Knowing the Bad News Unlocks the Good News

Christ in the House of Simon, Dirk Bouts (1440)

Some people suggest that the Church should speak less of sin and instead emphasize positive things. After all, it is said that one can attract more flies with honey than with vinegar. In that vein, we in the Church have been collectively de-emphasizing sin to a large degree for decades, and yet our churches have been getting emptier and emptier. Maybe this is because people are just a little more complicated than the flies in the old saying.

In the Gospel for Thursday of this week (the 24th week in Ordinary Time), Jesus provides the reason our churches are getting emptier. Simply put, there is less love. He says, But the one to whom little is forgiven loves little (Luke 7:47).

Why is this? We love little because we have little appreciation for what the Lord has done for us and for the debt He paid on our behalf. And why is that? Because our debt of sin is no longer preached about the way it should be and thus we are less aware of the gravity of our condition. This diminishes love, and a lack of love leads to neglect and absence.

Understanding sin is essential to fully comprehending what the Lord has done for us. Remembering what the Lord has done for us brings gratitude and love. Again, to those who want the Church to de-emphasize sin, Jesus provides this warning: But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little (Luke 7:47).

Let’s take a brief look at Thursday’s Gospel:

A Pharisee invited Jesus to dine with him, and he entered the Pharisee’s house and reclined at table. Now there was a sinful woman in the city who learned that he was at table in the house of the Pharisee. Bringing an alabaster flask of ointment, she stood behind him at his feet weeping and began to bathe his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with the ointment. When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, that she is a sinner.”

Here is a woman imbued with sorrow for her sins and joy at the Lord’s mercy. The Pharisee’s exasperation is born out of blindness to his own sin. Being blind in this way, his heart is ill-equipped to love or even to experience love. He has no sense at all that he even needs it. His sense is that he has earned God’s love and that God somehow owes him! The Pharisee’s only hope is grace, love, and mercy from God.

Jesus said to him in reply, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Tell me, teacher,” he said. “Two people were in debt to a certain creditor; one owed five hundred days’ wages and the other owed fifty. Since they were unable to repay the debt, he forgave it for both. Which of them will love him more?” Simon said in reply, “The one, I suppose, whose larger debt was forgiven.” He said to him, “You have judged rightly.”

The central point of this Gospel is that to appreciate the glory of the good news we must first lay hold of the bad news. We must grasp the depths of our sinfulness in order to appreciate the height of God’s love and mercy.

In this “I’m OK; you’re OK,” world, there is little understanding of the enormity of sin and thus little appreciation for the glory of God’s steadfast love and mercy.

Jesus could not be clearer. Until we recognize the “bill” for our sins and grasp that we cannot even come close to paying it, we will make light of mercy and consider the gift of salvation that was earned for us with His blood as of little or no account.

How tragic it is, then, that many in the Church have either stopped preaching about sin or preach only about selected sins. The effect has been to minimize love and to empty our churches. Knowledge of our sin, if such knowledge is of the Holy Spirit, leads to love. In this Gospel, Jesus points to the woman as a picture of what is necessary.

On the Length of the Homily

During a recent day trip to Sicily, Pope Francis said that homilies should not last more than 8 minutes and that the entire Mass should be completed within 40 (although he may have been exaggerating on this second point). He has said similar things before.

He is entitled to his opinion, of course, but I disagree. No sweeping generalization about sermon length is necessary. There are cultural and even local differences that come into play. In my own parish I offer two rather brief masses, on Saturday and Sunday evenings, that are about 45 minutes long; our Sunday morning liturgies are a good bit longer. Our choir Mass lasts 90 minutes and those that come seem to enjoy it immensely. They say they are enriched in the extended worship of God and appreciate a longer sermon that explores the proclaimed word more thoroughly. It is a tradition here. In many parts of Africa liturgies can last upwards of three hours!

I will grant that no one wants to hear a long homily that contains only 5 minutes of content, but there are forms of preaching that teach out of the sacred text and delve deeply into its meaning and application to our lives—and this takes more than 8 minutes! There are some Catholics in this country who admire Protestant preaching because it typically features a rich message and makes it relevant to everyday life. For the record, though, most Protestant sermons are about 30 minutes long.

At some point, Catholics need to decide what they want in a homily: a short “thought for the day” reflection or something more substantial, which takes more time. Maybe we should offer them such options.

