Monday, April 30, 2012

Speaking the People's Language

Revised and reposted. Will appear on Catholic News Agency website on May 4th, 2012.
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.

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 Council provides a preamble of how the New Evangelization should proceed. There are three points to remember:

1. In addition to teaching the contents of the Gospel and about the stories therein, the Church bids us to use the Gospel to interpret "signs of the times," that is, what the events of the day mean in light of the Gospel.

2. We are also encouraged to use language that is intelligible. Speaking the language of the people has taken on even greater importance in recent years.

3. Respond to those questions they have about "this life and the life to come."
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.

As to point #3, it is all too natural to respond to our own questions, and not the questions of the people. Indeed, it is not too uncommon for members of the clergy, theologians and teachers to write for their colleagues or peers rather than the people they are meant to serve. Having been involved in a number of ministries and apostolates, I can tell you that the rank-and-file Catholic has a hard time making heads or tails out of the average ecclesiastical document or even papal encyclical.

Many of us have forgotten that 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. Nevertheless, the Church continued to use a theological language, many times elevated, in communicating the Gospel to world just as she did before.

I love reading papal encyclicals and ecclesiastical documents! But I do know that the average Catholic has a hard time reading through their thick volumes. Indeed, it requires the perseverance of a dedicated theology student just to read one papal encyclical or Church document. For instance, the most recent papal encyclical, Caritas In Veritate, was over 27,000 words long. However, St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans is a little over 9,000 words. Even as the inspired Word of God, this New Testament document is rarely read from the first to the last chapter by Catholics.

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 elevated language. They may appeal to the clergy, professors and theology enthusiasts such as myself, but I am afraid they do not accommodate the average person trying to get through a busy day. 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 what we have to say.

With that said, the Word of God can serve as our guide. For instance, the first two papal encyclicals, that is, the First and Second Letter of Peter in the New Testament, are 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 presented in the format of a simple story; something that even children can relate to.

When Catholics are long in speech or writing or when they are unintelligible in their language, the secular world will to continue to enjoy a monopoly on getting their message out. However, we are at a critical time in history when people need to hear and understand the words of the Church. If it means using simpler language and fewer words, let’s do it!