In Defense of Provocative Preaching

I have posted the excerpt of my funeral sermon a couple of times now (here: ). It is clearly a hard hitting exhortation to the congregation that they are going to die and must work to prepare for that day. It is not the only thing I say at a funeral. There are words of encouragement and notes of affection for the deceased and his or her family. But I spend the second half of the homily addressing the assembled and exhorting them to prepare for death. It is true fact that on 27% of Catholics go to Mass at all any more. The number for Protestants is higher, but not that much. Hence I am almost assured that almost 2/3rds of the assembled mourners are no longer attending Mass or a church. Most of them are not praying, reading scripture, and many, if not most, are in some pretty serious sinful situations and unrepented sin.

Now the usual approach at funerals has been to be “nice”  and if sin, or purgatory, or judgment (or, God forbid, Hell),  are mentioned at all it should be subtle, so subtle as to barely be noticed. Vague attestations of  “we at the parish will surely pray for Joe’s happy repose and for you the family.” Somewhere the doctrine of purgatory is lurking in the saying but only a trained theologian could really see it.

Now when I have posted the excerpt of the funeral sermon, a lot of people  indicate  approval  and agree that strong clear words are necessary. But a few, only a few really, find this approach problematic, mildly insensitive and even alienating. Nevertheless, I stand by it.

I had tried the more subtle approach for years. It didn’t really work and no one really took it seriously, if they even understood what I was “getting at.”  I think prophecy needs to be clear, strong and unambiguous. I get a much better result that way. I can surely attest to the fact that more have returned to Mass on a regular basis as a result of  strong words than ever happened in the years when the usual reaction to my ministration was, “Oh Father, you’re such a dear. What a heart-warming and consoling message!” These days, I usually get something more akin to, “Father, some of us in this family needed to hear that message” (Usually, said by one of the matriarchs). Or again, “Father, you really gave me something to think about” (usually from a son or grandson who hasn’t seen the inside of the Church since the last family funeral). I think in the end I am supposed to be more a prophet than “a dear.”

I have over 50 funerals a year. And for most of them the Church is packed with people I will only see once, or perhaps not until the next family funeral. I cannot wait for a “less delicate” time. It’s carpe diem (seize the day) moment. Someone has to warn them and that someone is me. God spoke to Ezekiel:

Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me. When I say to a wicked man, ‘You will surely die,’ and you do not warn him or speak out to dissuade him from his evil ways in order to save his life, that wicked man will die for his sin, and I will hold you accountable for his blood. But if you do warn the wicked man and he does not turn from his wickedness or from his evil ways, he will die for his sin; but you will have saved yourself. Again, when a righteous man turns from his righteousness and does evil, and I put a stumbling block before him, he will die. Since you did not warn him, he will die for his sin. The righteous things he did will not be remembered, and I will hold you accountable for his blood. But if you do warn the righteous man not to sin and he does not sin, he will surely live because he took warning, and you will have saved yourself.  (Ez 3:17-21)

Preaching is about saving before it is about consoling, and God makes this clear to Ezekiel and to every preacher. I think a lot of people think that preaching is supposed to merely please and encourage them. There is a place for that but good preaching also afflicts and provokes response. Jesus was more than willing  to provoke people and unsettle them. It is not a goal in itself. Rather,  it is the necessary outcome of lancing a spiritual boil or setting a broken limb. Protests, anger, and so forth are not necessarily the sign of failure. I’ve had people come to me and say, You once made me mad but you also made me think and I’ve come to understand what you were saying was true. A lot of times powerful preaching takes people through a cycle of: mad, to sad, to glad.

I think we have long enough tried the “nice guy” preaching that is extolled by many, as the model. But all through these past 40 years with that model largely operative,  Mass attendance has steadily dropped. Currently, as noted, only 27% of Catholics attend Mass at all any more. We have, collectively become a rebellious house.  God said the following to Ezekiel:

He said to me, “Son of man, stand up on your feet and I will speak to you.” As he spoke, the Spirit came into me and raised me to my feet, and I heard him speaking to me. He said: “Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites, to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against me; they and their fathers have been in revolt against me to this very day. The people to whom I am sending you are obstinate and stubborn. Say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says.’ And whether they listen or fail to listen—for they are a rebellious house—they will know that a prophet has been among them…..You must speak my words to them, whether they listen or fail to listen. (Ez 2:1-7).

I do not suppose that the whole congregation at a funeral is a rebellious house, but it would seem, statistics being what they are, that the vast majority no longer have any seriousness about the faith. Mild mannered pleasantries have been tried for a generation now. The verdict is that stronger medicine is called for.

