Preaching in a Time of Turmoil

A webinar presentation on behalf of the Catholic Association of Preachers to Catholic clergy, leading into discussion and shared reflectionhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=klGyk6959G8

Introduction

I would like to begin by sharing with you some words offered to preachers, back in 1982, by the Catholic Bishops of the United States: ‘Some years ago,’ they wrote,’ a survey was taken among a group of parishioners. They were asked what they hoped to experience during a sermon… What the majority wanted was simply to hear a person of faith speaking. Ultimately,’ said the Bishops, ‘that’s what preaching is all about, not lofty theological speculation, not painstaking biblical exegesis, not oratorical flamboyance. The preacher is a person speaking to people about faith and life.’[1] These words are especially relevant when preaching in a time of turmoil: ‘The preacher is a person speaking to people about faith and life.’

I am grateful to the Catholic Association of Preachers’ Steering Committee for the invitation to address you today. My brief is twofold. First, to reflect on the broad subject of preaching in a time of turmoil; and, second, to do this in light of my personal experience.

Throughout biblical times, and ever since, righteous and prophetic preaching has condemned social evils. Attacks on human life and rights, on justice and peace, the scourge of poverty and environmental destruction, all create their own kind of turmoil. Preaching about social justice is important. Some material here may be relevant, but it really needs a separate consideration. This presentation has a different focus. It explores what it means to preach in the turmoil of the challenging pastoral situations we encounter in our contemporary ministry. How might our homilies help the wearied and overburdened find hope and comfort in Christ?[2]

We are all conscious of the current context created by Covid 19. Added to this are other demanding events faced by pastors and preachers. As Catholic clergy, I will reference preachers here with a male pronoun. This is not to ignore the associated ways in which religious sisters and brothers, lay men and lay women, share aspects of communicating the Good News with those commissioned to preach through ordination.

Any preacher daring to address other preachers about preaching should feel rightly hesitant. For a start, members of his audience may already have heard him preach. Both he, and they, will know, literally, his failure to practise what he now preaches. Furthermore, the collective wisdom and experience of his audience will outweigh his own. I am reminded of the definition of an expert, where ‘X,’ like in mathematics, is an unknown quantity, and ‘spurt’ is a drip under pressure. I speak not as an expert, but as a person of faith, a disciple of the Lord Jesus, a fellow homilist, desiring to enrich our mutual conversation about our shared ministry of preaching.

There is a well-known story about a bishop on his way to speak at a Town Hall. Finding himself lost, he pulls the car over and says to a young boy: ‘Can you give me directions? I’m trying to get to the Town Hall.’ In true biblical style the boy replies with another question: ‘Why are you going to the Town Hall?’ ‘To give a talk,’ says the bishop ‘about how to get to heaven. Do you want to come?’ ‘No thanks,’ says the boy; ‘you don’t even know the way to the Town Hall so how can you tell me how to get to heaven?’

Putting hesitation to one side, this presentation aspires to stimulate our reflection and discussion about preaching in times of turmoil. We hope in the Lord Jesus and his Gospel and, therefore, we dare to speak about faith and life.

The Etymology of Turmoil

A classic homiletic technique is recourse to etymology, the study of the origin of words. An etymological suggestion associates the English word turmoil with an early sixteenth century French word tremouille. It is used to describe the hopper in a flour mill which shakes grain onto a grindstone. Turmoil conveys a sense of constant agitation, an absence of rest, of peace, or of quiet. Hence our present-day English usage of turmoil to express interior and exterior upheaval, anxiety, or uncertainty.

 ‘The nations are in turmoil,’ says one translation of Psalm 46 verse 6. Other translations have the nations ‘rage’ or ‘tremble.’ Or the nations are in ‘chaos’ or ‘disorder.’ Each word, none very positive, conveys an aspect of what turmoil means.

