For the Pastor - Fr. John Guthrie

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Preaching About the Gift of God’s Forgiveness

by Fr. John Guthrie

In hisaddress to the bishops of Brazil last year—an address that stands as one of the most important of his pontificate thus far—Pope Francis spoke of the account of the Risen Lord's encounter with two disconsolate disciples on the road to Emmaus at the conclusion of Luke's Gospel. The Holy Father sees this account "as a key for interpreting the present and the future" (Pope Francis, Address,

In what way? The two disciples were scandalized by the apparent failure of the Messiah and left Jerusalem despondent, seemingly without hope. The Holy Father notes that many people have also left the Church for a variety of reasons: "Perhaps the Church appeared too weak, perhaps too distant from their needs, perhaps too poor to respond to their concerns, perhaps too cold, perhaps too caught up with itself, perhaps a prisoner of its own rigid formulas." Pope Francis suggests that the revitalization of the Church is in order: "We need a Church unafraid of going forth into their night. We need a Church capable of meeting them on their way. We need a Church capable of entering into their conversation. We need a Church able to dialogue with those disciples who, having left Jerusalem behind, are wandering aimlessly, alone, with their own disappointment, disillusioned by a Christianity now considered barren, fruitless soil, incapable of generating meaning."

This reflection on the events on the road to Emmaus provides a good summary of the Holy Father's understanding of the New Evangelization and the importance of mercy and forgiveness in that effort. Meeting people on their journey, entering into their conversation, going with them into their night, bringing the peaceful and healing presence of Christ—this is what the Church does when she is at her best. Our preaching should reflect these priorities.

Personal Preparation of the Homilist

Jesus saved some of his most biting criticism for religious leaders who preach the faith but do not practice it. It is important that we who are called to preach about forgiveness first consider our own spiritual preparation. How can we preach about something that we have not experienced? How can we be effective instruments of God's mercy if we do not regularly experience that mercy in a most personal way?

Perhaps the best preparation for preaching about forgiveness is to return to basic Catholic practices with a new intentionality. 

Such practices include:

″Prayer. In his renowned book The Return of the Prodigal Son, Fr. Henri Nouwen shows the importance of being loved as a son in order to learn how to love as a father. To experience the Father's embrace in daily prayer is an essential foundation for effective preaching on forgiveness. Only within that embrace are we able to face the demons of loneliness, dejection, jealousy, and anger. God (the Father) invites priests (his sons) to this experience of his love every day so that we might be more effective fathers within the Church.

″Eucharist. Jesus' Eucharistic sacrifice at the Last Supper and atoning sacrifice on the Cross reverse the effects of sin, namely division and violence. St. Paul describes the process vividly when he speaks of Christ "creat[ing] in himself one new person in place of the two, thus establishing peace" (Eph 2:15). To fully enter the Eucharist as a priest is to enter into this reconciling dynamic and experience Jesus' new hope and vision for humanity.

″Going to confession regularly. In a 2009 survey, an astounding 23.5 percent of priests said that they go to confession only once a year or less (Msgr. Stephen Rossetti, Why Priests Are Happy [Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2011], 161). It is both surprising and sobering how many priests do not go to confession regularly. Reception of this sacrament for the priest is foundational to the New Evangelization. As Cardinal Timothy Dolan has stated, "The Sacrament of Reconciliation evangelizes the evangelizers, as it brings us sacramentally into contact with Jesus, who calls us to conversion of heart, and allows us to answer his invitation to repentance—a repentance from within that can then transform the world without" (Presidential Address to Bishops Plenary Meeting in Baltimore, November 12, 2012, In our own experience of the Sacrament of Penance, priests encounter again and again the stunning pardon of Jesus, a pardon that changes our lives and helps us become more effective instruments of mercy to our people and the world.

″Hearing confessions. One of the best opportunities for formation in preaching about forgiveness is actually to be a confessor. Entering into the brokenness, dysfunction, and sin of another and bringing the mercy and forgiveness of the Divine Physician is a very humbling and powerful experience for a priest. Although it is never permitted to use information from any confession in preaching—we are to be most careful of any violations of the seal, either directly or indirectly—nevertheless, by hearing the confessions of the faithful, we become more aware of the power of sin and the ever-greater power of God's grace. This helps us to be both challenging and compassionate in our homilies.

Preaching God's Forgiveness

Much has been written about the great challenges the Church faces in contemporary culture. The great modern "isms" confront a pastor daily—relativism, individualism, and consumerism, to name a few. The bishops of the United States describe these pastoral and spiritual hurdles in their recent statement on preaching (Preaching the Mystery of Faith: The Sunday Homily [PMF] [Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2012]):

  • Relativism holds that absolute truth and enduring values are illusory.
  • Individualism gives "strong emphasis [to] the individual and individual choice, which often eclipses the sense of community or of the common good."
  • Consumerism puts "focus on material satisfaction to the detriment of spiritual values" (PMF, 4).

Given this cultural climate, it is hardly surprising that there is a lack of a sense of sin and a dropping rate of participation in Church life.

How does one preach about the gift of God's forgiveness in this atmosphere? What should be the tone and content of the message? It seems to me that it is crucial to return to Jesus Christ and contemplate how he does it.

Take, for example, the Lord's encounter with the woman at the well (Jn 4:4-42). Jesus takes the woman where she is and engages her. She is someone who has a checkered past and is currently in a sinful situation; this shapes Jesus' conversation with her. The dialogue is "both challenging and respectful, probing yet tender" (PMF, 31). This is the balanced tone our preaching should take. As the bishops rightly note, "Preaching the Gospel entails challenge but also encouragement, consolation, support, and compassion" (PMF, 11).

Effective homilies are never moralizing. Rather than rebuking people for their failures, a homily should call the faithful to repentance and conversion. A strategy of rebuke is ineffective because "concentrating on our sinfulness, unaccompanied by the assurance of grace, usually produces either resentment or discouragement" (PMF, 11). On the other hand, a good homily never shies away from important spiritual issues and struggles but provides "an occasion to find healing precisely through confidence in Christ Jesus" (PMF, 12).

In fact, as the bishops remind us, the heart of every homily must be about the heart of our Christian faith, Jesus Christ, and the central mystery of his life, the Paschal Mystery: "The person and mission of Jesus, culminating in his Death and Resurrection, is ultimately the central content of all the Scriptures" (PMF, 19). The Paschal Mystery, therefore, becomes the interpretative lens by which we are able to understand all aspects of life, including our sin: "By means of that pattern, the People of God can understand their own lives properly and be able to see their own experience in the light of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus" (PMF, 15-16).

In a culture often dominated by relativism, individualism, and consumerism, the proclamation of the salvation of Christ is truly Good News. It allows people to see there is another way; it paves the way for conversion; it brings hope. Through our preaching, God can open up a space in the human heart, a space that he alone can fill. Effective preaching can call people back to fruitful participation in the Sacrament of Penance, especially if it has been years since their last confession. Good preaching about the gift of God's forgiveness is at the heart of the New Evangelization.

Copyright © 2014, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted to duplicate this work without adaptation for non-commercial use.

Scripture excerpts used in this work are taken from the New American Bible, rev. ed.© 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

Excerpt from Pope Francis,Address to the Bishops of Brazil, July 28, 2013, copyright © 2013, Libreria Editrice Vaticana. Used with permission. All rights reserved.