To Preach or What to Preach, that is the question

Yesterday, Cathnews highlighted an article by Andrew Hamilton in Eureka Street, in which he attempts to provide an explanation of why he never preaches about abortion. Fr John has commented on this – with a good deal of charity, IMO. I don’t think I can match his charity.

Which is to say that Fr Hamilton’s piece demonstrates remarkably well the core problem with much contempory Catholic homiletical practice today.

He starts of by saying that the popular perception of “preaching” is a form of discourse that is “boring, moralising and bullying”.


He writes

that sermons are an asymmetrical form of communication. Preachers stand in a hierarchy. They must be licensed by their churches to preach and stand in a position of power over their hearers. During the sermon preachers speak, the people listen and rarely speak back.

I must say that, as a preacher myself for more than ten years, and both before and since then as listener to sermons on a weekly and even daily basis, I have never experienced the act of preaching as an exercise “of power”. Viewing preaching in such a way might – in itself – explain why Fr Hamilton has an aversion to preaching on difficult or controversial subjects. I do sometimes reflect on the readiness of Catholic homilists to choose “difficult or controversial” subjects which they know before hand are in fact neither difficult nor controversial for their hearers. For instance, the topic of “asylum seekers” – a topic on which I have heard many sermons – might seems to be a “difficult or controversial” issue in some quarters, but generally not at your average Sunday parish liturgy. A priest who wants to tackle “difficult and controversial” issues in the homily is actually playing it quite safe when he chooses this topic.

In contrast to the popular understanding of what preaching is, Fr Hamilton explains how he sees as the purpose of the homily at mass:

In sermons to people who are drawn together by faith, the betterment will normally consist in their exploring their faith more deeply, recognising unseen possibilities in it, or finding encouragement in living it. That is normally done by reflecting on the deeper meanings and implications for contemporary life of the scriptural texts set for the day.

As we listen to a sermon we might hope to see the love and power of God at work in the messiness of our lives, and to find courage to live generously in the face of our discontents and the claims made on us by our world.

He speaks about priests “choosing a topic” to preach on. As he points out, the Catholic tradition wisely recommends as a general rule that the readings of the liturgy are to provide the basis for the sermon, so “choosing a topic” should not always be the starting point of the priest’s homiletic preparations. Nevertheless, is preaching really about talking on “topics”? Is the purpose of preaching (with apologies to St Augustine) really to help us to live our lives “better”?

I would like to propose that there is a world of difference between “reflecting on the deeper meanings and implications for contemporary life of the scriptural texts set for the day” and, as I was taught when I was training to be a preacher, “proclaiming the whole Word of God”. The true task of the preacher is to proclaim God’s Word to the assembled community. That is why preachers must be “authorised”. This authorisation is a kind of power, I guess, but it is the power of a herald to proclaim only what and all that his master has given him to proclaim. As the old saying goes, “the Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing But the Truth”.

Two texts come to mind here. First: Romans 10:14-17:

How then will they call on 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 someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” (ESV)

Replace the word “preach” above with “proclaim”, and you will see that what St Paul is talking about is the role of the herald or the prophet. The “Good News/Gospel” is the announcement that the herald has been commissioned to make known on behalf of his master (the Lord). It is for this alone that the preacher has been “sent” (commissioned/apostled).


The other text is from Ezekiel, the parable about the watchman. First, at the beginning of his ministry, Ezekiel is commissioned as a “watchman” for Israel:

And at the end of seven days, the word of the LORD came to me: “Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked person shall die for his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked, and he does not turn from his wickedness, or from his wicked way, he shall die for his iniquity, but you will have delivered your soul. Again, if a righteous person turns from his righteousness and commits injustice, and I lay a stumbling block before him, he shall die. Because you have not warned him, he shall die for his sin, and his righteous deeds that he has done shall not be remembered, but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the righteous person not to sin, and he does not sin, he shall surely live, because he took warning, and you will have delivered your soul.” (Ezekiel 3:16-21, ESV)

If Augustine was right about preaching being “to make people better”, then surely it was in relation to this: the duty of the preacher to call the wicked to turn from his wickedness and to warn the righteous person not to sin.


Ezekiel takes up this metaphor again later in Chapter 33:

“The word of the LORD came to me: “Son of man, speak to your people and say to them, If I bring the sword upon a land, and the people of the land take a man from among them, and make him their watchman, and if he sees the sword coming upon the land and blows the trumpet and warns the people, then if anyone who hears the sound of the trumpet does not take warning, and the sword comes and takes him away, his blood shall be upon his own head. He heard the sound of the trumpet and did not take warning; his blood shall be upon himself. But if he had taken warning, he would have saved his life. But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, so that the people are not warned, and the sword comes and takes any one of them, that person is taken away in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at the watchman’s hand.