To the person, family, society, church, nation, or world, consumed by turmoil of whatever kind, the preacher must announce a message of faith-filled reassurance. ‘Why are you so afraid?’ asked the Lord Jesus of his disciples in the midst of the storm, ‘Do you still have no faith?’[3] Upon the waters of turmoil the preacher, the person with faith, must compassionately and consolingly, cast the bread of Gospel truth.

Theodicy and the Question of Suffering

Human experience of turmoil is often the result of suffering. A theological question arises, as old as humanity, namely that of theodicy. Why and how can a good and loving God permit evil and suffering?

The Jewish-Christian tradition grapples with theodicy in classical and contemporary forms, shaped radically by the absolute horror of the holocaust, of genocide, and of totalitarian tyranny. Why does God allow this? Where is God in this? In their own way, natural disasters and personal tragedies prompt the same questions.

From the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Book of Job wrestles with the absurdity of innocent suffering. The same dilemma is writ large in our pastoral ministry in hospitals and hospices, and with the dying and the bereaved. It stares us in the face from every image of our crucified Saviour.

Job’s answer comes from the light of faith, but only after severe testing. His possessions, his animals, even his children, are all taken from him. So afflicted with sickness and suffering is he that his wife tells him, famously, to ‘curse God and die.’[4] Yet Job remains faithful. Job is a man of God. Job is a preacher, speaking to people about faith and life.

When Job’s friends goad him that he suffers because of sin, Job will have none of it. He knows his innocence. In the face of injustice and adversity, Job still belongs to God. He refuses to blame God or to reject God. He expresses the hope described by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI: ‘When no one listens to me anymore, God still listens to me. When I can no longer talk to anyone or call upon anyone, I can always talk to God. When there is no longer anyone to help me deal with a need or expectation that goes beyond the human capacity for hope, he can help me.’[5]

In the midst of crippling and undeserved suffering, Job does not abandon his faith. In this, he prefigures the fulfilment to come. ‘We proclaim Christ crucified,’ says St Paul, not an obstacle to faith, ‘but for those who are called, Christ who is the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.’[6]

Job knows he is not God. Only by faith in God can he hope to live by God’s wisdom. In St Augustine’s words si comprehendis non est Deus: ‘If you think you understand him, he is not God.’[7] Job waits in faith. Job trusts in God. Job struggles with question after question, but only faithfulness brings blessing. Trusting, self-abandonment brings peace.

None of this lessens the pain of suffering. In St John Paul II’s words: ‘Human suffering evokes compassion; it also evokes respect, and in its own way it intimidates.’[8] The preacher’s task is to combat the intimidation of suffering with the wisdom of faith. It requires the proclamation that love is stronger than suffering, that love is stronger than death. This conquering love is revealed and personified in Jesus Christ, our Saviour, through his redeeming death and resurrection.

Among modern-day apologists, the former Anglican Bishop of Durham and Scripture scholar, N. T. Wright, offers a powerful response to theodicy. In his book Evil and the Justice of God, he writes: ‘…there is a noble Christian tradition which takes evil so seriously that it warns against the temptation to ‘solve’ it in any obvious way. If you offer an analysis of evil which leaves us saying ‘Well, that’s all right then, we now see how it happens and what to do about it,’ you have belittled the problem…We cannot and must not soften the blow. We cannot and must not pretend that evil isn’t that bad after all.’[9]

Wright cuts to the crux of the matter: ‘For the Christian, the problem is how to understand and celebrate the goodness and God-giveness of creation and how, at the same time, to understand and face up to the reality and seriousness of evil.’[10] Or, to put it another way:How can we tell the Christian story in such a way that, without attempting to ‘solve’ the problem in a simplistic way, we can nevertheless address it in a mature fashion, and, in the middle of it, come to a deeper and wiser faith in the Creator Redeemer God whose all-conquering love will one day make a new creation in which the dark and threatening sea of chaos will be no more?’[11]

Wright gives a clear directive which lays a foundation for our preaching: ‘…our primary task,’ he says ‘is not so much to give answers to impossible philosophical questions as to bring signs of God’s new world to birth, on the basis of Jesus’ death and in the power of his Spirit, even in the midst of ‘the present evil age,’[12] whatever that might happen to be and mean for those we address.

