The Lord Must Follow the Preacher – A Reminder from St Gregory that the Message Depends on Jesus

090414Yesterday’s feast of St. Gregory provided rich reflections from the great Doctor of the Church. And I supplemented my readings as well by looking over some of his homilies. Frankly, St. Gregory the Great was tough on himself and on preachers and he spoke of the office in lofty and demanding terms. For example he taught,

The lips of the priest are to preserve knowledge, and men shall look to him for the law, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts … That is also the reason why the Lord warns us through Isaiah: Cry out and be not still; raise your voice in a trumpet call. Anyone ordained a priest undertakes the task of preaching, so that with a loud cry he may go on ahead of the terrible judge who follows (Pope Gregory Pastoral Guide).

For yesterday’s Office he also says, Note that a man whom the Lord sends forth as a preacher is called a watchman. A watchman always stands on a height so that he can see from afar what is coming … must stand on a height for all his life to help the people by his foresight (Homily on Ezekiel, 1.11).

I was privileged for the past four days to be with the priests of Burlington, VT, and to be the presenter at their presbyteral days. Among the things we reflected on were these words from Gregory on his feast day.

Another teaching of Pope St. Gregory that struck me is his 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 then 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, though 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 seed of the Word; 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 also helps the preacher to avoid an exaggerated sense of responsibility. For it sometimes happens that a preacher may think too much rests on him, on his eloquence, and on finding just the right analogy or formulae. He may also lament his flaws. 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 to remember that he merely goes before the Lord, and that the Lord will follow after, with every good grace. The preacher must do his part in proclaiming the authentic word of God, but only the Lord can perfect the message in every soul. He must preserve knowledge and prepare the way for the Lord, who will judge the living and the dead, but who also comes in the meantime to the faithful and causes the seed to grow in their hearts.

This is freeing and reassuring. And most of us who preach realize this from time to time when someone 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 to bring forth the fruits that the preacher can only point to.  The Lord causes His truth to shine forth in consolation for the faithful and in judgement for the wicked. The battle is the Lord’s. So is the victory and the harvest.

17 Replies to “The Lord Must Follow the Preacher – A Reminder from St Gregory that the Message Depends on Jesus”

  1. Dear Monsignor Pope:

    Your article on the Al Smith Dinner and the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade was spot on — obviously, from the speed with which its Dormition followed!! I am a Priest of the Brooklyn Diocese and have been a resident of the City of New York my whole life. Both of these “great Catholic civil occasions” occasion heartache among faithful Catholics and sneers and contempt from those hostile to the Church and who recognize pandering when they see it. Many thanks for your rock solid fidelity.
    Fr Wilson

    1. Thank you Monsignor for your article on Sept 4, it was a TRUE breath of fresh air! We need that type of Apostolic courage and faith in this culture of feelings and compromise. You stood for the Lord today and He and we will not forget! We will pray for you! Father, ” Do not be afraid. ” Jesus , have mercy on us! Seat of Wisdom, pray for us! St Joseph, pray for us!

  2. I am truly upset that the article about the Al Smith Dinner and the St. Patrick’s Day Parade has disappeared.
    We are trying to follow Jesus in a very difficult world. His readers rely on his excellent catechesis. I hope Msgr. Pope will continue to let his voice be heard

  3. Dear Monsignor Pope:

    I must echo the sentiments of Fr. Wilson.
    We are all sinners, but hearing solid preaching and reading incisive analysis of issues regarding the Faith challenge us to approach our own faith journeys with fear and trembling .

    Thank you, Monsignor. My wife and I will offer rosaries for you and for all priests. May St. Michael the Archangel defend you in battle and may St. John Vianney intercede for you always.


    1. Amen! Thank you Monsignor. I will pray for you tonight during First Friday Mass. May the Sacred Heart of Jesus reign in our hearts.

  4. Great article! But where is the article from yesterday about the St. Patrick’s Day parade debacle? Msgr. Pope, I felt so alone in my sadness over this awful defeat in our culture (as I did over the falling of the Boy Scouts), but your article helped me realize the solidarity of the faithful, even if we are a small minority, even if we will be persecuted for it. I will put my trust in Jesus, not in princes…even princes of the Church. As GK Chesterton said (I think this is attributed to him), “Hope is the power of being cheerful in circumstances that we know to be desperate.” ¡Viva Christo Rey!

  5. Thank you, Monsignor, for your post on ending the St. Patrick’s Day parade and the Al Smith dinner. I managed to read it on another website after it’s demise here. As a former New Yorker, I agree that we should “Wear the purple of Lent and if there is going to be a procession, let it be Eucharistic and penitential for the sins of this age.”

  6. I am a liitle sheep who craves the leadership and moral clarity you provided in your comments concerning the Al Smith Dinner and St Patricks Day parade. Thank you for keeping faithful to your responsibilty for the salvation of souls despite the persecution it may bring. I hope it will at least serve to assure you that you have taken up your cross and are following Jesus. I will pray for you.


