On the Power of Personal Witness in Priestly Ministry

043014I was at a meeting of the Seminary Council today for one of our diocesan seminaries. It is the Redemptoris Mater Seminary that is currently training almost thirty of our Washington men for priestly Ministry. Four men are currently stepping forward for Holy Orders this spring, and each spoke to the Council seeking our prayers and recommendation to the Cardinal.

They are all fine men, but what most impressed me was that when asked to tell us a little something about themselves, they went beyond the mundane (date of birth, country of origin, basic course of studies, etc.). Instead, each man gave personal testimony of how the Lord has both ministered to and transformed him. These men were witnesses of the Lord and His power.

Each of them spoke of how the Lord rescued him from various afflictions, family and personal struggles, and agnostic or ambivalent tendencies. Each spoke of how the Lord called him and made a way for him, how the Lord has transformed his own life.

I told them how important it is to share this personal witness with the people they serve. They really did not need for me to say this, since the Neocatechumenal Way has personal witness and testimony as an important hallmark of their formation and liturgical experience.

I too have discovered the importance of the priest bearing personal witness to the gospel in his preaching, teaching, and daily life. I have discovered that our people need—are hungry—for those of us who preach to move beyond mere aphorisms and abstract homilies to a personal witness of the truth. We cannot simply proclaim the truth; we have to know it; we have to experience that it is true. We have to be firsthand witnesses and be able to articulate how we have personally experienced the power of the Cross of Jesus Christ to put sin to death and bring newness of life to us.

Earlier this week, I was privileged to preach to almost 200 priests on retreat and shared some of these thoughts with them. We who preach are called to be witnesses, not just those who pass on information or instruction.

St. Paul wrote, If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation (2 Cor 5:17). The danger for a bishop, priest, or deacon who preaches is that he merely quotes the Scripture as a handy phrase or slogan. What is supposed to happen is that the preacher is able to say,

Yes, if anyone is in Christ he IS a new creation, and I can personally say to you, my people, that this is true not only because it is in the Bible, but because it is happening in my life. I, am a new creation. I am seeing my life changed and transformed by the cross of Jesus Christ. Through the sacraments, his Word, prayer, and the ministry of the Church, Jesus Christ is setting me free from sin and every negative thing in my life. He is breaking the chains of the things that held me in bondage. He is giving me a new mind and a new heart. I love people I never thought I could love! I am more chaste than I ever thought possible. Serenity and joy are replacing fear and depression. I am more and more a man of hope, confidence, and courage. Yes, I AM a new creation. What the Lord says is true, and I am a witness. I’m not what I want to be, but I’m not what I used to be. A wonderful change has come over me.

I am convinced that many Catholics long to hear their clergy speak with conviction—like men who have actually met Jesus Christ. Of course, before they speak such things, they actually have to be true!

I am glad that the men who testified today have actually met Jesus Christ and experienced His power. They have something to say because something real has happened to them. And herein lies the necessity not only for clergy, but for parents, and for all Christians, who are called to evangelize. It is absolutely critical that we personally know the Lord Jesus Christ, the Love of His Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. It is essential that, in the laboratory of our own lives, we have tested the Word of God and found it to be true. And from these experiences we can preach, speak, and witness with authority.

We preach with authority only if we have met the “author” and felt His power to transform our lives. Otherwise we risk giving information, but without the conviction or personal witness that helps people to transformation. We can say all the right and orthodox things, but then comes the ultimate question: “That’s all very nice, but how do I know it’s true?” And the preacher, the teacher, the parent, the catechist, or the evangelizer has got to be able to say in response, “Look at me…I promise you it is true because it is happening in my life. I promise you in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ that a completely new life is available to you, and I am a firsthand witness of it.”

The Greek word for authority is “exousia” which more literally means to preach out of (one’s own) substance. It means to preach as one who has substantially experienced what he speaks of.

Of course to be able to say all this requires that it is actually happening! That’s why it is so important for priests, parents, and all Church leaders to tend to their own spiritual lives—to study the Word of God and see its truth in the laboratory of their own lives, to consider well the evidence and gather their own testimony.

Fulton Sheen once remarked that we have tried seemingly every other way to evangelize and grow the Church: seminars, workshops, committees, new music, liturgical creativity—all to little avail. But one thing only has not been tried: holiness. Yes, authentic transformation comes only when we finally take the Lord up on His offer—and take His word seriously—that we are and can become a new creation.

“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.” St. Paul couldn’t just look this up and quote it like a slogan. He had to write it. And before he wrote it he actually experienced it. So when Paul says this, it’s not a slogan; it is a surety; it is an experienced truth.

This is what the Church needs: humble but strong preachers who have confirmed the Word of God in their own lives. Men who can boast, not of what they have done, but of what the Lord has done for them through the power of His cross to put sin to death and bring grace alive. And from experience comes authority, for they have met the Author of their salvation.

Thanks be to God for these men at the seminary today and for their witness, their testimony, their “boasting” in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ (cf Gal 6:14).

The photo at the above-right (taken by yours truly) is of the Redemptoris Mater Seminary in Washington, D.C.

This song says, You Should be Witness…Why don’t you testify? Don’t be afraid to be a witness for the Lord…Stand up and be a witness!

11 Replies to “On the Power of Personal Witness in Priestly Ministry”

  1. Monsignor Pope,
    I think I evangelized to an atheist coworker today…she was glad that for
    the botched execution in OK today; so, I paraphrased John (chapter 8)
    where Jesus told the men to cast the first stone if they weren’t without any
    Sin. I told her that yes, everyone must pay for their sins either here or in the
    Afterlife. And that even though the human part of me could say he got what
    he deserved, the spiritual part of me hoped he repented and was saved!
    I pray for her at Mass almost every Sunday and I think this is the form of
    Evangelization that I prefer. But I’m also trying to evangelize with words…
    Thank you for your guidance through your posts….

    Your daughter in Christ, anna

  2. Yes, only when someone speaks from his depths of how the LORD had touched him, do people listen, for how can one share something when one has not been shared with? One cannot give what he does not have. And people know if one is authentic. Only when one speaks from the depths of his heart of how GOD renewed him and show it in the manner of living his life will anyone get attention and be listened to. I know it because a priest gently ministered to me with very little words and he touched my heart and I knew I had to change. I saw a new creation in him. Praise be to GOD for our priests. We pray for you all and for all who are becoming one.

  3. Saint Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel. If necessary, use words.” I’m a layman, a part-time student in a lay-degree program at a seminary in this country. The seminarians I’ve met over the past couple of years have been young men, and some not so young ones, who seem to have been utterly transformed by the Gospel. They are more personable, more open emotionally, better trained, more zealous for the Gospel, more intellectual, more masculine–than any seminarians I have seen over the past half century. And there are more of them than I can recall having seen at any point over the past 50 years. Praise God.

  4. I’m trying to root my experience with the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit by sitting in silence for an hour every day mostly just by “being” with them. I also have access to a forest in which I walk for 30 minutes and pray mentally for myself, family, friends and others. This has transformed me in that I turn to God to thank Him for blessings that come my way during the day knowing it is He that gave them to me and guidance and support during difficult times. Spending this length of time with Him daily makes me feel I have a real relationship with Him and I can trust Him to get me through anything. Not many people can relate to this but I do look for ways to witness. A new transformation for me has been a focus on loving my enemies. A friend said that in AA when you’re thinking of them, you repeat, “Bless them, Bless them, Bless them”. I’ve started doing this and it really helps to keep the negative thoughts about them away.

    Thank you Msgr. Pope for your daily blog. It has helped me tremendously.

  5. I sooashbeel from pakistan.. I have studied your web site, and I found it the most wonderful site to get right to the True Word of God. My suggestion for you is to create your material in my language of Urdu, Punjabi, Hindi, Pashto, Sindhi, Sraiki, and Balochi also. It will bring lots of blessings of the Word of God for the Pakistani and Indian Urdu and Punjabi and other local languages speaking people. For that purpose, I as a translator will bring your material into my languages and into Indian language as well. I will be printing and distributing your material to my people around me. Although it will take your low expenses as well, as fund for the Word of God to reach out to the deserving people. I my self, work on a local radio station also. Many times it becomes difficult for us to keep doing this because of being minorities and because of the lack of the financial resources. I will wait for your response.
    Sincerely yours
    soo ashbeel

  6. This article should be required reading for every Bishop, priest, deacon, seminarian, catechist, RE teacher and parent who wants to have their children baptised. (And anybody else engaged in evangelisation/catechesis, in case I have missed anybody out.)

  7. We are blessed in the Archdiocese I live in with a packed seminary and many holy priests. These priests draw people to them because you can see Christ in them, by their actions and their words. They aren’t afraid to talk about their own experiences with the Lord and they give us examples on how to deepen our relationship with Jesus Christ. They aren’t afraid to talk about sin and repentence either. As a layperson, it is almost impossible to have a priest for a spiritual director, but if you go to daily Mass, you are given one through the homiles and reconciliation. Jesus provides through His priests, not just the Sacraments, but witnesses who sacrifice themselves for us all. It is a beautiful thing.

  8. Monsignor, I very much enjoy your blog. And I especially liked your post above. It recalled an article that Cardinal Avery Dulles wrote some years ago for First Things: http://www.firstthings.com/article/2008/08/the-rebirth-of-apologetics. Cardinal Dulles argued that “personal testimony” is particularly needed to show that God exists and reveals himself to us. I think, though — and I know that you do not disagree; your post says as much — that this is not a task simply for the clergy. Rather, all of us who are baptized need to do this.

  9. Finally! I love hearing you bring forth the truth. Out on the streets especially, we must be authentic witnesses for Christ. There will be affirmation from those you minister to. Often it may be one saying “i feel Him, I see Him in you” One hot summer morning about 4 years ago, a small group of very old African American men and women suddenly surrounded me. A bit startled. i stood still as they felt my face, kissing me and patting me with such love. i kept hugging them not understanding what they were doing. Then one of the eldest of the men, said “Child, you have Christ all in you, don’t you know that?” i wept.

  10. Authentic Christian witness is the key. Walking the walk along with talking the talk must be consistent even if one trips and falls, but must have the humility and courage to get up and keep movin’ on on the journey. We have many Christian witnesses who have given us many examples to follow. It is up to each of us to make a commitment to be transformed, reformed and conform to the ways of Jesus Christ.

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