Preaching a Message of Consolation

To some degree, every preacher must be a philosopher and a theologian. Yet, in the pulpit, he is primarily a witness. A witness that nothing – not even the worst thing imaginable – can come between us and the love of God made known in Christ Jesus our Lord.[13] The preacher testifies to the truth put succinctly by the French poet Paul Claudel: ‘Jesus did not come to explain away suffering or remove it. He came to fill it with His Presence.’ For many, beginning to appreciate this starts by asking: Can this really all be for nothing? Surely there is more to life than this?

In 2001, twenty years after first publishing his international bestseller When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner affirmed: ‘The really important question is not why bad things happen, but where we will find the resources to cope when they do happen. The author of the 121st Psalm writes, ‘I lift my eyes to the hills; from where does my help come?’ He does not ask ‘from where does my malignant tumour come? From where did the terrible accident come? He seeks not to explain or understand his tragedy, but to find a way to be helped. And his answer, it seems to me, must be our answer as well: ‘My help comes from the Lord, Maker of heaven and earth.’[14]

We neither belittle nor negate the intellectual demands posed by theodicy. Nor should we disengage from hard questions which are stumbling blocks to belief. However, the preacher has a distinctive role in responding to suffering and turmoil. In Kushner’s words: ‘…people going through a hard time need consolation more than they need explanation.’[15]

What happens in hospitals and hospices through a chaplain’s presence and words of comfort, finds related application in the homily. The Order of Christian Funerals reminds the homilist ‘to dwell on God’s compassionate love and on the paschal mystery of the Lord.’[16] Furthermore, he should ‘…help the members of the assembly to understand that the mystery of God’s love and the mystery of Jesus’ victorious death and resurrection were present in the life and death of the deceased.’[17]

In these senses, the homily, says Pope Francis, ‘can actually be an intense and happy experience of the Spirit, a consoling encounter with God’s word, a constant source of renewal and growth.’ We ‘renew our confidence in preaching, based on the conviction that it is God who seeks to reach out to others through the preacher, and that he displays his power through human words.’[18]

When I preached at a Service for Peace following a terrorist attack on Streatham High Street in February 2020, the most important words I could hope to bring to life were those of the Lord: ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.’ Unpacked for a community shocked and shaken by senseless violence, we became the crowd on the Mount of Beatitudes, hearing them again as if it were for the first time.

In times of turmoil, rooted in faith, our pastoral service elicits a homiletic ministry which must be profoundly consoling. In such circumstances, how might we envisage our vocation as preachers through this lens?

Eight Considerations about Preaching in a Time of Turmoil

Everything which makes for good homily preparation at any time applies when preparing to preach in a time of turmoil. Pondering and praying the Scriptures; studying their meaning; reflecting on imagery, allusions, stories and life-applications; drafting and delivery. These all find their necessary place in creating and crafting a homily. But what are some particular considerations when it comes to preaching in difficult circumstances?

Turmoil can affect nations, communities, families, and individuals. By no means exclusively, I think of occasions such as global or national pandemic; wartime or national strife; loss of life through major disasters or acts of terrorism; serious accidents; murder; deaths of babies and children; deaths of adults seemingly ‘before their time;’ sudden deaths; deaths after prolonged illness and suffering; civil, economic or political unrest; times of national mourning. In situations such as these, here are eight suggestions to consider when called upon to preach.

  1. Think carefully about your listeners, both near and far

No matter how impressive a homily, if it fails to ‘land’ in the hearts and minds of its hearers, it will have fallen short. ‘Christian preaching,’ says Pope Francis, ‘…finds in the heart of people and their culture a source of living water, which helps the preacher to know what must be said and how to say it.’[19]

In times of turmoil, our often more mixed congregations can be near and far in different senses: those nearer or further away from Christian belief; those nearer or further away from practicing their faith; those nearer or further away because of their physical or virtual presence.