My deeper concern in the demand for briefer sermons and shorter Masses is that today we are in desperate need of liturgies that are more than perfunctory. In a world as secular and hostile as ours we need more prayer and instruction than ever! There are 168 hours in a week; removing time for sleep, that leaves more than 100 waking hours. How does 8 minutes of instruction and less than an hour of worship in total stack up against all those other hours, many of them filled with things that are downright poisonous to the faith?

Rather than simply focusing on length, perhaps it would be better to speak to effective and compelling liturgy and preaching. There are many fine preachers, Catholic and Protestant. It is well within the realm of human ability to preach powerfully, and it is my experience that God’s people will gladly listen to a good sermon even if it is considerably longer than 8 minutes.

In my mind, an 8 minutes ceiling is just too limiting. (There are times when brevity is required for good reason; for example, I have given 3-minute sermons as part of 30-minute televised Masses for shut-ins.) One might hope that the Pope, who sits atop a worldwide Church, would recognize the diverse situations and preferences that exist rather than suggest such a general, restrictive notion.

For the record, the homily Pope Francis gave following his remarks about brief sermons was 17 minutes long—not a bad length for a Sunday homily!

Poor Preaching Isn’t Only Due to the Preacher – A Homily For the 14th Sunday of the Year

The gospel today portrays the Lord Jesus as preacher and prophet, but even the greatest preacher in the world, Jesus, can find His powerful and precious words falling lifeless on the rock-hard surface of many a soul. Yes, even His words can meet with resistance and hostility, indifference and ridicule. Indeed, the gospel today shows the ruinous result of rejection.

My formal homily notes begin with the red text below, but first I’d like to provide some background reflections that may prove helpful.

We sometimes think that if only Catholic priests were better preachers, all would be well, but that is only half the battle. The Catholic faithful must also have ears to hear and hearts that are open and eager to receive the truth. A well-known preacher and fine Protestant teacher, William Barclay, has this to say:

There can be no preaching in the wrong atmosphere. Our churches would be different places if congregations would only remember that they preach far more than half the sermon. In an atmosphere of expectancy, the poorest effort can catch fire. In an atmosphere of critical coldness or bland indifference the most spirit-packed utterance can fall lifeless to the earth (Commentary on Mark, p. 140).

Yes, of this I am a witness. I have preached before congregations that were expectant and supportive, and saw my feeble words catch fire. I have also preached in settings where “I couldn’t hear nobody pray.” And oh, the difference!

I have been blessed to serve most of my priesthood in African-American parishes, where there is a deep appreciation that the preaching moment is a shared one, with shared responsibilities. The congregation does not consider itself a passive recipient of the Word, but rather an active sharer in the proclamation.

There is an air of expectancy as the faithful gather and listen and begin to sing and pray. This air of expectancy is sometimes called “the hum.” During the reading of the Word and the sermon there are nods. Hands may go up, a foot may stomp, and an acclamation or two fill the air: Amen! Yes, Lord! Go on now! Take your time! Make it plain, preacher! You don’t need to tell me! My, my, my!

As a preacher, I too can call for help: Are you praying with me Church? Somebody ought to say, Amen! Come on, can I get a witness? It’s kinda quiet in here today; can I get an Amen? Yes, together we craft the message, as inspired by the Holy Spirit. While it belongs to the priest to craft the content, it belongs to the congregation to affirm the truth and acknowledge the Spirit through prayerful attention and support.

The preaching task is both precious and necessary, but it involves more than just the preacher.

Before delving into the text of today’s gospel, I’d like to share a few more insights from Pope St. Gregory the Great.

First, on the obligation of the preacher and the solemnity of his task:

Pastors who lack foresight hesitate to say openly what is right because they fear losing the favor of men. As the voice of truth tells us, such leaders are not zealous pastors who protect their flocks, rather they are like mercenaries who flee by taking refuge in silence when the wolf appears. The Lord reproaches them through the prophet: “They are dumb dogs that cannot bark.” On another occasion he complains, “You did not advance against the foe or set up a wall in front of the house of Israel, so that you might stand fast in battle on the day of the Lord.” To advance against the foe involves a bold resistance to the powers of this world in defense of the flock. To stand fast in battle on the day of the Lord means to oppose the wicked enemy out of love for what is right.

When a pastor has been afraid to assert what is right, has he not turned his back and fled by remaining silent? Whereas if he intervenes on behalf of the flock, he sets up a wall against the enemy in front of the house of Israel. … [But] they [who] are afraid to reproach men for their faults … thereby lull the evildoer with an empty promise of safety. Because [such preachers] fear reproach, they keep silent and fail to point out the sinner’s wrongdoing.