  7. Great post on the parade!!!!!!!!!! Father thank you, thank you, thank you for writing the truth.

  8. Bless you all for your prayers and encouragement. I hope you will understand if I cannot continue to post your comments on the parade article here. I will read them but cannot post them, I will send you an e-mail gratitude.

    I ask your charity and understanding for the Archdiocese of Washington which has always generously sponsored this blog and been supportive of our conversations.

    I also hope you will understand if I cannot explain why it was removed.

    I am a loyal son of the Church and I love my Archdiocese.

    1. Given the Archdiocese’s geography – socially liberal DC and Prince Georges and Montgomery Counties in Maryland – I’m sure the ADW’s decision was made out of prudence. Likely it is out of similar prudence that Cardinal Wuerl has avoided taking a stance on the name of the Washington Football Team. The local intolerance for non-liberal perspectives is one of the reasons my husband and I plan to move out of the area after our daughter goes off to college.

      Despite the removal of the article, the fact remains that there needs to be a discussion about how the Church’s presence at certain events can imply acceptance or approval of the event’s other participants and the behavior they promote. You were – and are – brave to point that out.

  9. Thanks for all of your online insights. Each has something to offer. Today’s is a great model of humility. You have been like the sower who sows the seed. Some has landed on fertile ground. What happens to the rest is not up to you or your other readers.

  10. Good post, Monsignor. When one reads Gregory’s letters, the reader is struck by his charity and genuine humility, but also by his intelligence and practicality.

    Nowadays, Christians often ask themselves “what would Jesus do?”. I would suggest that anyone who plays a pastoral role in the Church should frequently ask themselves “what would Gregory do?”.

  11. This post perfectly captures the beauty the Third Luminous Mystery. It showcases the fact that though not all will like everything you write, The Lord will follow to water the seeds you plant with your sage wisdom.

    May The Lord bless you in your ministry. Thank you for having the courage to speak the Truth that so many don’t want to hear.

  12. Standing on a height – we in The Church are very privileged that we , even the littlest among us, are invited to share the heights with the Holy Father , by spiritually uniting with him, in our prayers ;

    we are doubly blessed that we also have a Pope Emr. who might have been assigned the role of just doing that , in his mighty , hidden manner .

    Think the verse mentioning the theme of praying WITH the Holy Father was in the prayers of the Holy Mass on Feast of St.Gregory .

    Saying the 1 Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory be for the intentions of the Holy Father at the end of the rosary prayers is a rather well known practice , which also carries indulgences – by countering for occasions of not doing one’s share in the work of The Kingdom ;

    praying in spiritual unity with the Pope – unsure if it has been sort of ‘ missed ‘ at an intentional level all these years and if there have been deeper reasons for same !

    There seems to be a sense of comfort and vastness , may be even a deeper trust when praying spiritually WITH the Holy Father , making one even wonder, if one of the deeper reasons for even the existence of Papacy itself is for such a reason and if this could even be The ANTIDOTE for what ails many a heart in our times , hearts that might have gone away from the Father’s house for one reason or another and if such prayers would also counter what threatens us , by helping to bring all to The Lord, through the narrow gate !

    It can even help to sort of purify intentions , giving a sense of freedom from what otherwise might make one wonder about any trace of idolatrous roots .

    Today happens to be also Feast Day of Bl.Mo.Teresa a beloved of St.John Paul 11 ;

    praying with the Holy Fathers , the holy saints ,including St.Patrick and holy leaders – may we be blessed with many such moments, to help bring freedom through deliverance , in the Name of Jesus , by the two edged sword of The Spirit , for hearts and minds and bodies that are afflicted by that which is not of The Lord ; thank you all for prayers !

  13. Mgr. Pope,

    I hope you have not gone away. I have been reading your articles for years. They are so encouraging and so true! Please start your own website somewhere else where articles can be written without fear of retribution.

    I always tell people, where have all the good priests gone. We need you. Do not leave us out there.

    Thank you, and God bless!

  14. I really loved reading today’s blog. The humility to ‘be a watcher who stands on the hillside and sees what is coming’ and ‘makes a way for Him who rises above the sunset’. In the end we must all give way to the true Sun who will flood this world with His truth and crush the darkness that cannot prevail when true light comes. Every once in a while a courageous voice ‘crying in the wilderness’ who is not a ‘broken reed’ but one who withstands the turbulent winds will give us courage to continue to withstand the onslaught of the wind that ‘those who have eyes to see’ know is coming. It is nice to have that voice once in awhile that states the obvious even when it bring rancorous responses from those who do not want anyone to talk about what the priest sees over the hilltop. Little matter, because as you state today, Christ is coming and will enlighten us with the Spirit. Each of us must stand firm in our knowledge of the truth and let the wind blow around us and preach with our bodies if not with our words. Christ is still there and in his perfect time we will see His glory. Thank you for your tremendous humility. It inspires us to continue.

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