A question of credibility

A story is told of a child who became quite bored during the priest’s Sunday homily. At a certain point, the child began to ask her mother if they could go home. Upon her mother’s insistence, the child managed to stay quite for a while, but then, remembering that her mother normally put money into the collection basket after the homily, pleaded with her mother: “why can’t we just pay now and go!”.

Unfortunately, homilies or sermons can often be synonymous with boredom not only for children but also for adults. And yet, the proclamation of the Gospel is meant to be Good News. How come it doesn’t arouse enthusiasm or at least some curiosity? Of course, there are many factors that would need to be taken into account, but perhaps there’s also a question of credibility. Something seems to be missing in the way we hand on Christianity.
I’m sure we can think of examples and occasions where words did strike home and leave a deep impression on people.

Have you ever attended a Mariapolis, the summer gathering of Focolare? There you see attentive listening, joy, enthusiasm, a sense of life and a desire to put what is heard into practice. There’s a sense that the words of the Gospel are relevant for today, really made to resolve our problems.

Think too of Mother Teresa. When she spoke before politicians, for instance, everyone listened with respect and admiration. This small, curved woman spoke simple words that went beyond the normal mental categories of her listeners and struck their hearts and enlightened their minds.

In 989, Adalbert, then bishop of Prague, came to Rome and offered his resignation to the Pope in order to become a monk. His reason was simple. The people of Prague weren’t interested in his preaching and he had no intention of spending his life celebrating solemn ceremonies as if they were merely theatrical performances.

Some years later the people pleaded with him to return. He accepted the Pope’s and their invitation but on one condition: “I will return – he said – if I can bring with me a group of monks and build an abbey near the capital”. And he explained his reason to the Pope: “I know my people. They only believe in what they see with their eyes and touch with their hands. So before preaching I have to show them a style of life that is more noble and attractive than what they are living”. And he went back to Prague bringing with him sixteen monks who were experts in farming and other crafts. Above all, however, these monks were united by fraternal love. And his word became effective not only in Prague but also in Poland where he brought the light of the Gospel.

Today a new presentation of the Truth is needed. Theological, philosophical or cultural updating – though always necessary – is not enough. Nor indeed are new techniques in pastoral ministry, homiletics or the use of the modern means of communication. Those who speak of God must be able to say: “come and see”. If it is to be credible, the reality proclaimed must be palpable.

That’s why those who proclaim the Gospel must be backed up by a community of people who make the effort to incarnate it in daily life not simply on their own but in communion together. This is the only way for those who have the task of speaking to “show” and to give a “taste” of wisdom. Proclamation, then, becomes not only credible but also attractive.

One of the most beautiful definitions of wisdom comes from St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica: “It’s a gift of the Spirit that grows with charity”. Today what’s needed is a charity lived out as a body together. It’s not by chance that in his new letter At the Beginning of the New Millennium, the Pope invites us to make the Church a home and school of communion so that all Christians – each in the task entrusted to them – can become bearers of wisdom in word and deeds.

Perhaps it is precisely to meet humanity’s urgent need of communion that the Spirit has raised up many new charisms in the Christian churches. Each of these, in their own distinctive way, is creating a community where there is an attempt to live communion in the most concrete aspects of life.

Faced with the failures of modern ideologies, with such devastating consequences on a world level, surely only a communal experience of the Word of God can help our contemporaries to rediscover the wisdom of the Gospel and give back to the world a renewed trust in a future of peace, equality and fraternity.

Enrico Pepe and Brendan Leahy

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