The Future of Catholic Media: An Interview with Fr. Rosica

Fr. Rosica

The Future of Catholic Media: An Interview with Father Thomas Rosica, CSB
By Sean Salai, S.J.   America,  July 28, 2014

Father Thomas Rosica, C.S.B., is a Canada-based Basilian priest and journalist. He is Chief Executive Officer of Salt and Light Television Network, consulter on the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Social Communications, English-language assistant to the Holy See Press Office, a member of the Social Communications Commission of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, and president of Assumption University in Windsor, Ontario. He is also served as a newspaper columnist for the Toronto Sun and frequently contributes to newspapers across Canada. Father Rosica holds an undergraduate degree in French and Italian from St. John Fisher College in Rochester, and graduate degrees in theology and Sacred Scripture from Regis College at the University of Toronto, the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome and the Ecole Biblique et Archéologique Française de Jérusalem.

On July 24, I interviewed Father Rosica about his work in America’s editorial offices. The following transcript has been edited for content and length.

You’re currently the CEO of Canada’s national Catholic television network, the president of a Catholic university, and an English-language spokesman for the Vatican. Where do you spend most of your time nowadays?

Sometimes on a highway or on a plane, but my home base is Toronto, so a lot of the work I do is from there. For the past three years, I’ve had to serve as president of Assumption University in Windsor, Ontario, which is an institution of my religious congregation, the Basilian Fathers. The university was in some difficulty, so my role was to help reorient its mission, establish policies for governance, fortify the Catholic chaplaincy and put the university back on track—which is what I’ve done. But that was a good opportunity for Salt and Light because we used the university as a venue for a number of things. We brought back to life the Christian Culture Series at Assumption University, which was one of the big contributions of that university to the Canadian church. In restoring this historic series, we televised all of the lectures this year and suddenly there’s a buzz about the lectures and about the mission of this Catholic university that exists within the University of Windsor. We’ll continue that in the coming year as well. My role at the university is adapting to the situations now present at Assumption University and my primary responsibilities are Salt and Light Television and serving as Father Federico Lombardi’s assistant at the Holy See Press Office.

How are things going at Salt and Light right now?

We’re in our 12th year. It’s been a tremendous project, a project of great surprise. I don’t think anyone, including myself, imagined it would develop into what it is. It’s not only a television network, but a Catholic media foundation. We operate on seven platforms. The selling point, the best thing about Salt and Light is that it’s ledby a group of young adults. It was the first fruit of the World Youth Day in Canada in 2002, which I was privileged to be the CEO and National Director of that blessed event and project. I had no idea I would be asked to start Salt and Light immediately after the adventure of World Youth Day 2002. Really, I have no television background; I’m a university lecturer in Scripture! So all I can say is that God has a great sense of humor. But the beauty of Salt and Light has been the young Catholics from all across Canada and from several countries around the world who have formed our team. We broadcast in English, French, Italian, Mandarin and Cantonese. We probably reach 3 million homes in Canada because it’s digital paid television, but even more interesting is the digital audience because we offer live streaming through our website. We know that people from at least 80 countries are also downloading our programs online. For the big papal events, it was over 100 countries. What’s even more important for the new evangelization is that our Chinese programming is being used in China and in Hong Kong.

What does the future look like at Assumption University?

Assumption is on the right track now. It’s the original college of the University of Windsor, one of the major state universities in Canada. Assumption University goes back to the 1850s. In 1962, it developed into the University of Windsor, but maintained its Catholic identity and charter at the core of the university. We can offer theology courses, all kinds of education programs for Catholic teachers and an outstanding chaplaincy. Like many Catholic institutions of higher learning, it struggled to find its moorings for several years. We’ve reoriented it and brought it back to the service of the church and the important Basilian charism of education in the service of the Church’s mission of evangelization.

You joined the Holy See Press Office during the papal transition last year and continue to serve as an English-language assistant there. What’s your current role at the Vatican?

Well, it’s a very interesting thing that happened. I’d been working with the Vatican through the whole World Youth Day adventure since 2000. So it wasn’t an unknown territory to me. In 2008, I was appointed the English language media attaché for the Synod of Bishops on the Word of God. I was present for the whole synod, inside the synod, and dealt with the press through that whole month of October. Shortly after that, Pope Benedict appointed me as a consulter to the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. Then in 2012, I was asked to service as the English-language attaché for the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization. I was there in an official capacity, but the Vatican allowed Salt and Light to be inside the synod, and we documented the whole event in ways that had never been done before. Two of our young producers, Sebastian and Charles were inside the synod and did interviews every day, producing 22 television programs in English and French. At the end of it, they produced a major documentary called “Inside the Synod.”

After the 2012 Synod, I thought that that was it until the morning of February 11, 2013, when Pope Benedict resigned. The following day, the Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi called me and said “come to Rome immediately.” Within 24 hours, I was the English-language person for the papal transition. I had to deal with the English-language press for six weeks in the Holy See Press Office. We had around 6,400 journalists, many of who were English-speaking. It was an incredible experience. Just before I left Rome after the conclave and before for Easter 2013, Father Lombardi said to me: “You’ve developed a relationship with English-language media that we’ve never had before. I want you to continue that in a somewhat official capacity. You will be the English-language assistant to the Holy See Press Office.” He also formally established a Spanish-language assistant, a young priest from Chicago who is serving in that capacity now. I asked “what does that mean?” He said “just continue that relationship.” So what started off as a daily bulletin for several hundred people during the papal transition is now a bulletin with Vatican information and often commentaries on it that I send to about 750 English-language media people every morning. Specifically, it tells them how to understand this information from an English-language perspective, and it’s become an daily teaching and communications instrument. I’ll be the English-language “spokesman” at the Synod on the Family this coming October, working closely with a great Jesuit and mentor to me, Father Lombardi.

Has the Vatican’s communications strategy changed or evolved since Francis was elected pope?

Yes. Francis is the best thing going for the Catholic Church now in the area of communications. He’s the clearest example of the New Evangelization. If you want to know what the New Evangelization is, it’s not a book, a text or a synod. It’s Francis. What he’s done is forced all of us to rethink the ways we communicate. From a practical point of view, structurally, changes are underway at the Vatican in terms of how the Holy See deals with the world and how the world deals with the church. So this recent commission they just set up—led by British Lord Chris Patten and team of outside media professionals—is now evaluating the many communications entities in the Vatican, to streamline internal communications and to find better and more effective ways to tell the story of the church to the world around us, not only in reactive but pro-active ways.