At most funeral liturgies today there are people present who are not practicing Catholics, not Christians, not of any religious conviction. Sometimes they are the majority and include the close family of the deceased. Without ‘watering down’ the truths of faith, our homilies need attuning to the hearts of those before us. Finding the right language and imagery helps everyone taking part to engage.

Early one December, I remember preaching at a service for parents and families who had lost children through miscarriage or stillbirth. It was organised ecumenically, in collaboration with the local hospital, and open to anyone. I used the simple image of a snowflake, something tiny, beautiful and individually unique, but which comes into our world temporarily. It gave the lead-in to speak about how precious human life is to us and to God, and then to break open the Gospel that we are worth more than many sparrows.[20]

Here is a primary consideration: what might help this particular congregation find consolation and hope in this specific time of turmoil? Embedded in faith and Scripture, we want to preach the message that needs to be heard in the very best way possible for those listening to receive it.

On so many levels, the Coronavirus pandemic has brought its own kind of turmoil, devastatingly so for some. One consequence has been the upsurge in live-streamed liturgy and preaching. While mostly Sunday and weekday Masses, live-streamed funerals have also acquired new significance. Unless there is a closed link, our preaching via the internet is available to anyone and everyone. John Wesley, the great pioneer of Methodism, once said I look upon all the world as my parish.’ Live-streaming has made this a reality for clergy who, twelve months ago, never imagined themselves media personalities.

Those of us preaching online will have our own experiences to share. During the first lockdown, I found it quite surreal preaching to a camera in an empty Cathedral. But people joined in, from around the parish and the diocese, and from across the country and the world. So I preached trying to picture in my in mind the people I knew were participating at home, also aware of other people I would never meet apart from this virtual homiletic encounter.

The dynamic shifted when we returned to Masses with congregations which were also live-streamed. It meant focusing immediately on the congregation present in the church, but also considering the virtual congregation who equally needed to be acknowledged.

To whom are we preaching, both near and far? What might they be feeling at this point in their life? What might be their questions, their worries and their fears? Taking all this into account will help define the canvas for the homiletic picture we want to paint.

2. Proclaim without shame the hope of the Paschal Mystery

To St Paul’s affirmation that ‘if Christ has not been raised, our faith is in vain,’ we could add, and if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is in vain.[21] The most important duty of a Christian, and especially a preacher, is to announce Good News. The resurrection of Christ changes everything. The grip of death and sin have been definitively overcome. For Christians, Easter is not just a day, it is a way of life. It is a way to life, even in the most challenging turmoil.

In their statement Preaching the Mystery of Faith, the Bishops of the United States suggest the encounter of the Risen Christ with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus provides ‘powerful insights into the ministry of liturgical preaching.’[22] They offer what can be seen as five pointers to bear in mind.

a. Following the events of Good Friday, the two discouraged disciples leave Jerusalem. Their hope that the Lord Jesus might redeem Israel seems mistaken.[23] Such second-guessing of faith comes alive in times of turmoil.

b. The ‘momentum’ of St Luke’s Gospel ‘leans towards Jerusalem:’ the city of Jesus’ Passion and Death, the city of his Resurrection, the city of the sending of the Spirit. Holding these three integral realities together is essential.[24] There is no resurrection without the cross and no cross without the resurrection, all brought to faith by the Holy Spirit.

