Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Communication of the Faith is an Interactive, Collaborative Process

Effective communication of ideas is not a one-way street, it requires the active involvement of both the speaker and the listener. Even if the listener is rather silent, as opposed to engaging in a dialogue, still in his passivity he must at least be as active as a sponge to receive and absorb the information, and not be so completely passive as to be like an inanimate stone, where the information simply washes over him. The most effective conveyance of information, however, requires that the listener be more than a sponge, that he provide signals or otherwise engage with the speaker, ideally having a conversation with him (the word "conversation" being from the Latin for "taking turns with").

Monsignor Charles Pope writes today of how important it is for good and effective preaching that the priest have some level of interactivity with his listening congregation.
I have commented elsewhere on the problem of poor preaching in our beloved Catholic Church. What I would like to do here is to note that the quality of preaching is not only dependent on the preacher but is also dependent upon the congregation. In our critique of Catholic preaching we tend to weigh in heavily on the priests’ shortcomings. But in this article I’d like to propose that our congregations in our parishes also have a role improving Catholic preaching.

My own experience as a priest powerfully underscores the role of congregation in helping to craft the preaching moment. I have served almost all of my 20 years in African American parishes. In these settings the congregation takes an active part in the preaching moment. Acclamations and affirmations such as “Amen!” “Go on!” “Make it plain preacher” “Hallelujah,” and the like are common. Hands are often raised in silent affirmation, nods of the head move through the congregation. Now all of this affects the preaching moment powerfully for me and helps it take shape and come to life.
Can I hear an "Amen"? What Msgr. Pope says about preaching proper can also be said about catechesis, on-going religious education and formation, especially because part of that role of the congregation in not leaving the priest hanging, leaving it all up to him to preach the Word, is the faithful laity being collaborators in that mission and helping to spread the Faith by evangelization and catechesis, etc.

In that respect, going into the Year of Faith, when we are all going to become more involved in our parishes and attending (or giving) the various talks and programs that are being offered for adults (or becoming more pro-active and involved in our kids’ education in CCD, etc.) — and we are all going to become more involved, right? right?? — in going to these talks and programs by priests and lay catechists, most of these are intended to be interactive, in other words, ask questions, help to get an actual group discussion going. Our priests and catechists are just that, they are not dentists, it shouldn’t be like pulling teeth with their audience.

Yesterday, in his address at the opening of the Synod of Bishops in Rome, Donald Cardinal Wuerl said an essential part of the New Evangelization is “a willingness to share [our faith] with others.” I know that the Monsignor has a fairly active and charismatic congregation, but many (most) other Catholics are notoriously reticent to express themselves and are all too often bumps on a log. But our faith is, by its very nature and at its foundational level, interactive, not passive. We need to get over our inwardness and become outward when it comes to sharing the faith.

I know that some of this is due to a feeling that to speak of our faith is to be an imposition upon people, but in proclaiming the Good News, we do not impose, we only propose. We offer them something better than what this cold world has given them. But that feeling of imposing ourselves on others certainly should not even be an issue when we are amongst fellow Catholics, especially Mass-going Catholics. Instead, we should be all too eager to share the joy of our faith and thereby confirm and strengthen our brothers and sisters in their own faith. Especially men — there was a period when I was not all that active and did not go to Mass regularly because church looked all too much like the stereotype of being something for old women — but with more men being active and speaking out, it will strengthen (and give “permission” to) other men to become more active.

With respect to working with the preacher, during the homily, even if you are not saying aloud “Amen,” etc., there are forms of non-verbal communication to help the preacher see that he is being heard and understood, one of which is actually paying attention and not flipping through the bulletin, or nodding or even just facial expressions can demonstrate if the priest is being understood and accepted or if there are possible objections to what he is saying, which allows him to then further explain and assuage any possible doubts. After Mass, rather than running for the car, give the priest encouragement by taking a moment or two to thank him for the good points he made in the homily, things that gave you something to think about. Better yet, rather than remaining a stranger with a vaguely familiar face, establish a personal relationship with your pastor and associate priests so that they at least know your name, and then when you discuss the homily with him, or offer constructive ideas for the future, you will be able to really engage with each other and he will know if he is on the right track, if his message is getting through effectively. Go to daily Mass now and then, rather than just on Sunday, and thereby help yourself as well as helping others in prayer and grace.

During the week, go to the talks and programs and workshops offered by your parish (or some nearby parish) and participate. Blessed Sacrament in Alexandria has something going on all the time, as do many of our neighboring parishes -- look in your parish bulletin or look in the diocese or archdiocese newspaper for scheduled events. Few things are worse than to see some speaker give a presentation, periodically asking questions, trying to draw people out, and hearing nothing but crickets in response. So, even if you already know the answer, help him or her out, and ask some question. Don't be a dead audience so that the speaker does not have to suffer a slow death up there. Involvement in the Church, both at Mass and on-going faith formation, should not be like going back to high school or college, where people are in fear that the teacher might cold call on people to say something.

In prayer and reading scripture and other works of faith, here too be interactive. Have an actual conversation with God in prayer, not a rote and mindless monologue, and notwithstanding the response that Job received, do not be afraid to ask questions and sincerely seek understanding, and then be willing to shut up and let God get a word in edgewise. Learn about lectio divina to similarly actively engage with the word of God, rather than just passively reading the text, resulting in the words being seeds that just sit there and never take root and sprout in you.

If we are to succeed in turning things around in this world, we must have “a willingness to share [our faith] with others,” as Cardinal Wuerl said. We must take the cover off the lamp and allow the Light of Christ to shine. Help out our priests in their preaching, help out our catechists in their teaching, help out our Lord in spreading His Good News.

(largely cross-posted at the ADW blog website)

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