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”.
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).
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.
“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.