What are some positive things going on Catholic media these days?

One of the best things happening in our part of the world here is what’s happened through America Magazine. This is not a paid service announcement! Since Father Malone has been in charge, he’s raised the profile, the significance and the role of America Magazine—and shown other Catholic publications the importance of partnerships, having a clear vision and being bold and courageous in reaching out. We have nothing to lose in sharing the best of what the Catholic Church has to offer.

Having Pope Francis as the leader has helped all those involved in Catholic communications not to be hiding behind walls, trees or stones for fear of the madding crowds, but to reach out and build bridges—not to be afraid to deal with the so-called “media.” A lot of people had gotten into a very dangerous rut where they were stuck in their stories, and it became death-dealing for a lot of Catholic agencies and groups. They were stuck in the same old narratives. In the bigger picture, I think Francis is the hand of divine providence and the Holy Spirit stepping in and saying “enough is enough.” Now is the time to work together, stand up, be proud of being Catholic, interface with the world, communicate and be in dialogue. I recently did a little study of Pope Francis’ homilies and texts to find all of the places where Francis talks about the devil, and one of the interesting things he says is that diabolical works are about monologue. The works of the Spirit are about dialogue. Monologue is all about people speaking to themselves about themselves and speaking about others, not speaking with others. Works of the Spirit are those based on solid dialogue.

What you’re saying recalls the aggiornamento of the Second Vatican Council in throwing open the windows of the church to the outside world. Would you say that Catholic media is finally catching up with the rest of the church on this one?

It is. It took 50 years and, in church history, 50 years is not a big period of time. For us, we’re impatient. But it took 50 years and I really believe, with the coming of Pope Francis, that this is that third epoch that Karl Rahner talked about in “The Three Great Epochs of the Church.” In our recent Salt and Light documentary on Pope Francis, we start off the whole story with Rahner’s now-epic essay in which he speaks about the three great epochs of Church history.

What are some challenges for Catholic media today?

The first challenge, a very practical challenge, is to not just talk a good line about getting laypeople involved in Church communications and not put our money where are mouth is. If we want to get laypeople involved, we have to make priorities for budgets and funding. We can’t spend all of our time eliminating or putting Catholic media efforts in second and third place. We have to speak about preparing professional people to be involved in these roles.

Second, the old guard has to have the humility to step back and let the new generation come in.

The third challenge is the risk of doing cute things with social media as if social media is going to be the true method of communication. We don’t tweet to do cute things; we tweet to send people back to links with solid content. One of the problems of social media is there’s not a lot of content. So the church has to be careful about not being caught up in that maelstrom or wave of saying we have 10,000 twitter followers, 2 million intimate friends on Facebook or similar rather meaningless statements. Well, it may sound good, but what’s underneath all of that? I think the church runs the risk of being caught up in that numbers game. How do we prepare solid, comprehensible, creative content that leaves our readers and viewers desiring something more?

What are your hopes for the future of Catholic media?

We have to operate on many platforms. We can’t dismiss print media. It’s still valid, people still want something in their hands to read, but it’s just one way. We have to tell our stories and shout the news from the rooftops. That means you have to do it from every medium that’s possible and available. Therefore, it requires people to be proficient in all of those areas. Even older media and communications people who were not aware of the new platforms must become proficient in those areas.

Any final thoughts?

I view the work we’re doing at Salt and Light as education in the church’s mission of evangelization. I never consider communications to be some secondary or tertiary thing. It’s teaching; it’s another way to teach. Some people have said to me, “it’s too bad that you not teaching anymore since you taught scripture so well for 18 years in the faculty of theology at Toronto and in seminary in London, Ontario.” But I constantly tell them: “I am still teaching now. I just can’t see the size of the classroom!” Little did I ever dream of doing this as I sat at the feet of my Jesuit and Dominican masters in Toronto, Rome and Jerusalem!

Sean Salai, S.J., is a summer editorial intern at America.

- Photo Credit: Basilian Father Thomas Rosica, CEO of Canada’s Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation, participates in a press briefing in English at the Vatican March 8, 2013. Father Rosica has been assisting Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, left, Vatican spokesman, with the daily press briefings. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Proclaiming the Word: Part Four

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Proclaiming the Word: Part Four

Last time we looked at why a homily must be scriptural, pastoral, catechetical and liturgical and that there should be one key message (focus) and one suggestion as to how we can respond to that message (function). These are great suggestions for organizing your text. However, no matter what, the preacher must ultimately stand in front of a group of people and communicate. This is where I see most homiletics courses failing (and I’m sad to say was missing in the preaching conference at St. Augustine’s).

Being a great writer of homilies and a great reader of texts, does not make one a great preacher. The first talk at the conference was by Fr. James Sullivan, OP. I will never forget when he said that, “to read someone else’s text is not preaching.” He added, “don’t read at all, even if it’s your own text.” I will deal with this during our last installment of this series.

Before we get to that, after we’ve zeroed in on a focus and function and have an idea of how to make it scriptural, catechetical, pastoral and liturgical, we still need to be able to communicate this message in a way that people will listen and can relate.

Fr. Guerric DeBona, OSB uses another homiletic model that he has taken from best-selling business and executive education writers, Chip and Dan Heath that is labelled, “SUCCESs.” This model is one that makes sense to me and so I’d like to explore how I can prepare a homily to make sure that all  (or most ) of the SUCCESs elements are present.

S – Simple: I have addressed this above. Focus on one point. This is the purpose of having a key statement or a focus. I must add that it does not need to be complicated. Sometimes the fact that it is just one idea does not guarantee that the message will be simple. I am a great fan of children’s homilies. I think most people are. The children understand. The teens understand. The parents understand. By force, these homilies have to be simple. It’s not a bad idea to keep this in mind.

U – Unexpected: This is a classic communications strategy. It is important to keep in mind that it is not done for the purposes of being gimmicky. It can only be done if it makes sense with the focus and function. I think the best example of using something that is unexpected is when a preacher does not have an answer, or begins a homily with, “I don’t understand…” or “I hate this about Christianity…” (I can see how I can “hate” having to love everyone, or the fact that being a Christian means that we will be criticised or persecuted, or that we have to carry our cross.) This can be an effective tool, because many people sitting in the pews will identify with our struggles.