The word of reproach is a key that unlocks a door, because reproach reveals a fault of which the evildoer is himself often unaware. That is why Paul says of the bishop, He must be able to encourage men in sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it. For the same reason God tells us through Malachi, 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. Finally, 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. If, then, a priest does not know how to preach, what kind of cry can such a dumb herald utter? It was to bring this home that the Holy Spirit descended in the form of tongues on the first pastors, for he causes those whom he has filled, to speak out spontaneously [Gregory the Great, Pastoral Guide].

Second, on the reason for poor preaching:

Beloved brothers, consider what has been said: Pray the Lord of the harvest to send laborers into his harvest. Pray for us so that we may have the strength to work on your behalf, that our tongue may not grow weary of exhortation, and that after we have accepted the office of preaching, our silence may not condemn us before the just judge.

For frequently the preacher’s tongue is bound fast on account of his own wickedness; while on the other hand it sometimes happens that because of the people’s sins, the word of preaching is withdrawn from those who preside over the assembly.

With reference to the wickedness of the preacher, the psalmist says: But God asks the sinner: Why do you recite my commandments? And with reference to the latter, the Lord tells Ezekiel: I will make your tongue cleave to the roof of your mouth, so that you shall be dumb and unable to reprove them, for they are a rebellious house. He clearly means this: the word of preaching will be taken away from you because as long as this people irritates me by their deeds, they are unworthy to hear the exhortation of truth. It is not easy to know for whose sinfulness the preacher’s word is withheld, but it is indisputable that the shepherd’s silence while often injurious to himself will always harm his flock [Ibid].

Note well, then, the shared responsibility of the preacher and the people. Let these texts serve as a worthy background to what is now to come in today’s gospel, which we can see in three stages.

I.  Real Rejoicing The text says, Jesus departed from there and came to his native place, accompanied by his disciples. When the sabbath came he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What kind of wisdom has been given him? What mighty deeds are wrought by his hands!”

Thus, the initial reaction of Jesus’ hometown crowd is positive. They are filled with amazement and joy. The text sets forth two sources of their joy:

His wise words – Many who heard him were astonished. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What kind of wisdom has been given him?” Yes, what a blessing it must have been to hear Jesus preach. And boy, could Jesus preach! Scripture says of His preaching,

  • And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes (Mat 7:28).
  • Sent to arrest him the temple guard returned empty handed saying: No one ever spoke like that man (Jn 7:46).
  • And all spoke well of him, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth (Luke 4:22).
  • And the common people heard him gladly (Mark 12:37).

His wonderful works – They also say, “What mighty deeds are wrought by his hands!” Yes, Jesus had worked many miracles up to this point. He had

  • cast out demons,
  • turned water to wine,
  • raised up paralytics,
  • cured the man with a withered hand,
  • cast out blindness,
  • healed deafness,
  • multiplied loaves and fishes,
  • calmed storms, and
  • raised up Jairus’ daughter from the dead.

And so we see that the initial reaction to Jesus preaching is good. Their remarks and rejoicing are a sign that the Spirit is working and prompting them to belief.

Things are about to turn sour, however. The Word of God can fall on the rocky soil of hearts, where it springs up but soon withers because the soil is so shallow. Or His Word can be sown on the paths of hearts where the birds of the sky come and carry it off. Or the Word of the Lord can fall on divided hearts, where the thorns of worldliness and the anxieties of the world choke it off. And sometimes it falls on good soil, where it yields thirty, sixty, or a hundred-fold (cf Matt 13:1-9).

II. Rude Rejection – The text says, [But some began to say] Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary, and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.

Notice how sudden their change is. There is an old spiritual that says, “Some go to church for to sing and shout, before six months they’s all turned out!”

They harden their hearts. Yes, the tide mysteriously and suddenly turns against Jesus. Sin has set in and hearts have hardened; the joy has been jettisoned. Though the Holy Spirit prompts them to faith and to call Jesus, “Lord,” they harden their hearts. It is a grim and tragic sin.

They also exhibit a kind of prejudice or unjust discrimination, dismissing Jesus as a mere carpenter and a “hometown boy.” It is odd that the poor and oppressed sometimes take up the voice of the oppressor. Thus, these simple people from a small town of only 300 take up the voice of the Jerusalemites, who regarded Galileans as “poor backwoods clowns” and as unlettered people. Yes, Jesus’ own townsfolk take up the voice of the oppressor and say to Him, in effect, “Stay in your place. You have no business being smart, talented, wise, or great. You’re just one of us and should amount to nothing.” It is the same sort of tragic rebuke that sometimes takes place among minority students who excel in school, when some of their fellow minority students accuse them of “going white.” It’s tragic.

