When I came to you brothers,
I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom
as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God…
I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling.
My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power
1 Corinthians 2.1,3
We are currently witnessing the colossal event of World Youth Day, featuring the first foreign trip of Pope Francis. As with everything about this Pope’s approach, the event is turning out to be unexpected and unparalleled. He began his tour of Rio in a Fiat, with the windows rolled down, kissing babies and shaking hands in the midst of a traffic jam his struggling handlers inadvertently created for him.
Notice, in this initial scenario, not a single speech had been given, not even a single word had been exchanged from the perspective of the worldwide audience that was watching. Nonetheless a powerful message was already sent. It was a message of God’s nearness to us, of his closeness and care. How did the Pope manage to do that?
Well, for all his obviously sincere and even delightful expressions of simplicity and humility the Pope understands something many communicators miss: When it comes to speaking and preaching you are the message. Before you say a single thing, you are communicating to your audience. And the communication is you. So you should know what you are saying.
I did not understand that when I came to work as pastor of a parish. If you had asked me at the time, to the extent that I thought about it at all, I would have said my homilies, my message was all about the Gospel and had nothing to do with me. My goal was to disappear behind the message and my strategy was to simply ignore me, to pay no attention to how I was coming across. Good goal, bad strategy.
If you really want to ultimately disappear behind the message you are communicating, you’ve got to do a lot of work on the front end when it comes to you. Because whatever it is you’re communicating, you are the message initially.
As a first time pastor I did not realize that in the pulpit I could appear as stern, even angry; my voice could unwittingly sound harsh and scolding. I paid little attention to how some of my illustrations came across, usually I preferred needlessly erudite or overly theological references that made me look smart, or so I thought. The overall effect was of a mean, out of touch guy who really had no message for a suburban upper middle class congregation. And, had that assessment been brought to my attention I would have been horrified.
Like Pope Francis currently, St. Paul before him understood that he, himself was the initial (not the fundamental, but the initial) message he was communicating. While Paul certainly employed some of the wisest words ever expressed in the history of human communication, he knew it was not there that the communication started. It started with a “demonstration of the Spirit,” a wordless revealing of some way in which the Spirit was working in his life. Same for me, and same for you: Maybe it’s your joy, maybe it’s your humility or immediacy, maybe it’s humor. What is it you are telling us about you, and hopefully the Spirit’s work in your life, before you say a word?
If you’re a communicator, what is the message that is you?“