Dear readers: This article is longer than usual. It is an important summary of what Pope Francis is asking of us as catechists. If you can take a few extra minutes to read it, you will come away with a clear understanding of what the pope expects us to teach in the RCIA. Thanks for your time. –NW
If, as Pope Francis says, the Church is a field hospital after battle, imagine the multitudes of hurting people he sees as he looks over the world. Imagine he then turns to us—the catechists, the teachers, the pastoral leaders—and says, “Go. Heal the wounds.” What would we do first?
First proclamation—time to use our words
The first thing to do is this: proclaim that Jesus Christ saves us.
Does that make you a little uncomfortable? Catholics aren’t used to speaking that way—walking up to people and asking them if they are saved or if they know Jesus is their savior.
But those are the pope’s exact words: “The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you” (“A Big Heart Open to God,” America, September 30, 2013; emphasis added).
RCIA teams — The most important thing is the first proclamation: ‘Jesus Christ has saved you.’
If it makes you uncomfortable, take a breath. Relax. There is a Catholic way of making that first proclamation that doesn’t seem so odd to us. That’s what the rest of this article is about. But there is one thing we do have to agree on before we go further. We Catholics are very fond of citing the quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.”
What we have to agree on is that it is now necessary to use words. We must continue our “wordless witness,” but our actions will cause people to ask questions. And we have to be ready to answer with some Catholic version of: “Jesus Christ has saved you.”
The pope calls this announcement the first proclamation. Theologians call it the kerygma. The first proclamation is the fundamental message of Jesus. Think of it as Jesus’s elevator speech. If you had to boil down the message of Jesus to its essential parts, what would that be? That’s the story we have to tell. That story, the first proclamation, has nine parts. We’re going to get to those, but first we have to look at why Pope Francis thinks it is so important that we focus on this fist proclamation.
Focus on Jesus, and heal the wounds
The pope sees a crisis in the world today, one unlike any other. There is suffering on a scale we have never before experienced. The church, through the power of the Holy Spirit, can heal this great suffering. But, the pope says, “The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules” (“A Big Heart Open to God”).
So what do we do? What would you do if you were pope?
The pope’s solution is to return to a focus on Jesus’s essential story. If you remember the story of the blind man in the gospel, what did Jesus do? He healed the blindness. The same thing with Samaritan woman. He healed her shame. And Lazarus. Jesus restored him to life.
Jesus heals. Jesus saves. That is what is essential.
Pope Francis says we cannot get distracted by the small things:
To get diverted by many secondary or superfluous things does not help; what helps is to focus on the fundamental reality, which is the encounter with Christ…. (October 14, 2013)
As catechists, our vocation is to heal the wounds. That may not sound right to you. You might think our vocation is to teach.
But what do we teach? We teach the first proclamation—Jesus Christ has saved you.
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.” (Evangelii gaudium, 164)
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.”Evangelii gaudium, 164
What does “first” mean?
It is important to understand how the pope is using the word first.
When I think of my wife, I think of her as my first love. She is not “first” in the sense that she is the first woman I fell in love with. Nor is she “first” in the sense that someday there will be a second or third love, an improved Wife 2.0. She is first in my heart. She is first and foremost.
The first proclamation is not first because there is a second and third announcement that will eclipse what came first. It is first in the sense of best or top priority. It is the proclamation that is proclaimed again and again, in every situation, in every age. Every time we proclaim it and every time we hear it, the announcement takes on new and deeper meaning. There isn’t some “real catechesis” that we are waiting for. This is it. Here is how the pope says it:
We must not think that in catechesis the kerygma gives way to a supposedly more “solid” formation. Nothing is more solid, profound, secure, meaningful and wisdom-filled than that initial proclamation. All Christian formation consists of entering more deeply into the kerygma, which is reflected in and constantly illumines, the work of catechesis, thereby enabling us to understand more fully the significance of every subject which the latter treats. It is the message capable of responding to the desire for the infinite which abides in every human heart.
The centrality of the kerygma calls for stressing those elements which are most needed today:
- it has to express God’s saving love which precedes any moral and religious obligation on our part;
- it should not impose the truth but appeal to freedom;
- it should be marked by joy, encouragement, liveliness and a harmonious balance which will not reduce preaching to a few doctrines which are at times more philosophical than evangelical. (Evangelii gaudium, 165; emphasis added)
The kerygma never gives way to a supposedly more ‘solid’ formation. It is ALL we teach.
Our RCIA job description
In that short paragraph, Pope Francis lays out our entire catechetical agenda. If you were to write out a job description for RCIA catechists (or any catechist), you could just go with what the pope has given us here.
What is most needed today?
- God’s saving love (not moral and religious obligation)
- Freedom (not imposed truth)
- Joy, encouragement, liveliness, balance (not a few philosophical doctrines)
We have to think about this carefully. The pope is not saying we don’t need morality, religion, truth, or doctrine. He is saying those thing are embedded in the first proclamation. If we effectively proclaim God’s love—in way that is freeing and joyful—the secondary aspects of our faith will naturally take root.
Where we stumble
Here is what too often happens in our RCIA processes. A seeker comes to us, suffering from some great wound. Somehow, they have heard that the pope, or Jesus, or the church might be able to help them heal from their wound. So they come to us, and they say something like, “How do I become Catholic?”
