The Legacy of St. Clement Hofbauer: Preaching the Gospel Ever Anew

st-clement-hofbauer

Baclaran shrine is a 24/7 church and because of this it has sometimes been called a shrine with a perpetual mission.  This is not the only shrine in the history of the Redemptorist, however, that was identified with a perpetual mission. There was also a church in the 18th century run by the Redemptorists, which experienced a continuous influx of people day and night because of the lively and invigorating services in the church. This was the St. Benno’s church in Warsaw, Poland. The main Redemptorist behind the vibrant activity of this shrine was a Redemptorist who is now a saint. He is St. Clement Hofbauer whose feast we celebrate today. The shrine joins the whole Redemptorist congregation worldwide in thanking God and celebrating the life and legacy of St. Clement on his feast day today.

St. Clement Hofbauer (1751–1820) is often called the second founder of the Redemptorist congregation for bringing the congregation across the Alps in Northern Europe.[1] He is a  model of missionary dynamism and creativity encapsulated in his most famous quote of “preaching the gospel anew.”

St. Clement was born on December 26, 1751, in Tasswitz, Moravia (present day Czechoslovakia) of a poor family with twelve children.  He worked as an apprentice baker before he became a Redemptorist.

St. Clement lived in one of the most difficult and trying times of Central Europe.  The ideas of Enlightenment had pervaded the whole of Europe and the Church was slowly groping for meaning.  “He had to face Josephism, Illuminism, the French Revolution, the Empire of Napoleon I, Protestantism, Free Thought, but he had German Romanticism as an ally”[2]  Hans Scherman describes the impact of these socio-intellectual currents on theology in Clement’s time:  “Theology was searching for new ways of speaking to the intellectual currents of the age only to have its attempts condemned by Rome.”[3]

At the same time, this social milieu provided a good opportunity for Clement to develop a great ecumenical spirit and the formation of a genuine freedom of conscience.  Within his circle of friends he was responsible for many conversions from Protestantism.[4]   He had a “global” perspective which at that time was European.[5]

The Saint, with a deep knowledge of his times, was able to adapt his pastoral work.  When the government at that time forbade the preaching of missions, Clement endeavored to compensate the people for the loss of the occasional mission by conducting a “Perpetual Mission” in the church of St. Benno’s in Warsaw, Poland.

In the midst of these difficulties, Clement would often say that the “Gospel had to be preached anew.” The keyword in this Clementian expression is “anew”.  Josef Heinzmann, in examining the historical context of these famous words, explains:

The famous student of Hofbauer and preacher at the cathedral, Dr. Emmanuel Veith, reports: “I heard him say these splendid and emphatic words very often, yes almost daily: “The Gospel must be preached anew!” And in fact, people have wondered a great deal about this word anew. Does it mean again, or in a new way? What’s the difference?  Both are included in it.”[6]

St. Clement’s distinct legacy of “Preaching the Gospel anew” suggests two important points.  First the gospel must be repeatedly preached at all times, in all places.  Clement, who was always on fire, cannot accept the reality that the gospel cannot be preached because of external repressive conditions. Clement admonishes us that we should not give up preaching the gospel as it is relevant in all times and places. “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!” (1 Cor 9: 16).  Thus, Clement preached the gospel with utmost persistence and zeal in spite of the political turmoil and persecutions in Europe during his time.

Second, each time the gospel is expressed it is preached in a new way.  Preaching the gospel anew speaks of the newness of both the act and content of preaching.  Every act of preaching and its content is ever anew as the gospel is preached in different places, cultures and times.

Clement’s manner of preaching is marked by utter simplicity and connectedness with the language of the people.  “‘Today I’ll preach a sermon so simple that even the most stupid of you and every little child can understand’—he is supposed to have said, according to a police report.”[7]  Clement did not use elaborate theology and pageantry.  Although Clement was not a gifted rhetorician his sermons made an impact on all walks of life—rich or poor, illiterate, intellectuals and academics alike.  “God’s word must be preached in such a way that everyone understands it: the small and the great, the educated and the uneducated.”[8]

Although Clement manifested exemplary apostolic spirit, he was also known to be ascetic.   Clement’s asceticism was, however, “principally the asceticism arising from an apostolic activism.”[9]  Joseph Oppitz sums it up: “Clement was innovative and daring, an existential opportunist.”[10]

The mission system, which was a creative instrument of evangelization crafted by Alphonsus and appropriated by Clement, however, became fossilized in the nineteenth century for many reasons.  Moran laments this fact: “It is one of the great ironies that Alphonsus dedicated his life to preaching the bounty of God’s mercy available in Jesus Christ, while the Redemptorists later came to be renowned as blistering preachers of hell-fire and brimstone.”[11]

In 2009, the General Chapter of the congregation adopted the theme for the sexennium (2009-2015) from the tradition of St. Clement : “To Preach the Gospel Ever Anew (St. Clement): Renewed Hope, Renewed Hearts, Renewed Structures—For Mission.” The General Chapter recognized the crucial imperative of “preaching the gospel anew” amidst the many challenges of today’s global age.

St. Clement lived the gospel amidst insurmountable personal and social conditions.  He was confronted by the problem of speaking about God amidst the many obstacles of his time. Nevertheless, he upheld that “the gospel must be preached ever anew” in the midst of the intellectual challenges of the Enlightenment, the secularist environment of capitalism and the persecution and suppression of religious houses.   He experienced personal doubts, failures and struggles.  But these negative experiences did not deter him; on the contrary, these emboldened him to proclaim the gospel in the milieu in which he lived.

The Redemptorist congregation throughout its history has always thrived when, in the context of insurmountable challenges, they were open to opportunities for the proclamation of God’s abundant redemption.  They reach the lowest point in their history when their evangelizing ministry has become fossilized and the members become passive and retreat to security and complacency.

May the legacy and example of St. Clement continue to inspire and challenge all Redemptorists and missionaries towards constantly living with fresh vitality in mission, witnessing and community life.

 


 

[1] Louis Vereecke, “The Spirituality of St. Clement Mary Hofbauer,” Readings in Redemptorist Spirituality, Vol. 5, ed. Redemptorist General Council (Rome: Redemptorist General Council, 1991), 37.

[2] Vereecke, “The Spirituality of St. Clement Mary Hofbauer,” 39.

[3] Hans Scherman, “Saint Clement Hofbauer,” Readings in Redemptorist Spirituality, Vol. 5, ed. Rededemptorist General Council (Rome: Rededemptorist General Council, 1991), 13.

[4] Vereecke, “The Spirituality of St. Clement Mary Hofbauer,” 43.

[5] Scherman, “Saint Clement Hofbauer,” 21.

[6] Josef Heinzmann, Preaching the Gospel Anew: Saint Clement Maria Hofbauer, trans. Bernard McGrade

(Liguori, MO: Liguori Publications, 1998), 67.

[7] Scherman, “Saint Clement Hofbauer,” 20.

[8] Heinzmann, “To Be a Redemptorist Today,” 60.

[9] Joseph Oppitz, Alphonsian History and Spirituality (Rome: Private Re­demptorist Publication, 1978), 82.

[10] Oppitz, Alphonsian History and Spirituality, 82.

[11] Moran, “Alphonsus Liguori,” 248.

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