clergy, theology students and professors but I am afraid they do not accommodate the busy mother or father. Perhaps, this is one of the reasons why we are losing people to the world; they just don’t understand what we are saying nor do they have time to read the thick volumes of Catholic material.

The Word of God can serve as our guide. For instance, the first papal encyclical, that is, the First and Second Letter of Peter in the New Testament, is simple and short. Most people find it inspiring and palatable. One does not have to be a theologian in order to appreciate its message. The Gospels too are in the format of a story; something that even children can relate to.

From the Pulpit:

Church documents are not the only means that have struggled to be palatable or engaging to the average person; we can also add sermons to the mix. For years the lay faithful have expressed their concerns (in a whisper so as not to offend the parish priest) amongst each other that sermons have been often confined to the narrow circle of a few religious topics; either within the bland generality of virtue or within the biblical story. There are very few references to current events. And quite often, important news stories during the week go without a Gospel or Catholic interpretation. Indeed, what lay people breath in during the week- the news, everyday challenges, sexual sin and common temptations –were (and still are) rarely addressed from the pulpit.

The Sunday after September 11, 2001, for instance, I attended Mass in which the homilist made no reference to the national trauma of what transpired just days before. Even in 2010, the vices that are killing Western Civilization- cohabitation, contraception, the low birthrate, and homosexuality –continue to be uncomfortable topics for the clergy. But if the heralds of the Gospel are not shedding the light of Christ on these issues in their sermons, who will?

The Old and New:

When the Church is silent or unintelligible in her language, the world will lead the public debate on the issues. To be sure, when the Church speaks a language that people cannot understand, the world will be more than happy to speak a language that they will understand. Fulton Sheen was right! If the Christian religion does not interfere with secularism, then secularism will interfere with it. The Church has to interrupt the world's “monologue” and lead the discussion on today’s issues with confidence and simplicity. She can retain all that is good in her ancient methods of preaching and teaching but yet adapt her message to the modern modes of communication.