So you, son of man, I have made a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, O wicked one, you shall surely die, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked person shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked to turn from his way, and he does not turn from his way, that person shall die in his iniquity, but you will have delivered your soul. (Ezek 33:1-9, ESV)

I would strongly recommend all preachers, Fr Hamilton included, to reflect on the above passage when they decide on what “topic” to preach. The duty of the preacher is not to tickle the ears of the faithful, or to give them little tips on how “to live their lives better”, or even to help them in “exploring their faith more deeply”, but to “declare the whole Word of God” to them – both the warnings concerning righteousness and wickedness and the Good News of the salvation of Jesus Christ.

About Schütz

I am Catholic, married to Cathy, father of Maddy & Mia. Since 2002, I have been the Executive Officer of the Ecumenical & Interfaith Commission of the Archdiocese of Melbourne. I was once a Lutheran pastor, but a "year of grace" and soul-searching led me into the Catholic Church. It was a bumpy ride, but with the support of my (still Lutheran) wife, I was finally confirmed on June 16, 2003.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to To Preach or What to Preach, that is the question

  1. Very Lutheran, David.
    (I mean that in a good way, of course!)
    Part of the problem may also be that Catholic homiletics tends not to see the Word itself as ‘living and active…sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit…’, but as something obscure and powerless. Just a thought.

    • Schütz says:

      Yes, I thought I was probably flying my Lutheran colours pretty high in this post – I only narrowly avoided (if indeed I avoided it at all) falling into the “Law/Gospel” paradigm I so despise!

      Certainly Catholic theology upholds the Word of god as “living and active etc.” – but you might be correct in thinking that, often, this consciousness doesn’t carry over into the Homily. I think that this might simply be a case of misplaced humility – there are many Catholic preachers who would shrink from entertaining the idea that their sermon is actually “the Word of God”. This might be a dogmatic difference between the two confessional traditions. Lutherans have a much better understanding of the event of the proclaimed Word as a “dynamic” (in the Greek sense of the word). Scholastic Catholic theology rather to see the Word of God as a more static, content based, concept. I don’t want to belittle either approach, but the Lutheran approach to the doctrine of “the Word of God” undeniably results in more powerful preaching.

      Officially, Catholic preachers are not without guidelines (eg. in the General Instruction on the Roman Missal, §65), but I do not know of an extended Vatican instruction on the matter of homilies. Perhaps our readers could help me on this?

  2. Hannah says:

    Hey David, what happened to the two comments at the same place by a certain “Anne Lastman?” weren’t they good? I thought so. And what’s not “charitable about Anne’s words.? Hmmmm..

    • Schütz says:

      I don’t know. I wasn’t following the conversation “at the same place” – do you mean on Cathnews? I can imagine that given Fr Hamilton’s stated opposition to preaching about abortion, Ms Lastman – who dedicates herself tirelessly to raising the Church’s consciousness and prayers in relation to the horror of abortion (see here: http://www.victimsofabortion.com.au) – would find it a challenge to be completely charitable in reaction to his column. If she wishes to post her comments on this site, they will not be deleted – unless they really ARE a breach of charity.

      • Tony says:

        Lastman’s comments are still there, David.

        …. Who was it that said something about evil will prevail when good men (and women) do nothing? Well we have abortion to 40 weeks and you read an incidence 2 weeks ago,(32 weeker) because “good men” (and women) did nothing ….

        I don’t think it is fair to imply that Hamilton has ‘done nothing’, he’s just not prepared to preach about it.

        I feel a bit uneasy about it too, but given the deviciveness of the topic and the readiness for ‘enthusiasts’ from both sides to jump on those they perceive to be ‘not with them’, I don’t blame him.

        There is not much real communication going on in relation to abortion and I suspect more good is done by a compassionate listener one-to-one and individuals and groups who provide practical support.

        • Hannah says:

          Tony there are many “compassionate” listeners and support except that abortion has become a “rights” issue and demanded as a right in Victoira to 40 wreeks gestation. There can be no negotiation can there? We are speaking about the life and death of an infant in the womb. Whether 1 week or 40 week. Its all the same except the size.
          As for compassion, whats happened to compassion for an infant not permitted to be born? where is the compassion. And where is the compassion when women then self harm because of despair over a decision made in a moment of uncertainty, fear, coercion?
          And Tony there is a lot of communication going on about abortion except that there can be no negotiation. Abortion is abortion is abortion. Meaning the death of a child in the womb. What is there to communicate about?

          • Tony says:

            And Tony there is a lot of communication going on about abortion except that there can be no negotiation. Abortion is abortion is abortion. Meaning the death of a child in the womb. What is there to communicate about?

