I 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!