It probably comes as no surprise that in his first Apostolic Exhortation, Pope Francis has hit on some fundamental “Vincentian” themes. This brief reflection is aimed at Vincentian small Christian community leaders, catechists, and preachers. My perspective is drawn from twenty-five years of priestly ministry in the United States and four years as a missionary on the Bolivian Altiplano, where I continue to serve. I’d like to point out four areas for reflection.
A thorough examination of conscience. We like to think of ourselves as great collaborators. Perish the thought that any Vincentian would suffer from clericalism, classism, sexism, or any other debility that would exclude the voices of those whom we want to serve. Can we look at ourselves with the eyes of Francis?
“In some cases, it is because lay persons have not been given the formation needed to take on important responsibilities. In others, it is because in their particular Churches room has not been made for them to speak and to act, due to an excessive clericalism which keeps them away from decision-making.(102)” Are we working to promote the leadership of those we serve, or do we continue, for a variety of reasons, to maintain the poor as clients? Have we really adopted the attitudes and practices enshrined in our new strategy of “systemic change?”
The principal message. Francis has lots to say about preaching the homily and we can derive from his words of counsel on the homily some guides for preaching in any liturgical context and, in fact, in any moment of communicating the Good News: “The homily has special importance due to its eucharistic context: it surpasses all forms of catechesis as the supreme moment in the dialogue between God and his people which lead up to sacramental communion. (137)” Are we concerned with preparing people for this “supreme moment”?
Often, we are preoccupied with communicating the content of the secondary and tertiary levels of the faith. We want to communicate a system of beliefs. In some respect, this has been our traditional strong point. “Our charism consists in transmitting principles, values and a way of life that gives to all, especially the poor, the possibility of living as children and privileged family of God.(from Ginete A fine example of analysis.)”
Without dismissing content, Francis calls us to a style which is simple, clear, organized, positive, centered in kerygma: “On the lips of the catechist (read, “Vincentian”) the first proclamation must ring out over and over: “Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you.”” (164) “Nothing is more solid, profound, secure, meaningful and wisdom-filled than that initial proclamation.(165)” Is this truly our message in word and act?
A more ample sense of simplicity. In our history, especially in the Congregation of the Mission, we have eschewed forms of preaching that were not simple. But simple does not mean “barren.” Much has been written to expand our understanding of this virtue. Vincent was always open to adapt his method of preaching (see Devlin). Does our day need further adaptation?
“Every form of catechesis would do well to attend to the “way of beauty” (via pulchritudinis). Proclaiming Christ means showing that to believe in and to follow him is not only something right and true, but also something beautiful, capable of filling life with new splendour and profound joy, even in the midst of difficulties. Every expression of true beauty can thus be acknowledged as a path leading to an encounter with the Lord Jesus.(167)
Are we acquainted with the best art, music and poetry of our cultures — both traditional and contemporary — or do we simply download a “pretty picture” when we are preparing our sixty-third powerpoint of the year? Are we content to let art “speak” without succumbing to the need to “explain” it?
Can we be humble enough to admit that sometimes the artistic talent of another might communicate the heart of the Gospel in a manner more profound than any phrases we could could construct?
A sense of balance. We often suffer from our own narrowing of the Gospel message. “First, it needs to be said that in preaching the Gospel (evangelization) a fitting sense of proportion has to be maintained.(38)” This is also a type of examination of conscience. To often we preach on some issues to the neglect of others. Can we open ourselves to the necessary sense of balance to which Francis is pointing? Do we know our people well enough to preach/speak to the needs of their hearts with the whole Gospel?
Evangelii Gaudium is such a rich and accessible document. It should be the subject of a reflective reading — alone and in groups — in the entire Vincentian world. I hope this small reflection has whetted your appetite.