The Catechetical Review - Communicating Christ for a New Evangelization

A Return to the Kerygma: The Path to Renewal

Authored by Chris Stefanick in Issue #8.3 of Catechetical Review

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If you find yourself in a fight, your extremities get cold. Your adrenaline kicks in and blood rushes to your core to pump your heart, support your lungs, and power your muscles so they can keep you alive. Moments of crisis are signals to get back to the heart of things. This isn’t only true of your body but of any institution. If a business is about to fail, it desperately needs to rush back to its “why”: Why do we exist? What are our core values? Are we being true to those values? If a marriage is in crisis, it’s time to return to its simple foundation: the exchange of hearts and vows at the heart of it all. And we need to ask the hard question, “Have we gotten so lost in all the ‘extremities’ of married life—the endless to-do’s that flowed from our vows—that we’ve forgotten the love that brought us together in the first place?”

What is at “the heart of things” for Catholics? In the words of Pope Francis, “we are in the middle of a love story . . . if we do not understand this, we have understood nothing of what the Church is.”[1] I’d argue that the number one threat to Catholicism is our forgetfulness of the exchange of hearts (man and God) which is the source of all-things-Catholic.

The world associates Catholicism with any number of rules, rituals, moral teachings, and political issues, but not with the core message of the Gospel from which all of the above flows. It’s no wonder so few are interested in what we have to offer. A Church without a clear proclamation of the love story is as unattractive as a marriage, with all its rules, rituals, and obligations, that has no love.

It’s time to return to our heart. It’s time to return to the kerygma.

Keryg-what?

In the Hellenistic world, before modern means of communication, breaking news and important announcements were communicated through a κηρυξ (keryx), often translated as “herald.” The herald was a messenger from a higher authority who bore that authority with him. To attack a messenger was to attack the king and could even trigger a war.

A kerygma was not the proclamation of a theory or a call for dialogue. Not that either of those is a bad thing, but a kerygma wasn’t up for debate. It was a statement of fact about breaking news that had an impact on the lives of those who heard it.

The concept of the keryx, and of the kerygma, were “baptized” and elevated in the New Testament, where it’s usually translated as “proclamation” or “preaching” and is used to describe the primary proclamation of the Gospel. John the Baptist, the apostles, and Jesus himself can all be seen as heralds, proclaiming a message that was not their own (“The words that I speak to you I do not speak on my own” [Jn 14:10]) and in the case of the saints, with an authority that was bigger than them. The Gospel heralds are sent “not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father” (Gal 1:1).

The essential content of the Gospel kerygma is:

  1. God has created man for a relationship with himself, a relationship destined to culminate in the eternal joy of divine love. (Jn 15:11; Rev 19:6–9)
  2. Man chose to reject God’s created purpose and is “broken.” (Rom 3:23)
  3. Jesus Christ, Savior and Lord, brings us back to our purpose and heavenly destination through the Paschal Mystery, which also reveals his love for us. (Rom 5:8)
  4. Metanoia (μετανοια), which literally means a “change in mind,” or conversion, and faith are our responses to this reality. (Mk 1:15)
  5. We’re called to join ourselves to God’s family, the Church, where we experience these saving mysteries in our lives through sacraments, prayer, community, and shared mission. (Acts 2:38–42)

 

Kerygma in the New Testament

Mural of apostle feeding the crowdWhile the above points are not all explicitly mentioned with each instance of the kerygma, they grow in clarity and force throughout the New Testament.

At the outset of the Synoptic Gospels, John the Baptist clearly plays the role of the keryx. Matthew, Mark, and Luke use the verb κηρυσσω (karousso) to describe John the Baptist’s proclaiming action. In the style of the true keryx, the Baptist stands and shouts. His message is clear. It’s not his own. It’s about breaking news that demands an action from the hearer. John is first seen “preaching in the desert . . . ‘Convert, for the kingdom of heaven has drawn near’” (Mt 3:1–2). (“κηρυσσων εν τη ερημω...Μετανοειτε, ηγγικεν γαρ η βασιλεια των ουρανων.”)

