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The Lord Must Follow after the Preacher – An insight from Pope St. Gregory for those who preach and those who hear.

October 22, 2012

The other day in the Divine Office I read a passage from St Gregory the Great on preachers and preaching. It is interesting that I have been reading the Breviary every day for 27 years now, and this passage never struck me before. More proof I suppose that when the student is ready the teacher will appear.

There is also a Latin expression that captures how we often see things we missed before even in familiar texts. The expression is Non nova, sed nove, meaning that, though the text is not a new thing, it is experienced in a new way, or newly.

At any rate, what struck me about this teaching is St. Gregory’s assertion that the preacher goes ahead of the Lord, announcing him as it were, and the Lord comes behind to close the deal. It is an important insight that can also help the preacher avoid both pride and also an exaggerated sense of responsibility. I’ll say more of this in a moment but for now listen to St. Gregory:

Beloved brothers, our Lord and Savior….sends his disciples out to preach two by two…

Rightly is it said that he sent them ahead of him into every city and place where he himself was to go. For the Lord follows after the preachers, because preaching goes ahead to prepare the way, and then when the words of exhortation have gone ahead and established truth in our minds, the Lord comes to live within us. To those who preach Isaiah says: Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight the paths of our God. And the psalmist tells them: Make a way for him who rises above the sunset…. Therefore, we make a way for him who rises above the sunset when we preach his glory to you, so that when he himself follows after us, he may illumine you with his love.

Think over, my beloved brothers, think over his words: Pray the Lord of the harvest to send laborers into his harvest. Pray for us so that we may be able to labor worthily on your behalf, that our tongue may not grow weary of exhortation, that after we have taken up the office of preaching our silence may not bring us condemnation from the just judge.

From a homily on the gospels by Saint Gregory the Great, pope
(Hom 17, 1-3: PL 76, 1139 )

It is a powerful and helpful insight that the preacher goes before the Lord, who follows after to quicken the Word that is planted.

And here is a remedy first of all for pride. For the preacher is not the Lord. And, even if it is the Lord’s own word he preaches, mere human eloquence cannot completely express what God alone, who is love, can effect in the human heart. The preacher can but sow the Word, but only God can bring forth the harvest. As St. Paul wrote,

I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow (1 Cor 3:6-7).

The preacher can propose, but the Lord must come after to “close the deal.” The Samaritan woman was rather abruptly but truthfully told this by the townsfolk:

We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.” (Jn 4:42)

And every preacher should delight to hear this. It is a valuable lesson for the preacher to remember his place. He goes before to announce the presence of the one who alone can heal and bring in the truest harvest by his grace.

The preacher is like the best man in an ancient Jewish wedding, to whom St. John the Baptist equated himself:

He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. So this joy of mine has been made full. He must increase, but I must decrease. (Jn 3:29-30).

St. Gregory’s insight is also helpful to preacher so that the preacher can avoid an exaggerated sense of responsibility. For it sometimes happens that a preacher may think too much rests on him, on his eloquence, and finding just the right analogy or formulae. And while it is true that every preacher must work to hone his skills, it also remains true that Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor in vain (Ps 127:1).

Thus the preacher can help lay a foundation, but it is the Lord who must build the house. It is freeing and helpful for the preacher remember that he merely goes before the Lord, and that the Lord will follow after, with every good grace. For what preacher can possibly know everything that every individual soul needs to find Christ. He must do his part in proclaiming the authentic word of God but only the Lord can perfect the message in every soul.

This is freeing and reassuring. And most of us who preach realize this from time to time when some one tells us something we have said, but recounts it in a way that surprises us. And this shows how the Lord helps them to hear what our feeble words only suggested.

In the end every preacher must trust the Lord who comes after him to complete what is lacking and bring forth the fruits that the preacher can only point to.

Comments (4)

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  1. I Like the Church Fathers says:

    Beautiful post, Monsignor.

    Gregory’s homily illustrates the fact that even though he was the greatest of all popes, he was genuinely humble and never proud. Thus, the preacher should humbly prepare the way for the Lord. Gregory was, by his own description, the “servant of God’s servants”.

  2. Donna says:

    I appreciate what you have written, Msgr. Pope. These words also apply to families, as I realized a long time ago that I did all I could do to lay the foundation for my children, but in the end, “it is the Lord who must build the house”.

  3. RichardC says:

    Silence can be our highest praise of God or it can bring down God’s wrath upon us. I learned listening to podcasts of Father Thomas Dubay, R.I.P., that Christian prayer is characterized by the absence of technique–because it is a love relationship. The fact that silence can sometimes be our highest praise of God and sometimes bring down God’s wrath upon us is evidence of this.

  4. Alicia G. Mendiola says:

    One of the Lay Evangelization Program in our Parish is the ‘Catholic Lay Evangelization’ (CLAYE). God placed me there from 2007-2009. Our mission was to go to a poor community and by two’s we go from house to house to visit all the household families and preach. This we do every Saturday and depending on the no. of households, in three months time (the least duration), we celebrate the Holy Eucharist on the last day. After preparing the community, formation of a Basic Ecclesiasticall Community (BEC) follows by another group in our Parish. What you share here Msgr., is truly true. We have bore many fruits as nurtured by God’s mercy. And i will share two lives i’d encountered that were transformed by God: * A desperate young man, whom we have visited during one of our CLAYE Misson. He is very sick and cannot walk well due to a lingering inherited malfunction of his spinal which he got from her mother who died also of the same ailment. At the time we visited him he was so desperate and wants to kill himself. Since then, when he heard the Word of God, the fountain of HOPE sprang to him and he had learned to accept his present condition. We gifted him a Bible so he will always read the Word of God, a Radio that exclusively tune-in to our Catholic Station here, and every Sunday, he is always visited by a Lay Minister from our Parish to administer the Holy Communion. *A young mother who is non-denomination but living-in with man her age who is a Catholic. They already have two children. When she heard the Word of God, she cried and wants to listen more. So even its time for our Mission, my partner in Claye will always visit her even on Sundays. God had touch her heart and she decided to know more of our Faith and to cut the story short, she underwent Catechism for one year, was Baptized, had her first communion and Confirmation. Finally the two became One three years ago. And recently the Couple attended a three days “Marriage Encounter” Seminar. Truly, we can only do the preparation of the soil to make it fertile but God does the nurturing.