In a time of doubts and uncertainties, (young) white, middle class people are leaving the Church in record numbers (cf., the Pew Survey). We know that people were always sinning. But now something different is happening.
What are we offering them from the pulpit to strengthen their faith? Nourishment and messages of hope? Or communications from church law or tribunals? The Psalmist captured well what so many people desire: “Earnestly I seek you, I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you” (63:1).
A preachy style is one thing. To open one’s heart and communicate lived experiences with Jesus is another. Are we speaking about someone whom we were told about, or do we talk about a beloved friend who is very meaningful in our lives? St. Paul wrote, “I decided to concentrate only on Jesus Christ and His death on the Cross” (cf., 1 Cor 2:2).
There have been times when I sat in a pew assisting at a Mass while on vacation which left me troubled and concerned. Was what I just experienced a life-inspiring moment that would fuel me to face another week of temptations and worries? Had I been invigorated to face challenges or doubts? I did not need someone to repeat what I had just heard, making the moment about as exciting as listening to a stock market report. What is the good of retelling the details of what Jesus did, if there is no personal involvement or relationship to our struggles here and now?
We know that it is necessary to talk about money and finances occasionally. There are communications from the bishop about diocesan policies which have to be made. But what encouraging message, in general, do I leave with my people? Where is the beef?
Even the best athletes have off days. Singers go off-key. We preachers cannot always be inspired with some fabulous insight or a new twist on an old truth. But if we open our hearts and speak from the depths of our being about those meaningful moments with Jesus in our lives, we will touch and move our listeners.
Avery Dulles became well known through his book The Models of the Church. Others have imitated this approach applied to Jesus. Let me offer my version:
1. There exists a model of Jesus as servant, who washed the feet of his disciples (cf., Jn 13). Do I ever reveal those moments when I was confronted with a chore or task which I found distasteful or unrewarding? No job is beneath a follower of Jesus. Having the courage to be incarnational, using examples from my daily life, taps into emotions and feelings which intellectual truths never can reach.
Talk about the times you had to do something which did not thrill you, which you found boring or tedious, yet did because you were in love with Jesus and that is what He would have done and was calling you to do. When a preacher communicates his personal experiences and his involvement in tough jobs, people can relate to and identify with things that Jesus did.
We preachers have to make a connection between what Jesus said and the world of our listeners, so that Jesus comes alive today. How often do I remind tired mothers or weary fathers that their sacrifices and dedication are examples of, a continuation of the Pascal Mystery?
2. Jesus as the Good Shepherd is the one who watches over his flock. He leads the flock to the green pastures and running waters of life. Do I present Jesus only as a judge who condemns every small fault? Or do I depict Him as a loving guide who leads us through the murky seas of life with all its tempting lures?
A reference to times in my life when I was lost or confused and Jesus came to my rescue is essential. The sheep need to be reminded once in a while that the shepherd is there and watching over them, that they are not alone and lost in a wilderness.
3. Jesus is also a prophet who teaches me how to be happy. “I am the Way and the Truth,” He says. Do I offer only laws and rules, or do I relate my experience of a personal, warm encounter with a person who loves me and teaches me to recognize the dangers to my true happiness?
My favorite example is that as a young boy, a friend once yelled at me those words from Matthew, “What good is it to gain the whole world but lose one’s immortal soul?” (cf., Mk 8:36). Have you ever spoken about times that you lived this truth: Do not worry about your life, what you will wear, etc., and how the Lord provided sufficient means to live decently (cf., Mt 6:25ss). Do I trust in what is printed on my money, “In God We Trust,” or only in the amount of money I have?
So many people live in fear of dropping down into poverty and losing things they think are necessary for happiness. Reveal times you have renounced and refused to be attached to objects if they were an obstacle in loving and following Jesus. And tell also about the new-found freedom you experienced.
4. Jesus as Eucharist should be an easy one for those of us who celebrate almost every day of the year. Has the Sacrament, however, become a mere rite to be performed, something we rush through before beginning the real work of the day? Or is it my main source of strength and energy where I find and experience the living Lord loving me? Do I experience the Eucharist as the food which nourishes me at times of struggles and doubts?
How I hate to hear people complain that their priest seems to hurry absentmindedly through the liturgy; that he does not seem to be communicating a love affair which he allows others to witness. Do we present Jesus as food that nourishes me? Or as the One who teaches me to give of myself and provide friendship and affection for the lonely and sad?
To the youth of Holland, Pope Benedict said, “It is important that you make participation in the Eucharist, in which Jesus gives himself for us, the heart of your life.” We celebrants are the key players in this divine-human interaction. I like to start off my Masses, between the Introduction and the Penitential rite, with a few words about what we are going to celebrate during this liturgy. Some small insight into the riches of the Eucharist and what it can do in our lives.”
Carry Your Cross
5. Jesus as Savior and Redeemer reminds us that the Cross is central to our Christian faith, essential to our following Him. Anyone over 21 years of age has already suffered some sort of problem, whether it is rejection, a health issue, lack of love, loneliness, fears of the future, etc. What Jesus went through to save us is a love story for all the ages. Who can compete with His efforts?
Have I ever told anyone how important and vital Jesus has been in my life when I was facing difficulties? While carrying my crosses? For persons struggling with doubts, anxieties, or worry about the future, to hear their spiritual leader disclose that he has found courage and strength in the Cross of Christ and that they should keep going and not toss in the towel, is a powerful reassurance.
6. Jesus as Healer is the Great Physician, who not only cured biological and physical ills, but also those inner demons which held people in a type of slavery. If we mention how we have battled our own demons, people will see that they too can overcome those inner impulses which hold them back from full growth and development.
In other words, if we present ourselves as super-humans, with no apparent temptations, problems and difficulties, our parishioners cannot relate to or identify with us as meaningful communicators and guides through life’s challenges and struggles. They have to see “wounded healers” who have battled demons and not always won totally. Didn’t St. Paul regret that “thorn in the flesh” (cf., 2 Cor 12:7) that he still carried at the end of his career?
7. Jesus prayed a lot. Instead of reminding people that they need to pray, do I pray with them? Offer courses or sessions on prayer? Have my people ever seen me praying from my heart, not merely repeating someone else’s words? Do I really live “Thy Will be done,” or do I complain constantly about things? Have I never not had “Gethsemane” ways of thinking, when I was overwhelmed and felt powerless?
I like to work into my sermons short prayers or mantras, having the people repeat aloud phrases like, “Come, Holy Spirit” or “Long Live Christ the King” or “My Lord and my God” or “Thy Will be Done.” The list is as long as your creativity. Do not let your parishioners sit there like frogs on a lily pad. Get people involved and active!
I personally look forward to preaching. I have to admit that my current schedule allows me the time to prepare, plus I have the advantage of a lifetime of experiences and studying that gives me an ample amount of material to work with. But even if you are newly ordained, had weak seminary courses, and are extremely busy with little time to sit and organize your thoughts, you can still be a professional communicator of your own experiences with Jesus. The People of God will love it and rejoice.
Father Kirchner, C.SS.R., ordained a Redemptorist priest in 1966, spent 39 years in the Amazon, was a pastor many times and worked in formation. He teaches courses in parishes and resides in Liguori, Mo.