By Msgr. Francis X. Meehan
There is in our time within both church and society a certain paradox. On the one hand, a deterioration and secularization is taking place. It has its impact on all of us. The deterioration includes the diminishment of faith-practice among many, the steep drop in vocations to priesthood and religious life, the loss of a certain religious literacy – all of this intensified by the terrible wound of the recent sexual scandal.
Yet there is, on the other hand, a certain new and fresh awareness of a more Gospel faith. We live in a special moment – a time that calls us back to the very center of our faith, a form of missionary awakening to the Gospel as truly “Good News.”
I recall an image from my youth: I grew up three blocks away from St. Charles Seminary. (I now live at the Seminary; which means that, in 71 years, I have advanced three blocks!) The Maryknoll Fathers had bought the corner house on our street – a house now occupied by the Mercedarian priests who minister to Our Lady of Lourdes parish.
Father Joe English, now long deceased, invited my family to his missioning ceremony at the Maryknoll Motherhouse in Ossining, N.Y. I have never forgotten the mission bell that tolled at that ceremony. How strong and beautiful it was!
In our times, we Catholics are more than ever cast in the role of missionary. More and more, we ourselves within our very own countries have become mission territories. It is this mission context of our faith that calls us to recover a very fresh sense of the Gospel as Good News.
I was alerted to this recently in reading the insights of Father Raniero Cantalamessa, a papal chaplain and Vatican preacher. Father Cantalamessa suggests that our times call for a mode of speaking that reflects the missionary outreach of the early Church.
Notice how Peter and Paul, in the Acts of the Apostles, favored a way of speaking that has become known as Kerygma. Kerygma is a Greek word that means “the central proclamation.” Jesus has died! Jesus is risen! Jesus is Lord! Jesus is the Son of God. God forgives us. God is merciful. Turn your hearts around. You will find mercy, forgiveness, love, peace!
Notice that such a way of speaking is less discursive – less a teaching of doctrines or morality, and more a powerful assertion of salvation and grace. (We should not dichotomize here. Doctrine and morality were and are important. Without doctrine, there is no Christ, no mysticism, no Good News, no real peace, no real justice.)
Pope Benedict once spoke a striking word to a group of journalists (when they were asking why he had not touched on certain moral issues on a particular trip): “Christianity, Catholicism,” he said, “isn’t a collection of prohibitions: It’s a positive option…. We have to witness to God in a world that has problems finding him … and to make God visible in the human face of Jesus Christ, to offer people access to the source without which our morality becomes sterile and loses its point of reference, (namely) to give joy as well…”
In these recent years, one can sense with pride how so many Catholic people – priests, religious, deacons, lay-leaders – seem to be touched with this ancient and new missionary sense. In our time, the great mission bell tolls, not only for Maryknoll Missionaries, but for all of us!
Msgr. Meehan is a former teacher and pastor who now helps in spiritual direction for students at St. Charles Seminary.