With eyes fixed on Jesus

Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron

Editor’s Note: Over 20 issues, The Michigan Catholic is bringing you, in bite-sized chunks, Archbishop Vigneron’s pastoral letter, Unleash the Gospel. Below is the ninth of 20 excerpts, taken from the letter’s second guidepost, “With Eyes Fixed on Jesus.” To read the whole letter — or to catch up on sections you’ve missed — visit www.unleashthegospel.org.

“Let us … persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith.” Hebrews 12:1-2

The task of evangelizing is to propose Jesus Christ as the Savior whom God the Father offers to every human being. The new evangelization is not a membership drive, nor is it an effort to shore up a code of conduct. Rather, it is a love affair. All are invited to encounter Jesus and let their hearts be captured by him.

Encounter with Jesus

Evangelizing aims to lead others to life-changing encounters with Jesus, with the result that he becomes the Lord of one’s life. An encounter is a person-centered form of contemplation; it is two people being present to each other with no utilitarian purpose. For some people the encounter with Christ is a cataclysmic “Damascus road” kind of experience; for others it is more gradual. In either case, encountering Jesus is like meeting the person you are going to marry: you are overwhelmed by this encounter and cannot imagine going forward in life without that person. The Christian life becomes not just one but a series of encounters with Jesus, especially through prayer and the liturgy, which continually deepen our relationship with him.

Preaching and catechesis in our local Church must foster such encounters, especially by explaining our love relationship with Christ as the purpose of the liturgy. Whenever possible we should invite people to respond to Jesus by surrendering their lives to him, and give them concrete opportunities to do so.

For many of us, even for clergy, there is need for a renewed encounter with Jesus. In the time of the prophet Hosea, Israel needed such a rekindling of their romance with God, so God promised that he would allure them into the desert and speak tenderly to them: “I will espouse you to me forever: I will espouse you in right and in justice, in love and in mercy; I will espouse you in fidelity, and you shall know the LORD” (Hos 2:21-22). Whenever we feel spiritually fatigued, arid, or battle-worn, it is this return to our first love (Rev 2:4) that lifts us up again and revives our hearts. “We need to implore his grace daily, asking him to open our cold hearts and shake up our lukewarm and superficial existence. Standing before him with open hearts, letting him look at us, we see that gaze of love which Nathaniel glimpsed on the day when Jesus said to him: ‘I saw you under the fig tree’” (Jn 1:48).”

The kerygma

The “kerygma” is the New Testament word for the simple, radical, countercultural and joyful message of the Gospel — that “initial ardent proclamation by which a person is one day overwhelmed and brought to the decision to entrust himself to Jesus Christ by faith.” After two thousand years of development of doctrine, we are used to focusing on the need to transmit Catholic teaching on faith and morals in its fullness. This is indeed essential, but it does not come first. The proclamation of the kerygma must precede catechesis, because people are ready to receive the Church’s doctrine only after they have heard the kerygma and responded in faith. As Pope Francis has reminded us:

“The kerygma … needs to be the center of all evangelizing activity and all efforts at Church renewal. … On the lips of the catechist 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.’ This first proclamation is called ‘first’ not because it exists at the beginning and can then be forgotten or replaced by other more important things. It is first in a qualitative sense because it is the principal proclamation, the one which we must hear again and again in different ways. …”

The kerygma is often described in terms of four essential elements: (1) the loving plan of God for human beings; (2) sin and its devastating consequences, especially separation from God; (3) God’s answer to our predicament in the sending of his Son for our salvation; and (4) the response this gift calls for from every person: to repent of our sins, believe in Jesus and be baptized, so we can be filled with his Holy Spirit and live a new life in his family, the Church.

It is essential for all preachers and catechists to learn the art of proclaiming the kerygma and to reflect on how to make all their preaching and teaching more kerygmatic. The kerygma can be proclaimed effectively only by a firsthand witness, one who has met the Lord personally and can speak of what he is doing in one’s own life. Priests and deacons, in particular, should consider how to make use of opportune moments to preach the kerygma, especially to those who are not practicing the faith — occasions such as weddings, funerals, parish social events, baptismal preparation for parents, and sacramental preparation for children and families.

Testimony

Personal testimony has an indispensable role in evangelization. Testimony has a unique power to touch hearts, since it is almost impossible to ignore the witness of someone who has encountered Jesus personally and whose life has been transformed by him. The townspeople of the Samaritan woman at the well came to faith in Jesus because of her testimony, which eventually led them to encounter him themselves (Jn 4:39, 42).

There is a wide variety of appropriate occasions for the giving of personal testimonies, not only in church but also in less formal settings; for instance, at the end of Mass, during times of informal prayer, in catechetical settings, RCIA programs, marriage preparation, small groups, Bible studies, etc. There is need for prudent discernment of whom to invite to give testimony, and it is wise to have them practice and receive guidance beforehand.

To read more of the archbishop’s letter, or to catch up on sections you’ve missed, visit www.unleashthegospel.org.