Fr. John Riccardo, a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit and Executive Director of ACTS XXIX, spoke with Msgr. James P. Shea, president of the University of Mary, to discuss his priesthood and evangelistic ministry.
Msgr. James P. Shea (MShea): I’m really happy for the chance to sit down and talk with you. I wondered if we might begin with a little bit about your background, your road to the priesthood, and maybe some key spiritual influences in your life.
Fr. John Riccardo (FRiccardo): I’m the youngest of five children. My father was the son of Italian immigrants and was a very devout man. My mom was a Methodist. Her parents went through a pretty public and brutal divorce when she was in college, and that becomes part of a huge story with what the Lord would do later in my mom and dad’s lives and in healing her and her father’s relationship. My grandfather – her father – owned the Detroit Lions in the 1940s and 1950s, so his affair and then divorce were very public, and it led to an intense hatred my mom had towards him. He didn’t get invited to her wedding; she sent every wedding gift back to him; she sent every card he sent her back to him. She didn’t speak with him for years. Eventually, my father, who was an extraordinary man, brokered a reconciliation between the two of them. And the story ends beautifully, as my mom ended up taking care of her father during his last years. So there was an amazing reconciliation between the two of them.
I mention that reconciliation because it was brought about in large part by my parents’ experience of the faith. In the mid-1970s, my mom and dad got involved in a circle of friends that eventually brought my dad into much deeper conversion and my mom into the Church. This circle of friends – the Charismatic Renewal – included people like Ralph Martin, Fr. John Bertolucci, and Fr. Mike Scanlan. They would come over to my house and that would always petrify me, because I was a teenage boy and knew that Fr. Scanlan could read my soul! A 15-year-old boy doesn’t see that as a good thing!
Before that, because I grew up in a home that wasn’t entirely Catholic, we had what I would call “the normalcy of faith.” We didn’t have a devotional life. So, for instance, my dad always prayed grace before meals, but never prayed the traditional before-meal prayer. I grew up with three older sisters, who all left the Church after the Second Vatican Council, and my brother, who has passed away but stayed Catholic throughout his life. So I grew up in a home that was very ecumenical and deeply faithful to Jesus.
My dad was the CEO of a major Fortune 50 company – he ran Chrysler – and is more successful than any man I’ve ever known. He’s my hero – he was the greatest man I’ve ever known. And he did three things every day: he started his day by going to Mass; he rode on an exercise bike while reading Scripture; and he ended every night on his knees at the foot of his bed, and the door was always open just enough that I could see him. I don’t know if it was intentional or not. As a priest, for instance, I don’t pray so that people can see me, but it’s also important that people see me pray, right? Seeing my dad on his knees at the foot of his bed every right was a powerful witness to me. Growing up, I always thought that praying is just what a boy does – it’s what a man does. My dad didn’t need a crutch, so I knew faith wasn’t a crutch. The impact he had on my life was just extraordinary. I can’t possibly overstate it.
So I grew up in a home where faith was very much nurtured, but like a lot of kids, my faith waned in high school and college. Edith Stein described a time in her life where she made an intentional decision to stop praying. I never stopped praying, but I made an intentional decision to start living duplicitously in high school and in college. I think my favorite prayer at the time was, “Father, forgive me for what I’m about to do.” Yet at the same time, I’m watching my mom and my dad, my siblings, and a whole set of friends who are evidently happier than I am and I can’t figure out why, because it looked like they were saying “no” to a lot of things I thought were essential to life.
When I went to the University of Michigan, I met a tremendous number of men and women my own age who were deeply in love with Jesus.
MShea: There are a lot of extraordinary Catholics who came out of the University of Michigan around that time. It must have been a golden age!
FRiccardo: I think there are about 12 of us who got ordained and countless exceptional marriages and families that came out of that.
MShea: Was Michigan beating Notre Dame in those days?
FRiccardo: I think it was about 50/50 at that time! We were beating Ohio State, which I don’t think we’re ever going to do again for the rest of my life!
