Preaching in the shadow of the Cross
Father Vincent Youngberg, CP., keeps a tradition alive. Like St Paul of the Cross, the founder of the Passionists, Vincent is a popular traveling preacher of the gospel. Last year he preached 19 missions lasting six days each, in parishes spread out over the eastern United States, from Maine to Florida. In packed churches, people of all ages listened to his basic message, and responded with enthusiasm. A full schedule of parish missions awaits him this year, and far into the future.
"A Passionist preacher," he says, "tries to make the mystery of the Incarnation of our Lord be seen as a repeated mystery in each of his listeners." Fr. Vincent repeats the Good News of Jesus Christ as a never-ending message from God.
Proclaiming the Cross
Like the founder of his community who, as a missionary preacher, evangelized parts of 18th century Italy, Fr. Vincent believes in the wisdom of the Cross. He begins his missions by carrying a large Cross into the church where he is preaching; then, setting it up in the church sanctuary, he preaches in its shadow, sincerely, with conviction.
"When I march down that aisle with that big Cross at each Mass on the weekend it really gets people's attention," Vincent says, "Then I point to it all through the mission. I'm absolutely convinced that there isn't anything in life that can't be given meaning at the foot of the Cross."
He is convinced too that a parish mission is a time of grace. "I emphasize that Jesus Christ, in his Spirit, through the instrumentality of an ordinary human being, is going to be present in this community this week, in a most profound way."
From fragmentation to holiness
Preaching parish missions for over 18 years, Fr. Vincent has developed a carefully honed theme for his talks. He calls it From Fragmentation to Holiness.
"I believe we are on a journey to God, but we make that journey with defective equipment. We hold this treasure in an earthen vessel. In other words, we have clay feet. So we are going to have equipment failures. We can't walk in God's way, unless he enables us."
Scriptural stories are the heart of Vincent's preaching, but his own life experience also plays an important part in his reflections. "My own personal experience has taught me that it was not my successes that brought me closer to God, but rather my failures; my personal sins! These helped me recognize my poverty as a human being and my absolute dependence on God. So I tell some of my own personal stuff, as examples of the damage that's done to us as children, as adolescents and adults. We have been damaged, and unless we come to grips with that we can't go on."
Personal, down-to-earth anecdotes pepper his sermons, bringing smiles and knowing nods from his listeners as they recognize their own flawed humanity in the preacher and his stories.
His message of self-acceptance, living one's life for others and looking for a power greater than our own leaves a deep impression on great numbers of people. After he has gone from a parish, a steady stream of letters and messages reach the Passionist missionary from people grateful for his words:
"I experienced a spiritual awakening during this mission. Your treatment of the obstacles we face permitted me to feel worthy again to find the love I needed as well as the love I could offer."
"The message of the Crucifixion, unconditional love and compassion, as presented in your mission, I believe, has wonderful healing powers."
Because so many request tapes of his mission sermons, Fr. Vincent has video and audio tapes available at the end of the mission services; those who purchase them eagerly share them with relatives and friends. It is not unusual for him to be invited back to the same parish for another mission by pastors and people who have heard him speak. "What they don't hear the first time, they hear the next," he says.
Preaching God's Unconditional Love
If you ask Father Vincent what he himself gets from this ministry, he answers with obvious feeling, Undoubtedly, he likes what he is doing.
"Personally, I get tremendous fulfillment from preaching missions. I think God has given me a gift to do it and I don't get tired of it. If you read St. Paul, the Apostle, you see he preached the same thing over and over, a basic kerygma. All I know is it works. People keep coming back to hear me. So many people are confused and worried. I know I'm making a difference in the parish.
"I believe it's a charism of the Passionists; we are called to do this. I want to help people to realize that God's love is unconditional, it's radical. All you have to do is to turn to him and he is waiting for you. He is not a vindictive God, waiting to get hold of you. No, just the opposite. God loves us, warts and all."
Some say parish missions are dead. Don't say that to Fr. Vincent Youngberg.
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