I am told that – in the old days – November 13th was a big day for the youngest one in the novitiate. On the feast day of Stanislaus Kostka , the most junior of the novices had to dress up in full pomp (Jesuit gown and black biretta!) and preach on the patron saint of Jesuit Novices. Though I did not have to dress up for the occasion, I remember that day as my first attempt at preaching. A year after this Rite of Jesuit initiation in Homiletics, I reflect on what is to preach like a Jesuit. After all, preaching is a way to bring the gospel to others.
Unlike Dominicans, preaching is not what we are renowned for. However, there is something very particular about our way of preaching. As a matter of fact, my first encounter with the Ignatian spirituality was through the pulpit. I mean that I first came across the Society of Jesus by listening to a Jesuit homily. Bringing to mind this vocational milestone in my life, I can think of a common factor among Jesuit preachers: spiritual depth.
We Jesuits are men of the Spiritual Exercises. The Spiritual Exercises is a school of prayer and discipleship. Through them, we start to shape our relationship with God by finding him in all things. This deep relationship with God has an effect in our apostolic lives. Thus, Jesuit preaching invites the listener to come to a deeper understanding of how God moves in his (or her) life.
It is not surprising then that Ignatius writes in the Constitutions about preaching. In brief, our Constitutions mention preaching as a key tool for our mission of helping souls (ayudar a las almas). Moreover, our Constitutions remind us of the importance of getting into the practice of preaching from the start of Jesuit formation. According to them, preaching (and hearing confessions for those novices who are already priests) is one of the six experiments (experiencias) that a novice ought to undergo before taking first vows. I ask myself why Ignatius made such a fuss about preaching.
As you might have noticed, I find preaching a challenging task. However, I’ve learnt the importance of it. In my short life as a Jesuit, I think that preaching is an invitation to immerse ourselves in the sensus fidelium (the sense of the faithful). If we ought to feel and think with the Church (sentire cum ecclesia), we need to come into contact with people’s daily lives. In this regard, my latest experiment taught me a few lessons on Jesuit preaching.
During the month on October, I was sent to Lima in Peru to renew my papers and to undertake an experiment with the Jesuit community in the in district of El Agustino, in the east of Lima. The Jesuits run a parish called Virgen de Nazaret. And what a parish! One main church and five chapels. And when the priest were not available for Mass, I was sent to the chapels to do paraliturgia (i.e. a liturgy of the word with distribution of holy communion). As you can imagine I got a lot of practice in preaching …
Through trial and error, under the supervision of the parish priest, I learned what homiletics are about. People don’t look for an exegetical class or systematic morals. They simply want to see how the Christ of the Gospel is incarnate in the joys and difficulties of daily life. That is the challenge of the preacher today. To translate the universal truth of Gospel into people’s lives. To invite the listener to come into closer contact with the God of love who lives among us.
El Agustino is a district with serious problems of violence, poor public health and poverty. Regardless of this difficult environment, the people of El Agustino are very great fans of the Jesuits. The Society has been there since the first incursions from rural areas occurred in the 1950’s, and they played a supportive role in the development of the district. This is why the people of Agustino tend to say that: los Jesuitas son barrio! (the Jesuits are with the people!) This is central to my understanding of my vocation: to be a witness of the kingdom in the ordinary, and with all the peoples.
Pope Francis says in his latest apostolic exhortation that “the challenge of inculturated preaching consists in proclaiming a synthesis, not ideas or detached values. Where your synthesis is, there lies your heart.” (Evangelii Gaudium 143) And that is what Jesuit preaching aims at: the human heart. In Ignatius’s words: to speak of the things of God in an informal manner. I pray that God keeps shaping me, and my preaching, so that I can bring to others the joy of the Gospel.