Friday, January 31, 2003

Grace, Obedience, and Preaching

I had a discussion about a month ago with a dear friend of mine who has the privilege of being a priest. We talked about the problem of preaching, and how bad it generally is within the Catholic Church. Why is it that a priest can give such lousy, inane, and silly homilies, when he is the inheritor of two thousand years of the writings of the saints, and what's more, the gospels themselves? Thinking like this will perhaps lead one to think that the office of preaching ought to be opened up to non-priests, as is the practice in many disobedient parishes. But I am going to try to give an argument against that, and for a recovery of the grace of preaching, based on the nature of the sacramental grace given to the ordained.

Look in the bible, and pay attention to the job that the apostles do. Yes, they forgive sins (John 20:23), they help the poor (Paul took up collections on his journeys to help the poor in Jerusalem), and share the eucharist (Acts 2:46). But what is the most important thing that they do? They preach! In fact, the office of preaching is so important, more important even than taking care of the poor, that the apostles instituted the office of deacon: (Acts 6:2ff) "And the twelve summoned the body of the disciples and said, 'It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.'" The apostles needed help so that they could do that which is most characteristic of their office as apostle, preaching the Word of God.

Priests are sharers in the ministry of the apostles just as bishops and deacons are, and therefore share in this mission to preach the word of God. Now, it is the case with any sacrament, that it is an efficacious sign of grace. In other words, the sacrament gives us the necessary help to do the job the sacrament commissions us to do. Thus, marriage gives us the help we need to strengthen the bond between husband and wife: "This grace proper to the sacrament of Matrimony is intended to perfect the couple's love and to strengthen their indissoluble unity. By this grace they 'help one another to attain holiness in their married life and in welcoming and educating their children.'" (CCC 1641) As Gabriel Marcel puts it, the promise of fidelity in marriage is like writing a check for a million dollars, payable in ten years; the grace of the sacrament is God's guarantee that there will be sufficient funds.

Ordination gives a similar grace ordered to preaching the word of God. Look at the Catechism, paragraph 1587, where there is quoted the Byzantine prayer of ordination. Pay attention to the gifts we pray will descend on the ordinandi: "Lord, fill with the gift of the Holy Spirit him whom you have deigned to raise to the rank of the priesthood, that he may be worthy to stand without reproach before your altar, to proclaim the Gospel of your kingdom, to fulfill the ministry of your word of truth, to offer you spiritual gifts and sacrifices, to renew your people by thebath of rebirth. . . ." The ministry of the Word is listed before offering the Eucharist! Preaching is central to the grace of ordination. The Church restricts liturgical preaching to the ordained because of her belief in this grace. Yes, I'd like to preach in Mass, but I am not ordained. I don't have that sacramental grace. If I were allowed to preach, we would be ignoring the sacramental character of ordination and the grace of preaching that God confers by means of it.

You may be thinking to yourself, "If ordination confers a grace ordered to preaching, how come the homilies are all so bad?" You should similarly ask the question: "If marriage confers the grace needed to strengthen the marriage bond and raise children, how come so many marriages end in divorce?" The answer to the second will give the answer to the first. The key to sacramental grace is obedience! If a married couple recognizes that they are joined by Christ, and that their union is ordered to be exclusive to each other and fruitful, then the grace of that marriage is going to be active in their lives. If they forget the great mystery of their marriage, if they think in their hearts that it is temporary, if they view marriage as a contract, and if they frustrate God's plan by contracepting, they are quite likely to divorce, since without God's grace, marriage is impossible. (Statistics bear this out, of course.) We must submit ourselves to Christ in order to receive His grace, for the very reason that God will not force Himself upon us.

If a priest humbly submits himself to Christ and His Church, and preaches according to the mind of the Church, his homilies will be grace-filled and effective. If the priest minimizes or ignores the teaching of Christ and the Church, his homilies will be graceless and will only be effective in destroying the Church. Obedience is the key. My friend Fr. Michael assures me that there is a grace of preaching, a sense that sometimes it isn't him speaking, but rather the Holy Spirit. I know in my experience several flawed priests who despite their flaws have done good service to the Word of God. Why? Because they are obedient, and submit themselves to Christ. They know that the homily is not their toy, their opportunity for self-promotion, but is rather a time for them to decrease and for Christ to increase. So, as Fr. Neuhas would say, the key to good preaching is fidelity, fidelity, fidelity!

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