Preaching the mystery of Faith

Recently the U.S. bishops approved the document “Preaching the Mystery of Faith: The Sunday Homily.” I would like to share a few of the highlights of this splendid document with the hope that you might want to read it. It is impossible to do justice to a project of this magnitude. It states, “Preaching is nothing less than a participation in the dynamic power of the apostolic witness to the very Word that created the world.”

The document’s focus is on the Sunday homily. Pope Benedict XVI called for a renewal of the preaching ministry as a result of the October 2008 Synod of Bishops on the Word of God. Sacramentum Caritatis insists that the quality of homilies has to be improved. Powerful and inspiring preaching will counteract a steady diet of poorly prepared homilies which can drive people away from the Church. Pope Benedict XVI continually emphasized that good preaching is a way to engage us in the New Evangelization. We need to enliven our preaching by deepening our own faith, our solid convictions and then express that in joyful witness.

Preachers need to be aware of the cultural and ethnic make up of their congregations as well as their diversity, which is a blessing and a challenge. They reaffirm the benefit of Fulfilled in Your Hearing: The Homily in the Sunday Assembly, which still remains valid, especially in composing an effective homily. But today we face congregations that are culturally diverse and who are deeply affected by our secularistic society who remain inadequately catechized.

It is also true that, according to some recent studies, people have become indifferent or disaffected with the Church’s teaching. The causes are many: a spirit of individualism, the lack of working for the common good, the sexual abuse crisis, the sharp polarities in our political life.

Pope Benedict XVI often pointed out that the dominance of relativism results in making our preaching more difficult. Materialism and consumerism run rampant and have detrimental effects on our spiritual values. The gap between the rich and poor has broadened so that the poor are but a blip on the computer screen. The sin of racism has poisoned our society and violates human dignity. A decline in the participation of youth in the Church’s life has become more noticeable. Many devoted to the church still remain uninformed concerning the church’s teaching.

Fulfilled in Your Hearing used the dramatic scene found in Luke of Jesus in the synagogue proclaiming the Good News. “Preaching the Mystery of Faith” also uses this scene as a springboard for its theological and biblical foundations. Jesus was a dynamic preacher of the Good News. This becomes evident from this passage proclaiming God’s liberating justice. His congregation was spellbound by His words, especially as He says, “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:21). This inaugurates Jesus’ prophetic preaching, which is intrinsically linked to the church’s mission of justice and peace. It becomes a call to respect those who are most vulnerable: the poor, the migrant, the oppressed.

Biblical Foundations

The document also includes the Emmaus story from Luke (24:13-35), a story that provides meaningful insights into liturgical preaching. The focus is on Jerusalem, the passion and death of Jesus. The two disciples are headed away from it instead of toward it. They represent many who are searching for the Lord because they are confused and discouraged. Jesus revives their hope. Many themes can be developed from this powerful story.

“Preaching the Mystery of Faith” traces our ultimate foundation to the creation story and how God is revealed. Pope Benedict XVI in Verbum Domini stated, “The novelty of biblical revelation consists in the fact that God becomes known through the dialogue which he desires to have with us” (No. 6). The Trinity is relational from all eternity and never silent. A parallel reflection of creation with John’s prologue is evident as the Word becomes flesh, the same Word who was in the beginning. He dwelt among us and saved the world through His death and resurrection, giving new life by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The Gospel portrays the divine power of Jesus’ words: in calling Lazarus forth from the tomb, in raising Jairus’s daughter from the dead, in rebuking the storm on the sea. What Jesus speaks comes to be.

This mission was entrusted to His Apostles, but there is a difference between Jesus’ preaching and the Apostles. He not only bears testimony to His Father but also to himself, whereas the Apostles bear testimony not to themselves but to Jesus. Jesus becomes the principal content of their preaching, proclaiming the paschal mystery as its basis. It began on Pentecost through the power of the Holy Spirit. This defines our task to preach Jesus “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2: 2-3).

We should draw our inspiration for preaching from Jesus as He is presented in the Gospels, using the technique of lectio divina which Pope Benedict XVI has recommended to all believers. The process begins with a prayerful reading of the biblical text, as the pope points out, a meditation on its message, with a prayerful response of what the Lord might be asking of us and how this message applies to our congregation. Our conversion of heart and mind need to happen before we can influence others into action. Prayerful contemplation is most necessary for our preaching to be fruitful.

The Kingdom of God

The main theme or keynote of Jesus’ preaching was the announcement of the coming reign of God (Mk 1:15). His words demand a response. He wanted to wake people from their slumber so they could hear the Word. God has come to liberate the people and transform them into a holy people of peace and justice, the fruits of the covenant. It was a way of speaking of redemption leading to forgiveness. Jesus embodies the kingdom of God. Through forgiveness and healing He anticipates the fullness of the kingdom, the deepest hopes of Israel, the temple par excellence, and the supreme prophetic Word.

All effective homilies should embody a sense of freshness and urgency, revealing God’s kingdom because the Gospel is truly a matter of “life and death.” The document states, “If a homilist conveys merely some example of proverbial wisdom or good manners or only some insight gained from his personal experience, he may have spoken accurately and even helpfully, but he has not yet spoken the Gospel, which ultimately must focus on the person of Jesus and the dynamic power of His mission to the world.”

