All my sermons are prepared in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. As recreation is most pleasant and profitable in the sun, so homiletic creativity is best nourished before the Eucharist. The most brilliant ideas come from meeting God face to face. The Holy Spirit that presided at the Incarnation is the best atmosphere for illumination. Pope John Paul II keeps a small desk or writing pad near him whenever he is in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament; and I have done this all my life — I am sure for the same reason he does, because a lover always works better when the beloved is with him.
In the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops publication, Fulfilled in Your Hearing, the bishops present a scene from St. Luke’s Gospel (4:16-21) whereby Jesus unrolls a scroll from Isaiah and proceeds to serve as both reader and homilist. According to the bishops, all three major elements of liturgical preaching were present: the gathered community, preacher, and homily.
Many communication theorists note that in order for a message to be effectively received, the messenger must know his audience. Specifically, what is it that the gathered community wants, needs, and is capable of hearing? This is an interesting observation given that it seems to reveal a clear bias toward “providing the audience what it wants to hear.” At face value, such an audience appears programmed and incapable of receiving a deeper meaning—especially one that might challenge already established biases. Nevertheless, there is logic in beginning with the assembly rather than the preacher or homily. The bishops note that “the Church is first and foremost a gathering of those whom the Lord has called into a covenant of peace with himself. Offices and ministries are necessary, but secondary. The primary reality is Christ in the assembly, the People of God.” This development is in sharp contrast to a pre-Conciliar understanding in which the laity, for all intensive purposes, needed to only attend Mass and receive the sacraments. Today, lay involvement within the Church is so dramatic that a continued narrow, clerical view of ministry (even if it were possible) would all but render the preacher-congregation relationship ineffective. No longer does the preacher alone have sole access to the truth. And so, “the preacher should act as a mediator, making connections between the real lives of people who believe in Jesus Christ but are not always sure what difference faith can make in their lives, and the God who calls us into ever deeper communion with himself and with one another.”
Those who preach “should strive to preach in a way that indicates they know and identify with the people to whom they are speaking.” Although he may be aware of his congregations’ needs and concerns, a preacher should never consider himself as “one who solves problems.” Rather, the preacher should impel his congregation toward a current understanding of living a Gospel lifestyle.
St. Augustine noted that for preaching to be effective, it should inform, inspire, and motivate. There are many ways that a preacher might inform. The bishops have noted that listening to the Scriptures is of utmost importance. For as we meditate upon the daily readings, the Holy Spirit will often inspire us toward that which will be meaningful to the congregation, including the preacher. Without such prayerful study and reflection, it is unlikely that preachers will offer the words that God wishes his people to hear. In addition to reflecting upon Sacred Scripture, the preacher is also charged with proclaiming the faith of the Church. In his proclamation, he should be clear to state the Church’s doctrine, moral concerns, and spirituality. It is an understatement that the Church has been blessed through the ages with gifts from the Early Church Fathers, Magisterium, and deep insights from her many saints. When possible, these should become part of the preacher’s homily so that the fullness of Catholic tradition may be imparted. Ideally, this information should lead us toward inspiration—thereby creating room for pause, thinking, and consideration. By helping to form our consciences, the preacher’s message should ultimately motivate us toward action. While our action may not lead us to form a new religious order, it will surely lead us to a new world view and fresh way of interpreting our lives in light of the Gospel!
Of course, our inquiry into the role of preaching would be remiss if we were to deny the importance of classical rhetoric, especially the three elements attributed to a public speaker: logos, pathos, and ethos. With regard to logos (the spoken word), we are moved to reflect upon our choice of words—particularly since it will be our words that will be directed at the receivers. These words should be accurate, precise, and representative of the rich theology and spirituality we wish to convey. With regard to pathos, we should be careful to recognize that while it is the preacher who is speaking, there is also non-verbal dialogue taking place. How does the audience relate to the message? How do they feel about that which is being provided them for consideration? In this regard, the preacher’s passion, energy, and emotions will all have tremendous impact. Lastly, ethos is important to consider. Who am I as a person? What do I bring to my preaching skill? How am I perceived when I walk into the sanctuary, make my way toward the ambo, proclaim the Gospel, and proceed toward the people to make a public reflection? It is true that no preachers are alike and that each brings different gifts. Some bring confidence while others bring varied levels of gravitas, humility, authority, and charisma. As we prepare to preach, we should be mindful of these elements particularly since each has the potential to marginalize what would have been an inspiring message.
The bishops also note that: “We go to the Scriptures saying, what is the human situation to which these were originally addressed? To what human concerns and questions might these same texts have spoken through the Church’s history? What is the human situation to which they can speak today?” Given this, a preacher’s focus should be on using Biblical texts to help interpret people’s lives rather than simply interpreting a text of the Bible. Only after this has occurred will parishioners be led into the deeper spiritual realities of Eucharist, reconciliation, and engagement with the Body of Christ.
While it is important to note what homilies are, it is equally important to note what they are not. Homilies are not to be considered as a preacher simply delivering a talk on a chosen topic—even the Scripture itself. Thus, if we are to properly understand the purpose of a homily, it must be understood as being an integral part of the entire liturgy. Seen appropriately, the homily should lead us from Scripture into the Eucharist. The homily should “provide the motive for celebrating the Eucharist in this time and place.” When this occurs, the homily will provide transparent similarity to the entire liturgical action. Hence, it is the preacher’s responsibility to ensure this continuity.
Given all of this, the homily should always be understood in the context of community. Gathered together within the liturgical celebration, the people listen for that word which is meant for them. Aware of the many cultural and social obstacles, the preacher is given the responsibility of coming to know his congregation and specifically, of formulating a message that is supportive of challenging the many biases and objections present in their lives. In this way, the Gospel may become incorporated into their very way of being, thinking, and acting. By informing, inspiring, and motivating, the preacher is called to be leaven for those entrusted to his pastoral care. In being that leaven, the preacher is challenged to become a new creation. Through his ever increasing life of prayer and solidarity with the people he has been called to serve, it is hoped that he will grow in knowledge, wisdom, and courage. As one sent by God, the preacher helps unfold the mystery of God in our midst.