Jesus begins his public ministry with the same exact phrase as John the Baptist, “Convert, for the kingdom of heaven has drawn near” (Mt 4:17). (Μετανοειτε, ηγγικεν γαρ η βασιλεια των ουρανων.) Unlike John, Jesus did not point to another who was to come after him (Jn 1:27). The kingdom had drawn near in him, a fact that was also proclaimed through his miraculous deeds.

The difference in the Petrine and Pauline kerygmas is that Jesus’ identity as Savior and Lord had been fully revealed and actualized by the Paschal Mystery. Thus, in the Acts of the Apostles, the kerygma is complete. The Cross and Resurrection are always explicitly mentioned as part of the announcement of the Gospel. In addition, the call to join oneself to the sacramental and communal life of the Church, which is now established, is clear. In Acts 2, when the crowd asks what to do in response to the Good News, Peter immediately responds, “be baptized” (Acts 2:38), and the Church is depicted as gathering for the Eucharist and fellowship (Acts 2:42).

The first point of the kerygma (the existence of God and his creative purpose) is only explicitly mentioned when the target audience needs it. When Paul proclaims the Gospel to the Jews, this is obviously not the case (Acts 13), but when he proclaims the Gospel to the Athenians, he reminds them that there is a personal God (no mere statue), and that “he is not far from any one of us” (Acts 17:27).

Essential Elements of the Kerygma

There are many things we can learn about the kerygma in the New Testament, but I’ll share four that are particularly pertinent for us today.

1. The message is shaped to fit its audience.

The essential content of the kerygma never changes, but its delivery does because it never occurs in a vacuum. It always occurs to a particular people in a particular time and place.

We can even observe this in the way the Gospels are written. If Luke, who wrote to Gentiles, kicked off the Good News with the same words as Matthew, that “the kingdom is at hand,” with no further explanation, he would have confused his audience. Instead, he shares the Good News that the deaf hear, the blind see, the captives are set free, and the poor receive the Good News (see Lk 4:18–19). He shares what the kingdom looks like. Matthew, writing to Jews, simply records Jesus saying, “The kingdom is at hand.” Jews knew what that meant.

This tailoring of the message to the audience continues in the Acts of the Apostles. While Paul is clear that the essential content of his proclamation will always be the same, “we preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor 1:23), his varying approaches appeal to what each group seeks. “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom” (1 Cor 1:22).

Paul’s proclamation in the Synagogue at Antioch (Acts 13:16–41) starts with a brief account of the history of Israel and sets forth the Cross and Resurrection as the fulfillment of that history—their history.

Paul's proclamation to the Athenians (Acts 17:22–31) doesn’t quote prophets. He appeals to their thirst for wisdom. His opening “hook” is a statue that Athenians had erected to an “Unknown God” (Acts 17:23). He draws a crowd’s attention with the words; “Now what you are worshiping in ignorance I intend to make known to you” (Acts 17:23). In the proclamation that follows, Christ is presented as the fulfillment not of Isaiahan prophecy but of the Greeks’ quest for wisdom (1 Cor 1:22) about who God is (Acts 17:27). When speaking of the presence of God among men, Paul does not say “the kingdom of heaven has drawn near” (Mt 3:2); rather, he quotes one of their “prophets,” a Greek poet and philosopher, Epicurus, “In him we live, we move and have our being . . . For we too are his offspring” (Acts 17:28). When calling them to convert, he specifically mentions their sin of idol worship. Once again, Christ is not just proclaimed as Savior and Lord of the world, nor of the Jews, but as their Savior and Lord, and as a fulfillment of their “story.”

Explaining the events of Pentecost to Jews gathered in Jerusalem, Peter sets the stage for his first proclamation by explaining, this “is what Joel the prophet spoke of” (Acts 2:16). Like Paul, his first priority was to fit the message to the heart of his audience.