c. Fleeing Jerusalem, the disciples, nevertheless, ‘cannot forget Jesus, who captured their hearts and fired their hopes.’[25] Here is the instinct, the memory, the nostalgia, for faith. The disciples evoke every disciple who is ‘fascinated’ by the Lord, who searches for him, but who, because of turmoil, becomes ‘bewildered, even disillusioned,’ and prone to waking away.[26]

d. The two disciples know ‘the basic facts about the Lord,’ but not what they mean. This is often true of those to whom we preach the word of life.[27]  The homilist must draw together the ‘data’ about Jesus ‘into a pattern of profound and ultimate meaning for human life.’[28] Preaching turns information into destination. It give a direction to travel and a reason to make the journey.

e. The disciples only begin to see and understand Jesus properly when their experience is opened to his ‘self-emptying love… revealed in his death and resurrection.’[29] Not only ‘the whole of the Scriptures,’ but the whole of life gained new meaning in the light of the resurrection. We, therefore, must preach from this light, even when the darkness is crushing.[30] 

As homilists, especially in times of turmoil, we speak to people searching for meaning in the wake of their experiences. The meaning we have to offer is Jesus Christ and the purpose given by his Gospel. People may not acknowledge their search in this way, but every experience of suffering, of pain, of anguish, brings with it, in the words of Viktor Frankl, the human search for meaning. Indeed, for Frankl, drawing upon Frederich Nietzsche, the person who has a reason, a ‘why,’ to live, can bear almost any ‘how,’ any manner of living. Into the turmoil of Emmaus grief and hopelessness, explaining the Scriptures opens a reason to live, a reason to believe. The Homiletic Directory summarises this well. Our preaching should speak about the readings ‘…in such a way that their meaning is found in the death and resurrection of the Lord.’[31]

I remember preaching at a Good Friday service in HMP Leeds. I wanted to try and convey the cross as a rescue from sin and death. I said to the congregation, ‘I want to show you two images of rescue.’ The first was a large picture of a man being winched to safety from certain death by a coastguard helicopter, an image of rescue. The second was a painting of the crucified Lord, with people passing over the abyss across his arms, an image of rescue.

Proclaiming without shame the hope of the Paschal Mystery means talking about rescue from fear, anxiety, sin and death. In fact, rescue from everything that prevents us living as beloved children of the Father.

3. Allow the Scriptures to speak in the moment

The American poet Maya Angelou (1951-2014) wrote an intriguing poem called ‘Just Like Job.’ It ends like this:

Into the alleys
Into the byways
Into the streets
And the roads
And the highways
Past rumor mongers
And midnight ramblers
Past the liars and the cheaters and the gamblers.
On Your word
On Your word.
On the wonderful word of the Son of God.
I’m stepping out on Your word.[32]

Perhaps more than ever, preaching in times of turmoil means ‘stepping out’ on the Word of God. Whatever words we might say must flow from the Word, the wonderful Word of the Son of God.

Our preaching demands what Pope Francis calls ‘personalising the word.’[33] Whether the Scriptures from which we preach are chosen by us, or for us, we make an act of faith that God will speak through them and through us. Not just generically, but specifically in the definite moment we preach to that particular congregation. Our prayerful preparation requires a precise consideration of what these exact Scriptures are saying about this turmoil in the lives of these people. Nothing can be reheated or microwaved.

The preacher is not ‘simply to moralise, to stress the obligations facing believers, or to speak of contemporary issues without shedding on them the light of the word of God.’[34] He is ‘above all a witness, who makes known to others the love and truth of God, which he knows from his own heart and from his own life of prayer and service.’[35] From our heart, from our own inner life and apostolate, words are born through the action of the Holy Spirit which bring the Scriptures to life in the present moment.

When I preached at the funeral Mass for Mrs Ann Maguire, a teacher at Corpus Christi Catholic College in Leeds, who was murdered in school by a pupil, I felt the power of the word rising from the text of St Paul writing to the Ephesians: ‘As Christ was alive in her heart, as she was ‘planted in love and built on love,’ so now we believe that God’s promise to her will be fulfilled: that she will live forever in the radiant light of Christ, knowing His love and ‘filled with the utter fullness of God.’ (cf. Eph 3:19) It was only God’s fullness that could speak into such human emptiness.