            I’m confused, Hannah. When you say ‘What is there to communicate about?’ are you not, in a sense, agreeing with Fr Hamilton given that a homily is a form of communication?

  3. matthias says:

    I attended an OF Mass yesterday as i had a day off and I was wanting to make my confession. The Chapel is in a Shopping Centre and Mass times are at 1.05. I arrived at 1.08 to hear the Gospel acclamation,then the Gospel read and then a homily lasting about 3 minutes about I think choosing priests. it was linked to the Mass for the day but I thought what if a non Christian ventured in what would they gain out of it? Would they be convicted of sin?

  4. Bear says:

    David, I would also point out that bishops, priests and deacons are only authorised to preach the Gospel – nothing else. Given this, should that not direct the preacher more?

    The obvious corollary is that there are many topics that should not be preached about – politics being a significant one. I am sure we can all recall inappropriate sermons on politics – my favourite being told from the pulpit that I was a very bad Catholic for supporting Australia becoming a Republic. I probably am a very bad Catholic, but not for supporting a Republic.

    But Andy Hamilton does have a point about preaching being asymmetric – which is why preachers need to be careful, and why they should only preach the Gospel. Their hobby horses – such as the aesthetic worth of particular films – should be avoided.

    • Schütz says:

      First, I should point out that “bishops, priests and deacons are only authorised to preach the Gospel” in the context of Holy Mass. All Christians have the duty to proclaim the Gospel in their daily lives and any other way possible. Lay Catholics can be preachers – just not during the liturgy, where the homily is intrinsically connected to the celebration of the Eucharist. That being said, the reason why only “bishops, priests and deacons” are authorised to preach during mass is because of the Romans 10 issue of “sent-ness” – related to the apostolicity of the ministerial priesthood.

      There may be times when a preacher should preach on political matters. Abortion, for eg., is (or could or should be) a political matter. So is Immigration. Where political matters touch on justice, it is a suitable topic for preaching – but the preacher needs to be very, very careful to preach the Word of God according to the official teaching of the Catholic Church – and not his own opinions. That’s where things get tough for the preacher entering into current political issues. The preacher only has the authority to preach what he has been sent to preach.

      As for preaching being “asymmetric” – there is no reason why it should be. In fact, in some cultures, it certainly is not (eg. African American). A “sermon” (according to the latin root of the word) means a “conversation”, and the only thing stopping any response from the congregation during a sermon is our particular cultural convention. I remember hearing of a story of the wonderful Jennifer Paterson (of Two Fat Ladies fame) standing up during a sermon at the Brompton Oratory to correct a preacher on a matter of the faith. Perhaps a little less deference in this respect would produce preachers able to think on their toes – like the medieval street preachers such as the Franciscans.

      • Bear says:

        In the context of your post, preaching is in the context of Mass, rather than the lay faithful living out their lives and defending the truth. So to mention that is a little off topic.

        Yes, sometimes what is being preached may have a political aspect, but preachers should not lecture about politics. Perhaps we could use another example: Cosmology. We would be surprised if preacher were to consider that preaching a geocentric cosmology, and had some Metaphysical window dressing to allow it to be preached.

        However, we have all heard sermons which are fundamentally political in character, and there is some moral window dressing to attempt to make it relevant to the Gospel. One priest even preached to me that I was morally obliged to support monarchies. Other sermons have included that I was morally obliged to support a particular political action (which on Philosophical reasons I opposed).

        The political emphasis of sermons is generally too great, and we should return sermons to the Gospel and the spiritual life rather than the political life.

        As for the asymmetric nature of sermons – your anecdote proves the point. It is a very unusual thing to have the congregation answer back during a sermon. So unusual that it is a story that a particular person actually corrected a priest during the sermon. But it is something that I would like to see much more.

        Perhaps it would be better to separate the sermon from the liturgy, this way the preacher would not have a captive audience and may actually be better engaged with the lay faithful. And this would mean that interruptions would not disrupt the worship of God. (and I would would have to endure fewer sermons)

  5. Hannah says:

    Hello Bear,
    The “Gospel” is “Life” lifegiving, all about “life” without “life” there is no need to preach the Gospel, wont be able to bear it. The Gospel is the Word of “Life” the word”which gives Life”. So the word “life” should fit into every Gospel, and other readings at each Mass. Sadly the races, films, golf, etc feature mostly

  6. Joshua says:

    David,

    Could you say more about good preaching – and what the Dominicans call the gratia prædicationis? I fear the comments here have gone a bit off track (no disrespect, fellow commenters); I think it terribly sad how, with honourable exceptions, Catholic preaching is so poor, and wish more could be done about it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *