Liturgy, Kerygma, and the Personal Relationship with Christ

The Compendium on the New Evangelization, issued by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, gives new meaning to the term “weighty tome,” coming in at nearly 3.5 pounds and 1,126 pages! It traces the topic back to Pope Pius XII, who in 1947 lamented that Rome itself had become a missionary territory.

The book shows a clear paper trail from Pius XII to the present day.

Pope St. John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council, which in the second paragraph of its first approved document, Sacrosanctum Concilium, connects liturgy and evangelization:

While the liturgy daily builds up those who are within into a holy temple of the Lord . . . at the same time it marvelously strengthens their power to preach Christ, and thus shows forth the Church to those who are outside as a sign lifted up among the nations. . . . (SC §2)

The Council went on to say in Apostolicam Actuosotatem:
On all Christians therefore is laid the preeminent responsibility of working to make the divine message of salvation known and accepted by all men throughout the world. (§3)

The Compendium goes on to give 1,126 pages of similar quotes. Then comes Pope Francis, who gave us a whole encyclical on the subject, Evangelii Gaudium. For the popes of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the New Evangelization is not a marginal activity. It is essential to the mission of the Church in the modern world.

Occasionally there is tension between liturgists and evangelizers, especially when the latter speak of a “personal relationship with Christ.” For some, this smacks a bit too much of a “Jesus and Me” theology that marginalizes social justice, the works of mercy, and the communal nature of the Church. Yet, throughout history, the Church has always preached a personal relationship with Christ, even if we have not always used those words. The beginning of the Catechism of the Catholic Church reads:

God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life. For this reason, at every time and in every place, God draws close to man. He calls man to seek him, to know him, to love him with all his strength. He calls together all men, scattered and divided by sin, into the unity of his family, the Church. To accomplish this, when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son as Redeemer and Savior. In his Son and through him, he invites men to become, in the Holy Spirit, his adopted children and thus heirs of his blessed life. (CCC §1)

Sounds like a personal relationship to me. The Catechism then connects this personal relationship with Christ to the liturgy:
“Great is the mystery of the faith!” The Church professes this mystery in the Apostles’ Creed and celebrates it in the sacramental liturgy, so that the life of the faithful may be conformed to Christ in the Holy Spirit to the glory of God the Father. This mystery, then, requires that the faithful believe in it, that they celebrate it, and that they live from it in a vital and personal relationship with the living and true God. (CCC §2558)

Kerygma is the Greek word that encompasses the essential truths of our faith: Christ died and rose victorious over death; Christ is with us today! Through this explicit proclamation, people can discover a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ and nurture relationships with their brothers and sisters—the life of faith, Actus Fidei. In that conversion, the journey of a lifetime, liturgy can be one of the most formative experiences.

Pope Francis has a very particular and detailed vision of how this should reach and impact the lives of rank and file Catholics around the world. The parish is at the heart of his plan.

The parish is the presence of the Church in a given territory, an environment for hearing God’s word, for growth in the Christian life, for dialogue, proclamation, charitable outreach, worship and celebration. In all its activities the parish encourages and trains its members to be evangelizers. It is a community of communities, a sanctuary where the thirsty come to drink in the midst of their journey, and a center of constant missionary outreach. (Evangelii Gaudium, §28, emphasis added)

The evangelizing parish has a clear focus on the celebration of Holy Mass. Francis writes:
Evangelization with joy becomes beauty in the liturgy, as part of our daily concern to spread goodness. The Church evangelizes and is herself evangelized through the beauty of the liturgy, which is both a celebration of the task of evangelization and the source of her renewed self-giving. (EG §24)

Mgsr. Romano Guardini, an early twentieth century leader of the Liturgical Movement in Germany, wrote an “Open Letter” about liturgy in 1964. He told this story, whose moral contains an important liturgical and evangelization truth, about a nineteenth century priest complaining about a procession:
“We must organize the procession better; we must see to it that the praying and singing is done better.” He did not realize that he should have asked himself quite a different question: how can the act of walking become a religious act, a retinue for the Lord progressing through his land, so that an “epiphany” may take place.

For Guardini, there is more to liturgy than simply going through the motions and mouthing the words. He continues:
Of what does the integrated liturgical act consist? This becomes clearest when it is a matter of “doing,” for instance, the offertory procession, where this is customary. It makes all the difference whether the faithful look on this procession as a mere means to an end which could have been achieved equally well with someone coming round with the collection-plate, or whether they know that the act of bringing their gifts is a “prayer” in itself, a readiness towards God.

While every Mass is efficacious, irrespective of the disposition of the ministers or the congregation, it is also evident that the liturgical ministers’ relationship with Christ makes a difference in the evangelical content of the celebration. This was evident in Fr. Guardini’s Masses, as described by a contemporary who knew him during the dark days of the rise of Nazism:
[Guardini] was a person who by his words and actions drew us into a world where the sacred became convincingly and literally tangible. His mere appearance radiated something for which I have no better word than luminous . . . With him on the altar, the sacred table became the center of the universe . . . [giving us the] courage to face, to endure, and to resist a world in which the forces of evil, Satan and his demons, were running rampant.[1]

The lesson? Liturgies become more evangelical when the liturgical ministers are themselves ardent disciples of Christ. While there is more to learn about liturgy and evangelization, this observation provides a firm foundation for that quest.

Featured Photo: Prayitno Photography; CC-BY-2.0

[1] Heintz R. Kuehn, ed., “Introduction” in The Essential Guardini (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1997), 7–8.



Bob Waldrop

Bob Waldrop is the Director of Music and Liturgy, and is on the leadership team for the evangelization ministry, at Epiphany of the Lord parish in Oklahoma City. He is the founder of the Oscar Romero Catholic Worker House. He previously served on the Migrants and Refugees Advisory Committee of Catholic Charities Oklahoma City, and has received awards from the Sierra Club and the Oklahoma Sustainability Network for his work to care for Creation.

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