Inadequate though we may feel, we are, nonetheless, ‘willing to share how the scriptural story has become integrated into our thoughts and actions while we walked among those who turn their faces towards us.’[36] Our preaching means sharing in the moment what God is saying through the Scriptures: how God is speaking into this unrest; how God is speaking into this unease; how God is speaking into this turmoil. And we do this with an in-the-moment tone of enduing, compassionate love.

4. Name people’s experiences

Is the God who once acted in human history still present and acting today? How can this God, whom the Scriptures present as powerful and loving, be experienced today in lives that seem so broken and meaningless?[37] These are questions in the hearts and minds of our congregations in times of turmoil. More precisely they might ask: ‘How can parents believe in a God who raises the dead to life when their daughter has just been killed in a car accident? How can a family hope in a God who leads his people out of slavery into freedom when they are trapped in an inflationary spiral in which costs increase and the buying power of their salaries diminishes? How can young people join with the angels and saints in praise of the glory of God when they are struggling with the challenges of establishing their own identities and their relationship to family and friends?[38]

Questions such as these reflect the scale and impact of turmoil. Part of the preacher’s response is to name what the congregation is feeling, to verbalise the questions and the experience behind them. Without presumption, but sensitively deploying our pastoral antennae, we can put feelings into words. Purely in human terms, this has value. However, ancient spiritual wisdom invites us to tell God what causes our hurt: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Ps 22)

Preaching during the pandemic, I have tried to name the widely felt experiences of uncertainty, fear, isolation and loneliness, sharing something of my own reality. Facing this with faith has resonated with hearers. Being a saddened, fed up, out of sorts, disciple can seem like we are somehow letting the side down. Someone helping us recognise that is just how it is, even for those committed to Christ, can bring much needed comfort.

Naming the shock, anger, powerlessness, or any other reaction or emotion unearthed by situations of turmoil, contributes to the process of coping. We do this with a supernatural outlook. Our preaching helps our listeners find spiritual encouragement from Scripture. It encourages them to find the strength to bring their pain and anxiety to honest prayerfulness before the Lord.

5. Acknowledge the limits of our understanding

The 2018 ad limina visit of the Bishops of England and Wales to Rome concluded with a privileged two hour meeting with Pope Francis. Towards the end, I asked about his devotion to Our Lady under the title of ‘untier of knots.’ The Holy Father spoke movingly about his simple trust in the power of Our Lady’s prayers to untie the knots of life, the difficult situations that affect the world, the Church, other people and ourselves. ‘To some it may sound naïve,’ he said, ‘but I pray.’

Before the mystery of suffering and the mystery of God, we take to heart God’s word to the prophet Isaiah: ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’[39] Acknowledging the limits of human understanding faced with turmoil and pain does not equate to saying there is no response to be made. Our response is that of faith overflowing into prayer.

‘As far as I know,’ wrote Cardinal Basil Hume, ‘no one has adequately and conclusively answered the existence of evil in our world. I do know, however, that the answer is to be found in looking at the crucified Christ…Slowly, we see, and then only dimly, that in suffering of all kinds there is new life to be found, and therefore hope. It would not have been so if Christ had not risen from the dead.’[40]

From another point of view, the spiritual writer Evelyn Underhill put it like this: ‘If God were small enough to be understood, he would not be big enough to be worshipped.’ Or, in the words of Corrie Ten Boom, a Dutch Christian imprisoned in Ravensbrűck concentration camp for helping Jewish escapees of the Holocaust: ‘A religion that is small enough for our understanding would not be big enough for our needs.’[41] Part of the preacher’s task is to help his congregation know who God is and who they are: who is the Creator, and who is the creature; who is the Master, and who is the disciple. Who teaches and who must learn.