The reason I share all that background is to get at two significant points. The first is something that happened right after I got out of college – I don’t know how to describe it other than as a vision. While I was in college, I was evangelized by men and women my own age who showed me that you can be young and deeply in love with Jesus. So school ends, and I had gone home to tell my dad that I was going to say “no” to any job offers I might receive because I was going to take an offer to bake bread at a co-op with a guy I lived with in a household of Christians. I had been doing all these job interviews, and it was 1987 and the economy was horrible. I was basically going home to tell my dad, my hero, “Thanks for shelling out all the money you just did for the last four years, but if I get a job offer I’m going to turn it down to bake bread.” And my dad looked at me and said, “Son, I will bless whatever you do. You could be a priest if you wanted.” I had been dating a woman for almost seven years by that point and thought I was going to get married. So I said, “I’m not going to be a priest; I don’t want to be a priest.”
I didn’t realize at the time how much my dad giving me permission opened doors for God to move in my life. So as I was driving home from that conversation with my dad, I was feeling the weight of the cross for the first time. It was the first time I had ever made a decision for the Lord that had cost me. So as I was driving home, feeling like I was losing my life, I had a vision of Jesus in my car, almost as real as I see you sitting there. It probably lasted a millisecond, but it’s ingrained in my mind to this day. Jesus just stares at me from the passenger seat and turns toward me, sticks his hand into my chest and grabs something, and says, “John, these are all your dreams, and all your goals, and all your desires – everything you want to do with your life.” And then he pulls it out and throws it out the window. And he says, “Now I’m going to give you my dream, and my goal, and my desire for what I want you to do with my life.” And then he’s gone.
The next three years were something of a checkerboard life for me, a mixture of serious discipleship and serious not-discipleship. I kind of was like Jonah: God said “Go to Nineveh,” so Jonah went to Tarshish. I wasn’t going to Mass at the time – I was praying every day but wasn’t going to Mass – and was about to go back to business school to get an MBA I didn’t want. I was bored out of my mind with my life. All I knew was that I wanted to do something great. I had huge aspirations.
Jesus is not weak. Jesus is the one who assailed the strong man, as he puts it in the Gospels, and he has taken on the enemy and won. He’s the one who is calling you to follow him.
One day, I was reading the Bible at work. Even though I wasn’t going to Mass I would bring the Bible to work. And I was walking around the parking lot, reading Matthew 19: “Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it.” And that verse hit me. I almost threw the Bible on the ground, and I said, “Lord, I don’t get it. What do you want me to do?” And as clearly and audibly as I can hear you, he said, “John, I’m inviting you to live single and to do it as a priest.” I thought, “You’ve got to be kidding me. I have no desire for that. If it’s really you, you have to give me that desire.” I think that was on a Wednesday, and when I woke up Friday morning, I knew that I had to quit my job and go to seminary.
MShea: And you weren’t going to Mass at that time?
FRiccardo: Right. I was walking in one direction in life, and it was like God tapped me on the shoulder and pointed in the other direction, saying, “Everything you’re looking for is over there.” And at that moment I knew, “That’s everything I’m looking for.” So I wasn’t going to Mass, but I was soaked in Scripture. I had spent most of that summer doing a really intense Bible study on St. Paul. Now, 25 years later, I recognize how profoundly my priesthood has been shaped by Paul, much more than by Peter. I’m a diocesan priest, but my model of priesthood is that of a missionary.
MShea: And you discovered this later?
FRiccardo: Yes, especially these last two-and-a-half years. I’ve been ordained 25 years: I spent the first three years in a parish, then did two years of additional studies, then I ran a marriage and family center and did 15 years in parish ministry. Now I’m running ACTS XXIX, which is like being a missionary to priests and bishops around the country.
MShea: It’s funny that you say that about St. Paul, because I’ve had this experience in my priesthood where, early on, I would never preach on the epistle on Sundays. I had studied Paul in seminary, but Paul was tough to preach on – preaching on Paul just wasn’t like preaching on the Gospel or on something really colorful that happened in the Old Testament. And when we would read Paul in the Office of Readings, I would snooze just a little bit. But then after I became president of the University of Mary – you know, the sort of apostolate where you really have to care a lot, as is also true of the work you’re doing in ACTS XXIX – all of Paul’s hysteria, “I’m crying, I’m weeping, I’m angry,” began to resonate and vibrate all over my heart. And then it’s like, “He’s my guy!”
