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Sunday 24 May 2020

Preaching is an act of justice

Wisdom 12:13, 16-19; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

By Brian McMahon

Parish Priest of Hemel Hempstead West Catholic parish

Context: for a group of about sixty men training as catholic priests

Aim: to communicate that a well prepared and delivered homily is an act of justice and those who preach should speak from this assumption in regard to the ‘preferential option for the poor’ as understood within Catholic Social Teaching

Adrian Chiles, the BBC journalist, visited 46 different churches consecutively as a personal Lenten discipline in 2014. He made some studied, if at times painful, but true comments about the Catholic priests he encountered. He said that a third were pretty hopeless, not least because he often couldn’t actually hear what they were saying, because of inadequately functioning sound systems. A handful were just grumpy to the point of malevolence. In general, he found that whatever homily was delivered, would have been inaudible and not delivered as a message of hope and Good News.

Bishop David M. O’Connell, of Trenton diocese in New Jersey undertook a survey of 300 non-church going Catholics in his diocese some years ago. Many of the inevitable complaints as to why people left the Church related to the homily. One woman was reported as saying, ‘I just didn’t seem to be getting anything out of the Mass, especially the homily.’ Another, ‘I stopped going regularly because the homilies were so empty.’ Perhaps the most condemning comment was, ‘whenever the church wanted to raise money, they dropped the homily and talked money.’ This is embarrassingly terrible and as preachers we will be held accountable by the One who sends us to preach.

There is a great moral responsibility incumbent on us as preachers and crucial to the spread of the faith. Could it be that the root cause of defections from the faith, the inadequate generational transmission of the faith and lack of zeal and participation in the lives of many parishes, comes down to something as simple as an inadequately prepared and delivered homily? This is itself a matter of justice. The People of God are entitled to experience the bread broken open from the seed sown and grown to wheat, so that they are fed. We are given a preaching mandate, specifically as homilists, to sow the seed of the wheat that is the Word, the message of the Good News of Jesus Christ. It is a matter of justice!

In his book, Preaching the Just Word the Jesuit priest Walter Burghardt argues that ‘of all the demands on preachers today, none is more urgent today than a persuasive presentation of biblical justice.’ This is indeed a bold statement and he reinforces it through his book by reference to the passionate preaching on matters of social justice that is required. This requires a faithful adherence to the key messages from the Old Testament where, ‘justice was a whole network of relationships; and the profound basis of these relationships was Israel’s covenant with God.’ He defines justice as the ‘right ordering of relationships.’

In our present society there is much inequality that needs to be addressed in the interests of justice. There are many pressure groups and the interests of ‘big businesses are covertly served by them.’ Preaching in the interests of justice is a different take on the scriptures that might often be kept at the level of ‘me and my God.’ Burghardt asks, ‘do we who proclaim the gospel hear the cry of the poor?’ Only if we do, can we preach with conviction on the theme of justice, I suggest. I must admit I feel like a hypocrite when I reflect on this, as someone who participates in the liturgy as a Catholic priest, reading scriptural texts about what the Lord has done, but doing very little myself. Shame on me! If I take Burghardt’s perspective, then as he says, I should be preaching the cry of the poor. This means using the homily to focus on particular disadvantaged groups to stir awareness, conviction and just action amongst the congregation.

Each of us also in preaching the poor need to understand clearly what we mean by ‘the preferential option for the poor.’ We must be radical and upsetting of the current status quo, but firmly based in the scriptures, that is, by applying the themes and principles from Catholic Social Teaching, unless at the end of time we be accused as collaborators with the Evil One who has sown the weeds, through our omission to preach the Living Word that comes from the seed that God has sown and we are nourished by in the Eucharist. As co-sowers of the seed of the wheat that is the Word of God, we must be on our guard against the work of the Evil One. He sows the seed that gives rise to the weeds that choke us as preachers and the growth of the wheat that is the Word of life in the hearts of our people. He does it by stealth, coming when we are complacently surrendered to the tedium of weekly homily preparation, looking for an easy exit in formulaic or oven-ready homilies, or reheated leftovers from long-ago preached homilies. It is a challenging task and many fail. Let it not be us!

Reference: Burghardt, Walter J. (1998) Preaching the Just Word.

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