By: Deacon Steve Olmstead
This is my third article on Pope Francis’ book, The Joy of the Gospel. I want to continue to encourage all the priests and lay faithful to read the book in preparation for the Southeast Alaska Catholic Conference, “Living and Sharing the Joy of the Gospel,” this September 28-30th.
My favorite chapter in the Joy of the Gospel, is chapter three, “The Proclamation of the Gospel.” Please note: This chapter is for all of God’s people. Whether we realize it or not, we are all preachers. We are all living and writing the homily of our lives. Our lives may be the only homily some people ever see or listen to. The Pope’s suggestions and guidelines for writing a homily are for clergy and lay people alike. While lay people do not preach the homily during Mass, the laity are writing and living the homily of their lives. Priests and the laity have much to learn from this vital chapter. St. Francis is noted for saying, “Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” Each of us, as Missionary Disciples, are called to be intentional about writing the homily of our lives. Within this powerful chapter on preaching, I want to highlight three overarching themes: The centrality of Jesus and His Word, living between two embraces, and ongoing dialogue.
The Centrality of Jesus and His Word: St. Paul, who wrote most of the letters in the New Testament, focused on “Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (I Cor. 2:2). Paul also wrote, “I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection” (Philippians 3:10). The homily of our lives must be centered on Jesus and His Word. Among the many competing voices of our culture, we are called to remain steadfast in proclaiming Jesus Christ. Pope Francis writes, “On the lips of the Catechist (Missionary Disciples, you and me) the first proclamation must ring out over and over: ‘Jesus 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. This first proclamation is the principal proclamation, the one which we must hear again and again in different ways, the one which we must announce one way or another throughout the process of catechesis, at every level and moment.” This first proclamation must penetrate the depths of our hearts. May we have the grace and humility to let the truth of the resurrected Jesus and His Word marinate in our minds, hearts and souls. Hear these words again, “Jesus 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.” You are His beloved!
As we write the homily of our lives, I believe Pope Francis’ words are as relevant to the laity as they are to any priest or deacon preparing to preach. “Whoever wants to preach must be the first to let the word of God move him deeply and become incarnate in his daily life. In this way preaching will consist in that activity, so intense and fruitful, which is communicating to others what one has contemplated… Before preparing what we will actually say when preaching, we need to let ourselves be penetrated by that word.” I invite all of us to a renewed desire to read God’s Word in Scripture so as to let the homily of our lives be molded and shaped by our Risen Lord and His Word. (Daily Scripture readings can be found at http://www.usccb.org. Or just pick up your Bible and start reading the New Testament. God’s Word is alive and active!)
Living in the midst of two embraces: One of the most beautiful images Pope Francis offers in the Joy of the Gospel is the image that we live between two embraces. The embrace of our baptism and the embrace of the merciful Father who waits for us in glory. “Helping our people to feel that they live in the midst of these two embraces is the difficult but beautiful task of one who preaches the Gospel.” In baptism, God not only cleanses us from our sins, but adopts us as His beloved daughters and sons. “See what love God has for us that we should be called children of God and that is what we are” (I John 3:1). In the embrace of our baptism, God signs the adoption papers. We are His! Nevertheless, we are prone to wander and like lost sheep, nibble our way out of the pasture. This is where the second embrace is so vital for us! Like the father in Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son, God runs to embrace us and forgive us of our sins when we acknowledge our need. In the sacrament of reconciliation, we experience this second embrace of God as the Church, through the priest, wraps us in God’s loving, understanding and forgiving arms. Moreover, God’s Word promises that when Jesus comes back, God will reveal His love as a tender parent who will “wipe away every tear from our eyes” (Revelation 21:4). Pope Francis’ image of living in the midst of these two embraces is a treasure. I pray as you continue to write the homily of your lives, you will find the truth that you are held by God in an eternal and holy embrace.
Ongoing Dialogue: Within these two embraces we are called to live our lives in an ongoing, heart to heart dialogue with God. When we honestly communicate with God all the struggles and joys of our lives, and understand that it pleases God when we do so, our lives become a homily which can more readily invite others into their own conversations with God. Pope Francis says of the homily, (and I propose it is the same with the homily of our lives) “The preacher has the wonderful but difficult task of joining loving hearts, the hearts of the Lord and his people…in the homily people want someone to serve as an instrument and to express their feelings in such a way that afterward, each one may choose how he or she will continue the conversation.” While this is essential for the Sunday homily, it is also vital regarding the homily of our lives. Pope Francis invites each of us to participate in what he calls “informal preaching”. Informal preaching occurs when we are willing to listen to another. When we stop long enough to give our attention to another, we are already meeting a necessity in each human heart – to be heard. “In this preaching, which is always respectful and gentle, the first step is personal dialogue, when the other person speaks and shares his or her joys, hopes and concerns for loved ones, or so many other heartfelt needs.”
Only afterwards is it possible, with a humble heart, to share about God’s understanding and love. Only afterwards is it possible with God’s grace and courage, to end the encounter with a brief prayer in which you offer to God the concerns the person has just shared with you. Pope Francis compellingly states, “In this way they will have an experience of being listened to and understood; they will know that their particular situation has been placed before God.” This may seem overwhelming to pray out loud for another person, but I believe if you do this with a gentle and humble heart, you will touch the hearts of others and you will be blessed. Through sharing, listening and praying, you will be a missionary disciple, helping others to know that an ongoing dialogue with God is possible.
Moreover, the homily of your life will encourage others to decide “how he or she will continue the conversation.”