In 2013, Pope Francis spoke to the Holy See Diplomatic Corps, saying, “One of the titles of the Bishop of Rome is Pontiff-- that is, a builder of bridges with God and between people. My wish is that the dialogue between us should help to build bridges connecting all people, in such a way that everyone can see in the other not an enemy, not a rival, but a brother or sister to be welcomed and embraced!”
Building bridges and connecting people with God and each other lies at the heart of preaching, yet this goal often remains elusive. The current climate of political and social unrest, polarizing rhetoric, and the social isolation imposed by the coronavirus works to divide rather than unite us. In this climate, it is easy to view those holding different religious, political, or social views as “other”; “different,” “on the wrong side,”--attitudes that allow us to marginalize, dismiss, and disconnect.
If we want to build bridges, we must stay informed and engaged in the world around us. However, that engagement can be challenging, even overwhelming. It is hard to process or even understand the graphic images and sounds bombarding us hourly. There are days we long to escape into fantasy; other days when we cannot seem to look away. Like moths to the flame, we sometimes feel drawn to the bad news and wonder why the good news is not more compelling and memorable. Scientists and psychologists have long noted what they call a “negativity bias” in our biological makeup. We instinctively pay close attention to negative words, images and experiences. Biochemically, we process negative input differently, even prioritizing negative emotional input over positive and neutral input.
This negativity bias is hard-wired into our physical and emotional responses. It is a hold-over from our days as hunters and gatherers when a lack of attention to danger could get us killed. This priority processing for negative input may be reinforced by our fight or flight response, a complex reaction to fear, stress, or danger. Our 24/7 news cycle feeds this negativity bias by offering instant access to compelling images of division, violence, and pain. At the same time, our genetic wiring lights up, hissing, “Pay attention to this!”
For preachers longing to be “bridge builders,” understanding this response and leaning into these challenges, rather than attempting to avoid them, may help us preach more effectively. Naming our fears, facing bad news head-on, exploring our dis-unity, and standing squarely in front of our own bias is the first step in claiming hope. While working on a Doctorate in Preaching, a class assignment required us to place the day’s news into direct conversation with scripture or spiritual writing and weave the disparate texts into a written reflection. Catholics tend to be wary of intertextuality. How many times have we heard, “NEVER introduce in your preaching, a scripture passage you did not proclaim!” However, I am not convinced we should follow that rule. Interesting things happen when we take off our shoes, wander around in God’s Word, place incongruent texts in direct conversation, and invite scripture to walk with us beside the headlines.
This exercise asks us to step into a new space and see with new eyes. It beckons us to stand amid woundedness and open our hearts to both God’s Word and the world’s pain. It fosters exploration, reflection, and honesty. As part of your homily preparation, it may lead to more evocative preaching on difficult texts, a commitment to bridge-building, and ultimately, to hope for the future.
The process is simple in concept, challenging in practice.
Select a news item or specific contemporary situation. Choose one that feels challenging, unfinished, or unsettling.
Place this news story or stories into prayerful conversation with texts of scripture, liturgy, or spiritual writing.
Surface texts that engage you and speak to the topic. It may take several rounds to find passages that feel ‘right.”
Weave the texts together, juxtaposing pieces in new ways until you see threads and connections, new insights, new prayers.
Here is an example:
Articles from the AP wire press
Words of Our Lady of Guadalupe to Juan Diego.
The elders of daughter Zion
sit silently on the ground;
they cast dust on their heads
and dress in sackcloth.
A chaotic scene of sickness and filth is unfolding in an overcrowded border station in Clint, Tex., where hundreds of young people who have recently crossed the border are being held, according to lawyers who visited the facility this week. Some of the children have been there for nearly a month.
The young women of Jerusalem
Bow their heads to the ground.
My eyes are spent with tears,
My stomach churns;
My bile is poured out on the ground
At the brokenness of the daughter of my people
From April 18 to May 31, Department of Homeland Security officials reported in June, 1,995 children were taken from 1,940 adults.
As children and infants collapse
in the streets of the town.
They cry out to their mothers, “Where is bread and wine?”
The Associated Press reports that at a facility near El Paso, roughly 250 infants, children and teens have been locked up for 27 days without adequate food, water or sanitation.
As they faint away like the wounded
In the streets of the city,
As their life is poured out in their mothers’ arms.
Inside an old warehouse in South Texas, hundreds of children wait in a series of cages created by metal fencing. One cage had 20 children inside. Scattered about are bottles of water, bags of chips and large foil sheets intended to serve as blankets.
To what can I compare you--to what can I liken you—
O daughter Jerusalem?
What example can I give in order to comfort you, virgin daughter Zion?
For your breach is vast as the sea;
Who could heal you?
I am truly your merciful Mother, yours and all the people who live united in this land and of all the other people of different ancestries, who love me, those who seek me, those who trust in me. Here I will hear their weeping, their complaints and heal all their sorrows, hardships and sufferings….
Know and understand, I do not lack servants and messengers to whom I can give the task of carrying out my words, who will carry out my will.
But it is very necessary that you plead my cause and, with your help and through your mediation, that my will be fulfilled. Words of Our Lady of Guadalupe to Juan Diego, 1531