‘Sir, We Would Like to See Jesus’
The goal of preaching is to give the listener an encounter with Christ
My first parish assignment as a seminarian was in Anniston, Alabama, a small and sleepy Southern city between Birmingham and Atlanta. Anniston is home to an old and well-established Catholic minority, and they have grown and built a beautiful new church retaining the name of the original parish, Sacred Heart.
That summer, I often lectored in the parish, and the first time I stepped into the ambo to proclaim the word, I was struck by a little plastic placard placed inside the ambo, just at the top of where the Lectionary rested. It contained the words from John 12:21: “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.” Someone put that little placard there to remind the priest that the people did not come to church to see his antics, his frustrations, his brilliance or his conviction; they came to have an encounter with Jesus — the one who attracted them to worship in the first place.
Our challenge in preaching is facilitating this encounter with the person of Jesus for all the faithful who come to our parish. The celebration of the Mass is the closest thing we have this side of heaven to that encounter, but many of our people consistently leave Mass unable to articulate how they experienced meeting Jesus. Surveys taken over the last 15 years consistently point to stagnant preaching as the major area of frustration among parishioners. Given this finding, what are the ways in which we as preachers can help our parishioners know and experience Jesus’ healing presence more through our preaching?
Perhaps one of the hardest things to teach someone who is learning how to preach is how to find their true voice. When we speak about the voice of an individual, we mean the total package of how the preacher presents himself to his hearers in addition to the actual speaking voice. Many people have in their minds the voice of a favorite preacher or public speaker, and they try to emulate him, but in the end the imitation does not come off as one expects. I always have loved to listen to the homilies delivered by Pope St. John Paul II, especially the ones at World Youth Days, and growing up in the Deep South, I always have loved the cadence and authenticity of much of the preaching found in the predominantly black churches scattered through the Delta region of Alabama. I cannot preach like any of those people, however, and trying to adopt the voice and presentation style of one of those preachers would not help carry the message of the Gospel authentically to those who have come to hear about Jesus.
Perhaps most problematically, parishioners often feel that when the preacher is at the pulpit he is a different person than the one they speak with outside of Mass. I have heard many preachers assume a “pulpit voice” on occasion and use it to deliver their reflections on the Gospel. Self-doubt or self-consciousness sometimes can make us think that the way we address others is not good enough or will not be accepted as easily unless we adopt a more engaging personality. Both Cicero and later St. Augustine, when addressing the topic of public speaking or preaching, said that one of the qualities of a good speaker is that he is to give enjoyment to the hearer. While they certainly are right, some speakers translate “giving enjoyment” into adopting a voice and presentation style geared toward entertaining rather than edifying, which actually leaves the listener hungry for substance. It is far better to be the same person in and out of the pulpit — authentic, approachable and credible.
Understanding the Nature of the Liturgical Homily
Homiletics is an interesting subject. It falls very much in the dimension of pastoral practice, and in recent years the homily has attracted more and more attention as churchgoing folk point out the deficiencies of the many preachers they hear and the positive aspects of preaching that feeds their souls. When our diocesan newspaper published that I was named to be a homiletics instructor in one of our American seminaries, a gentleman called wanting me to hire his friend who does motivational speaking for corporate leadership as a consultant. He was adamant with me that preaching in American Catholic churches lacked a dimension of motivational rhetoric that stirs people to action. I was grateful for his call, but I had to ask him, “What action do you think good Catholics should be motivated to take?” That was where our conversation got really interesting, and that is the point that brings the theological understanding of the liturgical homily into clear relief.
The action that Catholics are called to take as a result of hearing a good homily is inextricably linked to the Eucharist that is celebrated in that community and the call of the disciple to live in communion with Christ and with other disciples, and to bring into communion those who have not yet chosen to be baptized into the Body of Christ. This is the idea the priest preaching at the Eucharist must always have in his mind. It can be problematic if other motivations take pride of place in the homily.
Preaching as Encounter
The vigor of the homilist is proportionate to the way in which he can facilitate an encounter with Christ for the faithful who have come to celebrate the Eucharist. We remember that statement of the seekers in John 12:21: “Sir, we have come to see Jesus.” As Catholics, our religion centers on the mystery of Christ’s presence in our midst, and we exercise great care and reverence regarding that presence. As our Lord Jesus Christ is truly present — body, blood, soul and divinity — in the Eucharistic action of the Mass, he also is made present through the faithful proclamation of the word. Therefore, the central purpose for the preacher is to unfold the mystery of that presence in the homily based on the readings given for that celebration.
This is where we encounter problems from time to time in our practice as preachers. Often, motivated by other good desires, we push back the encounter with Christ and bring to the front other more individual considerations that actually are hard to root in the hearts and minds of our listeners. One of the goals in Eucharistic preaching is to anchor the word and the presence of Christ in the hearts, minds and souls of the hearers by communicating Christ’s saving presence in the liturgical homily. The preacher must preach in such a way that when the Massgoer gets into the car to leave Mass and calls their mother or grandmother on their cellphone, they can tell mama or granny the main idea of the homily in one sentence. A further goal would be that the sentence always contain the sacred name of Jesus.