This is as important today as ever. We aren’t to change the message. It’s not ours. But our most urgent priority is who to send  and how to deliver the message to hearts today. In the words of Pope St. Paul VI, “The history of the Church, from the discourse of Peter on the morning of Pentecost onwards, has been intermingled and identified with the history of this proclamation. At every new phase of human history, the Church, constantly gripped by the desire to evangelize, has but one preoccupation: whom to send to proclaim the mystery of Jesus? In what way is this mystery to be proclaimed? How can one ensure that it will resound and reach all those who should hear it?”[2]

When the heart of the hearer doesn’t burden a messenger as deeply as fidelity to the message, we might be loud and clear, but we’ll be a noisy gong and clanging cymbal (1 Cor 13:1), more likely to repel than fulfill the great commission to “make disciples” (Mt 28:19). Note that Our Lord didn’t commission us to “bring my message,” but to bear the burden of doing it effectively.

When I preach the Gospel to audiences, I often start with a question like “Who wants more joy?” To some this sounds non-traditional, but I’m following a method that goes back to the epicenter of Christian faith!

2. The goal is personal conversion.

The goal of the kerygma, also referred to as “primary proclamation,” is personal conversion. In Catechesi Tradendae,Pope St. John Paul II gives a beautiful insight into what the kerygma is and what personal conversion looks like. It is “the initial ardent proclamation by which a person is one day overwhelmed and brought to the decision to entrust himself to Jesus Christ by faith.”[3] Ah, the soul overwhelmed by the love of God, deciding to give his life to Jesus Christ! (Sorry, I just had to revel in that thought for a moment.)

And while personal conversion leads to communion with the Church and conformity with Church teaching, it is profoundly personal. We are not asking people to accept a set of ideas or membership in a community but, first and foremost, a Person who is “proposing” his life and love to them. The rest follows.

In every ministry effort, from preaching, to catechesis, to small groups, to gently nudging a friend to faith over a cup of coffee, we need to keep this personalistic reality in mind to be effective. My mentor in Catechetics, Barbara Morgan, would often tell candidates in RCIA, “If you don’t believe in God, ask him to show you he exists.” Or to those who already believed but weren’t Catholic and were considering the Church, “Ask Jesus what Church he wants you in. Then follow him.” A keryx’s job is simply to make space for an encounter with God.

To diverge for a moment into how I do this in my own personal ministry: when preaching at our evangelistic events called Reboot—which I’ve been blessed to give to over two hundred thousand people and counting—I lead participants to a moment of prayer where I invite them to make a decision to receive Jesus as Savior and Lord of their lives. Many tell me it’s the first time they’ve experienced such a thing in a Catholic setting. Some have told me it feels “Baptist.”

It’s striking to me that what I do is so rare in the Catholic context. Maybe we’ve gone too far in trying to distance ourselves from Protestants, with whom we sometimes differ on how someone is “saved.” Or perhaps we’ve come to think that since we’re already baptized, such a prayer is superfluous. It’s funny how the same people who would see this as superfluous are often fans of Marian consecration (which, for the record, I am too!), whereby the believer, by an act of his will, entrusts himself to Mary, despite the fact that baptism already brings us into the family of the Church wherein Mary is already our mother. See the disconnect here? Of course, we already have Jesus as Savior and Lord if we are baptized, but the movement of will and personal decision for Jesus are still immensely important if we’re to experience conversion and live as his disciples.

I hope that what I do at Reboot becomes commonplace in the Church again. We won’t see a person make that personal “decision to entrust himself to Jesus Christ by faith” if we don’t ask him to.

3. Kerygma comes before catechesis, and catechesis needs to constantly refer back to it.

The Big Bang Theory holds that all the matter and energy now present in our universe was compacted into one single point—a singularity—before it exploded into all directions, eventually forming our universe.