C – Concrete: Again, having a clear focus will help with this. To me, being concrete means that the images and examples that I use have to be tangible. It is not very easy for people who are listening to grasp nebulous, abstract ideas or concepts. We have to give them concrete examples, things that they can relate to. For an idea or image to be concrete it has to be specific. It’s not enough to say, “In some countries they deal with some challenges when it comes to education.” That is too general. Tell them which countries and what the challenges are: “In Panama, most kids quit school before they get to highschool…” for example. Furthermore, it is my experience working in drama and as an actor, that when we have a concrete image of what we are talking about (as when speaking about something personal), it gets communicated best. It is as if the image that we have in our mind, is formed in the minds of the listeners. A good question to ask is, “how does this look, smell, feel, taste or sound.”

C – Credible: To me credibility has to do with the authenticity of the preacher and with the language he uses. If I am using words that no one can understand or language that is condescending or authoritative, I will not be credible. If I am not able to bring myself into my preaching (not that I have to talk about myself), then it will be hard for the listeners to believe me, to relate to me. In many ways, communication is about relationship and as such, a homily is not a monologue but a dialogue. People in the congregation may not verbally respond, but they are listening, reacting; images are forming in their minds. A good preacher is looking at them, his non-verbal language nuancing how his message is being received (this is why I don’t believe that reading a text, no matter how brilliant the text is, is good enough). The CATH White Paper suggests as one of the Preaching Competencies that a homily must be personal. I believe that this is what it means. It has to be authentic and loving.

E – Emotions: This is why movies, TV, music, video games, pictures and advertising are so effective: They are not intellectual; they are emotional. A good movie or song may have an intellectual message, but what makes it connect with people, what makes it move people, is that it speaks to the heart. Advertising works because people are not supposed to think about the ad. If people think about the ad, it no longer works. A good documentary or even newspaper story is most effective when it incorporates something emotional. The easiest way to use emotion is to be specific and to tell stories.

S- Stories: People love stories. Jesus himself used stories to explain ideas that cannot be explained. Some of the most memorable homilies for me have been stories (another reason why children’s homilies are effective).

The CATH White Paper lists that one of the Preaching Competencies, is “Clarifying.” While I have already covered elements of this category (doctrinal, pastoral, simple), I’d like to expand a bit, since this is an important goal of a homily: A homily needs to make a point that is worth making. It is not just giving good advice or a good bible study. A good homily helps the Word come alive in people’s lives and does so responsibly, pastorally and theologically. This is good news. It should be life-changing. People should leave the Church moved to action, like the wise men who “went another way” after they met the Christ, or the disciples of Emmaus whose hearts were burning within them.

Using the above model, in preparing for a homily, I will always ask myself, is it simple, is it unexpected, is it concrete, is it credible,  is it emotional and did I use stories. Lastly, I will ask myself, is this a message that I would like to hear and that is news to me. I have amassed quite a list of questions to help me prepare, but I think that it is a good way to stay focused on the purpose of a homily.

Come back next time and I’ll give you some tips that I learned in Theatre school about communicating a message and bringing a written text to life.

Feast of Sts. Joachim and Anne, Parents of Mary

By tradition Joachim and Anne are considered to be the names of the parents of Mary, the Mother of God. We have no historical evidence, however, of any elements of their lives, including their names. Any stories about Mary’s father and mother come to us through legend and tradition. We get the oldest story from a document called the Gospel of James, though in no way should this document be trusted to be factual, historical, or the Word of God. The legend told in this document says that after years of childlessness, an angel appeared to tell Anne and Joachim that they would have a child. Anne promised to dedicate this child to God (much the way that Samuel was dedicated by his mother Hannah — Anne — in I Kings).

For those who wonder what we can learn from people we know nothing about and how we can honor them, we must focus on why they are honored by the church. Whatever their names or the facts of their lives, the truth is that it was the parents of Mary who nurtured Mary, taught her, brought her up to be a worthy Mother of God. It was their teaching that led her to respond to God’s request with faith, “Let it be done to me as you will.” It was their example of parenting that Mary must have followed as she brought up her own son, Jesus. It was their faith that laid the foundation of courage and strength that allowed her to stand by the cross as her son was crucified and still believe. Such parents can be examples and models for all parents. [Read more...]

#WeAreN and the Importance of Christian Solidarity

 WeIt’s always interesting to see what’s “going viral.”  Oftentimes it’s a hit pop song or music video, or some other video giving a quick dose of ridiculous comic relief.  But sometimes the world of social media provides a sudden and real opportunity for all people of good will to unite behind a cause for justice on behalf of an individual or a particular group.  In the case of the hashtag “#WeAreN,” that recently spread rapidly through the Twittersphere, it is a cause for solidarity.

The trending hashtag is a response to the official announcement that the radical Islamist group known as ISIS (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) has successfully ridded the city of Mosul, located in northern Iraq in the biblical region of Nineveh, of its Christian population.  The 2,000 year old faith community had little choice than to leave when the radicals threatened to kill them if they refused to convert, pay a tax or leave the city without their belongings.

The letter “N” in the hashtag stands for “Nazarene,” i.e. a Christian, which the Islamists have been branding on the houses of Christians in Arabic for identification purposes.  The derogatory tone in using such symbolic lettering blatantly resembles the Nazi tactic of identifying German Jews prior to and during WWII. Speaking to Pope Francis via telephone last Sunday, the Patriarch of the Syriac Catholic Church Ignatius Youssef III Younan called the ISIS efforts a “massive religious cleansing campaign.”

In response, a global outcry has arisen on behalf of Mosul’s Christians including some Muslim communities.  Pictures are being shared over the internet, for example, of Christians and Muslims standing side-by-side in Baghdad protesting the extremism in the north.

Along with countless others, the Church of England changed its Twitter profile photo to the Arabic symbol for “N” in order to “stand with those showing solidarity for those Christians being persecuted in Mosul.” (@c_of_e)

Pope Francis has been no less outspoken, and his frequent references to an emerging “ecumenism of blood” over the past year seems to have found concrete expression as a result of the crisis in Mosel.

To see such widespread support for the suffering Christians is an incredible and inspiring thing and it reminds us of the amazing possibility of unity and reconciliation that is born of chaos.  But it is also an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of solidarity, how it shines forth from the heart of the Gospel, and why therefore it is one of the fundamental principles of the Church’s social teachings.

We have to say firstly that most people and most Catholics today are uninformed about what the Church means by solidarity.  It should also be said that the participation of so many well-intentioned and genuinely outraged individuals in the #WeAreN movement is not necessarily the full expression of what the Church means by solidarity.