6. Draw upon testimony

I read recently God in the ICU: The Inspirational Biography of a Praying Doctor.[42] Despite personal loss and tragedy, it describes consultant anesthetist Dr Dave Walker’s pilgrimage of faith. Like so many testimonies, it chronicles growth in discipleship, moving from an openness to God who, nonetheless, remained distant and disappointing, to the delight of meeting and knowing the God of love. There are many such inspirational accounts of people who come to faith in Christ in the midst of adversity. Or of those who survive desperate circumstances with faith intact, even strengthened. Saints and sinners alike, martyrs and missionaries, ordinary men and women. Witnesses to faith bring reassurance through true stories of perseverance.

Of course, there is testimony and, what can also be called, counter testimony. Saddening though it is, I am less surprised when turmoil causes someone to lose faith, or creates a barrier to them exploring the possibility of faith. Far more surprising, however, and truly inspiring, are stories of people who have had their worst possible nightmares brought to life and have either come to faith through them, or continued to believe throughout them.

The light of faith shines through the testimony of countless previous and contemporary disciples. Sharing their stories of spiritual consolation, steadfastness, and reassurance, gives witness that faith is a help, not a hindrance, in a time of turmoil.

7. Avoid fake comfort

I remember a priest saying he once said to a widower that time is a great healer. ‘Not at eighty-four,’ came the reply.

The preacher should neither suggest that faith makes living through turmoil easy, nor that, if we only have more faith, all the problems will go away. Our preaching must confront the reality of experience with the truth of faith. The Gospel does not vaccinate against suffering, or provide a sugared pill to magically make everything hunky-dory. The Gospel invites us to believe in the power forever released by the resurrection. But hurt, pain and grief, cannot be bypassed.

When I attempted to preach to members of the local community in the days after the Grenfell fire, I was aware that the image of a green heart had been adopted to symbolise the feelings of everyone affected. I spoke about another heart, the pierced Heart of the Lord Jesus, a heart of love that was also a heart of pain. The then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s words captured what it meant: ‘In the pierced heart of the Crucified,’ he writes ‘God’s own heart is opened up; here we see who God is and what he is like.’[43] God is with us in our suffering. God knows what it means ‘from the inside,’ from his heart to our heart. There is nothing pretty about the cross. There, in Christ, our most profoundly sorrowful experiences intersect with God’s. The wounds are not papered over.

The French, devoutly Catholic, novelist, François Mauriac, and the Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, became close friends. Mauriac encouraged Wiesel to write about his horrifying ordeal of surviving Auschwitz and Buchenwald. He did so in his Nobel Peace Prize winning book entitled Night. Wiesel wrote that his first night in Auschwitz ‘murdered my God and my soul and turned by dreams to dust.’[44] His Jewish faith was tested to the limit, but never abandoned.

As a Christian believing in God’s love, and having heard Wiesel’s testimony, Mauriac wrote the foreword to Night. ‘Did I explain to him,’ he wrote, ‘that what had been a stumbling block to his faith had become a cornerstone of mine?’[45] God’s love at the heart of the turmoil. This is what the preacher must preach, sharing his own faith by opening the Scriptures to reveal the foundation on which hope is built.

8. Encourage spiritual growth

The preacher is a doorkeeper, a spiritual commissionaire. Our homilies open the door to something else. Our consoling words prepare the hearts of our hearers for something more, for their own interior dialogue with the Lord, for a response in prayer.

Questions, anger, pain, and regret require supernatural answers which come from the solace of friendship with Christ. St Thomas More once wrote ‘earth has no sorrow heaven cannon heal.’ We cannot determine the time needed for those in turmoil to find healing. We simply pave the way for the prayer of faith that lays everything bare before eternal love. Our homilies in times of turmoil need the quality of spiritual accompaniment. The peace we communicate is not offered by theological propositions, but by a person, Christ, yesterday and today, the Alpha and Omega, to whom all time belongs. 