They also exhibit the sin of envy. Envy is sadness or anger at the goodness or excellence of another person because we take it as diminishing our own. The text says, And they took offense at him. St. Augustine called envy the diabolical sin. This is because it seeks not to possess the good of another (as jealousy does), but rather to destroy what is good in others so that the destroyer can look better.

The result of these sins was that Nazareth was not a place where excellence was known, even among its own! Indeed, John 1:46 records Nathanael saying of Nazareth, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” It would seem that even the townsfolk of Nazareth would agree! (But Philip, who surrendered his prejudice, said to Nathanael, “Come and see.”)

But an even more awful result of these sins ensues.

III. Ruinous Result – The text says, Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his native place and among his own kin and in his own house.” So he was not able to perform any mighty deed there, apart from curing a few sick people by laying hands on them. He was amazed at their lack of faith.

Because they judge Him to be nothing, they get nothing. They have blocked their blessings.

Jesus says, He who receives a prophet because he is a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward, and he who receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward (Mat 10:41). When we banish or discredit God, however, we should not expect to see many of His works. These things come only from faith.

Miracles are the result of faith, not the cause of it. Thus, the text says, So [Jesus] was not able to perform any mighty deed there … He was amazed at their lack of faith.

There are some things that even God can’t do, not because He lacks the power but because He respects our choices. Pay attention. The Lord is offering us salvation and the Kingdom of Heaven. Either we reach out to take it or we don’t, but the choice is ours. If we take it, He’ll go to work, but if we refuse, He respects our freedom and will “not be able” to perform any mighty deeds.

What a ruinous result for Nazareth and for all who reject the prophetic utterances of our Lord and His saving help. Scripture says,

I am the LORD your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it. “But my people did not listen to my voice; Israel would have none of me. So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts, to follow their own counsels. O that my people would listen to me, that Israel would walk in my ways! I would soon subdue their enemies, and turn my hand against their foes. Those who hate the LORD would cringe toward him, and their fate would last for ever. I would feed you with the finest of the wheat, and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you” (Psalm 81:10-16).

Either we accept God’s word and yield to its healing and saving power or we can expect little or nothing but ultimate ruin. It is as if we are in a raging stream heading toward the falls and almost certain death, but then a hand is stretched out to save us—the hand of Jesus. Mysteriously, we reject that hand and ridicule its power. The ruinous result of our hideous and foolish rejection is our death. The text says, He was amazed at their lack of faith.

Pay attention! God is preaching the Word to you every Sunday—every day, in fact. Will you heed and be healed? Will you receive and be rescued? Or will you reject and be ruined? Will the Lord be able to do mighty deeds for you? Or will He be amazed at your lack of faith? The choice is yours; it is all yours.

What of our nation, once steeped in the Word of God? The Founding Fathers once wove Scripture freely into their discourse, but in recent decades a hostile secularism has insisted on marginalizing all references to God and scoffing at biblical morality. They talk “tolerance” yet file lawsuits against those who would dare speak of God, display a nativity, or call something a sin. There is no room in this post to present statistics that show our blessings ebbing away, but it is clear that as our families disintegrate, a nation that once led the world in almost every respect is now well back in the pack and fading fast. To forsake the preaching of Christ though His Scripture and His Church is to forfeit blessings. He can work no miracles here because of our lack of faith.

Even Jesus can have a bad day in the pulpit, but it is not really His bad day—it is ours. If we sinfully reject the Word of God, it is we who will forfeit blessings and miracles because of our lack of faith.

The Ancient Biblical Sermons Break All the Modern Rules – Maybe the Rules Should Be Re-Examined

The first reading from last Sunday’s Mass features an excerpt from St. Peter’s first sermon. The contents of the sermon are very similar to others recorded in the Acts of the Apostles by Saints Paul and Stephen. What is interesting is that these ancient sermons break almost every rule (written and unwritten) of modern preaching! Consider the clip from yesterday and not the areas highlighted in red:

Peter said to the people:
“The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,
the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus,

whom you handed over and denied in Pilate’s presence
when he had decided to release him.
You denied the Holy and Righteous One
and you asked that a murderer be released to you.
The author of life you put to death,
but God raised him from the dead; of this we are witnesses.
Now I know, brothers,
that
you acted out of ignorance, just as your leaders did;
but God has thus brought to fulfillment
what he had announced beforehand
through the mouth of all the prophets,
that his Christ would suffer.
Repent, therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be wiped away.” (Acts 3:13-19)