The other aspect is “Repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mk 1:15). This means a change of mind, adopting a new perspective. Jesus invited others to turn from sin and change their attitude, their way of living, in light of the Gospel. Effective preaching then is a summons to conversion, changing people’s hearts and minds. The document warns us not to berate people for their many failures, or to concentrate on their sinfulness without an emphasis on grace, because this leads to discouragement and even resentment. Good preaching inspires, encourages, consoles and supports the congregation in their journey. There is also a warning about “moralizing” homilies, harping excessively on sin. When the congregation can respond the way people did to Peter’s discourse after Pentecost, “What are we to do, my brothers?” (Acts 2:37), we know we have touched them in a fraternal, charitable way. We need to be courageous and not remain silent, but rather speak out against any injustice or what is contrary to the truth. People want us to be men of faith, passionate and excited about what we are preaching because of who Jesus is in our lives.

Luke’s Gospel

Luke’s Gospel inaugurates Jesus’ prophetic preaching in the synagogue. It is tied in with our need to preach justice and respect for human life, especially the vulnerable, the poor, the migrant. His Gospel story of the disciples on the way to Emmaus is emphasized because it has a connection with liturgical preaching, the liturgy of the Word and the liturgy of the Eucharist. The homily is an integral part of the Eucharist intended to set hearts on fire. Everything in Luke’s Gospel points to Jerusalem, but here we have the disciples headed in the wrong direction, which some are doing. Many other insights for preaching can be drawn from this story, such as people searching for meaning in their lives or people who are discouraged. Inspirational homilies touch the deepest questions of human experience. The Emmaus story also makes a connection between the Eucharist and mission. Our encounter with Jesus leads to mission.

Pope Benedict XVI in Spe Salvi writes about “little hopes” and a “great hope.” “Little hopes” are the ordinary ones like satisfaction in doing a job well, going on a vacation. These hopes are the springboard for a “great hope,” a deeper union with God and life after death. We are encouraged in our homilies to explain the paschal mystery, the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. A section of the document is devoted to the old and new testaments, how Jesus fulfills everything found in the Old Testament.

Liturgical Preaching

St. Paul wrote, “Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures, and he rose again on the third day” (1 Cor 15:3-4). “According to the Scriptures,” needs to be remembered when preaching, especially the death and resurrection of Jesus and its meaning for the congregation. Every homily has to make some connection with the Scriptures that are read and celebrated in the Eucharist. Even though this is challenging, God’s grace and our theological background will help us.

We also need to advance the Church’s catechesis by our preaching. St. Paul was able to do this by means of his many letters dealing with doctrinal issues. The heart of his preaching was the paschal mystery. But doctrinal homilies are not to be preached like a lecture in a theology classroom. Preaching the full scope of catechetical doctrine can be very challenging because, as Pope Benedict XVI has pointed out, it is easy to become abstract or theoretical. The seasons of the liturgical year can be very helpful as can the main mysteries of our faith, such as the Trinity, the Incarnation and redemption. One way suggested is to connect the homily to a key phrase of the creed. The goal of this preaching is to lead people to an intimate relationship with Jesus.

The Scriptures also lend themselves to telling stories as Jesus did. Simply repeating the Gospel story, however, is insufficient because we need to offer deeper meanings and insights that can relate to people’s daily lives. The homily is also an ecclesial act, so we need to be in union with the Magisterium, and this should not be a time for theological speculation or imposing our views about current issues. The story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman is used as an example of the moral challenges presented by the Church’s teaching. The homilist can preach on the dignity of human sexuality and the Church’s stand on abortion while, at the same time, being sensitive to those who are divorced or have gone through an abortion.

Preparing the Homily

To prepare the homily well, we need to interpret the Scriptures to better understand them. Commentaries, books and websites can be used, as well as homily helps. Preachers need to be men of prayer as they prepare and reflect on their homilies. A commitment to prayer, a deep love of the Scriptures, an adherence to the Church’s sacred tradition, the cultivation of love for the doctors of the Church, and using analogies between the Bible and experience are necessary.

These scriptural readings can be used to foster priests’ own prayer lives. The historical, biblical interpretation has helped many preachers preventing eisegesis, or outlandish personal interpretations. What the sacred author intended is important to pursue. Viewing the crossing of the Red Sea as a foreshadowing of the freedom from sin effected by our baptism is an example. The Fathers of the Church delighted in typology.

An understanding of contemporary culture, of the extraordinary diversity in our population, and of promoting justice and peace as Pope Benedict XVI has asked us to do, are important. African–American and other cultures have their own styles of preaching. Preachers have to be aware of the serious social, economic and political struggles of the Hispanic–Latino poor and migrants. We need to know their customs, practices, history and religiosity. What are people watching on TV? What music are they listening to? What Web sites and other media are they using? What do they read? When preaching, we need to respect other religious traditions, including Orthodox, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim. The homily is not a place for invective or coarse rhetoric.

Fulfilled in Your Hearing gives many practical ways to prepare a homily. We begin by engaging with the Word well in advance of Sunday, praying over the texts in silence. Then we study more before drafting it by including “many examples and apt metaphors that bring home to the listener the beauty and truth of the Scripture.” We connect it with their daily lives and then preach the homily with passion and zeal. Some pastors and deacons set aside a time for feedback. Since preaching is the primary duty of a priest, all the hard work will bear much fruit. It is a demanding lifelong task, so proper preparation in the seminary and excellent workshops are of utmost importance.

The conclusion of the document focuses on Mary as the hearer and bearer of the Word. Sts. Ephrem and Augustine maintained that Mary first conceived the Word in her heart before she conceived the Word in her womb. It concludes by encouraging us to be “like Mary who brought the Incarnate Word into the world, to conform our lives to her Son and to proclaim effectively the Word of salvation to all.”

Father Hart is director of preaching for the St. Joseph Province of the Capuchins.