So St. Paul the Apostle has been a spiritual influence in your life – are there any others?
FRiccardo: As I’ve mentioned, my dad was the biggest, but my mom was a great influence, as well. I know a lot of people think this about their parents, but I’m pretty convinced that my parents are genuinely saints.
St. John Paul II has been a great spiritual influence in my life, as well. I was fortunate enough to live in Rome from 1992 to 1996, and at one point our cardinal – the archbishop of Detroit – came over to Rome and we had Mass with Pope John Paul II.
MShea: Would that have been Cardinal Maida?
FRiccardo: Yes, Cardinal Maida. His predecessor, Cardinal Szoka, had already been brought from Detroit to serve in the Vatican by that point.
MShea: He was running Vatican City! Cardinal Szoka brought it into the black after like millennia of it being in the red!
FRiccardo: It had been in the red pretty much since the days of Peter, or maybe Judas. I think Judas took the money!
So Cardinal Maida came over to Rome quite often – I don’t even know how many times – and we would get a call late the night before, saying, “The Cardinal is in town. Do you want to go to Mass with Pope John Paul?” St. John Paul II had a huge influence on my life.
And then St. Maximillian Kolbe is a hero of mine, as is every saint named John.
MShea: There’s a lot of them out there!
FRiccardo: I need as much intercession as I can get.
MShea: They lose their head, they lay their head…
FRiccardo: …they get boiled in oil. St. John the Baptist had multiple heads, apparently. I think there are like three of them in Rome?
MShea: That’s great! So you were responsible for many years for a diocesan center for marriage and family, and for many years were pastor of Our Lady of Good Counsel in the Archdiocese of Detroit. Can you say something about the way this pastoral experience influenced your sense of what’s needed in the Church’s renewal?
FRiccardo: Several things come to mind. First, my team and I are very much of the mind that parish life as it’s currently structured in most dioceses is untenable. The last thing we’re trying to do is replicate what we did in the parish, because it almost killed me and everybody that worked with me. We saw tremendous fruit: the parish had tremendous people in it long before I got there. The parish is 100 years old. So we were able to build on a lot of things that had happened before, but at the same time, in countless ways it was very dysfunctional. It was $7 million in debt. For many people, it was simply the place they happened to go to church. By the grace of God – and only by the grace of God – we saw the parish become unbelievably alive and a real center for evangelization, first for many people in the pews who hadn’t had an encounter with Jesus before, and then in a more outward sense as our people began to ask themselves the question, “Who’s not here that needs to be here?” And the parish became outward-focused rather than inward-focused.
But my experience of being a pastor is that I spent most of my day playing whack-a-mole and living with my head on a swivel, and so did everyone else on the staff. So one of the things that carries over to the work we’re doing now in ACTS XXIX is trying to bring transformation to parish structures and help bishops be open to the question of whether the way we’re set up now is the best way to accomplish the mission Jesus has given us. Oftentimes the model we’re using looks like a 1950s model, but we’re not in a 1950s era.
In our work at ACTS XXIX, we talk about what we call “the principles that are essential for transformation,” and they all come in large part from the experience we had in parish ministry. One of our first principles is this: I don’t think most people in the Church have ever heard the Gospel. We make the mistake of using special language and thinking everyone knows what we’re talking about, but they don’t. Think of “redemption,” for example: I know what it means to redeem a coupon, but that’s as far as it goes. So we try to start with the premise of just preaching the Gospel, because I don’t think most people have heard it. And we let God build from there. A really essential principle is just helping people to get a biblical worldview again.
MShea: Right, to hear the Gospel again for the first time.
FRiccardo: And that allows people to be genuinely overwhelmed when they hear it, as St. John Paul says should happen.
Another issue we’re trying to address is that of parish staff culture. I think the average parish has 2.5 people on staff. In so many cases, the culture is dysfunctional: there’s not a whole lot of trust, there’s not healthy conflict, there are silos, there are meetings after meetings, there’s gossip. That’s everything the Church is not supposed to be. So when I was at Our Lady of Good Counsel, we spent a lot of time being very intentional about hiring somebody to work with us to make us a team, to contribute to organizational health and team building so that we could learn to be more of a family than a team: to pray together, to waste time together, to study together, to disciple one another. And that really worked. When that happened, everything changed in the parish. You’re only as strong as your foundation, right? If your foundation is dysfunctional, the organization is going to be dysfunctional.