Apparently, St. Peter never got the memo that no invective is ever to be used, that it is a bad idea to use “you” instead of “we” and “us,” that suggesting people are ignorant or even acting in ignorance is insensitive and demeaning, that instead of telling people to repent of their sins and be converted they should be affirmed and welcomed. Peter accuses them of unjustly handing over one who was holy and righteous and preferring a murderer to Him. They were too dull or ignorant to accept rather than deny the Lord’s testimony; they put to death the very author of life.

St. Stephen does something similar:

You stiff-necked people with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit, just as your fathers did. Which of the prophets did your fathers fail to persecute? They even killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One. And now you are His betrayers and murderers— you who have received the Law ordained by angels yet have not kept it (Acts 7:51-53).

Jesus spared His listeners little when describing their sinful drives:

The Jewish people gathered in the Temple area said to Jesus, “We are not illegitimate children,” they declared. “Our only Father is God Himself.” Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love Me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on My own, but He sent Me. … You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out his desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, refusing to uphold the truth …. The One who glorifies Me is My Father, of whom you say, ‘He is our God.’ You do not know Him, but I know Him. If I said I did not know Him, I would be a liar like you. But I do know Him, and I keep His word” (John 8:40ff).

Yikes! Such fire-breathing preachers would never pass modern preaching class let alone be ordained in a modern seminary setting. Yet Peter’s sermon drew 3,000 converts and Stephen, though stoned for what he said, snared (or at least prepared) a pretty important convert: Saul of Tarsus. Jesus of course has had billions of converts!

There is an old preacher’s joke that says, “Peter preached one sermon and got 3,000 converts. I have preached 3,000 sermons and have not gotten one convert.” These ancient sermons and evangelizing tactics might not be in line modern notions, but they produced abundant fruit.

To be sure, cultural norms should not be wholly ignored. We live in times where “sensitivity” is insisted upon. Although I would argue that we have become far too thin-skinned, simply defying the current cultural norms may not be a great strategy in the short term.

In the long run, good preaching should mold culture and cultural expectations. We who would preach should have a role in reintroducing the biblical concepts that are often lost today. We need to reacquaint people with truths and realities. We must bring back words that have been lost: death, judgment, Hell, sin (venial and mortal), repentance, conversion, accountability, and consequences. We must move from mere abstractions and generalities and speak clearly to the moral issues of our day: abortion, physician-assisted suicide, fornication, adultery, homosexual acts, pornography, greed, unforgiveness, envy, deceit, and malice.

In my own experience, people are at first surprised—even shocked—to hear of these things again after a long absence, but they adjust quickly. Many are even glad to hear clarity from the pulpit again. Speaking to sin is the bad news that points to the good news and renders it even better. If we don’t know the bad news, the good news is no news.

The kerygma (preaching content and style) of the early Church is often overanalyzed. Its basic message is quite simple:

“You’ve got it bad and that ain’t good, but there’s a doctor in the house and His name is Jesus. He is the longed-for Messiah and Lord. If you will admit your need and invite Him into your life through faith and the sacraments, He will go to work and save you from the mess you are and the mess you have made!”

The earliest sermons honestly, even colorfully, laid out our miserable state. Even we who like to think we’re “good people” do some foolish and sinful things. We can be obtuse; we can have the wrong priorities. We can be just plain mean at the drop of a hat. We do have it bad, and deep down we know this and that it “ain’t good.” In that state, the mercy of the Lord can seem glorious and the medicine of word and sacrament can be precious.

Yes, the ancient sermons break all the modern rules. Perhaps you notice, though, that they were at the helm of a growing Church, and in contrast, we are suffering steady erosion. Despite our claims to be relevant, sensitive, and welcoming, we fail to connect with people and keep them. Many do not find our message compelling, relevant, or helpful. Maybe the ancients knew something that we have forgotten: “If you don’t know the bad news, the good news is no news.”

Priests, Parents, and Leaders: Take Heart!

Today I would like to present excerpts from the stirring sermon “On Pastors,” delivered by St. Augustine to the priests and people of Hippo. Although it is directed to priests, I hope that parents and leaders in general might also take courage from it.

