Teaching Our Faith — Preaching: The heart of the matter

For this series of teaching editorials, priests of our archdiocese will write about the various manifestations of priestly ministry. 

As we begin this series of teaching editorials on the priesthood, let’s explore the role of preaching in the life of a priest. Preaching is at the heart of the priesthood.

As written in the Vatican II Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests concerning the functions of priests: “For since nobody can be saved who has not first believed, it is the first task of priests as co-workers of the bishops to preach the Gospel of God to all” people.

This priority of preaching in the life of priests can at first seem extraordinary to some, since consecrating the Holy Eucharist or absolving individuals from sin is exclusively within the purview of priests and, therefore, would seem to have a greater value. Yet, preaching is the birthplace of the faith that allows us to encounter Christ in all the sacraments. Our sacramental life depends on the faith birthed from preaching. Faith at the altar is born at the pulpit!

Connecting this to today’s evangelization efforts, Pope Emeritus Benedict reiterated the importance of the preaching act in his Lenten message for this year when he wrote, “Sometimes we tend, in fact, to reduce the term charity to solidarity or simply humanitarian aid. It is important, however, to remember that the greatest work of charity is evangelization, which is the ‘ministry of the word’ … Evangelization is the highest and most integral promotion of the human person.” Preaching is at the heart of priesthood, because it is the priest’s greatest work of charity birthing forth the faith that brings salvation.

The new evangelization begins in our hearts with our personal relationship with Jesus Christ. This personal relationship can only happen through an encounter with Christ. The goal of preaching is to create this encounter with the Risen Christ that births forth faith. In the context of our Mass, this encounter should lead to praise and thanksgiving as expressed in our eucharistic meal.

Creating this encounter entails doing more than just talking about Jesus. Creating this encounter takes creating, through our words, an encounter with the Living Word who is Jesus Christ. Scripture, as a collection of prophetic witness and the crystallization of apostolic preaching containing the truth necessary for salvation, needs to be brought into contact with our listeners today so they can come to know Jesus, not just know about Jesus. Preaching is the act of creating this encounter.

How is this done? It begins for me by deeply reading the scriptures with a childlike curiosity and naiveté. Even Scripture passages that are well known can contain surprises, given that the place from which we are encountering them changes with each reading. This deep reading is informed by my past readings, study, and current scholarship so as to produce a “lens” through which I can look at myself, my people, and the world today trusting that God’s Spirit is actively moving about. Preaching then, as theologian Katherine Hilkert would say, becomes a task of naming the movement of God in our midst. It is in naming this movement of God in our midst that we create the possibility for an encounter with our God.

Once I have determined what needs to be said, I then determine how I need to say it in order for the encounter captured in Scripture to happen anew in my listening assembly. This is where the art of preaching and the craft of preaching come together.

There are many preaching methods from which to choose in considering how I can best create an encounter for my people. All of the best methods involve creating and maintaining a tension in the listener that seeks resolution. It is in providing this resolution that people’s minds and hearts can be opened to new perspectives.

This “turning around” or “being opened” to a new way of understanding something or a new way of acting in the world is called “conversion.” Even a cursory read of Jesus’ ministry reveals that any who really encountered him left the encounter following a new path.

The priest-preacher ultimately loses himself in the task of preaching as he comes to constantly view the life of his people through the lens of Scripture and seeks to create encounters with Christ for them. Yet, in losing himself he finds himself, because as he plays the matchmaker between the Assembly and Christ, his priestly purpose is fulfilled. Personally, I can think of no greater priestly happiness.

Very Rev. Jeffrey S. Nicolas
Pastor, Cathedral of the Assumption

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