Now, as for Sunday preaching, generally conducted among those reasonably serious our their spiritual life, there is less urgency. But, here too I have found that people are generally hungry for preaching that is clear, enthusiastic, biblically based, and prophetically strong. Scripture says, For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle? (1 Cor 14:8). Granted, I have preached in African American Parishes almost all my priestly life and there is a greater appreciation there for tough, hard-hitting, no compromise preaching. Some of my priest friends tell me that many of the things I say in my pulpit, they could not get away with saying. Too bad really, because I just preach right out of the scriptures. Too many congregations have become unaccustomed to hearing words like: hell, judgment, fornication, injustice, lies, evil, sin, and so forth. When some one does use them, there is a kind of shock and anger. But these are all common themes in the Scripture. Why should race or class have anything to do with familiarity with strong, biblically based, prophetically toned preaching? And why should so many Catholic have to endure superficial preaching because a priest fears he can’t get away with saying certain things? Fr. Bill Casey defines superficial preaching as: watered-down, filled with generalities and abstractions, devoid of doctrinal content and moral teaching, more akin to pop-psychology than the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is not scriptural, it does not move, it does not inspire, it generates no enthusiasm for Jesus Christ, his Church or the Gospel and it has got to change.

And strong preaching is not ALL about the negative things. Strong preaching calls forth joy, enthusiasm, confidence, hope and encouragement in both the preacher and the congregation. Strong preachers have a tone in their voice which signals a zeal and excitement for the truth of God’s Word, even the hard things point to the power of grace to overcome sin and bring forth dramatic change.

The fact is, I think there is a general hunger for a return to vivid and strong preaching. I think this is more common among younger people, many of whom have had enough of polite but abstract sermons that preach ideas more than unvarnished Catholic and Biblical truth. I observe a hunger for strong preaching. I look at how popular priests like Fr. John Corapi, and Fr. Bill Casey are. Lay people too like Scott Hahn and Patrick Madrid don’t mince words, they say it plain. Looking back who can ever forget the great Archbishop Fulton Sheen? He was a real hero to me and I think I’ve listened at least once to every thing he ever preached. He too made it plain and did not apologize for preaching the cross and repentance as a prelude to victory. None of the men I have mentioned are dainty  in any way. Among the Protestants I was always a great fan of Adrian Rogers, Pastor of Bellview Baptist in Memphis. He died a few years ago but I have listened to almost every sermon he taped. He was powerful, biblical and unapologetic. There were a few times where his content strayed from what I could agree with but I never doubted his deep love for God and his people and the reverence he had for the Word of God. Pastor Tony Evans too, a Protestant by trade but acquainted with things Catholic. A bold and powerful preacher. Men like these have inspired me and stepped on my toes too! Good preaching comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable, and, truth be told, we’re all in both categories.

Finally I will say that I think love is essential for strong preaching to reach its mark. The mark of a true prophet is that he really loves the people to whom he speaks and is zealous for their final good. The more people perceive that the preacher or teacher loves them, the more they can appreciate and accept the “hard sayings.” Further, if the preacher does not love the people to whom he speaks, he ends up only venting anger and getting things off his chest than  really breathing forth love that can change.

How say you? I am putting a recent video clip of mine here below and links to a few of the men I just mentioned. Perhaps you too know some great preachers who are out there for the rest of us to hear.


This is clip from my sermon of Last Sunday. I speak here of the problem of false Messiahs:

28 Replies to “In Defense of Provocative Preaching”

  1. Marvelous. I cannot encourage this enough. Too often I find myself listening and relistening to Peter Kreeft’s “Winning the Culture War” when what I really want is a priest to say this at the homily. The closest I’ve come lately is during the election day homily, and even then the priest’s exhortations to not consider abortion one of many issues was damaged by his vilification of “those illegals.”

    1. Yes, Peter Kreeft is another great layman who is a real prophet.

      I must say I don’t quite understand the description of the homily. It sounds like you got some strange advice that day!

      1. It was an easy enough transition for the priest. He rightly decried abortion and made it the most important issue for the parish. Then …

        … he made the point that while he did not endorse the Tea Party, he did endorse every one of the candidates who was pro-life; and all of those, he said, were of the Tea Party. Then …

        … he seemed to endorse the other Tea Party beliefs by using rhetoric like “illegals.”

        I’m always disappointed when I see a Catholics become partisan for anyone but Christ and His Church.

