I have been told that I am a good preacher. I am appreciative of this and take it both as a compliment and a responsibility to continually strive for but I have to admit that I sometimes wonder if people heard the same homily that I did when I preached at a Mass! Fr. Mike Creson, a friend and priest in my diocese, once joked about given the same Sunday homily at a multitude of Masses (which can often be the case in my diocese), “The first time preached the homily is new and you stumble a little. The second time you are more comfortable and it comes better. The third time is good and you got it down although it is getting a little wearisome. By the time of the fourth Mass, well … you wonder if even you believe it!”
There are many factors that can affect the “effectiveness” of preaching (however one chooses to define that). A number of which are out of the preacher’s control – factors going on in a parishioner’s life and in the life of a community, the attitude a person brings to church, the crying of a baby in a congregation and other distractions that can occur during Mass, duties and emergencies that can come up that limit homily preparation time and even just the temperature setting in a Church. The list can go on and on. All this being said though, the bishop, priest and deacon have a solemn duty to proclaim God’s Word faithfully to God’s people. This is truly an important task and one every minister of the Word should give the utmost care and attention to; not least of all because we promised to do so at our ordinations!
In his first Apostolic Exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel” Pope Francis spends a good bit of time reflecting on the value and importance of preaching in the overall mission of the Church with its mandate to evangelize. Using our Holy Father’s exhortation as a touchstone and guide, I would like to offer some thoughts on preaching. I do not know how many posts I will devote to this topic nor do I claim that every post here on out will focus exclusively on preaching without interruption until completed but I want to spend some time reflecting on this invitation of our Holy Father because, I believe, preaching is truly important in the Christian life and frankly, when preaching is minimized, community suffers.
I know not every bishop, priest or deacon will be a Bishop Fulton Sheen or a St. John Chrysostom and I believe that Pope Francis is aware of this also. But, when ministers of the Word continually strive to be faithful and authentic to the call to preach the Good News (whether we be the most dynamic speaker or not) something important happens in people’s lives because it is not only us at work, the Spirit of God moves through us – often very poor vessels that we are. We need to trust in this and truly recognize that just a God works through us in the sacraments of baptism, matrimony, reconciliation and Eucharist so also is God working through us in our sharing and breaking open of His word which is an essential part of every celebration of the Eucharist.
It is worthy to note where Pope Francis grounds his understanding of preaching as expressed in the the first chapters of “The Joy of the Gospel” – the ever-newness of Christ (chp. 11) and memory (chp. 13).
Christ is the “eternal Gospel” (Rev 14:6); he “is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb 13:8), yet his riches and beauty are inexhaustible. He is for ever young and a constant source of newness. The Church never fails to be amazed at “the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God” (Rom 11:33).
Later in his Exhortation the Holy Father will reflect on every sermon as a continuation of the original dialogue begun by Christ with his disciples. (The homily takes up once more the dialogue which the Lord has already established with his people. #137) This is a wonderful understanding of the sermon and one I will reflect on in more detail in a later post but for our purposes here it is good to remind ourselves that we and our preaching are part of something much bigger. Our preaching is not something separate from, nor just an add-on to the coming of the Kingdom of God; our preaching is part and parcel of this ongoing and ever new dialogue between Christ and his disciples! For preaching to be truly effective and efficacious then the preacher himself must be ever immersed in an ongoing encounter and dialogue with Christ in his own heart. The efficacious sermon will “tap into” this ever new and ongoing dialogue between Christ and his disciples.
… as Saint Irenaeus writes: “By his coming, Christ brought with him all newness”. With this newness he is always able to renew our lives and our communities, and even if the Christian message has known periods of darkness and ecclesial weakness, it will never grow old. Jesus can also break through the dull categories with which we would enclose him and he constantly amazes us by his divine creativity. Whenever we make the effort to return to the source and to recover the original freshness of the Gospel, new avenues arise, new paths of creativity open up, with different forms of expression, more eloquent signs and words with new meaning for today’s world. Every form of authentic evangelization is always “new”.
Yet the Holy Father goes on to caution that the “ever newness” of the Gospel does not negate memory rather, in the Gospel, memory is fulfilled and memory itself becomes a means of encountering the newness of Christ. The apostles never forgot the moment when Jesus touched their hearts: “It was about four o’clock in the afternoon” (Jn 1:39). A primary duty of the preacher is to call the community back to memory not in a sense of a mistaken nostalgia (“Things were so much better way back when…”) but in the depth of a sacramental sense. When we remember, individually and communally, how Jesus has touched our hearts then we encounter Christ anew! The preacher must preserve this deep sense of memory! We live in a world that thrives on distraction and a glut of superficial information. People are yearning for a depth to memory. A sermon that just skims the surface of the superficial does no one any good!
The believer is essentially “one who remembers”.
Every sermon should call people back to this sense of memory and therefore to a new encounter with Christ. People are starving for this! They are not starving for the priest’s latest travelogue or the newest internet joke – that is the superficial they are fed every day of the week. The Church truly nourishes and she does so through Word and Sacrament! My spiritual director in seminary, Fr. Lou Cameli, once gave me a treasured piece of advice about preaching: “Just say something that invites people to prayer.” It is about memory and the ever new encounter with Christ.
Every Monday, I begin to pray over the readings for the upcoming Sunday and part of my prayer is a simple request to the Lord, “Jesus, let me know what you would have me say to your people.”