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Duane Kelderman on the Challenge of Preaching in a Fragile Europe

A Dominican preaching colloquium addresses the challenge of preaching in contemporary Europe, where secularism, individualism, and a lack of cultural consensus have given rise to fear, division, and xenophobia.


In this Strengthening Preaching conversation series, preachers from a range of Christian traditions and denominations reflect on their growth as preachers through their involvement in the Strengthening Preaching initiative of Lilly Endowment Inc., which is coordinated by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. At the heart of the initiative are preaching peer groups, sponsored by various seminaries, which engage preachers in reading, discussion, preaching, and feedback—all within a collegial circle of support.


Duane Kelderman, consultant for preaching initiatives at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, recently attended a Dominican Preaching Network gathering in Cologne, Germany, on the theme “Sacra Praedicatio (Sacred Preaching): Our Challenge in a Fragile Europe.” Here he discusses the experience and what he learned.

What occasion brought you to a Catholic preaching conference in Germany?

The Dominican Order of Preachers recently celebrated its 800th anniversary. During the jubilee year, leaders launched the Dominican Preaching Network, which is now hosting a series of conferences around the world to celebrate the Order’s longstanding commitment to strengthening preaching in the Catholic church. The focus of the European conference was the challenge of preaching in a fragile Europe.

Say more about this reference to a “fragile Europe.”

Annette Schavan, the former German ambassador to the Holy See, gave a powerful speech in which she elaborated on the concept. A distinguished authority on the relationship of church and state in Europe, she argued that Europe today lacks a “spirituality of meaning.”

Schavan suggested that, looking back, most people believe the reunification of Europe would not have been possible without Pope John Paul II. Europe has always been open to the transcendent. Church and government have functioned reciprocally in European society. But today secularism, individualism, and a lack of cultural consensus—exacerbated by the recent flood of refugees into Europe and the more long-standing growth of Islam in Europe—leave Europe struggling for cultural identity, coherence, and a spirituality of meaning.

Fear has been a major response to these profound cultural challenges. European consciousness today is filled with fear, a growing impulse to take flight into national isolation (as seen with Brexit), the impulse to rebuild walls, and the “brutalization of public language” that threatens peace. Nationalism and xenophobia are on the rise.

Current generations have forgotten that peace is not a natural state but must be nurtured. Words create reality, and the reality being created by reckless, violent language in the public square today is cause for deep cultural concern for the future of a united Europe.

Some would say Schavan is also describing North American culture and other parts of the world where nationalism is taking hold, threatening to divide people.

One thing that became very clear to me during this conference is that these nationalistic impulses, including the deterioration of public discourse and the drive to build walls—these impulses did not begin in North America. They are part of a worldwide phenomenon. North American political discourse did not create this wave, but it is riding this wave. So often I didn’t know whether Schavan was describing Europe or North America!

Back to Europe—what’s the church to do in this fragile time?

Schavan called for a vision for Europe today that is shaped by Christian values such as freedom, diversity, tolerance, and the dignity of all people. She called for “a new humanism” that the church can animate by its life and witness. That new global humanism, she argued, must be built on values of inclusion and mutual respect, values that flow out of Micah 6:8—to “act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

I felt like she was giving marching orders to the church not only in Europe but around the world.

How do Dominicans in particular fit into this vision of a unified Europe (and world)?

Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., former Master of the Order of Preachers, addressed the Dominican preaching response first by reminding everyone of the order’s central idea regarding preaching: for Dominicans, preachers must first be the sermon they preach. Preachers must be at peace—at peace with God and at peace with ourselves. We will be able to heal our language of violence only if our words spring from a tranquil heart, Radcliffe said.

Preachers must be as curious to understand their opponents in a polarized world as St. Dominic was 800 years ago when he gave his life to seeking to understand the Albigensians, with whom he disagreed. “When there are things that puzzle us or scare us, Radcliffe said, “we must move in faith toward the other, not in fear away from the other.”

The central task of both the church and governments today, he argued, is to rebuild trust—a tall order when institutions are often untrustworthy. He also called for a proper understanding of authority, especially given the radical antiauthoritarianism in the broader culture.

Say more about this proper understanding of authority.

Dominicans, Radcliffe suggested, have something to bring to the cultural conversation with their emphasis on a three-fold authority: the authority of tradition, of reason, and of experience. I’m actually not sure whether this is a peculiarly Dominican concept or a broader Catholic notion. In any case, he argued that all three of these sources of authority are important, but they have dangers if they are not held in creative tension with one another.

Without this creative tension, the authority of tradition holds the danger of arrogance, the authority of reason holds the danger of rationalism, and the authority of experience holds the danger of superstition.

Again, I felt resonances in the North American experience with both the sources of authority and the dangers.

Are there other lessons from the European experience for the worldwide church?

Schavan pointed out that Europe has always been enriched by “creative minorities”—groups of people (like the Dominicans) who champion higher values and who model better ways to live. She cited an authoritative study, conducted soon after the Berlin Wall came down, that argued that the fall of the wall and the reunification of Germany had less to do with Ronald Reagan’s 1987 call to “tear down this wall” and more to do with the persistent, prophetic consciousness-raising of creative minorities in both East and West Germany. These small grassroots groups, often with religious roots, kindled a vision of freedom, democracy, inclusion, and a “new humanism” that envisioned a united Germany and the healing of the wounds of the past.

In his homily on the last morning of the conference, Gregory Heille, O.P., told the moving story of the Nikolai (St. Nicholas) Church in Leipzig, East Germany, which held peace prayers every Monday for years. Attendance at these prayer services grew to overflowing leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Heille reminded us that the Magnificat—Mary’s prayer for the falling of the powerful and the rise of the humble—was sung and prayed at every one of those services!

The focus on these creative minorities in the evolution of post-war Europe was humbling and empowering because of its implications for the kind of influence the church, a huge “creative minority” in Europe now, can have in Europe and in the world.

What was the highlight of the conference for you?

It’s hard to choose. I’ll mention two highlights. First, it was wonderful to experience the warm, calm embrace of Dominican brothers and sisters who have taken vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience to follow Jesus. For the most part, these brothers and sisters embodied the deep peace and tranquility that must be at the heart of a new way of life in culture, an alternative to the violence in our cultures—physical violence, sexual violence, rhetorical violence, and so on. These people walk the talk.

It was also fascinating to experience the conference as a Protestant. As a Protestant, I think of the “priesthood of all believers” as a Protestant counterpoint to Catholic belief. Imagine my surprise and delight to witness this moving exchange between Brother Timothy and a lay Dominican: The lay Dominican, shy and hesitant to speak, asked how she could more fully understand and live into her calling and role in the church when she was “only” a layperson.

Brother Timothy came out into the audience and stood in front of her as she struggled to express her question. With the compassion of Jesus himself, he said, “Oh, sister, there is no problem with your calling. You are not ‘merely a layperson.’ You are part of the grand people, the very laos of God! Your calling is the primary calling of the church: to be Christ’s people, Christ’s disciples. It is I who is unsure of my calling and role with all of these elaborate titles and layers of hierarchy in the church. Oh, sister, your calling and role is the primary calling of Christ!”

I felt privileged to be among these brothers and sisters in Christ and left strangely hopeful for the world, even in these fragile times.


Learn more about the Dominican Preaching Network’s 2018 Sacra Praedicatio colloquium in Germany.

View an interactive map of Dominican sites around the world.

Read about the Dominican Order’s 800th anniversary celebrations.