Smaller Church, Bigger Faith 4: The Challenge of Preaching
In the preceding installment of this series, I had to acknowledge certain limitations on the Church’s ability to reform her own membership, the deficiencies of which not infrequently pose obstacles to the New Evangelization. To take just one example, while effective discipline is absolutely necessary against wayward clergy and lay persons who publicly oppose the teachings of the Church, the proper exercise of ecclesiastical authority is very foreign to modern culture. It is something we must both desire and advocate, but its scope is limited and there is no easy switch with which to turn it on.
Where else, then, can we turn? The answer leads us to what is probably the greatest possible spur to the improvement of the membership of the Catholic Church across the board: Good preaching.
Again, of course, there is no easy switch to turn this on. But we already have a variety of important sources from the progress of renewal to date: New priests who persevere in their vocations despite the cultural drift away from faith; missionary priests from regions where the faith is more vibrant; priests who have been formed by or contributed to the ecclesial movements and new religious communities which have emerged over the past century; older priests who have stayed the course despite frequent ill-treatment in the latter part of the twentieth century; priests from older religious communities which have already made great strides in their own process of renewal; and deacons not infrequently called from the ranks of the most committed laity.
Encouragement and Challenge
Most Catholics should not opt out of the Church when they face spiritual problems, or be kicked out except in extraordinary circumstances. But this does not mean they should not be encouraged and challenged to deepen their Faith. Strong preaching is absolutely critical to this process. But it is important that we understand what strong preaching is, in the hope that more and more seminaries will train properly for it, and more and more priests and deacons will push themselves to engage in it.
In the context of a New Evangelization, strong preaching must consist of both encouragement and challenge. When I refer to encouragement, I speak of muscular Christian encouragement, not generalized “be all you can be” mushiness, which even an atheist could endorse.
I am talking about the constant reminder of how much God loves us, how precious we are in His sight, how Our Lord gave up His life to pay our debt of sin, how He incorporates us into His Body the Church, how He nurtures us into wholeness through the sacraments, how He always welcomes us in spite of our falls, how He joins us in our trials, how He invites us ever more deeply into the Father’s love, how He is our constant advocate at God’s right hand, how He calls us to perfection, how He destines us for spiritual greatness, and how He yearns to make us one of His beloved saints for all eternity.
We moderns are adept at concealing our own hopelessness even from ourselves, but this message can awaken us to our misery and give birth to love. Nonetheless, there is a danger. This encouragement can become empty if it goes too far without introducing its corresponding challenge. Preachers must not forget that we need to learn how to respond to Christ’s love. Preachers must identify and explain, in a very practical way, the false attachments and misconceptions which drag us down and hold us back. Here I beg preachers to avoid those alleged clarion calls from the pulpit which “challenge” the faithful to stand up for whatever moral value the whole world is accidentally already standing up for.
What is needed is a deliberate focus on the characteristic evils of our age, the evils that most people take for granted to be goods. This means, among other things, that preachers must be willing and able to explain God’s plan for the body and for our sexuality, which He built into nature, in all its life-giving and love-engendering splendor, so that we can begin to understand what is wrong with pornography, solitary sex, sex outside of marriage, contraception, serial monogamy, and same-sex liaisons. It means preachers must be willing and able to explain the sanctity of human life and our call to generosity and love. It means they must help us to recognize our own attachments to material things, the dangers of our high standard of living, and the many substitutions we make for God and His love. And it means talking about real personal sin, not politics.
The Catechism Is Not Enough
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, published in 1994, played a vital role in gradually curbing a widespread disregard of Revelation and the Magisterium of the Church. The Catechism can be consulted by anyone who is in doubt; it is a wonderful gift. But now I think there is a tendency on the part of many bishops, priests and deacons to use the existence of the Catechism as an excuse to avoid addressing sensitive issues in their homilies and other talks. One is reminded of the recent controversy in Charlotte in which the bishop kept saying that anyone could read the Catechism to see what the Church upholds, without ever being quite willing to say what the Church does uphold—which is folly to the Greeks, no doubt, and a stumbling block to the Jews (1 Cor 1:23), and so often requires courage in the face of an angry mob.
No. There must be both the encouragement and the challenge. The invitation and the goal. The wedding announcement…and the wedding garment. Preaching should be positive and visionary, yes, but in a way which (in due course, not necessarily on every occasion) makes specific stumbling blocks visible enough to avoid. The very real virtues we must cultivate are engraced; they make the Christ-life grow. Our Faith is profoundly incarnational. Catholicism, though universal, is always concrete.
Finally, please note that this idea of preaching as a key to renewal among the Church’s membership is not just a little idea of my own. We find it in Divine Revelation itself. In the words of Isaiah: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good tidings, who publishes peace, who brings good tidings of good, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns’” (52:7).
And in the words of St. Paul:
For, “every one who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher? And how can men preach unless they are sent?... So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ. [Rom 10:13-17]
Here we have our Scriptural warrant, enough and more to convict far too many clergy. But we must admit, in most cases, that preaching reaches only those in the pews. Is there nothing more? There is, and so a final installment is needed. I suspect it will convict us all.
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Posted by: billG -
May. 03, 2014 2:06 PM ET USA
The fact that we now have a "homily" based upon the readings of the day is an unfortunate limitation/direction/focusing laid upon the preacher. The old "sermon" - based upon whatever Fr. X wanted to address - made it easier to talk about abortion, for instance - which barely makes an appearance in Holy Writ because it was so unthinkable. Instead, Fr. X now must construct a (wobbly?) bridge from the readings to his topic or risk criticism. A waste of his effort and our time.
Posted by: fenton1015153 -
May. 01, 2014 12:00 PM ET USA
Preaching love of our Father in Heaven for us is done a lot in the churches I have attended. Trouble begins when the people are not instructed in the need for them to change their ways so that the Father's love will find a home in them. Too often the preaching makes it sound like God will forgive us our transgressions even if we don't want to free ourselves from them. How do you preach God's love of us but forget to preach the fine print which is you must want to be holy as God is holy.
Posted by: John J Plick -
Apr. 29, 2014 2:17 PM ET USA
We are almost literally fulfilling the Scriptural readings at Mass during this time which portray the epic struggle of the Apostles against the "Jewish system" that was attempting to shut them down. Where are those ancient Jewish rebels now but in Hell? Such will be the destiny of those within our own system that are truly trying to shut down the legitimate moves of the Holy Spirit.
Posted by: koinonia -
Apr. 28, 2014 5:55 PM ET USA
It is both astonishing and in another sense predictable that so many Catholics today suffer an identity crisis. Many others might do the "right things" but do them for the wrong reasons. While the final installment has not been contributed yet, the fundamental concept in this series is vital. Try as we might salvation cannot be "reinvented." Somehow the answers to today's malaise have been always with us. Somehow the work of salvation is unique to the Mystical Body. Somehow we can do better.