Just so, the entire body of teaching, liturgy, and life of Christians exploded from the kerygma. In the words of Msgr. Eugene Kevane, “This message is the essential content of Christianity. It contains the substance of the Apostles’ Creed and the outline of what will become the four Gospels.”[4]

It’s so central to the life of Christians and the process of evangelization—which, in reality, refers to all that we do to “make disciples”—that it’s often confused with the word “evangelization” itself. In the words of Pope St. Paul VI, “This proclamation—kerygma, preaching or catechesis—occupies such an important place in evangelization that it has often become synonymous with it; and yet it is only one aspect of evangelization.”[5]

And because all the rest of Christian life comes from the kerygma like the universe from that singularity, or like married life from the marital vow, it has to come first. The command given by Our Lord in the Great Commission to “baptize” and to “teach” follow his command to “make disciples” (see Mt 28:16–20).

The Church continues to drive this proper order home for us in the General Directory for Catechesis (GDC): “Frequently, many who present themselves for catechesis truly require genuine conversion. Because of this the Church usually desires that the first stage in the catechetical process be dedicated to ensuring conversion . . . Only by starting with conversion, and therefore by making allowance for the interior disposition of ‘whoever believes,’ can catechesis, strictly speaking, fulfill its proper task.”[6]

The GDC goes on to note five groups who are especially in need of primary proclamation: “non-believers; those who have chosen unbelief, those Christians who live on the margins of Christian life, those who follow other religions, and children who have yet to be awakened in faith.”[7] I’d add to that “adults who have yet to be awakened in faith,” since nostalgia, more than a conversion of heart, keeps many in our pews.

Only after proclaiming the kingdom and drawing a crowd of believers does Jesus, who had been standing and proclaiming the kingdom as a keryx, sit in the posture of a teacher and begin to catechize. In the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5–7), Christ the teacher outlined the details of the kingdom he had already proclaimed, and which was already consented to by his followers (though they didn’t yet know all the details . . . kind of like newlyweds!).

And since catechesis flows directly from the kerygma, it has the same goal, and we need to keep that goal in mind. In the words of Pope St. John Paul II, “the definitive aim of catechesis is to put people not only in touch but in communion, in intimacy, with Jesus Christ.”[8] When teaching any topic, a catechist should ask, “How does this connect the listener to the Lord himself? How does it tie back to the love of God proclaimed in the kerygma?” If we fail to make that connection, catechesis will be perceived as disjointed doctrines and rules.

To keep the connection of catechesis to the kerygma clear, it can even be helpful to remember the five points of the kerygma when teaching a particular message. When I used to give chastity assemblies, for instance, I would make the case that: (1) Sex is sacred and good because God created it; (2) When we abandon the Maker’s plan (that sex is to be an expression of married love, open to life), preferring instead our own plans (that sex can be for whatever we’d like, divorced from marriage and life), we end up broken, and evidence of that brokenness is everywhere; (3) God loves us so much that he died for us and invites us to start over after we fall. He has the solution to the problem of our brokenness; (4) We are called to change; (5) We can experience that change in confession and with the support of the Church. See how I included all five points of the kerygma in that message? My chastity talk was never about saying “no” to sex but saying “yes” to the love we’re created for. It was always an open door to preach the Gospel.

Failure to connect doctrine and moral teaching back to the kerygma presents a Christianity that’s like a loveless marriage, one that has let the many activities and obligations of married life drown out the love that is the reason for married life in the first place.

4. The message is confirmed by deeds.

The kerygma is always backed by action. Jesus “proclaimed the good news of the kingdom and cured the people of every disease and illness” (Mt 4:23). Jesus’ early ministry is summed up by Mark with the words, “He went into their synagogues preaching the good news and expelling demons throughout the whole of Galilee” (Mk 1:39). His miraculous deeds confirmed what he proclaimed: that the kingdom was here and it conquers the kingdom of death.

