Not Words but Reality (1974)


Recently a detailed and highly laudatory profile of a young metropolitan pastor appeared on television. This clergyman had abruptly transferred the celebration of Sunday religious services to the clubhouse where the young people of his parish used to meet and sit around drinking Coca-Cola and eating french fries. "If you won't come to hear me preach, why shouldn't I come to sit at your table and talk with you here?"


At first glance the behavior of this clergyman appears quite sensible, even natural. Of course it is not entirely clear whether this resolute man believed that by simply sitting and talking with people he could achieve everything which a Christian religious service is intended to achieve, or, if not everything, at least the most important thing, the essential purpose. Clearly the television commentators thought he did.


But regardless of the minister's opinion on this point, he was of course right in one respect; he abided by the ancient truth that anyone who wants to teach must find someone who will listen, and must, whether he likes it or not, seek out such people wherever they may happen to be – at a discothèque, having their evening pint at a bar, on the city streets, or sitting in front of a television screen.


Socrates practiced this same rule of thumb at the agora in Athens, just as the Apostle Paul did a few centuries later. If Christian faith results from hearing the Word, then obviously the first order of business is to find some way to get the message across. After all, the word "gospel" means "good news" or "glad tidings", and a messenger responsible for spreading the news does not wait at home for someone to come to him. Instead he takes to the road and talks to people.


Thus the first step, always, is to preach the Gospel. This truism, which Christians have often ignored and at other times have blown up to almost mythic proportions and treated as the ultimate wisdom, was confirmed, a few short years ago, by the Second Vatican Council. However, at the same time the Council placed it in its proper perspective.


Clearly there is, in principle, no place where it would be inappropriate to preach the Gospel. The only criterion is that it be preached everywhere where there are people, for it is for people that it is intended. And naturally there is no reason whatever why, in order to preach the Gospel, one should not make use of all the available techniques of communication.


However, we must also consider the other side of the coin. Of course the initial task is speaking and preaching, and this preliminary task must be performed over and over again. Nevertheless, talking cannot be the essential element in divine worship. By its very nature, speech points toward something which is not speech. What is it then? It's reality! A friend of mine used to declaim on this subject, repeating the same dictum over and over in an emphatic tone, like the refrain of a song. (And by the way, I heartily concur with his views!) He used to say: "I do not go to church to hear someone talk or listen to a sermon; I go to church because something happens there." Naturally, in a matter of such importance, the personal views of my friend, myself or any other individual do not matter in the least. In my opinion the only thing that matters is what the Church itself, the kyriaké or sacred community which "belongs to the Lord", has believed and thought and said about this subject down through the centuries. And from its very inception the Church, like my friend, has said that the core of religious worship is in fact an event, i.e., something indeed "happens".


And what is it that happens? I, as a layman – neither a priest nor a theologian – would like to try to spell out in, so to speak, the most primitive terms, the answer to this question – an answer which, once again, is that of the Church itself. For indeed, in our times it seems necessary to spell out all fundamental facts in the most elementary terms.


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About Pieper:

Josef Pieper (1904-1997) was professor of philosophical anthropology at the University of Münster/Germany; he was a member of several academies and received numerous awards and distinctions, among them the International Balzan Prize for outstanding achievements in the field of humanities. [more...]


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