MShea: So would it be correct to say that a taste of that transformation at Our Lady of Good Counsel was part of the inspiration for the founding of ACTS XXIX?
FRiccardo: That’s true in the sense that I will never be a part of an unhealthy organization again. Because I’ve been a part of unhealthy organizations, and now I know what happens when a fractured organization becomes healthy. That can happen anywhere if you’re willing to do the work. So yes, it’s really a core part of what we seek to do at ACTS XXIX.
Christian Mythic Narrative: The Deep History of the World
Much of what it means to be converted in mind to Christianity – to acquire the Catholic imaginative vision – is to understand and embrace the Christian mythic narrative.
A third piece of what we do is help people learn how to pray. Our Lady of Good Counsel is a parish of about 3,500 families, or alternatively 12,000 people. My first six years there I took a shotgun approach: I like to teach and preach, so we were doing everything we could to explain the Faith. I was running Bible studies, and we were doing RCIA for Catholics, as so often the cradle-Catholics in the pews have something like an eighth-grade education in Catholicism, right? So we were doing all that, but it was a lot – and we realized at a certain point that the shotgun approach we were taking probably wasn’t the most effective approach.
The Lord taught us to pray in two ways: diagnostically and strategically. The first way to pray – diagnostically – is to pray with something like the mindset of a physician. We, as a leadership team, would pray this way together before meetings. It’s almost like you’re asking God to show you a spiritual MRI of the parish, because despite the fact that there are so many things you can do in the parish, they’re not all valuable or of the same weight. So we would pray and ask, “Lord, where are we most sick? What’s the biggest wound in the body that is this parish family?” And we would argue about that as we would debrief from our prayer. But that led us to make all sorts of decisions that were much more laser-focused. And then we could really throw all of our energies into that one thing. For example, we ran Alpha like crazy in the parish for a number of years because when we were praying, the Lord made it clear that the biggest wound was that most people didn’t know Jesus. They’ll tell you that if you ask. “Do you have a friendship with Jesus?” “No, I’m Catholic.” Well, that’s the wrong answer. So that’s diagnostic prayer.
The second way to pray – strategically – takes on something like the mindset of a general and says, “Lord, show us the territory of the parish, and show us the strongholds of the enemy that you’re asking us to go liberate.” It might be marriage and family, it might be the school, and so on.
We bring those two ways of praying to our ministry and teach them to bishops and priests. We have to believe, first of all, that God speaks. Not everybody believes that. But then we have to give him time to talk.
MShea: So we’ve referenced your new apostolate, ACTS XXIX, but I was wondering if you could speak a bit more directly about it. What are you striving for with ACTS XXIX? What do you hope it accomplishes? Unless I’m mistaken, there are only 28 chapters in Acts!
FRiccardo: Right, and so what happens in Acts 29? Well, the simplest answer is that you do. You’re what happens in Acts 29. We’re living in it right now, and the Holy Spirit is writing the next chapter of the Church in your life and mine. So that’s the reason for the name.
I approached my archbishop about a year-and-a-half before I knew my assignment at the parish was going to end, and I asked if he would be open to me doing something different next. I said, “I just don’t think I’m supposed to be a pastor right now.” And he said he was open to that. So I prayed about it and worked with my spiritual director, and we created a 501 c3 nonprofit organization.
Before the interview, you and I had discussed the book The Advantage, which provides six crucial questions every organization needs to be able to answer. The first question is, “Why do we exist?” At ACTS XXIX, we answer by saying, “We exist because God wants his world back.” Another question, “What do we do?,” we answer by saying, “We equip clergy and lay leaders for this apostolic age that God has chosen for us to live in.” We try to be of service to bishops and priests and lay leaders in a small number of dioceses because we’re a small team. Our goal is ambitious: we want to help bring about systemic change to a diocese, from the bishop and his leadership team all the way down to systems, structures, and processes so that everything can be immersed in the essential principles we believe God has shown us. And our hope is that this will allow dioceses to accomplish their mission in this age that God has chosen for us to live in.
