The artist who painted this picture of John the Baptist preaching near the Jordan river obviously had no idea of what Palestine and the place of John’s ministry looked like, but he got the story right anyway, I think.
The people listening to John are surrounded by an over-powering wilderness. They’re on their way to Jerusalem, but will they ever get there? There are no well marked trails in sight, no civilized world close by for food and lodging. Only a man preaching to them.
Our readings today from the Old and New Testament point out Elijah and John the Baptist as guides God sent to care for his people, the vine he planted. There were guides then and there will always be guides.
John sent those who listened to him in the wilderness on their way. He baptized them with water and pointed out the path. His words were food for their spirits and brought joy to their hearts. They’ll find their way.
From time to time I like browsing through the large collection of books we have downstairs. Libraries, bookstores, now the internet, are treasuries and junkyards all at once. You never know when you’re going to stumble upon something that sparks questions or open your mind.
Awhile ago, I stumbled on a book called Pride of Place: The Role of Bishops in the Development of Catechesis in the United States, by Sr. Mary Charles Bryce. It’s a study of catechisms and catechesis in our country from the time of Bishop John Carroll, way back in the 18th century, to the 1980’s. How are we going to teach and form our people in faith? That’s the question they were asking then. It’s a question we face now.
Catechesis is on my mind lately. We’ve had a big development in theology and scripture and liturgy since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, but has that reached the ordinary people of the church, young or old? I think we need a better way to make the riches of our faith available to them. Catechesis is one of our prime needs as Catholic schools decline and dioceses, parishes, religious orders and their resources diminish.
“Pride of Place” Sister Bryce called her book, a title from an old pastoral letter of the American bishops on catechesis. Not a bad priority for the church today. How are we going to pass on the faith we have received in our time. What are the words and ways we’re going to use? Pope Francis in his recent letter Desiderio Desideravi calls us to see the liturgy as a catechetical school.
The Eternal Word needs to become incarnate from age to age:
“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language And next year’s words await another voice.” (T.S. Eliot)
We need to renew our liturgical life. We need good catechetical sites online and there’s still something to be said for the books in our library downstairs. They were gathered by people before me, who were wondering about things as I am now. Someone recognized Sister Bryce’s book was a good book to hold on to.
There’ s surprising range of pictures of St. Anthony. In some he’s blissfully holding the Christ Child in his arms, which is how someone saw him one day towards the end of his life– holding the Child Jesus. At times he’s pictured holding a book in his hand. Some pictures and statues portray him holding the Child and the book together and giving a loaf of bread to a poor man.
The pictures and statues say a lot about him.
Anthony was born in Portugal in 1195 and died near Padua, Italy in 1291, acclaimed for his preaching and virtues. Canonized shortly after his death, he’s invoked as a miracle-worker, especially good at finding something lost. But Anthony’s more than a miracle-worker.
His world was the complex, changing world of the 13th century when Europe’s economy was expanding; military crusades against the Muslim powers were in full swing in Spain, Sicily and the Holy Land, and new religious movements like the Franciscans were bringing reform and new vigor to the western church.
Anthony entered the Augustinian community in his birthplace, Lisbon, and studied at the renowned theological center of Coimbra as a young man. Just decades before, Portugal had been freed from the control of the Moors, but then, unfortunately, the victors started fighting among themselves for power and spoils from the crusades.
Anthony rejected the violence and avarice he saw in feuding leaders of church and state; he was a crusader of another kind. When the bodies of some Franciscan missionaries martyred in Morocco in 1219 while preaching the gospel were brought back to Portugal, Anthony decided to join the new community. He became a Franciscan and went to Morocco, hoping to preach the faith to the Muslims there, but illness forced him out and he went to Sicily, then to Italy, where he became a Franciscan missionary and teacher.
Only a few years before, in 1206 in Assisi, young Francis Bernadone stripped himself of his trendy, stylish clothes and put on the dress of a poor man, to follow the poor Man of Nazareth, Jesus Christ. Thousands followed him and the movement he began quickly spread through the Christian world. Like others, Anthony was attracted to this movement, eager to bring the gospel “to the ends of the earth.”
