The Life-Changing Message of the Kerygma
An Interview with Fr. John Riccardo
By: Karen Edmisten
Human beings love to share good news. Whether it’s about amazing innovations, fun developments like your favorite football team’s latest trade, or thrilling family announcements, we enjoy announcing the news that shapes us.
Pope Francis understands that experiencing and sharing important events is at the heart of our faith lives too. This is why he says that the proclamation of the gospel message—often referred to as the kerygma—is a vital part of the New Evangelization that the Church has been praying for. In his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Francis wrote,
We have rediscovered the fundamental role of the first announcement or kerygma, which needs to be the centre of all evangelizing activity and all efforts at Church renewal. . . . Nothing is more solid, profound, secure, meaningful, and wisdom-filled than that initial proclamation. All Christian formation consists of entering more deeply into the kerygma. (164–165)
To get a better sense of how central the message of the kerygma is, we spoke with Fr. John Riccardo, a priest from the Archdiocese of Detroit, who has written and preached extensively on the subject.
TWAU: Kerygma is a word that most of us don’t use every day. What does it really mean?
Fr. John: Kerygma is the Greek word for “proclamation.” It refers to the basic message of the gospel. But “basic” doesn’t mean “ordinary.” When St. Paul says that the gospel is “the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16), he doesn’t mean Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. He means the proclamation of all that God has done for us in his Son, Jesus. He means the kerygma.
TWAU: Why is the kerygma critical?
Fr. John: Many people think the gospel message is mere news or, worse, an interesting story. But it’s far more than that. We are all born under the power of sin and death. We intuit this from our own experience. We’ve all experienced (or will) the death of people we love. And we’ve all experienced that awful reality of choosing to do things we shouldn’t do, don’t want to do, and perhaps even hate doing! That’s because we’re born in slavery to these powers. And the good news of the kerygma is that Jesus became a man to rescue us and set us free from the power of sin and death. If that’s not worlds beyond “news” or “advice,” I don’t know what is!
TWAU: So what happens when we hear this message and embrace it for the good news that it is?
Fr. John: We get our lives back. We move from living without hope to living with hope. We realize this: “God has done something about my situation. In rescuing me, he has answered my heart’s deepest desire to know that I am loved.” Jesus says that he has come to “bring glad tidings to the poor, . . . liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord” (Luke 4:18-19). We experience all of this when we accept in faith what he has done by his death and resurrection.
TWAU: You have talked about this in terms of “The Story.”
Fr. John: When I say “The Story,” I mean the biblical way of seeing reality. We each have a worldview, a way of seeing and evaluating things. The Story is the biblical worldview, a biblical set of eyeglasses, if you will. It consists of four essential parts: the goodness of creation; sin and its consequences; God’s response to our sin; and our response to what God has done. I rephrase those parts into questions: Why is there something rather than nothing? Why is everything so messed up? What, if anything, has God done about it? How should I respond? I further reduce those questions to four words: Created, Captured, Rescued, Response. That’s “The Story.”
TWAU: Is the transformation you talk about a moment that changes us, or is it an ongoing work on our part as well as God’s part?
Fr. John: It’s both. Pope St. John Paul II, in his Apostolic Exhortation Catechesi Tradendae, said that the result of the initial proclamation of the gospel should be that “a person is one day overwhelmed and brought to the decision to entrust himself to Jesus Christ by faith” (25). In other words, there’s a moment when the gospel is heard in a way that changes my life. “Overwhelmed” isn’t a word we use in response to ho-hum news or to advice, however sage. The gospel is power. At the same time, however, I have to choose to surrender in faith to God anew each day.
TWAU: What’s the best way to share the gospel with other people?
Fr. John: There’s not just one single way. There’s great value in sharing our testimony—our experience of what God has done in our lives —with other people. At the same time, it’s essential to know how to present The Story, that biblical pair of eyeglasses, to them. Since the gospel is power, as St. Paul said, we can trust that proclaiming it will have an effect on other people’s lives. So we need to experience the story and share the story.
Many people, both in and out of the Church, have never really heard the gospel in a compelling, attractive, life-changing way. This lack of awareness and personal experience [of what God has done for us] is often the cause of the unrest, strife, disunity, and despair in our world. There is no ultimate remedy in politics, laws, or policies. As crucial and essential as those are, they can’t fix the root problem: the human heart. God can change the human heart, though, and by his grace and power can transform people who were once enemies into men and women who love each other and call each other brother and sister. As a dear friend and partner in mission repeatedly says, “Rescued people rescue people.” I want people to encounter the power of the gospel and to be mobilized for mission to go and rescue others!
Karen Edmisten writes from Norfolk, Nebraska.
Fr. Riccardo’s book Rescued: The Unexpected and Extraordinary News of the Gospel is available at wau.org.