As the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church states quite clearly, “Solidarity is… not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good.” (CSDCC, 193)

In other words, solidarity is not a fleeting emotion or a popular reaction to a particular event.  For the Church there’s no such thing as a kind of ‘solidarity à la carte,’ as Pope Francis might call it (Evangelii Gaudium, 180).  Solidarity means being in it for the long-run; it is recognizing in the great pain and suffering of other human beings the unacceptable lack of justice, inclusiveness and unity that are essential for every human society and our collective progress.  Solidarity is “a commitment to the good of one’s neighbor with the readiness, in the Gospel sense, to ‘lose oneself’ for the sake of the other instead of exploiting him, and to ‘serve him’ instead of oppress him for one’s own advantage.” (CSDCC, 193)

In a recent CNS article, Chaldean Archbishop Amel Shamon Nona of Mosul said that “Words do nothing,” and that his community expects “all Christians to show solidarity with concrete action” and “without being afraid to talk about this tragedy.”

In the same article, Chaldean Auxiliary Bishop Shlemon Warduni of Baghdad said, “We need action first. The world is not bothering with what is happening to Christians in Mosul.”

Through a few creative minds and the power of social media, millions of people are becoming aware of the crisis in Mosul and throughout Iraq.  The trending hashtag #WeAreN has united Christians, Muslims and many people of good will.  The common motivation to participate undoubtedly stems from some form of belief in the fundamental rights and equality of human beings.  It is a hopeful sign.

As Christians it is important to go deeper.  Solidarity, like being a Christian, is a way of life; it is about action.  In fact, it is through the lenses of faith that solidarity transforms into an even more powerful force, ultimately inspiring a person “to take on the specifically Christian dimensions of total gratuity, forgiveness and reconciliation.  One’s neighbor is then not only a human being with his or her own rights and a fundamental equality with everyone else, but becomes the living image of God the Father… One’s neighbor must therefore be loved, even if an enemy, with the same love with which the Lord loves him or her.” (CSDCC, 196)  Let us pray for our brothers and sisters from Mosul, and that we may have the strength to stand in solidarity with them.

Now, that’s a feather in your cap!

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Ever wonder where the idea for feathered caps came from? I recall my mother saying ‘that’s a feather in your cap’ to express an accomplishment. But, whenever she said it the first thing that came to mind was a pirate or buccaneer. Later I learnt these nefarious characters stole the idea from the landed gentry, who (according to Wikipedia) were in turn imitating a sporting practice among Scottish and Welshmen where the person who killed the first fowl plucked out a feather and stuck it in his cap. [Read more...]

Mercy Transformed into Mission

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On the Feast of Mary Magdalene – July 22

“Love the sinner, hate the sin.” The famous catchphrase first appeared in the letters of St. Augustine, when he wrote, “With love for humanity and hatred of sins.” It was later included in the autobiography of Mohandas Gandhi as “Hate the sin and not the sinner.” But I can’t think of any figure who better exemplifies the essence of this phrase than Mary Magdalene, whose feast we celebrate today.

What can we learn from the life of Mary Magdalene? The Gospels reveal a woman marked by a past of “demons” who encountered the forgiveness of Jesus and was forever changed. For Mary Magdalene, Jesus changed everything. His healing power in her life meant that she could no longer remain who she was, she was transformed: she became new in the love of Jesus. Set free of the seven demons that had possessed her – whatever their nature – she pursued a path of loving devotion, of closely following Jesus, of being part of the community of disciples, of putting Christ before all things, and of moving forward in the mercy he brought her.

What does this mean for us? I think we all know how easy it can be to become discouraged, disappointed, ashamed, and despairing, mired in the guilt, anger, regret, and frustration produced by our own faults and the faults those around us. We spin a cocoon of negative emotion that paralyzes us in our own selves. But Mary Magdalene shows us that there is something greater than our sinfulness, our shortcomings and the strife they cause; rather, that there is some One greater.

Mary Magdalene could have fixated on her demons – whether they were bad choices she’d made or misfortunes she’d experienced through no fault of her own. Instead, she reached out to Jesus and allowed herself to be made new. She allowed his love to be more powerful than her sins, and her demons gave way to discipleship. For the Christian, this life-changing encounter with the merciful love of God through Jesus Christ is not just a one-time experience but a constant renewal brought about by the transformative power of Christ at work in our lives. This love is offered to us each day of our lives, especially when we fail, fall, and flounder. Do we receive it? Do we accept it? Are we open to it? Do we allow it to renew us and urge us on? Does it leave us forever changed?

Mary Magdalene had not one demon but seven. Her story is relevant for us no matter what our demons may be. She was a sinner but more than that, she was loved. She allowed her life to become a response of love to the one who loved her first. Weeping she would remain with him at the foot of the the Cross, despairing as he hung dying for the world. “While it was still dark” on that Easter morning, burdened with tears and spices for burial she would venture early to his empty tomb, astonished to encounter him anew and sent forth to exclaim: “I have seen the Lord!” (John 20:18) The Mercy she encountered sends her forth on mission, not caught up in her own past but urged on by the love of her Lord: transformed to share his transformative love with all the world.

A King’s Prayer and a Kingdom’s Hope

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Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A – July 27, 2014

Solomon seeks wisdom

It is important to know the historical background for today’s first reading from the First Book of Kings 3:5; 7-12. Solomon had just been installed as the third king of Israel. The lot of leadership fell to him, the favored son of Bathsheba. Solomon is introduced to us, not as the legendary wise and good king, but as a man already compromised in his public life and personal relationships. Far from being the innocent child kneeling before God, he is more like the wayward son who prostrates himself before God, already aware of what will lead him away from the path of wise and discerning leadership. Solomon’s prayer for wisdom reveals a young king, unsure of himself at the outset of his reign.

The beginning of wisdom is the recognition that one needs wisdom. What did Solomon ask of his God? First he asked for an “understanding heart” (3:9) which means to “hear intelligently,” often with the implication of attention and obedience. This word could mean discern, give ear, listen, obey, perceive, or understand. He also asked that he might be able to “discern,” “to separate mentally, to understand, or deal wisely.” The Lord repeated this word in His answer as recorded in verse 12, and added yet another word – I have given you literally “a wise, intelligent, skillful or artful” heart. Solomon wanted to receive wisdom by carefully listening and obeying the Lord.

The wisdom Solomon asked for was related to the role he was assigned. God was pleased with his prayer, and gave him not only what he has asked but also what he has not asked: riches, honor, glory. And the story goes on to show how Solomon’s wisdom was such that Israel ‘stood in awe of the king, because they saw that the wisdom of God was in him.’ In the New Testament, when Jesus was teaching, he commented about Solomon’s wisdom, “now one greater than Solomon is here” (Matthew 12:42). Jesus was referring to Himself as the Christ, the Son of God.

