Rev. Mr. Roger J. Landry
Pontifical North American College
5th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A
February 7, 1999
Matt. 5:13 Jesus said to his disciples: “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has gone flat, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.”
“You are the salt of the earth.” So Jesus said to his disciples and so he says to us today. “And if this salt goes flat, it is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and stomped upon.”
This admonition should, in the holy sense of the term, terrify us, but it should also challenge us. But if we’re going to understand it and truly be the salt of the earth, we have to begin by asking two critical questions:
• What does salt do?
• How can we prevent it — ourselves — from going flat?
First, the purpose of salt. Salt is meant to keep things from corrupting. It was the preservative in ancient times. Once meat had gone bad, no amount of salt would be able to save it. So we, as salt, have to be preservatives as well. And preserve what? The faith and grace of the people God entrusts to us. And how do we do that? Above all, I would like to propose, by our preaching.
St. Bernardine of Siena, the great 15th century Franciscan preacher, was once asked a very interesting contrafactual. They asked him: if a Christian community for twenty years could only have one thing or the other — either 20 years of good preaching with no access to the Mass and the Eucharist or 20 years of access to the Mass, but bad or no preaching — which would be better? Think of what your response would be to the same question. St. Bernardine’s answer, without any hesitation, was that it was better to have 20 years of good preaching.
That’s a strange story to tell here in the presence of The Blessed Sacrament. It almost sounds Protestant! The reason why St. Bernardine answered the way he did was that he was convinced that after 20 years of the Eucharist with no and bad preaching, the people would no longer understand the importance of the the Mass and would begin to take the Eucharist for granted; whereas, after 20 years of good preaching without the Mass, the people would be salivating for the Eucharist and the other sacraments.
When you think about the experience of US Catholicism in our lifetime, St. Bernardine’s prediction seems to have been verified. Catholics now for a few decades have generally had, with some notable exceptions, bad preaching. None of us has really been spared it. And we’ve also seen almost universal access to Holy Communion. What has been the result? Almost 2/3 of US Catholics no longer believe in the real presence. Eucharistic abuses, even sacrileges, occur routinely, as Catholics, whatever their moral state, and sometimes even Protestants, whatever theirs, go in cue to receive the “wafer” or the “bread and wine,” ignorant of what they’re receiving. 20 or 30 years of access to the Eucharist with no or bad preaching, and the majority of Catholics take the Eucharist for granted.
On the other hand, we’ve seen a massive movement of ex-Protestant ministers and evangelical faithful — Scott Hahn is only the most famous of hundreds — who are flocking into the Church, dying of hunger for the Eucharist and of thirst for the precious blood. They recognized through their study and true-Revelation-centered preaching, that they were being deprived of Eucharist and are coming in, trying to make up for lost time.
Salt preserves. And we have to be honest — Catholic preaching as a whole has not been very salty lately. Belief in the real presence, or lack thereof, is only the tip of the iceberg. If you read the statistical surveys published a couple of weeks ago around the Pope’s visit to the States, you saw just how great is the dichotomy between the Catholic faith and what US Catholics believe. On divorce and remarriage. Contraception. Women’s ordination. Abortion. Homosexuality. The Role of the Papacy. Moral absolutes. Heaven. You name it. The majority of US Catholics seem to think the Church is a society of independent thinkers rather than the Communion that Jesus himself established on Peter and the Apostles, whose successors continue to speak authoritatively in Jesus’ name. And we can’t blame the magisterium for this problem, for over the past few decades Papal preaching has been quite saline. In countless speeches, addresses and documents, Paul VI warned against the corruption resulting from the hijacking of the Second Vatican Council by those claiming to grasp its “Spirit.” John Paul II has done the same, warning against the culture of death, a culture that without heavy doses of the Church’s salt, will soon be a festering, corrupted corpse. But their warnings still haven’t been heard from all too many of US parish pulpits.
That’s where you come in. Eight months from tomorrow, you, members of the upcoming diaconate class, will officially preach for the first time in persona Christi capitis. What a wonderful privilege and a serious responsibility! Jesus is calling you to be the salt of the earth. Today, so many preachers forget that salt, as Jesus used the term, was to be a preservative, was to prevent the decay of people’s faith. Instead, many preachers today look at salt only as a seasoning, an additive used to make something taste better. As a result, we get a lot of “tastes good, less-filling” Twinkie type of homilies, where the major objective seems to be merely to make people feel good, regardless of whether they’re doing good. You don’t have to be that type of preacher. By being true salt, as Jesus calls you to be, you can preserve the body of Christ. But to do that, you have to make sure your own salt doesn’t go flat, which brings us to the second question.
How does salt go flat? And how can we prevent ourselves from going flat and making ourselves useless, worthy to be thrown out and trampled upon? Salt goes flat by being dissolved or substituted by other substances. You remember your inorganic chemistry. The only way you can separate the sodium from the chloride, if we take the most well-known salt, is to separate the two substances by water or by other cations or anions. In the same way, the way you, as salt, will lose your flavor is if you get dissolved or separated. From what? From Jesus, who is right here in our midst in the Blessed Sacrament. Think of it in this way: He’s the Sodium and you’re the Chloride. If you get separated from him, your salt will be useless. And the devil’s prowling like a bunch of Potassium Cyanide just trying to separate the two of you.
To keep your salt fresh, you have to stay more intimately bound to Jesus than the Chloride to the Sodium. How?
First in prayer. That’s why times like this in front of Our Lord are so important.
Second, in preaching. We have to keep connected to Jesus in our preaching. We have to preach Him. He is the good news. He has to be the hero and point of the homily. If he isn’t, then you really haven’t preached the Gospel, our salt has lost its purpose and is fit to be thrown away. That’s why Fr. Cameron’s point about finishing a homily with a direct reference to the Eucharist is so important. I’ve had conversations with some men in the house who say they find that difficult, kind of forced. Well, if Jesus is the point of the homily, the connection to Jesus truly present on the altar, will never be a stretch.
Lastly, we have to stay bound to Jesus in our living of the Gospel, in our priestly lives. This is where it is most easy to have our salt dissipated or dissolved. We are going to be so profoundly configured to Jesus by holy ordination, so bound to him, that we will truly be acting in persona Christi. That will certainly be true ex opere operato in the sacraments. But it also should be true in our entire priestly life. We will be made priests forever, which means that we should be salt forever as well, at all times, or at least as long as we’re on earth.
Eight months from today, on behalf of the Church, the Bavarian author of a recent book called “Salt of the Earth,” will put the Gospels in your hands and say to you, “Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you now are. Believe what you read. Preach what you believe. Practice what you preach.” And that summarizes all I’ve been saying. Believe what you read, pray about it, let it permeate you completely. Preach what you believe, in season and out season: be that salt Jesus wants and will help you to be. And practice what you preach, preach with your lives, keeping your salt fresh in acts of love and virtue, and not dissipating yourselves in sin or mere worldly pursuits.
You’re the salt in Jesus’ recipe for the eternal banquet. And Jesus wouldn’t be calling you to be the salt of the earth unless he knew that you, attached to him, were fit for the task.
O Jesus, make these our brothers and all of us true Salt for the earth, salt that will never go flat, so that we might with you keep ever fresh among your people the gifts of faith and grace you died to give them, through your Passion, Death and Resurrection, you who are here with us truly and substantially present and live and reign in heaven with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever. Amen.