MShea: And what has the response been?
FRiccardo: The response has been overwhelmingly positive. The renewal of the priesthood is at the heart of our work, and while many of our brothers are thriving in their ministries, many of them are not. One of the main things we do right off the bat is breathe encouragement, hope, healing, and restoration into the guys that are hurting. There’s a scene in the movie Hacksaw Ridge when a new platoon arrives at Okinawa and are on their way up to the battlefield singing, talking, and smiling. They’ve never seen battle so are energized and still naïve. But as they’re on their way up to the battlefield, the guys they are replacing are coming down in three trucks: one for the dead, one for the wounded, and one for the dazed. We show that scene when we bring the priests on retreat, and guys just start to weep. Again, some guys are thriving in their ministries, but a lot of guys are dead, wounded, or dazed. It’s important to at least acknowledge that so we can say, “Okay, I get it. I’ve been in your place. God wants to breathe life into us right now, and he also wants to equip us so that we can go back up that ridge – which is where we live – and fight.”
The frontlines of the battle for many in the Church is marriage and family. But we try to speak to the lay faithful about what we call the unspoken crisis in the priesthood, which is not the sex abuse crisis. The sex abuse crisis is horrific, but it’s a negligible number of people who have brought about tremendous damage. But the unspoken crisis of the priesthood that impacts so many priests is the loneliness, the discouragement, the isolation, the sense of abandonment, and the frustration that so many priests experience. We want to breathe life into them.
MShea: You appear to me to have the capacity to do that. I was able to spend a little bit of time with you and your team, and there’s a whole lot of energy and joy among you. How do you foster that?
FRiccardo: We’re so fortunate. We’re a small team, and some of us had worked in parish ministry before. But when we were trying to discern what to do for ACTS XXIX, I invited a whole set of people to come away for a weekend, and the invitation went something like this: “Did God bring us into each other’s lives for friendship, or was it so that we could do ministry together? If it’s just friendship, great. But if it’s ministry, I want to know.” Some of us discerned that, in their case, it was just friendship. But with others, we agreed that we thought we were supposed to do something. So we had a very strong culture from the get-go. We are very much a family: we spend a lot of time together, we pray together, we eat together. We build all that into our lives.
To reference the six crucial questions from The Advantage again, we have three core values that respond to the question, “How do we behave?” Our first core value is that we’re ambitious for God and his kingdom. We’re convinced that God has set us apart for something that’s much larger than ourselves. I know very much who I am – I’m nothing – but I also know who Jesus is – he’s Lord – and he wants his world back. So we’re unshakably confident in him, and we have big dreams for what we think God wants us to do because God has big dreams for the world. He wants it back.
The second core value, which is actually the one that attracts people to us the most when we work with them, is what we call being authentically human. When you work with us, you have permission to be real. Because we’re so small, we know each other really well. And we do most of our work together. So if it seems like something is off in someone’s life, we ask about it. “How are you doing today?” “Oh, I’m fine.” “No, you’re not.” “No, I’m alright. I don’t want to talk about it.” “Well we do, so what’s up?”
We’re very deliberate about spending almost inordinate amounts of time together. We pray for an hour together every day; we build meals together into the rhythm of our week; we travel together. We were out to dinner one night after leading a retreat for a diocese’s curia, and we didn’t realize that the people we had led on the retreat were also in the restaurant. One of them came up to us at the end of the meal and said, “We can’t fathom doing what you’re doing. When we get done working, we don’t want to see each other. You not only poured into us all day long, but now you’re hanging out and recharging together.” And that’s very deliberate.
The frontlines of the battle for many in the Church is marriage and family. But we try to speak to the lay faithful about what we call the unspoken crisis in the priesthood, which is... the loneliness, the discouragement, the isolation, the sense of abandonment, and the frustration that so many priests experience. We want to breathe life into them.
The third core value is a mindset we call God is the architect, which is a willingness to leave the familiar behind and go wherever God leads us and let prayer drive the agenda.
