Pope Francis, in his continuing reflection on the act of preaching in Evangelii Gaudium, puts forward the image of a “mother’s conversation.” I find the image of the mother’s conversation to be striking by the sheer fact that it is a reality that probably 99.9% of humanity has experience with yet, because it is so common, it often goes unreflected upon. The Holy Father, in just a few short paragraphs, explores the dynamics of this form of conversation and presents it as a worthwhile model for all preachers to learn from.
We said that the people of God, by the constant inner working of the Holy Spirit, is constantly evangelizing itself. What are the implications of this principle for preachers? It reminds us that the church is a mother and that she preaches in the same way that a mother speaks to her child, knowing that the child trusts that what she is teaching is for his or her benefit, for children know that they are loved. (EG, 139)
There are two principles at play here which are of immense importance for preachers: 1. the love of a mother and 2. the awareness (sometimes awe, wonder and even concern) of life unfolding in the other.
First, the love of a mother. The love of a mother is unconditional, it cannot be faked and love ideally undergirds all the interacting and relationships of a family. St. Thomas Aquinas defined love as willing the good of the other as other. This is a good principle on which to base the preaching moment. The homily should be seen as an act of love, a giving of self, just as a mother giving advice, offering comfort or even challenging a son or daughter is an act of love. But the love is critical. If the love is absent then the words ring empty and they produce no lasting fruit. Just as a mother gives of her very self (even to the point of losing self) for her child then the preacher should see in the act of preaching a giving of self. Just as a mother would not hold back any of herself for the sake of her child then why should a preacher?
Yet, there are different levels to giving self in love. Not every moment of a mother’s love is giving physical birth to a child nor is every homily that a preacher gives the Easter homily. Just as a mother’s love is found in the daily and often unnoticed tasks so can a preacher’s love be expressed convincingly in the weekday, simple homily. What is key is the love being present (the love on the preacher’s part both for God’s word and God’s people). A mother’s fundamental concern when conversing with her child is neither to win admiration for a cleverly concocted argument nor to impress by her intellect but to love, to will the good of her child. The focus of the preacher should not be to win a reputation for his own erudition but to will the good of the community through the homiletic act. I would say that a preacher has done his job when a community leaves church spending less time thinking about him and more time thinking about themselves in the light of Christ.
Second, the awareness of life unfolding in the other. We said that the people of God, by the constant inner working of the Holy Spirit, is constantly evangelizing itself … Moreover, a good mother can recognize everything that God is bringing about in her children, she listens to their concerns and learns from them. (EG, 139) The mother is the first and primary witness of life moving and unfolding in her child. I would think that it is an amazing and awe-filled thing to behold. But just as she watches this life unfolding in the beloved she then learns and she adjusts because where the child is today is not where he or she was yesterday. Here, I believe that Pope Francis is saying that the preacher needs to have the same attentiveness toward his community and the Spirit at work in the community that a mother has toward her child and the movement and growth of life in her child. The spirit of love that reigns in a family guides both mother and child in their conversations; therein they teach and learn, experience correction and grow in appreciation of what is good. (EG, 139)
The mother, herself, grows in this dynamic of growth in her child; the preacher, himself, grows in learning to recognize the Spirit at work in his community! There is a great mystery at work here and I believe it relates to the scriptural image of the sower who sows the seed but then goes to bed and knows not how the seed takes root and grows. The preacher/the community, the mother/the child – all together – are caught up in this great mystery of the Spirit at work and each must step back and be attentive to how the Spirit is moving and then (trying neither to obstruct nor control) allow the Spirit to work through her or him.
In these short paragraphs and by use of the image of the mother’s conversation, Pope Francis is putting forward the living context of the homily. The context that allows for a living and effective homily is not a preacher isolated and removed writing down his own thoughts for the edification of the community. The context that allows a homily to be living and effective is that of family, relationship, conversation and love where all seek to be attentive to the movement of the Spirit.