This is preaching an encounter with Christ. In his book “Why Preach” (Ignatius Press, $16.95), Peter John Cameron says that the preacher must pose to the hearer a “cardinal question” in every homily — “What are you looking for?” The Gospels give us numerous models of encounters with Christ that show us this way of preaching. First among them is Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, found in John 4:4-42. Jesus gently leads her to understand fully what she is truly looking for, and by doing so wins her soul and the souls of the others whom she called to know the Lord.
In Luke 19:1-10 we see Zacchaeus, who is a seeker, moved so deeply by his encounter with Jesus that he makes the free choice to reform his life even without any specific exhortation to do so from the Lord. Our deepest desire is for Christ himself, and he gives himself fully to those he encounters. Often in our preaching, however, we are offering an idea or a teaching that may be good, but something that is an extension of his person without presenting Christ himself as the response to our desire.
Jesus also made his word known mysteriously in a nonverbal way. Jesus’ encounter with the deaf-mute man found in Mark 7:31-37 deeply touches me. In this moment, Jesus takes the man apart from the crowd in order to help him focus. For people without hearing or speech, it can be extremely stressful and disorienting to be caught up in a world one cannot understand fully, so Jesus takes him aside. This is one of the first things a good preacher does in his liturgical actions leading up to the homily — he helps his parishioners focus in a confused world. We often find ourselves caught up in a world that is disorienting, but in church, Jesus calls us to come aside and look at him intently.
Jesus then touches the man and groans loudly. We cannot escape the importance of this moment. As one born without hearing or speech, this man possessed no language with which to pray to God. Jesus teaches the man to pray with his groan, which, if Jesus were still touching him, he could have felt through the vibrations of Jesus’ body. Then when Jesus pronounces the word “ephphatha!” the man receives the threefold gift of hearing, speech and language. This is a model, because our preaching must reach the hearer where he or she is in a real sense — in whatever condition they bring to the Eucharistic sacrifice — and communicate to them the mystery of Christ’s love in a manner they can understand. This aspect is essential in the preparation and delivery of a homily. As preachers, we must not reduce ourselves to mere parrots of a dull and non-salvific teaching, but rather proclaim a living, life-changing encounter with Jesus.
St. John Chrysostom, A Model for Preaching
St. John Chrysostom, a bishop and Doctor of the Church, is often called the greatest homilist of the early Church. He was born in Antioch around 347.
After meeting St. Meletius, the bishop of Antioch, he withdrew from classical studies and was devoted to religious studies. He left the city to live as a hermit in the desert. But his health was poor, and he returned to Antioch where he was ordained a deacon and then a priest. He became known as a gifted preacher.
Much of this preaching consisted of explanations of Scripture. His writings offer dogmatic, moral and historical knowledge. After being named archbishop of Constantinople in 398, he continued preaching where he encouraged high moral standards. Twice he was forced into exile by the imperial court and jealousy of his enemies. He died while in exile in 408. “Chrysostom” means “golden-mouthed,” and the name seems to have been bestowed on him in the sixth century in honor of his eloquence. He was made a Doctor of the Church in 1568 by the Council of Chalcedon.
The Lived Question
Day after day, Sunday after Sunday, the faithful bring their deep and unresolved questions to Mass, seeking wisdom, guidance and answers from God. We all know that the preacher himself is not the fountain of these answers, but rather Jesus himself, thus the importance of facilitating the encounter with Jesus for the faithful. It can happen, however, that as preachers who have a desire to help our flocks encounter Jesus, we ourselves miss the mark when it comes to answering questions. Like a person who comes into a shop needing clothes for a job interview and the clerk insists on selling them a bathing suit for the upcoming summer holidays, we as preachers can fail to address the real and lived questions that good people are bringing with them to Mass.
It can be easier, in a sense, to imagine the issues and questions that the faithful bring with them, but without genuine and honest dialogue it is hard to know the struggles facing our beloved parishioners.
I will give a true but extreme example: At one Mass celebrating the baptism of the Lord, the priest chose to make the evils of internet pornography the central point of his homily. While fully acknowledging the evils of internet pornography, I feel that the preacher missed out on providing his congregation with a life-giving encounter with Jesus. The congregation, made up primarily of elderly people and families with young children, brought with them many lived questions to present to Jesus on the feast of his baptism, but I continue to wonder if internet pornography was among them. Who knows?
One thing is certain though. Our Lord’s baptism presents us clearly with a mystery that each of us seeks to understand more fully, and that mystery is the power of the grace we received in our own baptism. “How can I sin again so many times if Jesus has given me this grace?” Pastors and confessors have heard this lived question time and time again: “Why can’t I overcome my sinfulness to love Jesus and my neighbor as I know I ought?”
