Preaching About the Gift of God’s Forgivenessby 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, www.vatican.va/holy_father/francesco/speeches/2013/july/documents/papa-francesco_20130727_gmg-episcopato-brasile_en.html).
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
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
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
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, cardinaldolan.org/index.php/sacrament-of-penance/). 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
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]):
holds that absolute truth and enduring values are illusory.
gives "strong emphasis [to] the individual and individual choice, which
often eclipses the sense of community or of the common good."
puts "focus on material satisfaction to the detriment of spiritual values"
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.
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Excerpt from Pope Francis,Address to
the Bishops of Brazil, July 28, 2013, copyright © 2013, Libreria Editrice
Vaticana. Used with permission. All rights reserved.