The Franciscan movement began with a dedication to absolute poverty and a simple life, but as church leaders requested them to preach the gospel throughout the world its members needed books, education, training and places of formation. Anthony emerged as a model Franciscan preacher and teacher.
Through northern Italy, then through France, Anthony’s vivid, down-to-earth preaching stirred people’s hearts and minds and showed other preachers how to preach. At the time, the Franciscan movement was not the only movement attracting the people of Europe. Through northern Italy and especially in France, Albigensian teachers were preaching a message of simplicity and release from the burdens of life to believers dissatisfied with the church. They denied that Jesus was divine, they questioned the gospels and painted the world as an evil place.
“Wise as a serpent and simple as a dove” Anthony disputed their message in his preaching. Gifted with an extraordinary memory for the scriptures and an ability to illustrate his talks with homey examples simple people understood, he spoke “with a well-trained tongue.” Thousands came to hear him. The world was not evil, Anthony taught, Jesus, the Word of God was made flesh and dwelt among us.
Artists capture Anthony’s spirit in their portraits of him. As a preacher and teacher, he carries of book, most likely a psalter holding the Jewish psalms. St. Augustine, whom Anthony studied as a youth, always carried this one book of the bible with him, as a summary of the scriptures.
Some say this book is also clue to Anthony’s gift for finding lost things. He probably kept his notes for teaching and preaching in it. If he lost it–some say one of his students stole it– he lost something valuable to him. He found it, so he knows what it means when someone loses something too. “Good St. Anthony, come around, something’s lost and can’t be found.”
The Christ Child Anthony holds in his arms was more than a momentary vision he had. Anthony was deeply attracted, as St. Francis was, to the mystery of the Incarnation. The Word became flesh. God became a little child, who grew in wisdom and age and grace in the simple world of Nazareth. He died on a cross, accepting it as his Father’s will. Then, he rose from the dead.
Human life and the world itself has been blessed by this mystery. Because of it, life can never be small or inconsequential. Even suffering and death have been changed. “The goodness and kindness of God has appeared.” We hold it in our hands.
I suppose this is why a picture of St. Anthony is down in our laundry where Brother Angelo and others wash sheets and towels and clothes. He speaks to this world.
I’m preaching a retreat these days at St. Francis Center for Renewal in Bethlehem, PA, for a group of sisters from various communities. Surrounded by 108 acres of woodlands and meadows, the center belongs to and is staffed by the School Sisters of St. Francis. It’s a silent retreat for 7 days.
The center has some wonderful programs for Catholics and groups from other religious traditions. Its ecumenical reach is praiseworthy. True Franciscans, the sisters like the wide world God made.
Places like this need support because they meet the growing spiritual needs of so many today. In the balancing act that is our present church, I hope we keep retreat centers like St. Francis in play. We need them.
CARA is a non-profit research group based in Washington, DC that studies the Catholic Church. Some statistics on its recent blog are worth reflection.
How many people in the US have been Catholic some time in their lives? About 97 million.
Have many currently consider themselves Catholic? Over 74 million.
How many go to church only on Easter and Christmas? Over 50 million.
How many attend Mass at least once a month? Over 36 million.
How many attend Mass weekly? Over 17 million.
How many are actively engaged in their parishes? About 3 million.
There are about 17,000 Catholic parishes in the United States, which are important sources for evangelizing those who infrequently or never practice their faith. They also have a significant role in reaching out to the unchurched.
But are parishes the only sources for bringing the gospel to others? We’re experiencing a priest shortage, that shows no signs of ending. A parish-based evangelization depends on a resourceful, innovative clergy. Without resourceful, innovative priests, I don’t see how we can evangelize from the parish alone. We need to turn to other sources for evangelization.
Seems to me the media in its many forms has a role.
I think too this is a time for Christian movements beyond the parish to arise to meet the need to preach the gospel, “in season and out of season.” Let’s pray for new movements, and also let’s pray that some of the older religious communities and lay groups rise up again.
Our time is certainly “out of season.” But that’s when preaching needs to be done.