In Mark’s Gospel, we see the figure of Levi, called from the tax collector’s post to follow Jesus. Levi follows, but I am sure that questions remained in his mind, such as, “I have been a traitor to my people and my nation, how can I come back into the fold?” Or perhaps he asked himself, “How can I ever repair the lives that I have damaged through my extortion and treachery?” The Scriptures tell us that Jesus, having called Levi from the tax collector’s post, went to Levi’s home and dined with him and others who had sinned in a similar way. That dinner conversation, I am sure, made a huge difference in the lives of those people, who went on to follow Jesus and share his word with so many others.
The Conversation at Table
One distinctive characteristic of the Eucharistic homily is that it is essentially different from any other type of preaching by the fact that it occurs in the context of the liturgical action of the Mass. We all are aware of the dimension through which the Eucharist is both meal and sacrifice.
One of the key points to note is that the Scripture clearly states that “after the meal was finished, he took bread, broke it, and gave it to his disciples.” The words “after the meal was finished” give us a clue about an essential characteristic of Eucharistic preaching — understanding of the intimate way Jesus spoke with his followers at the table about the greatest gift he would leave them.
In both Semitic and Latin cultures, the culture of the table is strong. Many rituals and customs govern how people eat together, but one thing they all have in common is the intimacy of the conversation that occurs after the meal is finished. In Spanish, this intimate moment is called the sobremesa, which is virtually untranslatable in English. The intimate manner we speak with those whom we share table fellowship indicates that we have something precious in common because of the meal we have shared.
In the Mass, the priest officiates, but if he is able from his position as a presider at the liturgy to preserve both the solemnity and the intimacy of the celebration in his preaching, then he has done well. It seems a fitting idea that one would not say something from the pulpit that one would not say seated at the table in conversation with one’s beloved parishioners. As the priest preaches, he is called to draw those who are called to the table more deeply into the mystery of what is celebrated, focusing on how the Scriptures appointed for that celebration reveal an important part of the mystery.
The Centrality of the Sacred Scripture
A priest colleague of mine from the West Coast recently asked me if I thought priests from the Deep South had to be more scriptural in their preaching as a result of living in the Protestant Bible Belt. I think we do, but I do not agree that priests in other parts of the country can be less scriptural because they live in Catholic majority areas. Upon reflection, it has been my experience throughout the nation and the Catholic world that in the homily more emphasis should be given to explaining the Scriptures carefully in context to the Eucharistic mystery.
In 2014, Pope Francis gave us a great gift in the publication of the Homiletic Directory. In addition to a great deal of practical and pastoral wisdom regarding preaching, Pope Francis places strong emphasis on the sacred Scriptures being the departure point for the homily. The faithful hear this word proclaimed in their midst, and the Holy Spirit carries the word he inspired to the mind and heart he sanctified in baptism and strengthened in confirmation. It may seem elementary to make a point out of explaining the Scriptures, but I have been to countless Masses in many places, and it is not uncommon to hear preaching that never touches the Scriptures of the day.
This gift of vitality in preaching comes when we deliver to the faithful people of God what they have come for: to see Jesus. Without this, the priest risks missing an important gift of the Spirit in the liturgical assembly. Encountering the person of Jesus is always life-changing and charged with grace. Sunday after Sunday, the people of God come in search of him, asking him to come into their lives and make them better Christians. We, as priests, long for the same vitality, and, standing before our communities, we desire for them abundant life in Christ. The Greeks who came to the apostle Phillip seeking Jesus are the same people who come to our churches to participate in the Mass and to hear the word of God explained well. They do not come to be diverted to another person or to another idea, but to be conducted directly to Christ himself who awaits.
I am so glad I saw that little plaque in the pulpit in Anniston, when I was starting my journey toward the priesthood. Needless to say, I have made many mistakes preaching over the years, but when I go back and consider what I did wrong, it almost always comes back to the same thing: I did not present Jesus first; I filtered his presence through some other idea, and I did not deliver to the people of God what they sought. The combination of faithful explanation of the Scriptures, the intimacy of the Eucharistic table and the authenticity of our own Christian witness come together to present a powerful encounter with Jesus that continues to sustain those who come to see Jesus.
FATHER JOHN G. MCDONALD is the Carl J. Peter Chair of Homiletics at the Pontifical North American College in Rome.
‘Listen to the lives of people’
“Listen to the lives of people. If you do not listen to people, how can you preach? The closer you are to people, the better you will preach or bring the word of God nearer their lives. In this way, you link the word of God to a human experience that has need of this word. The more distant you are from people and their problems, the more you will take refuge in a theology that is framed as ‘You must,’ and ‘You must not,’ which communicates nothing, which is empty, abstract, lost in nothing, in thoughts. At such times we respond with our words to questions that nobody is asking. “To preach to people it is necessary to look at them, to know how to look and how to listen, to enter into the ebb and flow of their lives, to immerse oneself in them, [to be] in contact with them, touch them, caress them [or] in silence look into their eyes.”
— Pope Francis, in a 2016 book-length interview with Italian journalist Father Antonio Spadera, SJ