…conversion occurs when the Gospel speaks to the deepest yearnings of our hearts, and the desires present within us are filled by a supernatural grace that comes from God.
“The joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin…and loneliness” (EG 1). The message of Pope Francis’ 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium is clear: to preach the Gospel one must speak to the hearts of men and women today who seek an encounter with Jesus. But what can preaching give people today that it already hasn’t offered to the world before? Or put another way: if so many within the culture have already heard and dismissed the Gospel message, in what way are preachers useful or helpful to the world? To answer this question, I’d like to discuss two topics: holy preaching and conversion, and how both of these relate to the gift of wisdom.
Holy Preaching and Wisdom
A simple way to look at truth is the union of our mind to what is real. Truth is what you give as an answer to a question, and the role of speaking is to communicate the answers to questions that help your hearers find the truth. What is particular about preaching is that we, as Christians, are not merely conveying a list of truths that our hearers either assent to or dismiss. Pope Francis explains that preaching is “much more than the communication of truth” for it is a dialogue that “arises from the enjoyment of speaking and … enriches those who express their love for one another through the medium of words” (EG 142).
More than a discussion of facts, preaching is an engagement with another person. It is a dialogue where the spoken word is the medium of truth experienced in love. Truth is spoken in love when it is ordered by the gift of wisdom. The wise man is the one who orders, and wisdom is what orders man’s heart to perceive divine goodness, truthfully and freely. We all wish to love truthfully, but we can’t love well what we don’t know truly, or know in a disordered way. The role of the preacher is to set in order right loving by pointing to right knowing. This ordering of love and knowledge is done through the gift of wisdom. As it says in the Song of Songs, “He set in order charity in me” (Song of Songs 2:4). Just as wisdom orders a person’s love, so holy preaching hopes to reorder a man’s heart so that in his questions he asks well, then knows well, and finally loves well.
In other words, a person may have a specific question about the faith, but this may not be everything he wishes to ask. The one question a person has asked aloud may point to ten more questions that have yet to surface in conversation. Someone who asks about the specifics of purgatory may still have prior questions about the immortal soul; a man who questions confession may have further doubts about the nature of merit, God’s mercy, and the meaning of forgiveness.
The role of the preacher, then, is to find these further questions, and allow them to surface in an expanded and more complete conversation, carried out in truth and love. The hope is that just as the conversation is widened by truth speaking in love, so through grace, the hearer’s heart and mind are widened as well, as he sees one part of the faith in harmony and in conjunction with another. To understand the truths of the faith experienced in love is the beginning of wisdom.
I think that this widening of the faith, done through wisdom, is part of Pope Francis’ message in his apostolic exhortation, where he encourages Christians to present the faith in its entirety, without simply reducing it to certain moral issues. Pope Francis writes that “a preaching which would be purely moralistic or doctrinaire … detracts from this heart-to-heart communication” that engages a person in the truths and loving experiences of the faith (EG 142). A Gospel message that is preached simply from certain doctrinal, or moral, points runs the risk of becoming repetitive, inorganic, and unattractive to its hearers. The pope elsewhere states that “Christian morality is not a form of … self-denial, a practical philosophy or a catalogue of sins and faults,” but is an invitation “to respond to the God of love who saves us, to see God in others and to go forth from ourselves to seek the good of others” (EG 39).
I can think of one example to flesh out the pope’s invitation to preach the fullness of the Gospel as a communication of truth spoken in love. This past year, a number of Dominican friars went to speak at various secular student societies and atheist groups they visited in the D.C. area, and other parts of the country. Invited to different D.C. universities, the Annapolis Naval Academy, and other places to give a talk for 20-30 minutes, we ended up answering questions and talking with the students for some time, between two and three hours. Some of the initial questions were slow going, and dealt with current moral or social issues that you’d find in media circulation. But soon we began to discuss topics on the truths of the faith, the meaning of causality, and God’s existence. By the end of the evening, we spoke in smaller circles on the nature of being happy, the meaning of human life, and whether God really has chosen to speak to us personally. I don’t think either the friars, or the students, came prepared to speak on all the topics we covered, but my point is that we all gradually turned toward asking the questions that meant the most to each of us. What I’d like to draw from this point is that an authentic engagement with the culture doesn’t seem to be a response to the world’s current criticism, or its topic of the week. Rather, authentic preaching engages the culture in deep conversation that refocuses our vision to see, in a new light, the true and loving experience of the Gospel. As preachers, we hope to dispose others to see this light received in love.