We really try to live those core values, and they explain why we are the way we are. I’m the only cleric on our team – the laity have such a love for the priesthood, and they love pouring into priests in the diocese we work in. So that’s how we do it, by the grace of God.
MShea: You put a great emphasis on the proclamation of the Gospel, of the kerygma. I know that recently you’ve published a book, The Christian Cosmic Narrative, and we have an audio version of that on Prime Matters under the title The Christian Mythic Narrative. Can you say a word about the way we need to preach the Gospel in order for it to be heard again for the first time? The whole world is full of people – and our churches and parishes are full of people – who think they’ve heard the Gospel and are bored to death of it. How can we rattle things, how do we project our voices, or how do we present the truth of the Gospel such that people can be overwhelmed by it?
FRiccardo: In a document on catechetics, Pope John Paul said that the initial ardent proclamation of the Gospel – the kerygma – should lead a person to be overwhelmed and then to surrender or entrust their entire lives to Jesus in faith. I would really boldly challenge any priest to stand up at a pulpit on Sunday and ask for a show of hands from his typical congregation of how many people have been overwhelmed by the Gospel. I don’t think you would get more than 100 hands in a typical parish. And then if you asked how many people had made a decision to surrender their whole lives to Jesus by faith, you might get a half-dozen. And I think the reason for that is that they’ve never heard it. They think they have, as you said, but I don’t think they really have. And I don’t think they’ve really heard the Gospel because I don’t think we preach it, and I don’t think we preach it because of the lectionary.
MShea: Because of the lectionary? Say more about that.
FRiccardo: The lectionary presupposes that you know the Bible. But how many people who come to Mass know the Bible? How many priests actually know the Bible? It’s not for nothing that the most popular podcast right now is Fr. Mike Schmitz walking through the Bible. People are eating it up because he’s making sense of it for people.
I’ve actually done a series where I preached the narrative arc of Scripture without reference to the lectionary. I went to the archbishop and I asked, “Can I have your permission to not preach on the lectionary for a substantial number of weeks?” It’s not like I was going to go rogue, but until people knew the narrative arc of Scripture, they weren’t going to understand what was happening in the lectionary. And he gave me permission. I warned him, “I’m going to preach long, which means we might lose money because people might stop coming.” And he said he was okay with that.
So we started preaching for 25 minutes per Mass, and we spent 14 weeks on this series. Each week we printed an outline of the homily in the bulletin and gave it to people as they came into Mass so they could follow along. We put Bibles in all the pews and told people to bring a pen. I’m a reluctant convert to technology in terms of preaching, but for this series we used slides: you’re in education, so you know this better than anyone – we don’t all learn just by listening.
MShea: And this was all at Our Lady of Good Counsel, right? A parish of 3,500 families?
FRiccardo: Right. To start the very first homily in the series, I preached for a few minutes in Italian. It was hysterical, because they started to laugh as I just kept going and going. And then I stopped and said, “I’m sorry, you all look confused right now. But actually, this is how a lot of you look every Sunday. So we’re doing what we’re doing because I don’t want you to be lost. We have to make sense out of what’s happening here.”
In education – especially early education – we spend the beginning of the year doing review. But we never review in church. So when are people supposed to have heard the Gospel? That’s why it’s not unusual to hear people say things like, “I grew up Catholic, but I started going to this other church down the street and that’s when I gave my life to Jesus.” Why? Because at that church down the street all they do is preach the Gospel, and they do it well. So I would say it’s worth spending time in review. Maybe it’s in September when people come back to school; maybe it’s Lent; maybe it’s Advent. At least once per year, set aside four weeks where all you do is preach the kerygma with the goal of the Holy Spirit overwhelming people to make the decision to surrender to Jesus. Until that happens, everything else we’re teaching isn’t going to have anywhere to land. It has to fall into a heart that’s been cracked open. St. Paul says that the Gospel is power – it’s not ordinary news. It’s explosive, extraordinary news. Romans 1:16 says that it’s not that the herald is power, the Gospel is power. People ask me, “How are you going to convince people of this?” I don’t try to convince anybody. That’s not to say that reason isn’t important, but instead it means that I’m not trying to convince you as much as I’m trying to share the Gospel with you. I’m trying to deliver the mail.