  2. You are a good shepherd, a good father, and undoubtedly saved many souls. Even in reading your comments, I have learned so much because you have not just been consoling and sweet, but firm and kind, like a strict father would be.

    1. Thanks. As I said in the post, when people know that their pastor and/or preacher loves them it opens the door far wider to the capacity for him to boldly preach even the difficult things.

  3. prophecy needs to be clear, strong and unambiguous

    It is enough to wonder if some people have never actually taken a look at the Crucifix that is in (most) Catholic churches. Unlike the empty cross of many Protestant churches or the cross with the Risen Christ hovering on it in a few Catholic churches, if folks at a funeral would just look at the Crucifix, they would be smacked in the face with a clear, strong, and unambiguous message — the cost of sin and the price of redemption is the tortured body of Jesus hanging there on that Cross.

    Take a good look at that Corpus — you want to think that your loved one is in heaven? Well how do you think that he got there? Take a look at that Body of suffering — that’s how. No soft-peddling there, no wishy-washy pleasantries, no warm and fuzzies — take a look at the excruciating horror that is the price of our salvation. Sorry, but you don’t get to the joy of Easter Sunday without the shocking torment of the Passion on Good Friday. This is serious stuff — deadly serious stuff. I know that the impulse is to run away from the Cross, to go and hide like the Apostles, but we need to stay by Him — it is only by the Blood that pours out of His side that we are made clean, and that can’t happen if we stay away in avoidance of such unpleasantness.

    However, like much of the Faith, we will find that standing at the foot of the Cross is a paradox. Rather than fearing that stern preaching would rudely cause our mourning to turn to tortuous grief over the loss of the deceased, it will give us cause for authentic hope. It will not be all bitter or all sweet, but bitter-sweet — the proper kind of mourning that is blessed.

    1. Thanks Bender for your reflections on this matter both here and in the other post. I have found them encouraging, especially insofar as they illustrate the paradoxes of life. You are most correct in pointing out that the crucifix in our parishes is a bold statement and provocative to be sure. Yet, also it is (strangely) consoling. Ah, paradox!

  4. “Some of my priest friends tell me that many of the things I say in my pulpit, they could not get away with saying.”

    Then some of your priest friends are wrong. Really. Sure, they will get some folks walking out of Mass and some angry letters. But they will set the rest of the congregation on fire.

    1. Thanks, Karen! I was gonna say this, too! Way to go, Msgr. Pope! Keep up the good work. Prayers!

    2. I’m afraid that Msgr’s priest friends are correct. Just look at what happened in Madison when a parish had priests brought in who were willing to preach the truth. They ended up $200,000 in debt, most of the parishioners left, and they petitioned Bishop Morlino to get rid of them.

      However, I think that Bp. Morlino handled it correctly and told the parishioners to go pound sand. I would much rather have this result from real sermons than “let’s all be nice” sermons with the church packed. In the former case the priest may get to a few individuals and save them from eternal damnation. In the later case the priest is, in the end, leading more people to eternal damnation. As Fr. Z always says, the biological solution will solve this in a decade or two.

  5. You’ve identified another problematic area and that’s great because that’s the first step to finding a solution.

    Some priests or bishops are afraid of offending parishioners and having the donations stop so, they soft-pedal and cause confusion and sin that ultimately condemns them too.

    Other pastors invite visiting priests to proclaim the hard teachings against abortion. This way they do not alienate the Liberals and are able to somehow communicate the message of Salvation.

    If the Word is diluted we get confused and misdirected Christians who do not grow spiritually. Later, these people get attracted into other denominations or faith systems like Islam that are unequivocal with their proclamations.

  6. I wish the Church would return to Black vestments for a Requiem Masses with the strains of the “Dies Irae” playing once again for all to contemplate.

    Fr. Baker in a recent issue of The Latin Mass mused over the fact that pre-Vatican II homilies were largely formed around the Catechism, the Commandments, and the Precepts of the Church along with Scripture (I am paraphrasing an excellent article). The homily was meant to convey Truth and understanding of the Faith to all present. The vast majority of Catholics now no longer receive the Diocesan paper and know more about secular events than those which effect Eternity.

    God bless you, Monsignor! Ever a fan!

  7. Thanks for this Msgr Pope. I always use your posts as a starting point for bible study.

    The Lord replied (to Jeremiah),

    “Do not say “I am only a child,” for you must go to whom I send you and say whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of confronting them, for I am with you, the Lord declares.”

