Let us renew our confidence in preaching, based on the conviction that it is God who seeks to reach out to others through the preacher, and that he displays his power through human words. (EG, 136)
Pope Francis calls preachers of the Word to a sacred remembering of the power of preaching. Throughout Scripture we find, time and time again, God choosing to work with human beings in all of our limits to proclaim his plan and his grace. From Moses through the Old Testament prophets to John the Baptist to the apostles and to the great missionary Paul – there is a need that the Word of God be proclaimed and the need continues in our day! People need to encounter the Word of God in all its richness and challenging beauty!
I find it interesting that Pope Francis, after making this bold and challenging proclamation, then moves to the almost seemingly mundane character of dialogue and conversation as the foundation of preaching.
It is worth remembering that “the liturgical proclamation of the word of God, especially in the eucharistic assembly, is not so much a time for meditation and catechesis as a dialogue between God and his people, a dialogue in which the great deeds of salvation are proclaimed and the demands of the covenant are continually restated”. The homily has special importance due to its eucharistic context: it surpasses all forms of catechesis as the supreme moment in the dialogue between God and his people which lead up to sacramental communion. The homily takes up once more the dialogue which the Lord has already established with his people. The preacher must know the heart of his community, in order to realize where its desire for God is alive and ardent, as well as where that dialogue, once loving, has been thwarted and is now barren. (EG, 137)
To help unpack this move toward dialogue and conversation I would like to quote in length a section out of Fr. Robert Barron’s book, The Priority of Christ: Toward a Postliberal Catholicism.
At one point in his book, Fr. Barron is exploring intersubjectivity as a component of true knowledge.
For the Christian, authentic knowledge comes not through isolation or objectification but rather through something like love. Therefore it should not be surprising that the fullness of knowing would occur through an intersubjective process, with knowers, as it were, participating in one another as each participates in the thing to be known. If, as the Johannine prologue implies, the ground of being is a conversation between two divine speakers, it seems only reasonable that the search for intelligibility here below takes place in the context of steady and loving conversation.
In a lyrical and compelling section of “Truth and Method,” Hans-Georg Gadamer reminds us that a healthy conversation is something like a game. As two players surrender to the movement and rules of the game of tennis, they are carried away beyond themselves in such a way that the game is playing them much more than they are playing it. In a similar way, when two or more interlocutors enter into the rhythm of an intellectual exchange, respectful of its rules and of one another, they are quite often carried beyond their individual concerns and questions and taken somewhere they had not anticipated, the conversation having played them. The fundamental requirement for this sort of shared self-transcendence is a moral one: each conversationalist has to surrender her need to dominate the play for her purposes; each must efface herself, not only before the others but, more importantly, before the transcendent goal that they all seek. To have a conversation is humbly to accept the possibility that one’s take on things might be challenged or corrected, that the other’s perspective might be more relatively right than one’s own.
Holding these thoughts with those of Pope Francis we can see that preaching has as its true basis the very common and universal reality of honest conversation and dialogue rather than the latest and currently trendy fad, philosophy or method. Rather than belittling the preaching task these depth explorations of conversation and dialogue show forth the true richness of understanding afforded this important and critical task!
The homily takes up once more the dialogue which the Lord has already established with his people. The preacher of the Word, along with the people of God, is himself caught up in this ongoing conversation between the Lord and his people yet he has a truly unique and important role to play. The preacher must allow himself to be caught up in the game and must constantly fight against the temptation to dominate the play for his purposes. This is a renunciation and an asceticism that every preacher must develop in his life. If a homily is too self-referential then it has missed the mark and probably most of the people of God have already tuned out. To make use of the above analogy – a person cannot play a good and rousing game of tennis if he is more concerned about how he looks rather than the game! To preach is to enter into the great game of the dialogue between our risen Lord and his people!
The proper progress of the dialogue though is dependent upon respect of the rules given. Here are a few that I find present and have sparked for me in the thoughts quoted above.
Fundamentally, the dialogue is Christ’s and not my own. If my preaching is to mean anything then somehow Christ must speak through my words to the heart of those who are gathered. This means that I must learn how to get out of the way and not try to dominate the play for my own agenda or emotional needs. My experience has taught me that this is not as easy to do as one might think but it is essential.
For my preaching to be effective I must be in dialogue with Christ myself and I must be in dialogue with the community of the Church. The preacher must know Christ and allow himself to be known by Christ fully. The preacher must know the heart of his community, in order to realize where its desire for God is alive and ardent, as well as where that dialogue, once loving, has been thwarted and is now barren. In order to know his community, the preacher must be with his community. He must have the “smell of his sheep” on him as Pope Francis has famously said. When the community is not known there is always the danger of preaching at people rather than continuing the great dialogue that the Lord has begun. Would it not be an extremely sad thing for a preacher to come before the gates of heaven only to there be brought to the realization that his preaching was more of an interruption and distraction to our Lord’s great dialogue with his people rather than an assistance?
If authentic preaching has as part of its basis knowledge of the community then homily preparation is just as much about visiting the homebound, celebrating with families, serving the poor and weeping with those who mourn as it is about studying the Scriptures and reflecting on Biblical commentaries. The preacher who shuts himself away in a rectory or a parish office is stunting his preaching potential and doing a great disservice to his community. Christ dwells in the midst of his people, especially the poor. Whenever and wherever Christ is encountered deeper understanding of Sacred Scripture is gained.
The homily is the ultimate moment of catechesis but it is not just catechesis. Scriptural studies and commentaries can provide good and worthy insights for preaching but preaching should not just become a lecture on Scripture or the faith. There are appropriate moments for that (i.e. Bible Studies or Faith formation) but it is not the homily. The homily is not meant to give facts about Jesus or his time or a period in Israel’s history; the homily is meant to help people encounter Christ, right now in their lives!
Another rule – the preacher must learn how to allow the dialogue to carry him! As two players surrender to the movement and rules of the game of tennis, they are quite often carried beyond their individual concerns and questions and taken somewhere they had not anticipated, the conversation having played them. In humble prayer, the preacher must first encounter the Word and let the Word speak to him, once something sparks then the preacher must let the Word carry him to where it wants him to go. Again, this gets into not trying to dominate the conversation. We need to trust that the Word of God is indeed active and alive and we need to trust that the Word will take us to what the community needs to hear. I believe that it is the author Annie Dillard who once reflected that if you want to learn where a bee hive is (and hence find the honey) then you must first learn how to follow bees. The preacher must learn how to be guided by what sparks for him from God’s holy Word. The preacher must learn how to follow bees.
Some thoughts for consideration as this ongoing reflection on the importance of preaching to the great task of evangelization continues…