When we ask for wisdom

This unique moment in the life of one of the great kings of Israel raises many questions for us. When asking for wisdom, we must believe that God will provide the wisdom we seek; we must trust Him to do it in His own way, which usually means that we will be in partnership with Him. Where in our life is the need for wisdom? Is there a willingness to be obedient and to look to God so that ours will be a righteous wisdom? Are we willing to partner with God for the acquisition of wisdom? Is there sufficient faith to believe that God will provide?

Conformed to the Son’s image

Today’s second reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans (8:28-30) outlines the Christian vocation as it was designed by God: to be conformed to the image of his Son, who is to be the firstborn among many brothers (8:29). God’s redemptive action on behalf of the believers has been in process before the beginning of the world. Those whom God chooses are those he foreknew (8:29) or elected. While man and woman were originally created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27), it is through baptism into Christ, the image of God (2 Cor 4:4; Col 1:15), that we are renewed according to the image of the Creator (Col 3:10). Those who are called (Romans 8:30) are predestined or predetermined. These expressions do not mean that God is arbitrary. Rather, Paul uses them to emphasize the thought and care that God has taken for the Christian’s salvation.

How will we recognize the kingdom?

Jesus used a variety of images to refer to the kingdom of heaven. Throughout the New Testament, we read about a shepherd who has lost sheep, a woman who has lost a silver coin, a father who has lost a son. In these and many more stories, Jesus is saying that the Kingdom comes for us when we find what we have lost. Jesus started his ministry with the proclamation of the gospel: “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” But his disciples, then and now, keep on asking: “When is the kingdom coming? How will we recognize it?” His usual reply indicated the difficulties of seeing the kingdom where we are blinded by earthly images. Jesus spoke of the kingdom as being near, “at hand,” and coming unexpectedly. He revealed the kingdom in two ways. His miracle-working deeds revealed present power over evil; his parables contained messages of what the kingdom could and should be like.

Parables about the kingdom

The historical backdrop of the parables is very important in our understanding of these marvelous stories. In the unsettled conditions of Palestine in Jesus’ time, it was not unusual to guard valuables by burying them in the ground (13:44). The first two of the last three parables of Matthew’s discourse (13:44-52) have the same point. The person who finds a buried treasure and the merchant who finds a pearl of great price sell all that they have to acquire these finds; similarly, the one who understands the supreme value of the kingdom gives up whatever he must to obtain it. The joy with which this is done is made explicit in the first parable, but it may be presumed in the second also. The concluding parable of the fishnet resembles the explanation of the parable of the weeds with its stress upon the final exclusion of evil persons from the kingdom.

Since Matthew tends to identify the disciples and the Twelve (13:52) this saying about the Christian scribe cannot be taken as applicable to all who accept the message of Jesus. The scribe instructed in the kingdom of heaven knows both the teaching of Jesus (the new) and the law and prophets (the old) and provides in his own teaching both the new and the old as interpreted and fulfilled by the new.

Conceptions of the Kingdom

The Kingdom of God is not – as some maintain today – a generic reality above all religious experiences and traditions, but it is, before all else, a person with a name and a face: Jesus of Nazareth, the image of the unseen God. We cannot marginalize Christian revelation and its ecclesial transmission by proposing a non-Christian vision where misuse of the terminology “Kingdom” or “Reign of God” is a substitute for Jesus Christ and his Church.

In the Lineamenta (preparatory document) for the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization in October 2012, two particular passages and their references to the Kingdom struck me in light of today’s Gospel reading. Under sections #24 The “New Evangelization: A Vision for the Church of Today and Tomorrow” we read:

We are facing situations which are signs of massive changes, often causing apprehension and fear. These situations require a new vision, which allows us to look to the future with eyes full of hope and not with tears of despair. As “Church,” we already have this vision, namely, the Kingdom to come, which was announced to us by Christ and described in his parables. This Kingdom is already communicated to us through his preaching and, above all, through his death and resurrection. Nevertheless, we oftentimes feel unable to enflesh this vision, in other words, to “make it our own” and to “bring it to life” for ourselves and the people we meet everyday, and to make it the basis for the Church’s life and all her pastoral activities.

And in #25, “The Joy of Evangelizing,” we read:

A new evangelization means to share the world’s deep desire for salvation and render our faith intelligible by communicating the logos of hope (cf. 1 Pt 3:15). Humanity needs hope to live in these present times. The content of this hope is “God, who has a human face and who ‘has loved us to the end’.” For this reason, the Church is, by her very nature, missionary. We cannot selfishly keep for ourselves the words of eternal life, which we received in our personally encountering Jesus Christ. They are destined for each and every person. Each person today, whether he knows it or not, needs this proclamation.

To be unaware of this need creates a desert and an emptiness. In fact, the obstacles to the new evangelization are precisely a lack of joy and hope among people, caused and spread by various situations in our world today. Oftentimes, this lack of joy and hope is so strong that it affects the very tenor of our Christian communities. This is the reason for renewing the appeal for a new evangelization, not simply as an added responsibility but as a way to restore joy and life to situations imprisoned in fear.

We therefore approach the new evangelization with a sense of enthusiasm. We will learn the sweet and comforting joy of evangelizing, even at times when proclamation might seem like a seed sown among tears (cf. Ps 126:6). “May it mean for us – as it did for John the Baptist, for Peter and Paul, for the other apostles and for a multitude of splendid evangelizers all through the Church’s history – an interior enthusiasm that nobody and nothing can quench. May it be the great joy of our consecrated lives. And may the world of our time, which is searching, sometimes with anguish, sometimes with hope, be enabled to receive the Good News not from evangelizers who are dejected, discouraged, impatient or anxious, but from ministers of the Gospel whose lives glow with fervor, who have first received the joy of Christ, and who are willing to risk their lives so that the Kingdom may be proclaimed and the Church established in the midst of the world.”

[The readings for the Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time are: 1 Kings 3:5-12; Romans 8:28-30; and Matthew 13:44-52.]

This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2011 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B, entitled “Words made Flesh,” is now available in book form through our online store. Book editions for Year A and C reflections are coming soon.

Proclaiming the Word: Part Three

Last time  I wrote about what makes a good homily and what is an image of a preacher.  At the preaching conference, most of the presenters dedicated their talks to how a homilist should prepare. “Prepare the homilist; not the homily” was a phrase used by Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto during the keynote opening address. This, of course, does not mean that a preacher should not prepare the homily. Here’s how I think a homilist should prepare.