    Then the Lord stretched out his hand and touched my mouth and the Lord said to me:

    “There! I have put my words into your mouth. Look, today I have set you over nations and kingdoms, to uproot and knock down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” (Jr 1:7-10)

    The note in the NJB describes Jeremiah thus: “Of an affectionate and gentle disposition, he was nevertheless called to “uproot and to knock down, to destroy and to overthrow”..This man of peace was for ever at war, with his own people, with kings, priests, false prophets, the nation itself.”

    A provocative preacher indeed. – Could also be a description of Msgr Charles Pope! God bless.

  8. I listened to your first sermon link. I like the fact that you’re authentic, as the purpose of homiletic is to relate God’s Word in a manner easily understood in our time. I think it was powerful, and a wake up call. I myself got down on my knees and asked God for grace after your exhortation. My only beefs (I’m not an expert, but please consider my humble opinion):
    1. On a more specific note, your explanation and exhortation surrounding the Eucharist seemed to come close to a semi-Utraquist heresy that claimed the Eucharist was absolutely necessary for salvation (I think Utraquists characterized it as a necessity of means), so I would caution you in that regard.

    2. I’m worried that an emphasis on “do (x) because you will be judged someday” (I know that’s a straw man) will only further a mercenary belief that is pervasive in Catholicism, the “I’ll do this because I’ll get to heaven” idea, as opposed to loving God because of his nature, which I think would be ideal. I think a good balance would be to contrast our lives of sin and death with the all encompassing love of God, maybe not quite so divided as the formulaic Lutheran “Law/Gospel” false dichotomy, but maybe something similar.

    Of course, I’m basing all of this on one sermon, and I’m not an expert, but bear with me.

    1. Utraquist….hmm a little arcane. I’m quoting Jesus (Jn 6:53) so perhaps we’ll have to ask him whether he has tripped a heresy wire here. As for number 2, it seems that stating any demands of discipleship could fall under your concern. Aren’t you being a bit hyper cautious all around? At any rate glad the sermon brought some blessings even if some concerns.

      1. About Utraquism: I realize it’s arcane, and I know you were quoting the Gospel, but it’s not so much what one is trying to proclaim in a sermon, but how it is percieved by those in the pew (I’m sorry if this sounds patronizing, I’m just trying to cover all the bases). To give an extreme, worst case possibility: If a parishoner walks away believing that his/her special needs child’s inability to recieve the Eucharist puts the child’s salvation in serious doubt, they’ve fallen into Utraquism, whether or not they’ve ever heard of the term. I realize this is unlikely, but possible nonetheless.

        2. I realize that one should not omit exhortation to Christian life, however, the sermon could be more effective if it follows a (simplified) formula of
        1) “You are this sinful”
        2) “God loves you at this infinite level, completely and fully”.
        3) Now that the parishoner is faced with both his/her sin, and recognizes God’s Love despite their sin, exhortation is appropriate, when used in the perspective of, “Now that we know how amazing God is, how do we respond to the Love of our Father in Heaven?”
        This eliminates a mercenary legal obligatory perspective that existed before Christ’s crucifixion, and places it in the context of a familial relationship context that exists now that we are heirs to the promise of the resurrection. Again, I love the authenticity, and I’m not suggesting that this idea be overhauled, merely tweaked. I realze I may be hyper cautious, but I’m not trying to be polemic. I’m just trying to offer constructive criticism on the proclamation of God’s Word, which is in itself an incredibly important task.

        1. I don’t agree. I think hyper caution means things seldom take flight. I don’t think your hyper caution and three step formula was observed by any of the New Testament preachers including Jesus himself all of who frequently appealed to salutary fear as well as other motives.

  9. Ditto on all of it, although I would add that there are sometimes directives from local ordinaries not to rock the boat, don’t be controversial, don’t make people mad, we have enough problems as it is, etc., etc. I know such dictates have existed, and may persist, in my own diocese.

    But, if I may recommend the names of some truly excellent Catholic priests/preachers – Fr. Paul Grala, SOLT, Fr. Paul Weinberger of the Diocese of Dallas, Fr. Christopher Phillips, Archdiocese of San Antonio. All FSSP priests I have known are doctrinally rock solid, but some tend to be a bit dry.

    May God continue to bless your apostolate, and thanks.

  10. Thank you again for reinforcing the troops.

    I have sung at hundreds of funerals and have heard it all – only a few times have I heard the words purgatory or hell. Despite the fact homiletic eulogies are specifically banned, we hear them anyways: the message most often delivered is that we’re all going to heaven along with the nice person in the box (or urn). Yes, I have written the ordinary of the diocese about this; he didn’t bother to write back – sigh.