Conversion and Wisdom
Having asked, and been given answers, to deeper questions dealing with reality, faith, and truth, the heart of man can now see, with a depth and insight, what was previously hidden. Pope Francis writes that one role of the Church is to help those distanced from her to “experience a conversion which will restore the joy of faith to their hearts, and inspire a commitment to the Gospel” (EG 15). The hope of this type of engagement is not so much that people assent to the faith on simply natural terms, but that a whole new vocabulary is given to them that makes conversion both attractive and possible.
I think this is why many in today’s culture resist or struggle with the idea of conversion. There are some, because of occupation, ideology, personal habit or platform, who are distanced from the truth in a state of confusion, indifference, or disbelief. Yet, these people may still be quietly seeking God, even if unconsciously, as the answer to their fundamental questions about happiness, their needs, and their desires. Pope Francis reminds us that the Gospel responds to our deepest needs by offering us friendship with Jesus Christ that grounds our love for the rest of humanity (EG 265). This fulfillment of our desires by God through grace is something supernatural. If conversion were simply a natural event, then people would just need the right disposition to hear the right message at the right time. But conversion occurs when the Gospel speaks to the deepest yearnings of our hearts, and the desires present within us are filled by a supernatural grace that comes from God.
God, who is the source of grace, can use our preaching to bring about the turning of peoples’ hearts towards love in conversion. Even with our faults and imperfections, all of us have a means to communicate the Gospel’s love and truth that we have experienced in our lives. Many of Pope Francis’ discussions of conversion in his exhortation have to do with the internal conversion of the Church’s members in our realization of how much we need God’s mercy. It is precisely because we are in need of mercy, and have experienced God’s forgiveness firsthand, that we can further communicate the need for God’s mercy to others. Pope Francis explains that every Christian who has experienced God’s love and mercy knows for himself that “it is not the same to live without him,” for we have come to realize the strength and meaning Christ has given to our lives (EG 121). The Gospel message of mercy that each of us has experienced is the same message we are able to share with others who feel distanced from the Church. It is God’s mercy and love that gives Christians consolation and hope. Following the pope’s exhortation to preach God’s mercy, what we have received from God, and what has given us hope, is what we need to communicate to others.
Following the promptings of grace in our life, the goal of preaching is to allow grace to continually deepen its path in a person’s life. If we have not set a limit on God’s mercy and grace in our own lives, then neither should we limit God’s power in our preaching to others. Faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ. Yet, the preaching of the Word is something “unpredictable in its power” that surpasses our calculations and ways of thinking about conversion by God’s grace (EG 22). This deepening of grace gives ground to conversion towards truth, where a desire for God can take firm root in right judgment, ordered by wisdom. Man’s will is first moved by goodness, then informed by charity, and perfected by wisdom to assent to the truth, and then is found at rest, peaceful at heart.
This is why St. Thomas Aquinas ties the gift of wisdom with the beatitude “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” To make peace is to make order, and wisdom orders all things sweetly, even man’s heart, to love God above all things. Therefore, in the fulfillment of conversion, we are called children of God because we participate in the likeness of the only-begotten Son of God, who is Wisdom himself. Those whom God foreknew, he conformed to the image of his Son (Rom 8:29). This image of conformity to the Son, to Jesus, is the end of conversion, whereby we are restored, and perfected to attain heaven itself, as adopted sons and daughters of God the Father.
Conversion, therefore, is made possible from a proper understanding of truth lived out in love, whereby we know and love God, and the world, in their proper order. To love God and the world in right order is to have wisdom, and to possess the gift of wisdom is to possess the image of the Son. Preaching from Wisdom leads to a conversion towards Wisdom. Therefore, what preaching has to offer the world today is an exhortation to truth, spoken in love, which is ordered by wisdom. In this way, conversion touches every aspect of a person’s life, where joy is born constantly anew in the gift of salvation. This is the joy of preaching, and the joy of the Gospel. When the entirety of the Gospel is preached, our hearers can partake of the full reality of what it means to know and love Christ. They will know complete truth. They will love perfectly, and be at peace. They will share in wisdom.