Danielle M. Peters, S.T.D.
Secular Institute of the Schoenstatt, Sisters of Mary
Post-Doctoral Fellow, Institute for Church Life, University of Notre Dame
Recently, I attended a Conference in Celebration of the fiftieth anniversaries of Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes, Apostolicam Actuositatem and Ad Gentes. Presented by the John S. Marten Program in Homiletics and Liturgics, the conference took place at the University of Notre Dame and invited mainly (but not only) pastors to reflect on their ministry of preaching. The conference’s theme, “‘What We Have Seen and Heard’: Fostering Baptismal Witness in the World,” emphasized that “all forms of Christian preaching are ultimately grounded in baptism, the sacrament by which we are called into the Christian life and sent into the world as witness-servants.” These words from the description of the conference’s objective indicate that preaching cannot be – or rather, should not be – restricted to the homily given by priests or deacons from the pulpit during the Mass. Rather, ‘preaching’ as a form of witnessing to Jesus Christ belongs to our baptismal calling and takes place in our everyday life at home, at work, and wherever we “have an obligation to manifest the new person which [we] put on in baptism” (Ad Gentes 2, 11).
Two speakers underscored that the implementation of “the Universal Call to Holiness” proclaimed in Lumen Gentium’s chapter V remains the largest challenge in our time. The council fathers were aware that for the majority of the baptized this vocation is lived out facing the world and immersed in the world. In the Constitution on the Church in the World, Gaudium et Spes, they noted that Christians “are called to participate actively in the entire life of the church” in order “to animate the world with the spirit of Christianity” and “to be witnesses to Christ in all circumstances and at the very heart of the human community” (43). Even in our own day, Pope Francis reminds us in Evangelii Gaudium:
“[i]n virtue of their baptism, all the members of the People of God have become missionary disciples (cf. Mt 28:19). All the baptized, whatever their position in the Church or their level of instruction in the faith, are agents of evangelization.” (120)
Apparently, the Christian vocation to holiness, which is nothing more or less than the perfection of love, goes hand-in-hand with verbal witness to the living presence of God. This charge comes from Christ himself, who summons us to be his witnesses, providing us with the “understanding of the faith” and the “attractiveness in speech,” for a truly ecclesial and apostolic purpose (Lumen Gentium, 35; cf. CCC 904).
The fiftieth anniversary of the close of the Council and this conference calls for a re-energized focus on the mission shared by all the baptized. How can we ‘preach’ effectively in the here and now when we often feel our lack of “understanding of the faith” and of “attractiveness in speech?” Archbishop Joseph Tobin from Indianapolis made reference to Pope Francis’ preaching who “speaks a language we can understand.” He summarized the recurring message of the pontiff’s preaching with three Ms: Mission, Mercy, Margins! Pope Francis reminds us that “anyone who has truly experienced God’s saving love does not need much time or lengthy training to go out and proclaim that love. Every Christian is a missionary to the extent that he or she has encountered the love of God in Christ Jesus” (Evangelii Gaudium,120).
This, I believe, is the point of the matter! When we know ourselves personally called and loved by God, then nothing remains the way it used to be! Rather, we grow beyond ourselves; we are propelled by an inner dynamism which urges us to make of ourselves a gift to God and others (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 24). This personal encounter with Love, in a way, forges a friendship between the Christian and Christ that is no longer directed by duties, laws, and restrictions but by a spirit of generosity that offers and asks always for what pleases the Father and not for the easy way out. In virtue of this encounter as a fruit of baptism, the Christian takes on a manner of life which brings to perfection his or her witnessing in word and deed.
This witnessing aims at the critical juncture between salvation and secular reality which is by no means free of tensions and conflicts. Gaudium et Spes, 13 refers to the polarity of such a ‘divided person’ with a ‘high calling’ and a simultaneous experience of ‘deep misery.’ Our communion with God in the world cannot simply mean to give a pious touch to everything we do. Rather, it is a form of existence, a manner of being by virtue of which the profane is sanctified.
The saints, our model witnesses, are also our guides. Each hagiography includes a personal encounter with Christ which, unsettling as it may have been, transformed him or her into a witness of Christ, “the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Rev 1:5). One of the first outstanding witnesses is John the Baptist, whose birth we celebrated on the last day of the conference. His life’s motto can teach us what authentic witness is all about: “He must increase while I must decrease” (Jn 3:30). To the extent that we make room for Christ in our being, action and speaking, we are carried by our encounter with Him and allow Him to act and speak through us. At the end of the day, we can honestly and gratefully take stock: when He takes over, our witnessing takes on dimensions reaching far beyond our imaginations!
Christ’s principal witness is Mary, the new creation and powerful initiation of the most glorious witness of God’s love. The Decree On The Apostolate of the Laity Apostolicam Actuositatem, 4 affirms the Blessed Virgin Mary as the perfect example of the spiritual and apostolic person since she “while leading the life common to all here on earth, one filled with family concerns and labors, was always intimately united with her Son and in an entirely unique way cooperated in the work of the Savior.” In a way, we can say that she is the model of every lay Christian whose personal encounter with God at the Annunciation moved her to ‘allow’ God to use her in order to become fruitful first in her and then through her. From crib to cross, her witnessing consisted in unswervingly directing us towards Him to the point of “the shocking mystery of [her] self- emptying” which St. John Paul II considered to be “perhaps the deepest ‘kenosis’ of faith in human history” (Redemptoris Mater, 18). This supreme form of witnessing is aptly described by Hans Urs von Balthasar: “Progressively every shade of personal intimacy is taken from her, to be increasingly applied to the good of the Church and of Christians” (The Glory of the Lord. A Theological Aesthetics, Vol. I: Seeing the Form, 341). Precisely in this stage of giving witness she became abundantly fruitful.
Vatican II singled out one particular paradigm of witness to which few are called: martyrdom. The Council Fathers considered martyrdom in the light of magnanimous love and linked the exceptional gift of the martyr with the sacrificial gift of Christ on the cross, the highest proof of love (cf. Lumen Gentium 42). A more ample view of a martyr (Greek for witness) includes all those who in spiritual martyrdom stand up for truth and justice in their daily combat and experience persecution, calumny and denouncement without laying down their life in a physical manner. This form of witnessing is offered in daily dying to self, motivated by love for God and neighbor. In this respect the invocation Queen of Martyrs receives a new dimension. Under her maternal protection our vocation to give witness matures into a disinterested and joyful gift of self.
In a way, we all face this kind of spiritual martyrdom, due to the profound social and cultural changes of post modernity. Is it any wonder that this universal vocation remains the largest challenge in our time?