A good preacher must first be a person of the Gospels. Both Fr. Guerric DeBona, OSB in his book Preaching Effectively, Revitalizing Your Church as well as the USCCB publication, Fulfilled in Your Hearing speak of being “listeners of the Word” and “listeners of the people.” Not only do I have to be knowledgeable of Scripture, but I must pray the Scriptures. I must let the Scriptures speak to me – not just while preparing a homily, but all the time. The practice of Lectio Divina and the Office of Readings as is the Liturgy of the Hours, are an integral part of this. In fact, out of the eight presenters during the conference, five of them spoke of the importance of Lectio Divina.

When I approach the Scriptures I am not just reading and/or praying. I also go to the Scriptures to look for hope. I must ask myself, where is the hope in this reading? Where is the good news? Fulfilled in Your Hearing suggests that preachers go to the Scriptures asking four questions:

1-What is the human situation to which these texts were originally addressed?

2-To what human concerns and questions might these same texts have spoken through the Church’s history?

3-What is the human situation to which they can speak today? And

4-How can they help us to understand, to interpret our lives in such a way that we can turn to God with praise and thanksgiving?

In order to help the People of God find meaning for themselves in the Gospel message, I must ask these questions. I must ask these questions every time I read Scripture, so that they become second nature to my relationship with the Scriptures.

But, I began last time, by defining a homily as a witness that is honest, truthful and authentic. It needs to be clear, simple and concrete. It also needs to be pastoral, sacramental, liturgical and doctrinal. And so, I need to ask myself all these questions. I also need to zero in on the key message that I hope to share. This will force me to have one message and not a confusion of ideas. I need to think of concrete ways to share and interpret this message. It may require research. It may require looking at current affairs or examples from popular culture. The key message needs to be something about Christ or God. It is not enough to say, for example, that “today’s message is that we need to go to confession.” That is not Christ-centred. The Christological message about confession is that Christ forgives all our sins! That is good news! But, it may not be sufficient to say that Christ forgives all our sins – how do we respond to this good news?

And so an important approach for me is to find a key message. Fr. DeBona calls it the “pearl” or “focus.” The focus has to be about Christ or God. Then I have to find what Fr. DeBona calls the “function.” The function has to be an action with which the congregation can respond to the “focus.” For example, if the focus is that Christ forgives all our sins, the function can be that we need to be repentant and approach the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

In 1999 the Catholic Association of Teachers of Homiletics (CATH) updated its 1992 “Report on Homiletics Curriculum and Preaching Professor Certification”. The resulting document is titled, Roman Catholic Homiletic Preaching Competencies, but is referred to as the “CATH White Paper”. According to the “white paper” the homily needs to be sacramental and liturgical. One way of achieving this is to find part of the “function” (the response to the “Focus”) in how we respond through the Sacraments and through the Liturgy. It is always appropriate to lead out of the homily inviting people to enter into the next movement of the Liturgy. This should not be hard if the homily is indeed inviting us to praise and thanksgiving.

Lastly, I think that the homily needs to be doctrinal. This can simply mean that the truths that are being shared are not the preacher’s personal truths, but the truths of the Church. We have to be sure that what we are sharing is part of the Teaching Office of the Church. And so, to use the above example – to tell people that Christ will forgive our sins in the quiet of our bedroom, may need some further explanation if we are to be true to the fullness of the Church’s Teaching on the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Being doctrinal may mean, on occasion, that the preacher has to teach an important point of doctrine. This sometimes takes place on a special feast, where it may be appropriate to share briefly about a historical point (why we celebrate the Triumph of the Cross, or the Chair of Peter, for example). It is important, if we do so, that this is not the main focus of the homily. We have to remember that the focus needs to be Christ or God-centred.

And so we agree that the preacher has to be a man of prayer and a man of the Gospels. I spoke the first time that the preacher has to also be a listener of the people; the preacher must know his congregation. Today we looked at some ways a preacher can help focus on what the message of a particular homily is. Next time we will look at some more tips for making your homily effective and memorable.

Proclaiming the Word: Part Two

As I wrote last Sunday, last week I attended a preaching conference as part of St. Augustine’s Seminary 100th anniversary events. It was a who’s who in preaching, with all the talks by homiletics experts from all over North America.

I think about homilies all the time. Not so much because I have to prepare one at least once a month, but because I have to listen to one at least once a week. I’m also a public speaker, and TV and radio host, so I am thinking about communication all the time.

After the conference I dug out a paper I wrote when I was in formation for the Permanent Diaconate for our homiletics course. One of the main questions we had then (and that I still have now) is “what is a homily?”. How would you respond to that question?

Here’s my definition: A homily is a joyful, loving, passionate, clear, simple and concrete teaching/learning, challenge and witness that empowers and encourages to action and to growth the people of God through the power of the Word. A good homily needs to be truthful, authentic and honest, as well as sacramental, liturgical, scriptural, pastoral, doctrinal and Christological. Our homiletics professor, Deacon Peter Lovrick thought that was a tall order.

But I think that an outstanding homily has to be authentic, personal, loving and honest. If I want to be an outstanding preacher, I need to speak with authority and joy. I have to use concrete images, stories and other tools, such as music or art to share the Good News.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has a very helpful little document on preaching called “Fulfilled in Your Hearing”. According to that publication, a preacher is a “mediator of meaning, representing both the community and the Lord”. This makes sense to me. It means that the preacher is so much more that someone who interprets Scripture: “The preacher acts as a mediator, making connections between the real lives of people who believe in Jesus Christ but are not always sure what difference faith can make in their lives, and the God who calls us into ever deeper communion with himself and with one another.” The document continues, “Especially in the Eucharistic celebration, the sign of God’s saving presence among his people, the preacher is called to point to the signs of God’s presence in the lives of his people so that, in joyous recognition of that presence, they may join the angels and saints to proclaim God’s glory and sing with them their unending hymn of praise.”

To me, while the above deals with the purpose of a homily at a higher level (that a preacher’s job is really to lead people to thanksgiving and praise) the role of the preacher is much more specific. Homilies that move me are ones that are personal and spoken with honesty and truth. They are pastoral in that they help me make connections between the realities of my life and the realities of the Gospel. A good homily doesn’t always give answers, but helps us see how God is present and acting in our lives, in the midst of whatever reality we may be facing. Fulfilled in Your Hearing clarifies this: “What the Word of God offers us is a way to interpret our human lives, a way to face the ambiguities and challenges of the human condition, not a pat answer to every problem and question that comes along.” In this way, in order for a homily to be pastoral, it has to be scriptural and also Christological.

