This may sound funny coming from a priest, but I am always amazed when people pay attention to my preaching.
It is not that I think I am a bad preacher or that the Gospel message I am proclaiming is lacking in value. Rather, throughout my life, when I am in the pews listening to a homily, I’ve always found it difficult to stay focused. Though I am sure others share my same difficulty, many manage to listen attentively throughout. They come to speak with me after Mass about reflections and questions they had after hearing the homily.
Whether or not we find paying attention to a homily easy or difficult, there are always occasions when something strikes us in a particular sermon. These occasions are most often positive, though they can from time to time be experienced in a negative light. It is this latter experience that I wish to address here.
Sometimes parishioners will complain that a particular homily comes across as judgmental, condemnatory, or lacking in compassion. If we ever feel tempted to jump to this conclusion, I would invite us all to remember a few points.
First, no one becomes a priest because they like to make people feel bad. If a priest is preaching, it is because he believes that the Gospel message, even if it is hard, will bring people peace and joy. We may not like the message; we may disagree with it. I guarantee, though, that it is motivated by an authentic love of those to whom the priest is speaking.
Secondly, priests preach to themselves. What do I mean? The priest is not only speaking to those in the congregation, but proclaiming an application of the Gospel for all Christians. As a Christian, the message just as truly applies to the priest himself. If you feel challenged by the message, it is almost certain that the priest does too. I cannot remember a single homily that I have given that did not in one way or another pertain to my own walk with the Lord.
Finally, if we find that a particular homily makes us uncomfortable, irritated or outright angry, that should give us pause. If one man’s words strike such a nerve in our hearts, it is worth taking the time to do some serious reflection. Yes, it is certainly possible that the homilist has over-reached in his preaching or lacked gentleness or nuance. However, it is also possible that he has touched upon some wound in our own hearts. If we, in self-righteous anger, hastily dismiss such words without taking the time, in peace and calm, to reflect upon them with an open heart, we may miss an opportunity for a deeper conversion and walk with the Lord.
Recall that once the perfect homilist and priest, Jesus Christ, also preached words that infuriated some of those who heard him speak. These listeners, in self-righteous anger, not only dismissed his words, but, in their rage, crucified him, nailing him to a tree. If they had only paused and, with an open heart pondered his words, perhaps they would have been able to follow Christ from death to everlasting life.
Praised be Jesus Christ!