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Preaching Kerygma

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In a recent article for this journal, Bob Waldrop cites statistics from Sherry Waddell, who states that 60% of Catholics 18 to 29 years old and 54% of Catholics age 30–49 do not believe that a personal relationship with Christ is possible, which Waldrop claims is indicative of the overwhelming secular influence of this age. He argues that the remedy to this unfamiliarity with Christ is an encounter with the kerygma followed by an effective initiatory catechesis. This claim for the need of a kerygmatic proclamation is not new, but rather has been whispered throughout the Church for 80 years, beginning with Fr. Josef Jungmann’s heavily debated book The Good News Yesterday and Today.

Originally suppressed by the Jesuits, the book experienced a resurgence through its promotion by Johannes Hofinger, a one-time student of Jungmann, and the catechetical work of the Second Vatican Council. Catechetical study weeks of the 1960s further promoted the need for kerygma in catechesis, but the General Catechetical Directory (1971) and the General Directory for Catechesis (1997) relegate the kerygma to the initial proclamation of the Gospel to be replaced by a more systematic catechesis. In the Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis restores Jungmann’s proposal that the kerygma must be proclaimed throughout all catechetical activity:

In catechesis too, we have rediscovered the fundamental role of the first announcement or kerygma, which needs to be the center of all evangelizing activity and all efforts at Church renewal . . . it is the principal proclamation, the one which we must hear again and again in different ways, the one which we must announce one way or another throughout the process of catechesis, at every level and moment. (Evangelii Gaudium, §164)

Pope Francis argues that if we want to renew the Church, we need to proclaim the kerygma at every step of the catechetical process. Without the proclamation of the kerygma, we form students who are ready for Catholic Jeopardy, but not prepared for a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Without the kerygma, we put the cart before the horse and teach doctrine before we introduce the believer to the Person of Jesus Christ. Without a focus on the kerygma, Catholics will continue to believe a personal relationship is impossible and will continue to flee the Church at an alarming rate. Without the kerygmatic proclamation embedded in our religious education programs, we attempt to catechize without ever evangelizing.

If parishes embark on a kerygmatic model of catechesis as proposed by Jungmann, Hofinger, and Pope Francis, local communities would move from doing Church to being Church. Catholics would reclaim our story of a personal God who desires relationship. A catechetical program that is kerygmatic in nature creates dynamic disciples whose hearts are burning with love for God. It creates people ready for mission.

The kerygma is the door and foundation to Christian life and cannot be reduced to mere philosophical doctrine that is not evangelizing. The kerygma presents the Person of Jesus Christ and the story of our salvation in a direct and simple way. The kerygma presents God not as a doctrine, concept, or theory, but as a Person. Pope Francis encourages this kerygmatic catechesis:

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. (EG §165)

Catechesis cannot simply exist to impart knowledge for its own sake, but must serve to deepen a relationship with the Lord. When catechesis is kerygmatic, it enables the hearer to understand more fully the significance of the initial proclamation. When catechesis and theology become self-serving, they lose their evangelizing potential and become devoid of the life and joy of the Gospel. True kerygmatic catechesis leads individuals to a deepening of the experience of the Paschal Mystery in their own lives.

My parish is in the process of developing a kerygmatic model of catechesis throughout all of its ministries with the goal of attracting young adults and families to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. A semi-annual Kerygma Evangelization Retreat for adults has been introduced to the parish with great success. In the last year, over 160 parishioners have formed a more personal relationship with Jesus Christ and have begun to share their experiences with others throughout the community. These individuals have committed themselves to living a more authentic Christian way of life as described in Acts 2:42: “They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers.” The retreat is based on the Kerygmatic Evangelization Retreat designed by Fr. Alfonso Navarro in Mexico City in 1978, but has been adapted for an English-speaking American audience. This retreat is the centerpiece of the Systemic Integral New Evangelization (SINE) process of forming Small Christian Communities. These Small Christian Communities are growing throughout the various neighborhoods of our parish and organize the parish to evangelize others.

In addition to providing a retreat for the adults, the parish has a renewed vision that incorporates the kerygma into all aspects of the parish catechetical program. The kerygmatic model does not change the material being taught, but establishes a Christocentric focus to the curriculum. The main adjustment to our current model is not what we do and say, but how we do and say it. Catechists are strongly encouraged to participate in the Kerygma Retreat to inspire a deeper relationship with the Lord. Once the catechists are evangelized, they proclaim the Gospel with greater conviction and invite their students into relationship with the Lord. Catechists are no longer volunteers, but joyful evangelizers who witness the Gospel to our youth.

Through the efforts of our revitalized catechists, our youth are invited to experience a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and the Catholic faith. In our religious education program, four kerygmatic themes of community, prayer, Eucharist, and Scripture are stressed as ways to maintain this personal relationship with Christ and the Church. With each lesson catechists are asked to focus on two questions regardless of the lesson: 1) How does this topic help my students relate to Jesus Christ? 2) How will this lesson cause my students to live differently? These two questions invite the catechist to make their lessons more kerygmatic in nature.

Through the incorporation of the kerygma in our catechetical programs, we hope to allow our young people realize that they can have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and change the statistics quoted at the beginning of this article. Without an increased emphasis on the kerygma, which calls all people to a personal relationship with Christ, the trend of young Catholics feeling unfulfilled by the Church will continue. However, if we reclaim the bold and clear proclamation of the kerygma as Pope Francis has challenged the Church to do, we can form young Catholics who remain in the Church because of that personal relationship with Jesus that they so desperately seek.

Featured Image: Henrik Olrik, Sermon on the Mount, detail; courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Vincent J. Reilly

Vincent J. Reilly is the Director of Faith Formation at St. Catherine Catholic Church in Orange Park, Florida, where he leads several Kerygma Evangelization Retreats each year.