I was eager to meet Fr. Guerric DeBona, OSB at the conference because we studied with his book Preaching Effectively, Revitalizing Your Church. In it he offers four models of preaching, as described by Robert Waznak (who has written many books on preaching, the most popular, An Introduction to the Homily). The four models are: The Herald; the Witness; the Teacher and the Interpreter. (Preaching Effectively, pages 156-162)

HERALD: The word herald is taken from the New Testament Greek word, “kerusein”, which literally means, “to proclaim”. I like the image of the proclaimer (more so than the word herald) which really does not mean much to me. After all, Jesus himself sent us to the ends of the earth to proclaim the good news (Mark 16:15) and the Second Vatican Council Document, Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, states clearly that the primary duty of priests (and deacons) is the proclamation of the Gospel to all. (Chapter II, Section 1, #4)

John the Baptist is the image of the herald for me. While other prophets, like Isaiah or Jeremiah are also proclaimers of the Word, John the Baptist literally proclaims THE Word, who is Christ. He is the voice crying out in the wilderness. (Mark 1:2-3) Like John the Baptist, a proclaimer is more than just someone who speaks. To proclaim is to announce passionately; to declare publicly. Proclaim it from the housetops  (Matthew 10:27) was Pope John Paul II’s message in 2005 to those responsible for Communications. (Apostolic Letter, The Rapid Development, John Paul II) and a message he repeated to pilgrims at World Youth Day 2002. To proclaim requires something important that has to be said. We cannot proclaim in secret. Proclamation requires a large voice, for the message is monumental. If proclamation required a musical instrument, it would not be a flute, but a trumpet!

WITNESS/TEACHER: If the Gospel of Mark ends with Jesus‚ command that we are to proclaim the good news to the whole creation, (Mark 16:15) the Book of Acts tells us how we are about to do this. The author of the Book of Acts describes the same event slightly differently: Before his ascension, Jesus tells the disciples, that they will be clothed with power from on high and they will be his witnesses throughout the ends of the earth. (Acts 1:8) If Mark says that we are to proclaim, Luke in Acts tells us that we are to do so by witnessing! Fr. DeBona uses a wonderful explanation of the power of witness, taken from Paul VI’s On Evangelization in the Modern World. Paul VI wrote that people are looking for authenticity, truth and honesty and therefore they respond more to witnesses than to teachers. In fact, if they respond to teachers, it is because these teachers are witnesses first. While the image of teacher is not entirely a bad one for me, sometimes we associate teachers with someone who is authoritative and who speaks above the listeners. Sometimes teachers are more concerned with being heard and with teaching than they are with relating. It is because of this that I prefer to use the image of proclaimer and witness, than that of teacher, although, I do believe that there is a place for teaching during a homily.

INTERPRETER: The last image Robert Waznak proposes is that of an interpreter. This is an image that is also found in Fulfilled in Your Hearing, as we saw above. While the meaning of the word may be accurate, it is not an image that for me conjures up warmth and relationship. To me, an interpreter is merely someone concerned with meaning and ideas. I think that a preacher is much more. A preacher interprets the Gospel into the realities of the listeners, but more importantly does so in a spirit of hope.

ANOTHER IMAGE: The end of the Gospel of Luke leaves us with a wonderful image of a preacher: Jesus himself. On the road to Emmaus, Jesus opens up the Scriptures to the two travellers. (Luke 24:13-35) At the end, they were left with hearts burning within them. (Luke 24:32) Every outstanding homily has left me with my heart burning within me. How do we do this? I think that first of all the preacher’s heart has to be burning. Fr. Guerric DeBona offers a wonderful image: John Wesley was once asked about the source of his effective preaching. Wesley said, “I set myself on fire and people come to watch me burn.”

MY IMAGE OF PREACHER: To me, a preacher is like a bon-fire that signals to a great distance and also gives warmth and invites people to gather. A preacher is also like a trumpet playing a warm melody. It carries importance and royal authority. His message is moving and touches the heart. It proclaims and witnesses to the good news. For these reasons, the word that best conjures up the image of a preacher for me is evangelisor.  The word evangelisor, by definition, is someone who shares or spreads the good news, the Gospel. An evangelisor is a proclaimer and a witness. An evangelisor sometimes teaches and sometimes interprets (as Jesus did on the road to Emmaus). I hope to be a preacher who, first and foremost is the bringer of good news. But not just any good news: the Good News of Jesus Christ. I hope to proclaim it, as it is the most important news there is to share. I hope to do so passionately and with joy. I hope to be a voice crying out in the wilderness. I hope to set myself on fire with the Word and, by the Grace of God, this fire will spread to those all around.

Come back on Sunday to find out how I think all homilists should prepare and please, tell me what you think. What do you think defines a good homily? What is your image of a preacher? Share your thoughts with us.

“Let them grow together until harvest…”

Wheat field cropped

Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A – July 20, 2014

Once again in this week’s Gospel passage, images of growing trees, shrubs and plants provide us with powerful insights into the quiet and slow ways that God’s Kingdom grows among us and within us. Today’s Gospel story is peculiar to Matthew (13:24-33). Central to today’s parable of the wheat and the weeds is the preciousness of the wheat. The landowner refuses to lose any of it in order to get rid of the weeds.

Verse 25 speaks of darnel, a poisonous weed that in its first stage of growth resembles wheat. A weed may be growing next to a stalk of wheat and think it has a common destiny with the wheat, but its end is destruction. The weed is also harmful to the wheat, its roots trying to starve the wheat from its source. The refusal of the householder to allow his slaves to separate the wheat from the weeds while they are still growing is a warning to the disciples not to attempt to anticipate the final judgment of God by a definitive exclusion of sinners from the Kingdom. In its present stage it is composed of the good and the bad. The judgment of God alone will eliminate the sinful. Until then there must be patience and the preaching of repentance. We can learn much from God’s patience as we see Him allow both the good and the evil to grow together.

How important it is to remember this point when we grow so impatient with God’s role in human history. How often do we ask: “Where is the ultimate vindication that God has promised us?” How long, O Lord, until you show your might and power to rout our enemies? How long until you show your face to us? When we get stuck in such ruts, our moods are fixed more intently on the stubborn persistence of evil than on the slow emergence and growth of good. God loves goodness more than God hates evil.

