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Pastoral Preaching at the Peripheries

By Duncan Macpherson

Features Editor, Catholic Permanent Deacon and retired Principal Lecturer in Theology at Saint Mary’s University, Twickenham

Recent statistical evidence confirms what we all knew, that in Britain, as in other European countries, there is a decline both in church attendance and in the number of people identifying as Christian. Recent popes have sought to address this situation with a message equally relevant for Christians of all traditions. Thus, in 1990, Pope John Paul II called for a ‘new evangelisation’ or a ‘re-evangelisation’ and, in 2009, Pope Benedict suggested opening a sort of ‘Court of the Gentiles’ analogous to the open space near the Temple in Jerusalem where all those who did not share the faith of Israel could approach the Temple and ask questions about religion.

Pope Francis enlarged this vision with the call to take the good news to the ‘peripheries,’ ‘especially to those who have not yet had the opportunity to know Christ’. This is a call to go ‘to the peripheries, not only geographically, but also the existential peripheries: the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents, and of all misery’. Pope Francis is not only concerned with the gospel as good news for those at the social and economic peripheries, but also to those who live on peripheries of the Christian faith.

Occasional Services

In Britain and elsewhere, people from the peripheries of faith often make up most of the congregations at infant baptisms, marriages, and funerals, and the preaching heard at these services is often the only time they hear the good news proclaimed. These occasional services are outside the frame of regular Sunday services and are attended not only by committed churchgoers but also by residual Christians, people of other faiths, and people of no faith. To this extent they constitute a ‘court of the gentiles.’

Occasional worshippers

Preachers need to be pastorally sensitive to the reality that people from these peripheries are also sometimes occasional worshippers at Sunday services: present out of curiosity; accompanying children in church-linked uniformed organisations or, maybe to strengthen the chances of getting their children into church-affiliated schools! Too often the language used in sermons is alien and unfamiliar for these occasional attenders, underlining the reality that the sermon is always a unique ‘event in time’, to be tailored to the needs of a unique congregation. Hence, an important part of sermon preparation will always require exegesis of the congregation as much as exegesis of the text. That is why the writers of the sermons in The Preacher are always asked to contribute a prefatory note on the congregation.

We must go there!

Evidently this kind of pastoral sensitivity to the unchurched is always a challenge for the preacher. However, in the words of Pope Francis: ‘We must go there! … go to the outskirts’… All the outskirts, all the intersections of paths: go there. And there sow the seed of the Gospel by word and by witness.’

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