Wednesday, June 28, 2017

THE PREACHING TASK


Homily for July 2nd, 2017, 13th Sunday in Year A: 2 Kings 4:8-11, 14-16a; Mt 10: 37-42.
AIM:  To explain the purpose of preaching, and ask for prayerful support.
 
Is preaching important? Many Catholics would say it is not. Some might even prefer a shorter Mass with no sermon or homily. That could be an indication, however, of what people think about the homilies that they hear. Surveys report that a major complaint of Catholics in the pews is the quality of preaching.
The Second Vatican Council said that preaching is important. AThe homily is to be highly esteemed as part of the liturgy itself. In fact, at those Masses which are celebrated on Sundays and holidays of obligation, with the people assisting, it should not be omitted except for a serious reason@ (Liturgy, 52). The Catechism says the same: ANo one B no individual and no community B can proclaim the Gospel to himself: >Faith comes from what is heard= [875]. ... The People of God is formed into one in the first place by the Word of the living God ... The preaching of the Word is required for the sacramental ministry itself, since the sacraments are sacraments of faith, drawing their origin and nourishment from the Word@ [1122].
Two of our readings today are about preaching and preachers. The first reading tells how a Awoman of influence,@ as she is called, arranged guest quarters in her home for the prophet Elisha. Recognizing him as a man of God, she felt privileged to provide for him. And in the gospel Jesus tells his apostles, as he sends them out to proclaim God=s kingdom: AWhoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.@
         The word Apreaching@ turns a lot of people off. ADon=t preach at me,@ we say. We don=t like people who are always laying down the law and moralizing. Most of us, most of the time, know what we should do. Our problem is doing it.
Jesus Christ was a preacher. But he was not a moralizer. Jesus= first concern was not with behavior, but with seeing. Jesus knew that the best way to get people to improve their behavior was to show them how much God loved them; and how much he longed for their love in return. Of course Jesus spoke also of God=s law; but he made it clear that the best reason for obeying the law is to express our gratitude for the love God lavishes on us before we=ve done anything to deserve it. 
Jesus has entrusted this same concern, and this same message, to his messengers today.  The primary purpose of preaching is not to tell people what to do. It is to awaken and nourish faith. If the preacher can accomplish that, love will grow out of faith, and faith-filled people will be eager to express their faith by obedience to God=s law.
Which of us does not need greater faith? When we come to Mass on Sunday, do we need to be told what to do? Or do we come here week by week to the table of God=s word to be told who we are? That we are God=s daughters and sons, infinitely precious to him, the objects of a love so deep that he sent his only Son to die on our behalf. We want to hear that this world, with all its suffering and horrors, is still God=s world. We want a faith which will give us strength to live, and courage to die. 
If preachers are to awaken and nourish faith, we must be people of faith ourselves. We preachers have nothing to give but what we have ourselves received. The most important thing I do each day is to come here, early in the morning, and to wait in silence for a full half-hour on the Lord. Take away that time I spend alone with him, and I would just be spinning my wheels.
Most of you will remember Cardinal Bernardin. He was archbishop of Chicago from 1982 till 1996, when he lost a protracted battle with cancer. In the last few weeks of his life, knowing that he would soon die, he wrote a beautiful little book called The Gift of Peace.  Listen to what he says people want from their priests:
APeople look to priests to be authentic witnesses to God=s love in the world, and to his love. They don=t want us to be politicians or business managers; they are not interested in the petty conflicts that may show up in parish or diocesan life. Instead, people simply want us to be with them in the joys and sorrows of their lives. ... Even if people are not committed to any specific religion, men and women everywhere have a deep desire to come into contact with the transcendent@ C in other words, with God. We priests cannot possibly help people to come into contact with the transcendent C in the pulpit, at the altar, in the confessional, or in personal conversation C unless we are cultivating that contact ourselves. If we are not men of prayer, we are nothing, useless servants indeed. Pope Benedict XVI, now retired writes: AAll methods [of priestly work] are empty without the foundation of prayer. The word of proclamation must always be drenched in an intense life of prayer. ... Speaking about God and speaking with God must always go together.@ [Robert Moynihan, Let God=s Light Shine Forth, pp. 85 & 89.]
          Fifteen years go, when we were in the midst of the firestorm of media reports about abuse of children by some priests, I spoke about the distress we all felt, priests especially. I quoted a column in the Post-Dispatch which said: AThis is not an easy time for thoughtful men who wear the Roman collar.@ I told you that was true C but not the whole truth. I went on to speak of my joy in priesthood; that priesthood was all I have ever wanted. If I were to die tonight, I said, I would die a happy man. And I asked: How many people in other walks of life could say the same?
I added some words which, to my surprise, were printed twice over in the Post-Dispatch: AMy own experience of priesthood, and what I observe in my brother priests, has taught me that we priests are weak, fallible sinners like everyone who has ever been born.@ I explained what I meant: AIf we are healers, we are wounded healers. In other words: any healing we have to offer comes not from us, but from the One we serve; whose uniform we are happy and proud to wear, though we wear it unworthily: Jesus, the Good Physician.@
Let me conclude by reading to you some words by John Quinn, the retired archbishop of San Francisco, who died last week.  AI believe that this is the best time in the history of the church to be a priest, because it is a time when there can be only one reason for being a priest or for remaining a priest C that is to >be with= Christ.  It is not for perks or applause or respect or position or money or any other worldly gain or advantage. Those things no longer exist or are swiftly passing. The priest of today is forced to choose whether he wants to give himself to the real Christ, who embraced poverty, including the poverty of the commonplace, rejection, misrepresentation C the real Christ of the gospels C or whether, with the mistaken throngs of Jesus= time, he wants an earthly, worldly messiah for whom success follows upon success.
AThe priest, for whom Christ Jesus is the true and living center of his heart and life, is the one who can bring the church and the world what they need more than anything else today C hope. The church needs teachers. Yes. But more than ever it needs witnesses to hope. The world, cynical as it may be, wants to touch God and to see the face of God.@ 
Being witnesses to hope, helping people touch God and see the face of God, is a heavy responsibility. Without the help which God alone can give, it would be crushing. Mindful of this crushing responsibility, St. Paul expressed a fear which besets every preacher: AThat after preaching to others I should find myself rejected@ (1.Cor. 9:27). I close, therefore, with a simple but heartfelt request: pray for your priests, that we may remain faithful.