Detroit, Mich., Jul 16, 2015 / 15:54 pm
In a practical bullet-pointed letter to priests and deacons, Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron of Detroit spelled out the types of people who attend Mass and how clergy can best speak to them.
"The key is not to offer commentary but to help the people in the pews understand what is happening in the text so that they can understand what is happening now and respond in faith," he said in a June 30 pastoral letter entitled "The Preacher – Servant of the Word of God."
Emphasizing the importance of the homily as an opportunity to act as instruments of God, the archbishop encouraged the priests of Detroit to focus on preaching aimed at evangelizing their flock.
Much of his letter focused on identifying types of audiences for priests to keep in mind as they preach, realizing that each person in the pew is there with his own worries, anxieties and life story.
"Many people have been sacramentalized but never evangelized," Archbishop Vigneron said. Although they encountered Christ in the sacraments, they had little awareness of it, and so "they knew about God but they didn't know Him."
"Unfortunately, we have to bear our share of responsibility for this," the archbishop continued. He said that preaching the Gospel to this group, which may be the majority of a Sunday Mass congregation, is "like trying to plant seeds in concrete – nothing will grow."
Therefore, evangelization that fosters an encounter with Christ is key, he emphasized. The Archdiocese of Detroit is preparing for an upcoming diocesan Synod on the New Evangelization to explore the topic in more depth.
Another group of people in the typical Mass congregation are the "practical atheists," Archbishop Vigneron said. These people do not reject God outright, but compartmentalize their faith and spend most of their lives in a "secular, consumer world," living as if God did not exist or had no meaning in their lives.
In addition, the archbishop said, many people today consider themselves to be spiritual. They have a great hunger for "sort of inner peace that will help them more or less achieve their agenda for their lives." Other people come to Mass "biased" by media, entertainment and academia, which tell them that faith is incompatible with reason.
Also present at Mass are the "seemingly dead," who arrive late and leave early, do not pay attention or participate, and do not seem to want to be there, as well as "the bored and the blasé," those who have seen only a "dumbed down and neutered" version of Christ and the Gospel.
But deep down, Archbishop Vigneron said, everyone at Mass wants the same thing – an encounter with Christ, and it is the priest's responsibility to help facilitate that through his preaching.
The archbishop offered practical tips for how to achieve this. He encouraged occasionally preaching in an ordered series of homilies on a certain theme of the faith, such as prayer or the sacraments.
Noting the power of personal witness, he also suggested that priests and deacons offer examples from their own lives.
Rather than allowing the readings to remain at the level of the theoretical, preachers should apply them to the "concrete situation" of the community and offer suggestions for ways that people can put them into practice, he said, noting that this requires adequate preparation beforehand.
Sadly, Archbishop Vigneron noted, many people in the pews have heard the phrase "God loves you," but have not internalized it.
"Sobering recent statistics reveal many Catholics don't even think it's possible to have a friendship with God, so they certainly don't know, with every fiber of their being, that they are loved, infinitely and passionately, by the One who has made it all," he said.
"And this love, knowledge of this love, an encounter with this love, is what changes lives; it's what leads to a decision to make a response to follow the One who has laid down His life for us."
Just as steel must be warmed before it can be molded or bent, the human heart must be warmed by the love of God in order to overcome fear and be molded by the truth of Gospel, the archbishop said. Without encountering the love of Christ, "the faith simply looks like rules and regulations."
Ultimately, priests and deacons foster an encounter with God when they preach Christ crucified, he said.
"The cross is the single greatest demonstration of love ever seen. Help them to understand it. Repeatedly call their attention to it. Help them to understand God doesn't simply tell us He loves us; He shows us."