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Effective Catholic Preaching—Part 2

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Last month, I concluded Part One of this series with four key pieces of homiletic advice for effectiveness:

  1. Every homily must be (the) Good News.
  2. A homily should make one point, and one point only.
  3. Every homily should appeal to all three dimensions of the human person: mind, heart, and will.
  4. We must preach in a way that animates, stimulates, calls forth, or focuses the proclamation of the Good News by all the baptized.

Now let me add a fifth: We preach to facilitate the encounter with a living God. As the Pontifical Biblical Commission stated,

The presentation of the Gospels should be done in such a way as to elicit an encounter with Christ who provides the key to the whole biblical revelation and communicates the call of God that summons each one to respond.[1]

Good preaching does not settle for a “moral to the story”—in fact, good preaching avoids moralizing altogether. To be sure, the Scriptures offer us plenty of moral challenge, and good preaching does that, too. But it is a moral challenge that always plainly arises from, and is empowered by, an encounter of incomparable sweetness and life. The problem with moralistic preaching—and I’ve heard plenty of it, moralisms of both the right and the left, and have been guilty of it myself too—is that it makes demands without plugging people into the source of power for actually meeting those demands. That source of power cannot come from ourselves and our efforts alone; it can only be supplied by the experience of God. Only God is powerful enough to change hearts and transform lives.

Preaching is not primarily about instruction, though it must rest on a solid foundation of sound teaching. We seek not merely to inform people, nor to vaguely uplift or inspire people, but to bring them into nothing less than an experience of a personal, living, uncontrollable, caring, merciful God. Most immediately, this means that our preaching leads to the Eucharistic Table, where we give God thanks, are nourished, and are sent in mission. We want to bring God close, as it were, to make a true meeting of the divine with humans more accessible and more likely, thus inspiring spontaneous gratitude and loving response in service. We seek the kind of encounter which then ripens into stable relationship, commitment, discipleship. There is no sweeter music to the ears of a preacher than to have a hearer say to us, “You helped me find God in my life.” We desperately need preachers who aim for that kind of depth: the total conversion God wants for each of us.

How do we do that? Here again, one might think there is a lot of literature on that question, but such is not the case. Let me hazard a few suggestions, to invite yours too.

  • Recall what Jesus said to Andrew and John: “What are you looking for?” (Jn 1:38). Don’t begin from the assumption that your hearers are intellectual or spiritual dullards. Start from what we know about human beings, namely, that we are hard-wired for God. Our deepest thirsts are for truth, meaning, love—in other words, for God who alone can satisfy. Cling to the truth that your hearers are hungry for God, whether they can name it as such or not. Learn the particular forms this hunger takes for the people of all ages of your community. Remember St. Augustine’s famous line in the Confessions, “O God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you” (I, 1, 1).
  • Keep the goal of encounter ever-present in your mind, both as you prepare and as you actually preach. Bring this concern to bear on how you conceive the focus of your preaching and what you hope this particular preaching event will do for your listeners. Ask yourself hard questions about how your choice of homiletic form or structure facilitates (or works against) encounter.
  • Make rich use of story, illustration, image, and imagination. Remember that some aspects of spiritual reality are enigmatic, mysterious, or even paradoxical to our minds, and so better expressed through narrative, music, poetry, or other artistic expression. God wants to meet and transform us in all of our human faculties.
  • Understand and use the language of spirituality. Yes, there are many languages of spirituality in our rich tradition, but they all have some things in common and are treasured precisely because people have found the path to God through them. What has “worked” in our spiritual tradition? Think of the saints, spiritual masters, and those mentors, spiritual directors, and pastors who have helped you deepen your relationship with God. How did they do it?
  • Urgency, in two ways:
  1. Have a message that is substantive enough and deep enough that it matters. Give people the depth to which they are entitled from us. As Peter Cameron, OP says, “Preaching exists in the Church to be a life-saving presence that reaches out to those in peril and that rescues them from their despair, their demise” (Cameron, Why Preach?, 48).
  2. Infuse your preaching with the urgency of witness, that is to say, with your personal presence and investment in what you’re saying. No, you’re not perfect, and thank God, you don’t have to be. But you do have to be on the spiritual journey yourself, hungering for God yourself.
  • Remember that “the essence of Christianity is not an idea but a Person. Encounter is God’s very method of salvation” (Cameron, 52). Or, as Pope Benedict XVI said, “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (Deus Caritas Est, §1). It’s that important.

In your experience, how can preaching lead people to meet God, or fail to do so? What makes it more likely that the hearer will sense God’s nearness and offer of intimate friendship? Write me at martenpr@nd.edu.

Featured Photo: Bishop Patrick Joseph McGrath giving a homily at Saint Albert the Great in Palo Alto, California. Photo by Opusdeiphotography. CC BY-SA 3.0

[1] Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (1993), IV.C.3.

Michael Connors, C.S.C.

Michael Connors, C.S.C. is director of the John S. Marten Program in Homiletics at the University of Notre Dame. He is an Associate Professional Specialist in the Department of Theology at Notre Dame, teaching in the area of preaching and pastoral ministry.