Conclusion

I finish with a sermon from real life. In my first parish Ann and Brian, a recently retired couple, came to see me for instruction having decided to become Catholics. We looked forward to Easter, but Ann was diagnosed with cancer and she became poorly. She was taken into hospital to stabilise her symptoms. Brian ‘phoned, worried she might not last until Easter. So, on a Friday afternoon in early February, Easter came to her.

Ann was baptised in her hospital bed. She and Brian were confirmed and, side by side, received the Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation. At the end of the Mass, Ann was anointed that the Lord might save her and raise her up. I teased Ann that she was the only person I had ever baptised from a fruit bowl.

Ann was transferred to a local hospice and, through the weeks of Lent, moved slowly further away from this world and closer to the next. Shortly before Holy Week, she was moved to a nursing home. I visited on Maundy Thursday and she looked ashen. When I visited again after the Liturgy of Good Friday, she was deathly. The call came later on Holy Saturday. Ann died on the day she was to be received into the Church, just as Brian finished washing her feet.

The children that Holy Saturday had painted colourful butterflies, symbols of new life released from captivity. Mingled with the Stations of the Cross, these decorated the church walls, enfolding us the Easter Friday of Ann’s funeral. The Vigil flame burned bright, proclaiming joy from sorrow, hope from despair, peace from suffering, life from death.

Christ’s dying and rising touches ordinary lives in extraordinary ways. His passion is played out in our bodies, on our faces. The cross is planted in our personal and communal experience in so many ways. Without faith, it’s an obstacle. With faith, the paramount sign of glory.

Questions

What has been your experience of preaching during the pandemic?

What has been your experience of preaching during ‘times of turmoil’?

When preaching in difficult situations, what are some of the challenges you face, and what are some areas for growth and development?


[1] National Conference of Catholic Bishops: The Bishops’ Committee on Priestly Life and Ministry, Fulfilled in Your Hearing: The Homily in the Sunday Assembly, Washington, 1982, 15.

[2] Cf. Mt 11:28-30

[3] Mk 4:40

[4] Job 2:9

[5] Pope Benedict XVI, Encyclical Letter Spe Salvi – On Christian Hope, 2007, 32.

[6] 1 Cor 1: 23-25.

[7] Pope Benedict XVI, Encyclical Letter Deus Caritas Est – On Christian Love, 2005, 38.

[8] Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Salvifici Doloris – On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering, 1984, 4.

[9] N. T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God, SPCK, London, 2006, 20.

[10] Wright, 20.

[11] Wright, 20-21.

[12] Wright, X.

[13] Cf. Rom 8:38-39.

[14] Harold S Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Pan Books, London, 1981; 2002, XV.

[15] Ibid. XIII.

[16] Order of Christian Funerals, 27.

[17] Ibid. 27.

[18] Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium – On the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today’s World, 2013, 135-136.

[19] Evangelii Gaudium, 139.

[20] Mt 10: 29-31

[21] 1 Cor 15:14

[22] United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Preaching the Mystery of Faith – The Sunday Homily, Washington, 2012, 13

[23] Preaching the Mystery of Faith, 13.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid. 13-14.

[27] Ibid. 14.

[28] Ibid. 15.

[29] Ibid. 14.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Homiletic Directory, 2015, 12.

[32] Maya Angelou, Poems, Bantam Books, 1986, 164.

[33] Evangelii Gaudium, 149.

[34] Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales/Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Scotland, The Gift of Scripture, CTS, London, 2005, 77.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Fulfilled in Your Hearing, 42.

[37] Ibid. 7.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Isaiah 55:8-9

[40] Basil Hume, The Mystery of the Cross, DLT, London, 1998, 27.

[41] Quotations sources on the internet

[42] Dave Walker, God in the ICU: The Inspirational Biography of a Praying Doctor, Amazon Publication, 2012.

[43] Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2000, 48.

[44] Elie Wiesel, Night, Penguin, London, 1972, 2006, 34.

[45] Ibid. XXI.

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