Gospel preaching must be authentic or it is powerless

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By Fran Salone-Pelletier, Religion Columnist

Pope Francis presents the world with a visage of smiling humanity and a vision of prophetic possibilities. Reaching out to the poor and vulnerable, appealing to young and old alike, he projects an enthusiasm that cannot be denied. At the same time, he pronounces a message that challenges us, all of us, to the graced greatness we often deny. He will not allow us to remain solidly entrenched in mediocrity, no matter what faith affiliation we claim or disclaim. He is an energizer, encourager, and empowerer who will not remain silent in the face of stubbornness. He will not be voiceless in the presence of violence. He will not let the authority of authenticity be diminished or replaced by authoritarianism.
Not long ago, he wrote these words: “Once we saw the clerical state as a place of advancement instead of downward mobility, once ordination was not a form of initiation but a continuation of patriarchal patterns, the authentic preaching of the Gospel became the exception rather than the norm — whether Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant. The first human ‘demon’ that normally needs to be exposed is the human addiction to power, prestige, and possessions. These tend to pollute everything.”
I read them more than once. I cringed more intensely with each reading. The words spoke loudly to me, not solely of the profound responsibility given to church leaders, but to all of us. I substituted the word humanity in place of clerical state and understood ordination to mean baptismal commitment. Doing so, I discovered evidence of the disastrous results secured in our human desire for upward mobility. I saw more profoundly their negative affects on authentic preaching, from pulpits or from the mouths of God’s people everywhere. Whether we claim a denomination or not, a faith family or not, Christianity or not, the danger remains.
Power, prestige, possessions — and I would add, passivity — pollute. They contaminate and corrupt, defile and destroy our goodness. Worse yet, it is an insidious process. It begins with goodness — good ideas, good desires, good intentions, good people. There is nothing wrong with wanting to better ourselves. Nothing wrong, that is, until the desire exceeds the need. There is nothing wrong unless the acquired power becomes its own goal and begins to possess us. There is nothing wrong until the prestige clouds our ability and responsibility to understand another’s need, or fear, or anger. There is nothing wrong until passivity overcomes empathy and injustice reigns over mercy.
In a culture that applauds upward mobility, we need to embrace downward mobility. Sanctity needs to be understood as our path into the depth and breadth of holiness more than having and enjoying a stargazing eye to the sky. Our call and course is a profound responsibility, a deep understanding that we must, we need, to respond deeply to the needs we see.
Our insight must become our sight. Our sight must lead to insight. Both become our experience of life. It is the only experience we have to offer. It is our path to authenticity. If we haven’t engaged with life, we haven’t experienced it. Without the experience, our words are empty ones. Our thoughts ring with shallowness. Positive effects grind to a halt.
If this is hard to believe or accept, just watch the interaction of a little baby with an adult. Evidence of authenticity emerges when the adult is truly interested in the babe. After a few minutes, the child begins to smile, then gurgle, then shake with laughter. Contact was made. Communication started. Both are affected by and infected with the joy of humanity.
Similarly, small children are magnetically drawn to adults who exude attentiveness, who exhibit care. I’ve seen little ones come knocking at our front door asking if Hubby Dear can come out to play. Others, a bit older, have introduced their friends to him. One child acted as interpreter, repeating conversation because H.D. had admitted his hearing impairment. Compassion came easily in the aura of authenticity.
I have also viewed early departures upon the detection of inauthenticity. Conversations are detoured. People shrug their shoulders in dismay. Animated faces fade into blank façades. Credulity disappears into incredulity. Trust becomes mistrust or distrust. Life is lessened. Hearts begin to harden and minds begin to close. Pollution is in process. The demon of ladder climbing, in all its forms, is exposed. We can no longer pretend that we are not wearing the clothing of power, possessions, prestige, passivity. We are faced with the naked truth — and the ability to re-clothe ourselves with our original blessedness, our divinity. Thomas Merton and his disciple James Finley describe this movement as “learning to dance the cosmic dance.” They proclaim it the reason we are here on this earth, living the life we are living.
The dance is both exhilarating and exhausting, sometimes simultaneously. The steps are easy to learn but hard to master. It is daily exercise for the heart, mind, and spirit. To be authentic is not simply to stop seeking power, prestige, possessions. It is not simply to be active instead of passive. To be authentic is first to recognize, admit, and make real the wholesomeness of our humanity. It is to rejoice in being exactly the person God has created — the original masterpiece, not a facsimile.
Once the process has begun, progress will follow. Listening to the divinity of what is, the divinity of who we are, will empower our response to God’s graceful presence in our lives. Who we are is good enough for God. It may not be viewed as good enough for us. I think the false perception fuels our inauthenticity. When we change our minds, we can change our hearts. When we change our minds and hearts, we become our real selves. When we are our real selves, authentic human beings, we are magnetic people.
Others are drawn to us. Who we are becomes what we share. What we share opens doors for others to become who they are. The world is not simply our oyster. It is our pearl of great price — the jewel of existence in which we seek and find the God who is. It is the place where we exercise our downward mobility and discover that who I really am is all I really have.
What a ride!
Fran Salone-Pelletier has a master’s degree in theology and is the author of “Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives,” lead chaplain at Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center, religious educator, retreat leader, lecturer and grandmother of four. She can be reached at grammistfran@gmail.com.