MShea: The idea that the herald needs to adopt a particular technique in order to be successful is almost an Americanism. If you look at the method of the Master, in that respect, Jesus’s preaching tested hearts. So in that sense he was 100% successful, even though many people who heard him turned away. That’s because the Gospel was doing what it was meant to do, which is test hearts. Jesus is still moving through the world testing hearts, asking, “Who is ready? Who wants me?”
You recently released a small book entitled Rescued. It’s a very powerful book and is something like an encapsulation of the kerygma. What’s behind that?
FRiccardo: I came across Fleming Rutledge’s book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, about three or four years ago. It’s an amazing book. I realized it was one of the most extraordinary works I’ve ever read in my life, and I don’t know anybody who is going to read it because it’s something like 1,200 pages. So I wanted to find a way to preach it. All I do is quote other people in my preaching, so I was trying to formulate a way to preach the Gospel in the way the Lord has led me to understand it, which is very much in keeping with what the Church teaches.
MShea: Was Cardinal Dolan at the seminary in Rome – the Pontifical North American College – while you were studying there?
FRiccardo: He was there my last year.
MShea: When I was there, he would tell us that the patron saint of preaching is the good thief, St. Dismas. He was able to steal all kinds of good stuff from others!
FRiccardo: That’s great! I’m going to remember that!
To Address Poverty in All Its Forms
Curtis Martin, Founder and CEO of FOCUS, joined Msgr. James P. Shea to discuss his experience in evangelization and the formation of university students.
The origin of Rescued is from a series of homilies I preached during the Triduum one year. I just tried to preach the kerygma, and it seemed to be received very well. And when I was preparing, I realized two things. First, I don’t think people know just how bad the bad news is. Second, I don’t think most people have an image of Jesus that is accurate.
I gave a presentation shortly after that, and Curtis Martin, a founder of FOCUS, was there. I asked him for feedback, and he had some helpful things to say, but then he looked at me and said, “But it’s not repeatable.” You have to find a way to make it repeatable.
MShea: What did he mean by repeatable?
FRiccardo: I tried to preach the kerygma to a crowd of people over the course of an hour. And it landed really well, but nobody would have been able to walk out of there and share it with somebody else.
MShea: So “repeatable” means that a person is able to internalize it and then share it?
FRiccardo: Right. So afterward, praying with that feedback, I felt the Lord nudge me to recall that there are four parts to the kerygma: the goodness of Creation, sin and its consequences, God’s response to sin, and then our response to what God has done. Well, that’s not overwhelming. So we turned those four parts into four questions: Why is there something rather than nothing? Why is everything so obviously messed up? What, if anything, has God done about it? How should I respond? To make it even simpler and more repeatable, we turned those four questions into four words: created, captured, rescued, and response. If you know those four words, you know the Gospel. And from there we tried to give all sorts of images and amplifications to those four words so that as we preach it you can be overwhelmed, and on top of that, you can share it with others so that they might be overwhelmed, also.
If you would have told me when I was a teenager that the consequence of sin is that I’ve been separated from God, I would have spun my finger in the air and said, “So what?” So it’s true, but it’s not enough. The consequence of sin is that I’m necessarily in the hands of another. And so when we preach on this, we spend a lot of time helping people to understand that the human race, when we rebelled against God, sold itself unknowingly into slavery to things that we can’t compete against. That’s what the Church means when it says things like, “There’s no salvation in anyone other than Jesus.” People think that is narrow-minded. Well, no one else has taken on death and defeated it. You don’t have any hope without that. You’re going to die, so unless someone does something about death, you have no hope.
The situation the human race finds itself in is almost like being in the hands of a human trafficker. And that all sets up the question of who Jesus is. If the bad news is that bad and that bleak, then Jesus must be something more than just kind. So many people – and I think so many men in particular – have this image of Jesus as being almost feminine. They see him as being weak – gentle, but weak. Jesus is not weak. Jesus is the one who assailed the strong man, as he puts it in the Gospels, and he has taken on the enemy and won. He’s the one who is calling you to follow him. So when I hear things like, “Well, you’re going to be on the wrong side of history,” my response is, “If you follow Jesus, you’re not going to be on the wrong side of history. Because history is his story.” The only significant, worthwhile life will be the life lived in response to what he’s done for me.