The harvest spoken of in v 30 is a common biblical metaphor for the time of God’s judgment; (Jeremiah 51:33; Joel 4:13; Hosea 6:11.) Like the sower who scatters seed even where there is little hope for results, Jesus keeps open the lines of communication with those who have closed their hearts, their ears and their eyes to his word.

The great success of the Kingdom

The parables of the mustard seed (Mark 4:30-32; Luke 13:18-21) and the yeast illustrate the same point: the amazing contrast between the small beginnings of the Kingdom and its marvelous expansion. Jesus exaggerates both the smallness of the mustard seed and the size of the mustard plant. The seed in Jesus’ hand is tiny, simple and unimpressive. Yet Jesus says that the Kingdom of God is like that. This message of Jesus’ parable was certainly an encouragement to the early church when its progress seemed slow or was hampered by persecution. From these small seeds will arise the great success of the Kingdom of God and of God’s Word. Patience is called for in the face of humble beginnings. Jesus reassures the crowd that growth will come; it is only at the harvest that the farmer reappears. The growth of God’s Kingdom is the result of God’s power, not ours. Like the tiny mustard seed, the Kingdom of God is something that grows from a tiny beginning.

Patient endurance in steadfast expectation

In today’s section of St. Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome, (8:26-27) the Apostle to the nations reminds us that the glory that believers are destined to share with Christ far exceeds the sufferings of the present life. Paul considers the destiny of the created world to be linked with the future that belongs to the believers. As it shares in the punishment of corruption brought about by sin, so also will it share in the benefits of redemption and future glory that comprise the ultimate liberation of God’s people. Only following patient endurance in steadfast expectation will the full harvest of the Spirit’s presence be realized.

Recognizing the Kingdom

Jesus started his ministry proclaiming: “The Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” But his disciples, then and now, keep on asking: “When is the Kingdom coming? How will we recognize it?” His usual reply indicated the difficulties of seeing the Kingdom where we are blinded by earthly images. Jesus spoke of the Kingdom as being near, “at hand,” and coming unexpectedly. He revealed the Kingdom in two ways. His miracle-working deeds revealed present power over evil; his parables contained messages of what the Kingdom could and should be like. For many, the Kingdom is a place free from evil, sin, strife, anxiety and fear. Don’t we all share a deep longing for a crop free from the weeds, for a world free from war, for a personality free from the weeds of anxiety of jealousy, fear, apathy, cynicism and despair? Far from being a seemingly unreal place, daily life can at times seem to be much more a battleground… a struggle to live in the midst of the weeds and chaff that try to choke us and take our life away. In Jesus, God broke through the power and domination of evil.

I often imagine Jesus running tiny, black mustard seeds through his fingers as he spoke to the crowds and his small group of followers in Galilee. One day he thought of them as he spoke about the Kingdom of God, and pointed to the tree that would grow from such tiny seeds. The seed in Jesus’ hand is tiny, simple and unimpressive. Yet he says that the Kingdom of God is like that. It is far more likely to begin in simple ways than in the dramatic.

God’s Kingdom broke through and entered the human scene in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. It is a slow process for the Kingdom to be fully realized. We long for a society free from the weeds of injustice, fear of nuclear power, war and the depletion of all of our resources. But we also know that such longings will never be fully realized and satisfied here. The distance from and longing for the full realization of that kingdom make our heart grow fonder for it. The hope represented by our longings is essential to human life, for without them we would be slaves and victims of despair and hopelessness.

Opposition and indifference to the Word

The Word of God takes root not without a struggle, due to the presence and action of an “enemy” who “sowed weeds among the wheat.” In his General Audience homily of September 25, 1991, Blessed John Paul II addressed this point directly:

“This parable explains the co-existence and the frequent mingling of good and evil in the world, in our lives and in the very history of the Church. Jesus teaches us to see these things with Christian realism and to handle every problem with clear principles, but also with prudence and patience. This presupposes a transcendent vision of history, in which one knows that everything belongs to God and every final result is the work of his Providence. However, the final destiny–in its eschatological dimension–of the good and bad is not hidden. It is symbolized by the gathering of the wheat into the barn and the burning of the weeds.”

There are weeds in the Church

During World Youth Day 2005 in Cologne, Germany, Pope Emeritus Benedict exclaimed to the throngs of young Christians and the curious mixed in:

“Here in Cologne we discover the joy of belonging to a family as vast as the world, including heaven and earth, the past, the present, the future. The Church can be criticized, because it contains both grain and weeds,” he told them, but “it is actually consoling to realize that there are weeds in the Church. In this way, despite all our defects, we can still hope to be counted among the disciples of Jesus, who came to call sinners.”

Five years later, on October 9, 2010, Benedict spoke of this parable in his weekly General Audience address that featured the spirituality of St. John Leonardi. Leonardi (1541-1609) and St. Philip Neri (1515-1595) were two humble priests committed to the reform of the clergy during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century. Neri founded the “Oratory,” a community of priests and Leonardi founded a religious order and a seminary, with the sole purpose of reforming the clergy. Both men ministered to the people of Rome during not infrequent outbreaks of the plague and influenza. While Neri survived these outbreaks, Leonardi died from influenza in 1609.

In his talk, Pope Emeritus Benedict reminded us that the weeds and wheat exist in close proximity:

“There is another aspect of St John Leonardi‘s spirituality that I would like to emphasize. On various occasions he reasserted that the living encounter with Christ takes place in his Church, holy but frail, rooted in history and in its sometimes obscure unfolding, where wheat and weeds grow side by side (Mt 13:30), yet always the sacrament of salvation. Since he was clearly aware that the Church is God’s field (cf. Mt 13: 24), St John was not shocked at her human weaknesses. To combat the weeds he chose to be good wheat: that is, he decided to love Christ in the Church and to help make her, more and more, a transparent sign of Christ. He saw the Church very realistically, her human frailty, but he also saw her as being “God’s field,” the instrument of God for humanity’s salvation.

And this was not all. Out of love for Christ he worked tirelessly to purify the Church, to make her more beautiful and holy. He realized that every reform should be made within the Church and never against the Church In this, St John Leonardi was truly extraordinary and his example is ever timely. Every reform, of course, concerns her structures, but in the first place must have an effect in believers’ hearts. Only Saints, men and women who let themselves be guided by the divine Spirit, ready to make radical and courageous decisions in the light of the Gospel, renew the Church and make a crucial contribution to building a better world.”

[The readings for the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Wisdom 12.13, 16-19; Romans 8.26-27; and Matthew 13.24-43.]

This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2011 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B, entitled “Words made Flesh,” is now available in book form through our online store. Book editions for Year A and C reflections are coming soon.