AUSCPBonnot’s Blog: NEEDED: A Rhetorical Update

Among the concerns expressed at the Youth Synod is the Church’s need for language and reasoning that young people can understand and absorb. That goes for a lot of older people too.  Our church vocabulary and presentation simply don’t resonate with persons seeking authentic, credible, and practical spiritual support. This is especially true regarding sensitive issues.

A recent NY Times op-ed ( opined that “It’s Getting Harder to Talk About God.” Our religious language doesn’t speak to spiritual hungers. Speech and conversation about matters spiritual are becoming rare because such lingo doesn’t make sense to people in today’s culture. Pluralism, secularization, and globalization have left society without common spiritual vocabulary. English words for that domain are falling out of use. We need a new rhetoric to interest and engage both young and old.

The Bible remains the most read religious book in the U.S. Part of our Catholic dilemma is that we are not biblically literate in the fluent way so many other Christians are. Our 3-year Sunday Lectionary cycle introduced in 1970 has exposed Catholics to much more of the Scriptures than before, but because we just hear a snippet here and a snippet there, we often don’t get the Bible’s big picture and its real message. That leaves us relatively mute when talking with others, biblically literate or not.

We need a linguistic and rhetorical update. Pope Francis, Richard Rohr, Robert Barron, Take Five for Faith, and Give Us This Day and others are each trying in their own way and succeeding with certain audiences. We all need to find and/or develop language that will bring the Scriptures alive on the one hand and on the other make sense to a loosely affiliated, science-oriented, spiritually wandering society. Church documents and the Catechism of the Catholic Church are good references for those who want to dig in, but simply using their largely technical language and citing them will not take us very far.

I even suggest that for proclamation purposes we need a new translation of the Bible, something immediately graspable. The NAB is technically accurate but rhetorically not engaging. Each Sunday’s gospel, for instance, comes much more alive for me when I use several commentaries to mine their gold. Few of those sitting in the pews have that benefit. So for many the Sunday’s readings are just a lot of words coming from some book of the Bible they know nothing about and passages unconnected with those proclaimed the week before, which they don’t remember. Something closer to Eugene H. Peterson’s The Message will likely catch more ears and reach more hearts, but even then the passages need clarifying contextualization, continuity, and comment.

I recently enjoyed the titles of the 10 best homilies of the 50 year priesthood of my friend Dan Walsh. Here are the titles:

1.       There Are Two Basic Prayers In Life: Help Me, God and Thank You, God.

2.       “We Are All In The Gutters. Some Are Looking Down at The Mud. Some Are Looking Up at The Stars.” (Oscar Wilde)

3.       Forgive Your Spouse for Being Human.

4.       You Are Rich If You Know That God Loves You and That Your Parents Love You.

5.       Intimacy.

6.       No One Has All the Gifts.

7.       Close Your Eyes and Let God Love You.

8.       “Everything I Loved Before Has Come To One Meeting Place in You, and You Have Gone Out Into Everything I Love.” (Christopher Fry)

9.       Name It; Claim It; Tame It.

10.   Prayer Does Not Always Change the Situation, But It Does Change Us.

I wish I had learned a long time ago to talk to people about God and things spiritual like that. I am trying to update. Our institution and its language is increasingly irrelevant, but our spirituality shouldn’t be and our language doesn’t need to be.

Mary Healy, General Editor of the new Great Adventure Catholic Bible, says: “The time is ripe for Catholics to boldly, unabashedly, joyfully propose once again the glorious good news of Jesus Christ, and to do it not just repeating formulas from the past but to do it in a way that answers the needs of our contemporaries.” (