MShea: I want to pause there for a moment, because it’s important for us to grapple with just how bad the bad news is. I experience you as a joyful priest, yet you’re able to speak with great confidence about how bad the bad news is. If we’re not clear about how bad the bad news is, it doesn’t map onto the real-life misery that people are experiencing in the disorganization and despair of their lives. So unless we’re able to preach a Gospel that adequately resonates with the way the modern person walks around with their breath high in their chest, always in a state of anxiety, shock, PTSD – unless we’re able to present a message that corresponds to the difficulty of peoples’ lives, it doesn’t do us any good to present Jesus as sort of a cheerful solution to that. The bad news is real, and it lives in peoples’ lives.
FRiccardo: For many people, one of the biggest challenges to believing in God is the problem of evil. And because most people don’t have a biblical worldview, I don’t think most people realize that no one talks more about the problem of evil than Scripture. Throughout Scripture, you hear people praying again and again, “God, we know you’re good; we know you’re all-powerful. Why is all of this happening?” There’s a constant lament and complaint, banging on God’s chest, saying, “Where are you?”
I experienced horrible trauma when I was a child. When we go through tremendous pain, we tend to imagine that there are only two people on the stage: me and God. If there’s only two persons on the stage, I begin to think that the pain was from God, that God was burning me under a magnifying glass. But there are not two persons on the stage – there are three. There’s me, God, and another one. There’s an enemy who’s not a rival to God, he’s not an equal to God – he’s a creature that was created good by God but rebelled against him. So this isn’t to say that I can just blame everything on the devil. But at the same time, the origin of evil is in him, and he has persons in his possession, and he is constantly trying to come after me to seduce and tempt and do all sorts of things so that I rebel against God. And when we do that we hurt other people. If we don’t acknowledge that, we’re not going to go anywhere. As a priest, I hear people all the time say, “I want answers for what happened to me.” I don’t want answers – I want someone to do something about it. An answer for why someone I love took his or her life will solve my intellectual curiosity, but it won’t solve the problem. I want someone to do something about death. I need somebody to go down into the underworld and do something about death. And that’s what Jesus did.
MShea: And that sense of being rescued is what gives the Gospel all its hope and all of its powerful force for the transformation of life.
To close, I wonder if you could say a bit about your hopes for the future of the Church, especially with a view toward the young men and women whom the University of Mary is responsible for educating. What stirs in your heart as you think about this rising generation?
FRiccardo: I’ve been so taken of late by the truth that it’s not a historical accident that any of us – you, me, your students – are alive right now. God could have created me to be alive at any moment in history. It could have been fourth-century Peru or thirteenth-century China, but no – he created me to be alive here and now. That’s not a fluke.
St. Joan of Arc is one of my heroes. Other than the Blessed Virgin Mary, I don’t know if there’s a greater woman who has ever lived. To live the life she did while living in the times that she did would be unimaginable without God. Shortly after her very brief ministry began, someone asked her, “Aren’t you afraid?” And she responded, “No, I’m not afraid. God is with me. I was born for this.” And I would say that is true for every one of your students. It wasn’t just true for Joan: it’s true for you, it’s true for me, and it’s true for them. They were born for this moment. God has given natural and supernatural gifts to each and every one of them and he has a mission for each of us to play. God is weaving a tremendous tapestry, and I don’t know if I’m the gold thread, but I know that I’m an irreplaceable thread in the tapestry.
Every young person has zeal and wants to make a difference in the world. Well, they were born for this moment. I want them to live with confidence and hope and ask the Lord, “What is the mission you have for me? What do you want me to do with my life?” And then go do it.
MShea: You would have no way of knowing this, but if you walk into the freshmen womens’ residence hall at the University of Mary, that quote from St. Joan of Arc is hanging there for all to see!
FRiccardo: What a perfect way to end this!
MShea: Thank you for spending time with us today, and may God bless your ministry. Thank you for all that you and your team are doing for the Church. May it receive the Lord’s blessing a hundredfold.