PREACHING TO EVANGELIZE: 5 SIMPLE POINTS
1. You can’t bend cold steel. Despite the fact many people in the pews would say they’ve heard ad nauseam “God loves you,” many of them simply do not know it – and will readily admit as much if asked. Sobering recent statistics reveal many Catholics don’t even think it’s possible to have a friendship with God, so they certainly don’t know, with every fiber of their being, that they are loved, infinitely and passionately, by the One who has made it all. And this love, knowledge of this love, an encounter with this love, is what changes lives; it’s what leads to a decision to make a response to follow the One who has laid down His life for us. Until a person knows this, the faith simply looks like rules and regulations. Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher to the Papal Household, reminds us that before you can bend steel you must first warm it; otherwise it will snap and break. But once steel is warmed it can be molded in all sorts of wondrous ways. And so it is with our hearts; until they have been warmed by the love of God, and unless we allow ourselves to be His agents in doing this when we preach, we will be trying to bend cold steel. Many of our people sitting in the pews are afraid, fearful that their pasts somehow disqualify them from this love, thinking the message of this love is for the person sitting next to them. This warming of the heart by the Holy Spirit is why the Gospel truly is good news: we are loved beyond all telling! Our lives matter! My life is in the hands not just of a god but of the good God, who created me, became a man for me, offered up His life for me, rose from the dead for me, and calls me to share in His own divine life and joy forever. Nothing in my past or present disqualifies me from this. There is no saint, save Mary, without a past, and no sinner without a future.
2. The Gospel proclaimed at Mass is an event. As author and scholar Father Jeremy Driscoll said, many of our parishioners tend to look at the Liturgy of the Word as reading and commentary, meaning they first listen to someone read the Scriptures dealing with events from long ago (often events that are hard to understand, especially if taken out of context), and then listen to the priest or deacon offer some comments (hopefully not too long and somewhat funny) on those same often unintelligible readings. But the Liturgy of the Word is not “reading and commentary” but “proclamation and response.” In other words, because the Word of God is alive, sharper than any two-edged sword, and able to separate joints and marrow (Heb. 4:12), what’s being proclaimed from the ambo during the first part of the Liturgy, and especially in the Gospel, is actually happening: God is speaking to us and acting again to take us to His Heart. He is looking for faith, a response from each of us who is hearing the Lord speak to us in His Word. For example, when Jesus asks the disciples in Caesarea Philippi, “Who do you say that I am?,” He is also asking us, gathered here at the 8:00 Sunday morning Mass at St. “What’s His Name” that same question, and He is waiting for a response. Or, when He asks the disciples in the boat, as they are drowning in the Sea of Galilee, before He quiets the storm, “Why are you afraid?” He is asking that same question to us who have come to Mass with our very real problems, fears, and anxieties. Or when He says to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life; the one who believes in me, though he die, will live again; do you believe this?,” He is asking me that same question as I sit there in the pew with my own sadness, worry, and concern. The key is not to offer commentary but to help the people in the pews understand what is happening in the text so that they can understand what is happening now and respond in faith.
3. Focus on what Jesus is saying to us today or asking of us today. Our task as preachers is to know intimately both the Word and our communities, so we can hear what this text is saying to us in our concrete situation. This requires that we have wrestled with the text in prayer throughout the week, and with a particular focus on what this text is saying to us as a community given what is happening right now in this place.
4. Never forget about the all-important place of testimony. Throughout the New Testament we see that the Gospel spreads most effectively by someone telling others the difference Jesus made in his or her life. We need to tell our story. Of course, this requires us to be vulnerable. The ambo clearly isn’t a confessional, let alone the place to work out our own issues in front of the people, so this isn’t meant as an exhortation for us to be inappropriately self-disclosing. But if we’re seriously wrestling with the Word of God during the course of the week as we prepare to preach, it simply can’t be the case that we aren’t personally being spoken to and challenged, or comforted, or exhorted, or provoked, or convicted. Just as Jacob forever walked with a limp after he wrestled with God (Gen 32),so too our own lives can’t be unaffected after encountering Him in His Word. By our revealing how the Word has spoken to us it can often have the effect of helping others drop their guard, and allow the Lord’s Word to penetrate more deeply into their hearts and minds and then consider how they, too, can respond to what they’re hearing.
5. Offer the people some concrete way to respond to what’s been said. A frequent lament from parishioners is that while the homily may have been informative, helpful, or inspiring, it was left in the realm of theory – it didn’t leave them with something to do in response. Thus, it can be helpful if we offer a suggestion or two for how we can respond in the next week to what Jesus has said to us. Perhaps after hearing the proclamation of the last judgment in Matthew 25, it will mean going through our closets at home and purging our clothes for donation to a shelter or St. Vincent de Paul. Or maybe, after hearing the proclamation of how often I must forgive my neighbor in Matthew 18, it will mean making it a point to reach out to that one person most in my mind right now with whom I am not reconciled. Or maybe, after hearing Jesus tell Martha (and us) that Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her, it will mean inviting people to make a more concerted effort to invest time daily in prayer in the course of the week ahead and try to get into the habit of offering to the Lord the first part of our day in prayer and reading Scripture. Or maybe after hearing Jesus give the Apostles the authority to forgive sins, it might be a great time to encourage people, especially those present, who have been away from the sacrament of reconciliation, to come and experience God’s great love and mercy and to begin again.