Yesterday I offered some thoughts on preaching. Today a few more reflections. Who are those we preach to today? We should know them as they are and the church in which we preach as it is.
Let’s recognize we’re preaching to people and to a church experiencing a priest shortage, a declining number of women and men religious, and a weakened hierarchy.Statistics– surely we see it ourselves– tell us that people, especially the younger generation, aren’t going to church as they once did. Our parishes are suffering from a decline in members and Catholic schools are closing.
It’s a church roiled by sexual scandals, controversy over the place of women, issues like gay marriage, abortion and government regulations. Certainly, Jesus Christ will be with us always and the church will survive, but what can we do to strengthen it?
I think the closest historical parallel to our American church today may be the Catholic church in American colonial times, which one historian describes as a “priestless, popeless church.” We might add “sisterless” to describe our church, since religious woman had a major role in its growth until now.
The colonial church survived, according to historians, because it was kept alive in the home, by prayerbooks and catechisms. (cf. The Faithful: A History of Catholics in American, by James M. O’Toole, Harvard, 2008)
Historical parallels are never absolute, but that era may suggest a preaching aimed at building a home-based faith, that is strongly catechetical and that promotes a life of regular prayer in people.
What would the prayerbook and basic catechism for today’s church be? The bible, now providentially blessed with new tools to access the treasures of its spirituality. We need a preaching that directs people to this source and helps them mine it.
It’s important we recommend the best versions of the scripture available (The New American Bible, The Jerusalem Bible) and encourage people to use aids like The Magnificat and Give Us Our Daily Bread to follow the daily lectionary.
I believe we need a new generation of preachers in our churches and wherever the gospel can be proclaimed: men and women, priests, religious and laypeople. I’m not looking for new Bishop Fulton Sheens, spell–binding orators to dazzle us with their eloquence.
I think I’d prefer preachers with more modest skills. Maybe preachers like the hosts on the cooking shows on television, who whip up good food and bow out modestly after they show you how it’s done. I think laypeople will have an increasing role in the renewal of preaching.
What about canon law? “The times, they are a-changing.”
Where are our John the Baptists today? I was watching Fr. Corapi on television last night on EWTN, preaching before a large appreciative audience. His talk was about Why Catholics Leave the Church. They leave because of pride, he said.
They don’t recognize the truth of the Church or the authority of the pope. By missing Mass and the sacraments they cut themselves off from sanctifying grace. Pride is their downfall. Fr. Corapi comes down hard on “lousy” seminaries and liberal schools, Catholic and secular. His world is black and white; he doesn’t like grey.
In today’s readings, John the Baptist speaks from the wilderness and with sharp eyes looks at the world of his day. They come from Jerusalem and Judea, from everywhere to hear him. No one is excluded from his call to repent, not even himself.
He’s especially hard on the Pharisees and scribes who think they’re safely home: “When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones.”
When a John the Baptist preaches, no one is left out, including himself. Try this one out as a John the Baptist sermon for today,
Some commentators on television yesterday were asking where President-elect Obama got his oratorical gifts. Spike Lee said he got it from listening to black preachers, like Doctor Martin Luther King.
Probably true. He’s listened to some good preachers in his lifetime, as so many other great political orators have. It’s a connection you don’t hear much about, but the preached word can finds its way into many places, into political speeches and political discourse, even into ordinary human conversations and people’s private thoughts.
An article in the New York Times today indicates that Barack Obama reads widely from classics like the Bible, Shakespeare, St. Augustine and from modern poets and novelists as well. He obviously appreciates the power of words.
Today we honor Doctor Martin Luther King, who also knew the power of words. A new book “King’s Dream” reviewed in The Times yesterday analyzes his famous “I have a dream” speech which he gave at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington in 1963.
The “I have a dream” part of the speech was extemporized. It repeated a theme that ran through many of his sermons before, but was not in his written text that day.
Yet today it’s what most people remember and the words are etched into our national consciousness. King’s wife Coretta thought it ” flowed from higher places.”
Sermons, homelies, words. They’re so important. At their best, they make the Word known and call for his kingdom to come.
Barack Obama’s inaugural address tomorrow will be the nearest thing we have in politics to a sermon.