Too often, we fail to go deeper, to discover the wound that needs healing. Instead, we say, “To become Catholic, you have to come to these 36 classes that start in September and finish by Easter.”
Because it is our vocation to “teach,” we feel obligated to teach doctrine as our first task.
But our first task is to heal the wounds. And we do that by announcing the good news, the first proclamation, that Jesus has saved us.
Three kinds of seekers
Hang on, we’re going to get to the nine parts of that first proclamation. Before we do that, however, it is important to know who we are talking to.
If we go back to our opening image of the church as a field hospital, there are different kinds of wounds to attend to. Some people have more serious wounds than others and need urgent attention. Broadly speaking, there are three kinds of people we have to attend to. We have to shape our first proclamation to fit each type. In order of urgency, the three are:
- Unbelievers and those indifferent to the faith
- True seekers who are not yet true believers
- Believers in need of constant renewal
Those who don’t believe or are indifferent to the faith are our first priority. Their wounds are the most serious. When we want to communicate God’s saving love to unbelievers, we have to start with the “silent witness” of the way we live. Pope Francis says that there are four behaviors by which Christians will be known.
These four ways of living give evidence of our faith and give evidence to the world about what we believe. It is by living according to these principles that unbelievers will begin to see what it is to live in freedom and joy.
If we live this way, we will become curiosities for others. Our behavior will seem odd. It will raise questions. Pope Francis says that living as Christians through love, harmony, joy, and suffering gives rise to questions,
- Why do they live that way?
- What urges them on?
When unbelievers become curious about our lives, we have the opportunity to invite them to explore a relationship with Jesus.
When we want to communicate God’s saving love to unbelievers, we have to start with the “silent witness” of the way we live.
When curiosity results in a genuine desire to know more, unbelievers become seekers. Seekers are our second priority. They have started to heal. We think of seekers as having a spark of faith, but not yet a grounded, solid faith. When we start to see signs of healing and conversion in the hearts of the seekers, we can begin a deeper conversation about the first proclamation.
Some signs of conversion we might look for include:
- an initial conversion
- a desire to change their lives
- a desire to enter into a relationship with God in Christ
- signs of the first stirrings of repentance
- a start to the practice of calling upon God in prayer
- a sense of the Church
- some experience of the company and spirit of Christian community (see RCIA 42)
Once seekers are really ready to go deeper, we can develop the first proclamation through four key lenses:
- How do Christians hear and obey the living Word of God?
- How do Christians experience Jesus living beside us every day?
- How do Christians express their joy, especially through praise and worship of God?
- How do Christians extend Jesus’s mission of mercy into the world? (see RCIA 75)
True believers are those who have committed to live as disciples of Jesus according to the four disciplines listed above. Believers can still suffer from their wounds, but we have been saved from death. We have been healed.
As disciples, we are continually going deeper into the first proclamation. We never cease exploring the depths of its meaning for us. Imagine you are Mary at the tomb. You are bereft. You don’t know how you can go on. And then Jesus says your name. Your name. At that moment, you recognize him. You are instantly freed from your desolation. You know him, and he knows you. You are so overjoyed, you run to tell the others. You run to tell the whole world.
Would you ever tire of that? Would you ever run out of things to say? Would you ever leave that life-changing event behind for some supposedly more solid form of Christian formation? Of course not. It would define your entire life as a disciple.
As disciples, we are continually going deeper into the first proclamation. We never cease exploring the depths of its meaning for us.
The nine parts of the first proclamation
The first proclamation can be a kind gesture or a word. It can be a timely mention of a name, perhaps Jesus’s name. But no matter how brief or seemingly inconsequential, the first proclamation is always charged. It carries meaning within meaning within meaning. It reveals great mystery while at the same time hiding even greater mystery. It is the death of who we were and the birth of who we were made to be. It is an encounter with a person, the person of Jesus Christ.
The first proclamation is essentially a story. It has a beginning, a climax, and an end.
- The beginning: Know who God is
- The most important lesson—God is madly in love with us
- God became one of us—the Incarnation
- What Jesus did and why it matters—the gospel message
- The climax: Jesus makes a difference
- The sacrifice Jesus made for us
- The Resurrection of Jesus
- The offer of eternal life
- The end: Walking the talk
- Everybody matters—and the poor matter the most
- The secret to discipleship—not getting stuck in “church”
- Announce the good news—we go and make disciples
These nine elements make up the content of the first proclamation—the kerygma. As catechists, this is what we teach. This is all we teach.
We start at the beginning—God is madly in love with you. When someone says, “How do I become Catholic,” we find some way to tell them, “God is madly in love with you.” When someone is crying at work, we tell them, “God is madly in love with you.” When a family member is mean to us, we try hard to remember and communicate, “God is madly in love with you.”
Maybe the way we “say” that is a wordless witness. Maybe what we say doesn’t even have the word “God” in the sentence. We have to shape our message to one of the three levels of seekers we talked about earlier. We have to announce the first proclamation in a way that makes sense to the seeker. If someone is hungry, just saying Jesus is the Bread of Life won’t communicate God’s love nearly as well as a sandwich will.
When Pope Francis looks out over the field and sees all those who are in great pain and darkness, he turns to us and says, “Go. Heal the wounds.” We can go out with confidence knowing we have a great story to tell. And that story will heal the world.