Preaching the Good News of Great Joy, The Anchor, December 20, 2013

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Putting into the Deep
The Anchor
December 20, 2013

In his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), Pope Francis said that to bring about the missionary transformation of the Church, there is a need to form and reform the messengers so that they may effectively announce and become the Gospel message.

As we prepare to celebrate the “good news of great joy for all the people” that will be proclaimed to us in a few days, it’s worthwhile for us to ponder Pope Francis’ suggestion that each of us likewise is called to continue that work of the angels on Christmas morn.

“There is a kind of preaching,” Pope Francis writes in the exhortation, that is a “daily responsibility” for each of us, to bring the Gospel to those we meet, both neighbors and complete strangers. “Being a disciple means being constantly ready to bring the love of Jesus to others … on the street, in a city square, during work, on a journey.” This is not a preaching “at” anyone, but much more an art of “spiritual accompaniment,” listening with an open heart, seeking to bring the person into a dialogue with us and with the saving word and work of God.

The message that Pope Francis wants all of us to be able to echo and evince with integrity is a synthesis of the meaning of both Christmas and Easter: “Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you.” When we credibly witness to others the beauty and joy of what it looks like to be loved by God and to be accompanied by him through all life’s ups and downs, we become evangelized evangelizers capable of attracting others to enter into the same drama of redeeming love.

That’s the general day-to-day preaching all of us are called to give.

Pope Francis, however, doesn’t stop there. He knows that if the preaching of the Church as a whole is going to become more efficacious, there is much need for improvement in the most famous type of predication of all: the liturgical homilies given by bishops, priests and deacons.

There have been so many concerns expressed about this type of preaching that Francis says this subject can’t be ignored. And so, in order to “renew our confidence in preaching,” he gives us the most “meticulous” primer on preaching in papal history.

The many practical points he gives are obviously relevant to clergy ordained to preach, but they also contain many tips for everyone who is called to be a credible messenger of the faith.

The homily, Pope Francis clarifies, is not a form of entertainment or an opportunity for a preacher to share a weekly commentary on the weekly news. Rather it is meant to open up a heart-to-heart dialogue between God and his people in which the preacher proclaims God’s word, love and saving works, restates the demands of the covenant, tackles some of the struggles we might have in living that word, and seeks to guide us to the life-changing help provided in the sacraments. It’s directed to far more than a communication of truth, but to an exchange of persons through the medium of words and in the Word-made-flesh.

Francis says it’s important not just to know what to say but how to say it. The Pope encourages all preachers to be joyful, positive, warm, welcoming, familiar, practical, unpretentious, and organized. He says they should stress not what we shouldn’t do as much as what we can be done better. Rather than dour judges and experts in dire predictions, preachers should be guardians of goodness and the beauty of a life of faithful love in accordance with God’s wisdom.

Bishops, priests and deacons ought to devote a lot of time in the preparation of homilies, Pope Francis adds, giving it priority over other important tasks. Those who “wing it” because they’re too busy with other activities, he says, are “dishonest and irresponsible with gifts God he has received.” True love of neighbor, he says, is shown in refusing to offer a product of poor quality.

Time is necessary for the preacher to study and contemplate the Word of God to such a degree that it resonates in his heart before he shares it with others. Unless the word has truly touched his life through prayerful assimilation, Pope Francis maintains, he will be “a false prophet, a fraud, a shallow imposter.”

The preacher also needs adequate time also to contemplate his people, what their needs, feelings, habits, aspirations, limitations, struggles, and worldviews are with respect to the Word of God, so that he can be an instrument to join their hearts to the Lord’s.

Francis advises preachers to be brief lest the homily take on exaggerated importance in comparison with the Liturgy of the Eucharist or devolve into a speech or lecture. He doesn’t define what he means by “brief,” but if he practices what he himself recommends, he’s probably thinking about 15 minutes, which is the average length of his homilies on Sundays and solemnities.

He urges preachers to imitate the way mothers evangelize their children, teaching lovingly what is for their benefit, listening to their concerns, speaking clearly and simply in a language they understand, and correcting when necessary with patience and tenderness.

The fact that he learned the faith primarily from his grandmother obviously influences this metaphor. If the inspirational heroes in his life had been male coaches or spiritual fathers, he likely would have accentuated the necessary paternal side to preaching, challenging sons and daughters courageously to strive beyond their comfort zones. We see both the paternal and maternal sides in Jesus’ preaching.

Ultimately Francis hopes that, just as Jesus had a great joy in communicating the faith to those he loved, so each preacher will be filled with that same enjoyment and enthusiasm, communicating every word as a gift before it is a demand, as good news rather than bad news, as the path to life and fulfillment and liberation from death.