Rev. Michael Connors, CSC, is the Director of the Marten Program in Homiletics and Liturgics at the University of Notre Dame. In the latest issue of "Encounter," the Marten Program Newsletter, Connors shares some of the most important lessons he has learned about preaching over the past 40 years in the first of a three-part series.
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As my career was taking me in the direction of homiletics, I initially rather blithely assumed that we all know what preaching is about and all shared a more or less similar understanding of preaching’s purpose, even if we each approached preaching in a different way. Soon, however, I began to see that we Catholic preachers are not all on the same page about what we’re fundamentally trying to do when we get in the pulpit. I noticed that:
Some preachers thought their job was simply to explain the day’s scriptural readings, with little or no reference to the spirituality or daily lives of the hearers.
Some preachers approached preaching as mainly a catechetical occasion, a time for teaching the Church’s doctrines and creeds.
Some preachers approached the homily as a kind of light, feel-good moment in which to reassure the hearers of God’s care.
Some preachers nearly always led with concerns for social justice.
Some preachers ignored the biblical texts and often spoke on other topics, e.g., saints, the liturgical season, the parish’s financial needs, Catholic schools, etc.
Some few preachers seemed to have a particular gift for helping us see what following Jesus could mean today.
In other words, behind the vastly different styles I witnessed among preachers, there is a radical disparity about the goal of this ministry. Of course, other factors come into play when analyzing this diversity: the preacher’s personality, the cultural context, the differences in seminary formation. But it was painfully obvious to me – then and still today – that many of the complaints about Catholic preaching owed to a lack of clarity about the nature of preaching, and not only among the folks in the pew, but among priests and deacons, too.
I sought help from the Church’s official documents, especially those beginning with the Second Vatican Council. At first this led me to some despair, because it quickly became apparent that, while the Church has had more to say about preaching than most people realize, the various documents could not be easily or quickly harmonized. But I stuck with the project, and gradually I began to see something of a trajectory of development of thought. Clearly the documents were grappling with the formidable complexity of the preaching challenge, and of
course each document has its own history and purpose. Yet through this study, a picture of what we’re after in preaching, according to our tradition, began to emerge.
In a single word, that purpose is simply this: encounter. We preach in service to the People of God’s encounter with God. If we deepen awareness of and response to God’s offer of intimate, covenant relationship, if we bring God closer to the hearer and stimulate the response of faith, then we have succeeded. Everything else, however worthy, is secondary to that goal. Perhaps the Pontifical Biblical Commission put this goal most succinctly in their 1993 document, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, when they said, “The presentation of the Gospels should be done in such a way as to elicit an encounter with Christ.” (IV.C.3) Or as the U.S. Catholic bishops put it in 1982 in Fulfilled in Your Hearing: “[The homily is] a scriptural interpretation of human existence which enables a community to recognize God’s active presence, to respond to that presence in faith through liturgical word and gesture, and beyond the liturgical assembly, through a life lived in conformity with the Gospel.” (ch. 4)
So there it is: we preach to lead people to God, first at the Eucharist, and then in daily life. Interpreting the Scriptures is only half of the job; the other half is to interpret people’s lives via the scriptural lens. And that is what people really hunger for, a life that is connected to God and full of meaning. We preach for encounter; we preach to bring people closer to God, to guide, to facilitate or make more possible the encounter of our hearers with a living God. When we finish
preaching on a given day, we want our listeners to sense that God is holding out a divine hand of friendship to them, full of a passionate love for them.
Meeting the living God changes us. We call this metanoia (conversion or transformation) and on the basis of that transformation – which is an ongoing, lifelong process – we are moved to gratitude, wonder, and love, which grounds the desire to live differently, to respond and serve in a life of missionary or intentional discipleship, devoted to service and mission. So we might say the proximate goal of preaching is the experience of meeting God or Jesus, while the ultimate goal is to produce disciples. Only that experience of encounter confers the power to change human life and orient it away from sin and selfishness and toward the divine. And only the experience of a love that great, that effective, can instill in us the desire to respond with thanks and love, a desire which can be solidified into the committed sort of life we call holiness or being a disciple of Christ. The encounter experience, the transformation, thankfulness, hope, committed response – all are gifts of God. Preaching is not their source, but may serve as an effective vehicle through which God can work, and may awaken the faith needed to receive them.
So the potential inherent in preaching is no small thing. Our preaching could lead people away from God, away from their true selves. Our preaching could dull the hearer’s spiritual senses through superficiality or boredom. Or our preaching could address the most urgent longings of the human heart, and lead the hearer to the only place those longings can be fulfilled.
But if the opportunity in preaching is great, so is the challenge. How does one preach for encounter? An important question, and a much bigger topic. For now, just a few suggestions:
Make every homily good news, the kind of good news that really matters to the way people see their lives and live them out. You are a spiritual leader for your people. Dare to speak with them about important matters of the spirit. Hold out life and hope to your hearers. Never tire of speaking of Jesus and the meaning of his life, death, and resurrection. Point to the goal of God’s Kingdom, and to God’s grace-filled action among us.
Ask yourself what sort of personal witness, what sorts of language, what stories, examples, rituals, metaphors worked to bring you closer to the Lord, and helped set your foot on the path of discipleship. These may be precious resources in your preaching. And as you use them, you will be able to speak with conviction and fervor.
As you preach, speak in the language of spirituality. Read the saints. Catholic Christianity has a wealth of spiritualities and spiritual insights. Spirituality is engendered by language that is direct, relational, urgent, intimate. Learn from the ways the Scriptures themselves lead us to God, and from the ways the great spiritual masters have helped so many to follow their footsteps to the experience of God.
Remember that human relationship can be sacramental of the relationship with God. As you preach, help people see how to nurture healthy relationships and an active sense of community with others on the road. Friendship and community are powerful tonics for the loneliness and rootlessness which are so common today. They are the context in which we come to recognize God’s love.
As preachers, we are servants of God. We serve God’s desire to encounter His people as “mediators of meaning” (Fulfilled in Your Hearing), that is to say, those who facilitate the two-way conversation between God and human beings.
(Part 1 of 3)