    I have a faith-filled protestant pal who refers to herself as a “Bapti-Costal” (yes, I’m working to bring her into the fullness of faith). Her only daughter was killed in a tragic car accident a number of years ago. She let God know she was not pleased, but she knew it was in His will, so she set out to make lemonade out of these lemons. She found a passionate preacher and instructed him to preach a barnburner to her assembled family and friends at the funeral. And he did. The presence of the Holy Spirit was so thick there, one could barely breathe.

    When I hear milquetoasty Catholic funeral homilies, I want to weep – such a wasted opportunity to feed the Good News to the starving. May the Lord correct these bishops and priests. And whoever reads this – please pray for my friend – oi, what a Catholic she’ll make!

  11. It’s true, Jesus di use salutary fear, but it almost exclusively was aimed at the Pharisees and teachers of the law, those who followed the law with their words and actions, but not with their hearts. Examples of “my” formula (I don’t actually take credit for it) is Jesus’ dialogue with trhe women at the well, in which He offers her forgiveness and salvation while also holding her accountable for her past sins, and Jesus’ restoration of Peter, where He asks him three times (hence highlighting Peter’s sin of denial) “Do you love me?” (offering reconciliation despite Peter’s sin) and his repeated “feed my sheep” (the exhortation following).My “hyper caution”, as you may call it, still does everything you wish, only in a way that doesn’t offend but still has the elements of accountability and authenticity we desire. It’s not hyper-caution, I’m not acting timid, I’m presenting a tweak in the course of action. Go full steam ahead, but speaking the truth while highlighting God’s grace in these matters. People will not turn to a God if they see him as an arbitrary judge, rather than as our Father; this is an error of protestantism with its courtroom analogies.

    1. You are far afield from biblical preaching. Jesus didn’t just use salutary fear with the pharisees. The whole sermon on the Mount is filled with warnings and exhortations along with punishments for non-compliance. Countless other passages such as the judgment scenes like Matt 25:41ff are replete with it. He warns disciples (not pharisees) that they must persevere to the end and that if they deny him he will deny them. I could go on and on. Paul too warns over and over that his fellow Christians will not inherit the Kingdom of God if they commit any number of sins. He also (as does Jesus) promises reward to those who are faithful. There is nothing Protestant here, just good old catholic Scripture and, by the way, I never mentioned a courtroom. Now come on Phillip get back in touch with the basic starting point which is the Biblical portrait of preaching, you are far from it. Jesus, Paul et al would not meet your criteria by a long shot. Jesus offend a lot of folk, so did all the apostles. The main goal in preaching is not to avoid offending (or to give offense). The goal is to set forth the word of God as it is, not as we would like it. That includes heaven and grace as well as a lot of other less pleasant but necessary stuff. Finally, as for God’s grace, I might ask you to listen again to the talk, you might recall that I well encourge them to seek God’s mercy through repentance. Last time I checked grace was a form of mercy. Further, remember you are only hearing an excerpt. Even further than that, please give me more the benefit of the doubt here. I know how to mix tough sayings with joyful celebration. You can hear more of my sermons at but don’t assume to address “balance” questions from an excerpt.

  12. Philip Graves is wrong. You are on the right course. Just Give them a taste of Hellfire, and some shall return to the Lord and some shall not. But the more you underscore the seriousness of their situation, the better for them.

    Because God has all the generations of Man to choose from, and it stands him freely to decide who is worthy of Heaven and Who is not. And there are many, many, many to choose from.

    You may want to remind your parish that they are competing for entry to Heaven, with people who hid jews during second world war, to mention just a few. The competition is fierce.

  13. I stand corrected. I admit that salutary fear may be necessary in homiletics; I realize that I was only watching an excerpt and I stated so as a qualifier in my comments. I realize the goal of preaching is to preach the word, and not to avoid offense, I was merely suggesting that both could be accomplished.
    Maybe I didn’t make myself clear enough: I am completely in favor of replacing watered down sermons with hard truth. I’m a college kid who has seen many friends, including my friend that brought me into the Catholic faith years ago, slip into the party scene, and all the consequences of such. However, I would just caution that these sermons should not be merely “Hellfire,” as some here have suggested, or created merely for shock value. Rather, they should merely be the unvarnished truth; I would hesitate to think that the number of people walking out of the pews could be considered a measurement of the message’s worth.
    We should speak the truth, yes, but always in charity.

Comments are closed.