Kerygma is a term that is largely unfamiliar to most Catholics. Kerygma (from the Greek keryssein, to proclaim, and keryx, herald) refers to the initial and essential proclamation of the gospel message. The word appears nine times in the New Testament: once in Matthew (12:41), once in Mark (16:20), once in Luke (11:32), and six times in the letters of St. Paul (Rom. 16:25; 1 Cor. 1:21, 2:4, 15:14; 2 Tim. 4:17; and Titus 1:3). To put it simply, the kerygma is the very heart of the gospel, the core message of the Christian faith that all believers are call to proclaim.
Kerygma is distinct from didache, another Greek term that refers to teaching, instruction, or doctrine. While kerygma means the initial gospel proclamation designed to introduce a person to Christ and to appeal for conversion, didache (what we commonly refer to today as catechesis) concerns the fuller and more extensive doctrinal and moral teaching and instruction in the Faith that a person receives once he has accepted the kerygma and has been baptized.
Bl. John Paul II, in his 1979 apostolic exhortation Catechesi Tradendae, describes how catechesis builds upon the kerygma:
Thus through catechesis the Gospel kerygma (the initial ardent proclamation by which a person is one day overwhelmed and brought to the decision to entrust himself to Jesus Christ by faith) is gradually deepened, developed in its implicit consequences, explained in language that includes an appeal to reason, and channeled towards Christian practice in the Church and the world (CT 25).
Thus, the initial kerygmatic proclamation and catechesis are two necessary and mutually enriching components of evangelization. However, in my experience I have found that there is general imbalance in the Church (on the diocesan and parochial levels), which unfortunately tends to place a much greater emphasis on catechesis at the expense of initial proclamation.
In his 1990 encyclical, Redemptoris Missio, Bl. John Paul II underscored how essential kerygma is in the life and mission of the Church:
Proclamation is the permanent priority of mission. The Church cannot elude Christ’s explicit mandate, nor deprive men and women of the “Good News” about their being loved and saved by God. “Evangelization will always contain—as the foundation, center, and at the same time the summit of its dynamism—a clear proclamation that, in Jesus Christ . . . salvation is offered to all people, as a gift of God’s grace and mercy.” All forms of missionary activity are directed to this proclamation, which reveals and gives access to the mystery hidden for ages and made known in Christ (cf. Eph 3:3-9; Col 1:25-29), the mystery which lies at the heart of the Church’s mission and life, as the hinge on which all evangelization turns.
In the complex reality of mission, initial proclamation has a central and irreplaceable role, since it introduces man “into the mystery of the love of God, who invites him to enter into a personal relationship with himself in Christ” and opens the way to conversion. Faith is born of preaching, and every ecclesial community draws its origin and life from the personal response of each believer to that preaching. Just as the whole economy of salvation has its center in Christ, so too all missionary activity is directed to the proclamation of his mystery.
The subject of proclamation is Christ who was crucified, died, and is risen: through him is accomplished our full and authentic liberation from evil, sin and death; through him God bestows “new life” that is divine and eternal. This is the “Good News” which changes man and his history, and which all peoples have a right to hear (RM 44).
John Paul II saw this primary or initial proclamation (kerygma) as an essential component of the new evangelization to which all of the faithful are called:
The vital core of the new evangelization must be a clear and unequivocal proclamation of the person of Jesus Christ, that is, the preaching of his name, his teaching, his life, his promises and the Kingdom, which he has gained for us by his Paschal Mystery.
The lay faithful too, precisely as members of the Church, have the vocation and mission of proclaiming the Gospel: they are prepared for this work by the sacraments of Christian initiation and by the gifts of the Holy Spirit”. They have been “in their own way made sharers in the priestly, prophetic, and kingly functions of Christ.” Consequently, “the lay faithful, in virtue of their participation in the prophetic mission of Christ, are fully part of this work of the Church” and so should feel called and encouraged to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom (Ecclesia in America, 66).
If the kerygma is as vitally important to the New Evangelization as Bl. John Paul II claimed it to be, and if all of the baptized are bound to share the gospel with others, then why are we not devoting more of our energies toward the formation of the lay faithful in this initial proclamation?
After all, we simply cannot assume that all believers know the kerygma. How many Catholics do you know that would be able to comfortably articulate the essential elements of the gospel and lead someone to faith?
As evangelizers, we must first know the kerygma if we are going to effectively communicate it to others. Unfortunately, for many Catholics the kerygma remains an enigma. They may know certain aspects of it, “God loves you,” “Christ died for your sins,” but they are not able to confidently and systematically share this core message of salvation with others. I remain convinced that this is a challenge that must be addressed. It is not enough for pastors to tell their parishioners that they are called to evangelize. They need to teach them how to evangelize.
When I was director of evangelization for the St. Louis archdiocese, I spent a lot of time conducting parish seminars and workshops through which I would teach the laity the essential elements of the kerygma and how to effectively and confidently share it with others. Do you know what the participants quickly came to realize? This isn’t rocket science. You don’t need a Ph.D. in theology to do this. You don’t need to be a priest to do this. You don’t need to be a “preacher” to do this. Anyone can do it. They just need to be taught how.
I remain convinced that all dioceses and parishes should have a strategy and plan for forming the laity for kerygmatic proclamation and evangelization. For this reason I was encouraged to see this issue taken up at the recent Synod for the New Evangelization. The synod fathers addressed it directly in one of their 58 propositions, which were later presented to Pope Benedict.
Proposition 9: NEW EVANGELIZATION AND INITIAL PROCLAMATION
The “first proclamation” is where the kerygma, the message of salvation of the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ, is proclaimed with great spiritual power to the point of bringing about repentance of sin, conversion of hearts and a decision of faith. At the same time there has to be continuity between first proclamation and catechesis, which instructs us in the deposit of the faith. We consider it necessary that there be a Pastoral Plan of Initial Proclamation, teaching a living encounter with Jesus Christ. . . . The Synod Fathers propose that guidelines of the initial proclamation of the kerygma be written. This compendium would include:
— Systematic teaching on the kerygma in Scripture and Tradition of the Catholic Church;
— Teachings and quotations from the missionary saints and martyrs in our Catholic history that would assist us in our pastoral challenges of today; and
— Qualities and guidelines for the formation of Catholic evangelizers today.
I know that Pope Francis has indicated that he is in the process of writing a post-synodal apostolic exhortation on evangelization that will interact with the propositions submitted. I believe that such an exhortation would give a greater impetus for bishops and pastors alike to take up this exciting and much-needed proposal, which I believe would contribute greatly to the formation of the laity for the new evangelization.
In my next post, I will be exploring the content of the kerygma—something every Catholic should know.