Solving the Pope Francis Riddle

For many people, both Catholic and not, Pope Francis remains an enigma.  This is partially fueled by the fact that he often speaks vaguely on Church teachings.  What he has not been vague about however is his call for the Church to re-establish itself as an evangelizing force.  Evidence his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, where he calls upon the faithful to rediscover “the fundamental role of the first announcement or kerygma, which needs to be the center of all evangelizing activity and all efforts at Church renewal” (EG, 164).  If the kerygma serves a fundamental role in both evangelization and Church renewal then it is important that we examine what this important term means.

What does it mean to evangelize?  Most people would respond with “to preach the Good News.”  That is certainly true, but what exactly is this Good News?  You are most likely to get one of two responses; either something really simple like “God loves you” or “Jesus died for our sins” or a launching into apologetics and catechesis.  Both responses are true and important, but neither fully capture what it means to evangelize.  “God loves me” or “Jesus died for my sins” are both good, but don’t capture the “news” part of the Gospel.  Apologetics and Catechesis involve teaching but this assumes a fuller understanding of the News.  This is where the idea of the kerygma comes in.

The word kerygma comes from the Greek word keryssein which means “to proclaim.” It is used in a number of places in the New Testament but most often in the letters of St. Paul when he says things like. “I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling, and my message and my proclamation were not with persuasive (words of) wisdom, but with a demonstration of spirit and power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God” (1 Cor 2:4-5). Simply knowing what it means is not enough—we must examine its content.

I said above that “God loves me” or “Jesus died for my sins” was insufficient for capturing the “News” part of the Gospel.  This merits an explanation, especially in a culture that is inundated with 24-hour news channels.  Real news is an announcement that something significant has happened that will leave reality as we know it forever changed.  Think about the news events surrounding 9/11.  Once everyone heard the news, they knew life afterward would be forever changed.  It may take time for that new world to be fully realized, but the fact that the event has happened has already set the wheels in motion on a trajectory that hitherto was completely different.  As evidenced by the historical impact of the life of Jesus Christ, the Gospel too qualifies as a life-altering news event (the fact that I am writing this in 2015 AD or  2015 CE doesn’t change the fact the world views the birth of Christ as somehow setting us out on a new reality).

We need to remember this aspect of it because a news event is discussed in a different way than a question of religion.  Either it happened or it didn’t; and if it did, then it has a very specific meaning attached to it.  It is this meaning and its background that makes us the content of the kerygma.

There are at least eight places in the Book of Acts where we find a kerygmatic expression (see Acts 2:14-36, 3:12-26, 4:8-12, 5:29-32,10:34-43, 13:16-41,14:15-17, 17:22-31).  Reading these, we assume either it is an exaggeration or something has been left out because of the amount of fruit that they bear.  But this is precisely the point.  The message itself contains power.  The name of Jesus Christ contains a power all its own and so when we preach it things happen.

Jesus as the vine

We all have experienced this power even if we are not preaching the Gospel per se.  Mention any other leader of religion in history during a casual conversation and people will continue to comfortably converse.  Bring Jesus into the conversation and suddenly a certain amount of discomfort emerges and the whole exchange is in jeopardy.  Christ gave a command to preach the Gospel and therefore we should expect that with it comes a hidden power.  He never commands something and then leaves us alone to follow it.

What is common to each of these speeches serves as an outline to the content of the kerygma.  Here are the seven essential elements:

  1. God, Who is perfectly happy from all eternity, created man with freedom for no benefit of His own but only as someone to share His love with.
  2. Love requires sacrifice and testing
  3. Mankind failed the test and became enslaved to sin and death
  4. God did not abandon man but promised a Liberator
  5. This Liberator was God Himself in the man Jesus Christ (historical event). He appeared and ransomed mankind from sin and death by overcoming them with power in His Resurrection (what makes the event newsworthy).
  6. Because this Jesus cannot die, it is possible to meet Him today. I have met Him and here is why I have never been the same (i.e. witness of your own personal encounter with Jesus).
  7. Invitation to be a part of this new reality by rejecting all imitations of freedom (repentance) and accepting Christ’s invitation to live in true freedom by following Him (to follow Him means to abide with Him through Faith and personal encounter in the Sacraments He has given His Church).

Certainly we may not preach all of this at once. It may come in time and repeated meetings with someone. But the person must have heard all seven points to have fully received the Good News. As an aside, number 6 is vitally important because all kerygmatic preaching is based upon being a credible witness. This means you must have “eye-witness” knowledge of the person you are preaching like the Apostles did in each of their speeches. If you are not living in the new reality of the Good News, then how can you invite another to be a part of this new world?

In a verse we are all familiar with, St. Peter commands the Church “[A]lways be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence” (1Pt 3:15). What this means is not so much that you need to be so well-formed that you can defend the Church against every argument. Instead what it means is that when called upon to give an explanation we should be prepared to say “My hope is from Christ and let me tell you about it.” Whenever I am complimented for being patient in public when my son with Autism has a hard time, my response is always the same: “see the difference Jesus makes?” I may launch into a larger discussion and give them the whole Gospel or I might simply leave it at that. The point is that I must be prepared to give them the entire kerygma which means I have thought it out and rehearsed it. This doesn’t have to be filled with deep theological explanation (in fact the simpler the better), but it should capture most of the seven points depending on where the person is in relation to knowing Jesus. What it should be filled with however is love for Jesus and for the person you are meeting. Think of it as the introduction of two mutual friends that you have been wanting to meet each other.

Now we begin to see that there is a method to Pope Francis’ apparent madness. He does not merely wish to catechize the world but instead to first introduce them to the person of Christ. This includes many within the Church—especially since he mentions the kerygma as the “center of Church renewal.” As I have said so many times in the past, once you have met the person of Christ and become His disciple, catechesis naturally follows. The desire to listen to the Teacher who has “the words of everlasting life” naturally flows from this most important encounter.  The role of the Church is to introduce the world to the person of Christ, invite them to follow Him and nourish their relationship through the Sacraments and ongoing catechesis. She then sends these newly formed disciples out into the world to continue the process. The Christian life involves two commands—“come follow me” and “go make disciples of all nations.” The “going” must always follow the “coming” or else the Church simply becomes another NGO filled with activists. All of the Church’s action must proclaim Christ, both in word and deed, which does not happen unless each member is personally connected to the true vine.

Now on your own, put flesh around the kerygmatic outline I gave above. What would you say specifically? Do you think I left anything out? Share below…

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