Likewise, when Jesus sent the twelve, he sent them not only to proclaim the kingdom in words, but in deeds:

  • “Jesus summoned the twelve and began to send them out two by two, giving them authority over unclean spirits . . . they expelled many demons, anointed the sick with oil, and worked many cures.” (Mk 6:7, 13)
  • “As you go make this announcement: ‘The reign of God is at hand!’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, heal the leprous, expel demons.” (Mt 10:7–8)
  • “He sent them forth to proclaim the reign of God and heal the afflicted.” (Lk 9:2)

We can see miracles woven throughout the work of the apostles in the book of Acts. This was an enduring sign that Jesus was true to his promise to remain with them always (Mt 28:20).

Christians are called to make a proclamation that is backed by deeds to this day. Sometimes this means miracles, and we should ask for those with faith. But more often, God wants us to reveal the kingdom among us through lives that show the fruits of the Holy Spirit: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal 5:22–23). What could attract people to our way of life more than that? God also wants us to proclaim the kingdom through thriving and inviting communities and by works of charity. Without all of that, our proclamation won’t be very compelling to anyone.

Today

If the world has forgotten the relevance of the Christian message, and countless souls are growing cold and are about to fall away from the faith, it’s because we’ve wandered from the heart of all this. We’ve become like a marriage grown cold.

In the words of Pope St. John Paul II, “Religion itself, without the experience of wondrous discovery of the Son of God and communion with him who became our brother, becomes a mere set of principles which are increasingly difficult to understand, and rules which are increasingly hard to accept.”[9] In the words of Pope Benedict XVI, the Church can’t become “identified with certain commandments or prohibitions [because if it is] . . . we give the impression that we are moralists with a few somewhat antiquated convictions, and not even a hint of the true greatness of the faith appears.”[10] And in the words of Pope Francis, “We [as a Church] cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. . . . when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context.”[11] None of this is to say that we shouldn’t talk about the Church’s moral teaching or all the rest, but that we should start with their context and constantly situate them within it or they cease to be compelling and start to seem burdensome. The kerygma—the “love story” of God—is the context.

And the kerygma isn’t something we grow beyond and graduate from any more than a married couple grows past the vows of their wedding day. To the contrary, staying rooted in their “exchange of hearts” keeps the marriage alive and, in time of crisis, will renew it. In this time of crisis, our most urgent task for renewal is a return to the heart of it all. We need to be known as the Church of the Gospel again.

Chris Stefanick is the founder and president of Real Life Catholic, which is largely devoted to renewal through kerygmatic evangelization. An author of many books, he is best known for writing the Chosen confirmation program and The Search program. His media can be seen everywhere from EWTN to radio to social media. 

Notes


[1] Francis, Homily at a Mass for Vatican Bank employees, Catholic News Agency Website, April 24, 2013,https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/27073/church-is-a-love-story-pop....

[2] Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, 22.

[3] John Paul II, Catechesi Tradendae, 25.

[4] Eugene Kevane, Jesus the Divine Teacher: What the Prophets Really Foretold (Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2005), 258.

[6] Congregation for the Clergy, General Directory for Catechesis (Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1998), 62.

[7] General Directory for Catechesis, 51.

[8] Catechesi Tradendae, 5.

[9] John Paul II, Pastoral Visit in Kazakhstan, September 23, 2001.

[10] Benedict XVI, Conclusion of the meeting of the Holy Father with the Bishops of Switzerland, November 9, 2006.

[11] Francis, “A Big Heart Open to God: An interview with Pope Francis,” interview by Antonio Spadaro, America Magazine, September 30, 2013, https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2013/09/30/big-heart-open-god-interview-pope-francis

 

 

This article originally appeared on pages 14-15 of the printed edtion..


This article is from The Catechetical Review (Online Edition ISSN 2379-6324) and may be copied for catechetical purposes only. It may not be reprinted in another published work without the permission of The Catechetical Review by contacting editor@catechetics.com

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