In times like these we must all be reminded of the need to preach the Word of God even if we are reviled and our very proclamation of love is labeled “hate speech.” This is not new; St. Augustine calls us to be resolute and to preach the Word of God in season and out of season. Augustine’s words are shown in bold, while my commentary is in plain text.

[The Lord says:] The straying sheep you have not recalled; the lost sheep you have not sought. In one way or another, we go on living between the hands of robbers and the teeth of raging wolves. … The sheep moreover are insolent. … And in light of these present dangers we ask your prayers [From a sermon on pastors by St. Augustine, Bishop (Sermon 46, 14-15: CCL 41, 541-542)].

Whatever the specifics of St. Augustine’s era, today’s clergy and parents have the difficult task of presiding over a flock or family that on one side is pursued by the raging wolf of hostile and scoffing secularism, and on the other is being robbed of strength and clarity by dissension from within, even up to the highest levels in the Church. While a hostile world is to be expected, internal dissension is most lamentable and even more painful. This is especially the case today.

In contentious times such as ours, as the poison of the world infects the flock, some of God’s own people begin to take up the voice and demeanor of the wolf. In certain times and places, someone who strives to disclose the errors of the world will often be resisted and scorned, referred to as intolerant or hateful. A priest may be called out-of-touch or be discounted as “too political.” Some may even walk out as he preaches about controversial issues that are referred to as political, but are in fact moral: abortion, euthanasia, same-sex “marriage,” and so forth. Others may write letters to the bishop criticizing him. While the scoffing of the world is expected, the insolence of the flock is very discouraging.

Thus St. Augustine says here, “We ask your prayers.” Some priests can fall prey to hostility in sinful ways. Some may give way to anger, which can infect evangelical joy. They will engage in mere argumentation and resort to indiscriminate sermonizing. They go from being the Church militant to the Church belligerent.

More common, and usually deadlier, is when a priest reacts by withdrawing from the battlefield altogether, no longer preaching on any topic considered controversial. He does not seek to correct the straying sheep because it might make them angry; he is not willing to bear the emotional burden of this resistance or to brave the stormy waters of controversy to call to them.

Silent pulpits are all too common today. A priest who is silent from the pulpit may tell himself that he is protecting his people’s feelings by not upsetting anyone. In reality, though, he comes to resemble the false shepherds denounced by Jesus, the ones who do not really care for their sheep but rather run when the wolf approaches.

The effect on the flock (and the world) is devastating because Catholics, who are called to be light in the darkness, have come to resemble the darkness. Catholics have become indistinguishable from the general populace in terms of our views on the most critical moral issues of our times. Even Catholics who have not caved in to all aspects of the cultural revolution are often ill-prepared to make a defense for the hope and truth that is in them.

Augustine calls some of the sheep “insolent.” The Latin root of the word lends it the meaning of being unaccustomed to something. Thus one who is insolent scoffs at what he does not understand. The straying sheep are often insolent as a result of poor catechesis.

Ignorance of the faith in the pews, along with pressure from a culture that loudly and effectively proclaims its own views, presents an enormous challenge to pastors. Without persistence and fortitude, many of our clergy can become resigned to mediocrity and inaction.

Augustine continues on to set forth a model of a shepherd’s heart for his sheep (especially the straying ones) that all clergy should emulate.

The shepherd seeks out the straying sheep, but because they have wandered away and are lost they say that they are not ours. “Why do you want us? Why do you seek us?” they ask, as if their straying and being lost were not the very reason for our wanting them and seeking them out. “If I am straying,” he says, “if I am lost, why do you want me?” You are straying, that is why I wish to recall you. You have been lost, I wish to find you. “But I wish to stray,” he says, “I wish to be lost.”

If, with the help of others, a good priest seeks out the lost, the confused, and the broken, still many will say that they are not ours or that we should leave them alone. Others will say, “If you don’t approve of what I do and you think of me as lost and a sinner, why do you want me?” But it is precisely because they are lost that we seek them.

Our disapproval of sin (regardless of how others choose to interpret it) is no different than a doctor’s disapproval of toxic behavior that can lead to cancer; he will caution us to avoid such behavior and to come to him for healing if the cancer has already set in.

Sadly, many today base their fundamental identity on sinful behaviors; they interpret our searching for them as an offense rather than as an act of loving concern.

St. Augustine captures their attitude well: “But I wish to stray, I wish to be lost.” He then he presents an answer that summons us to perseverance:

So you wish to stray and be lost? How much better that I do not also wish this. Certainly, I dare say, I am unwelcome. But I listen to the Apostle who says, “Preach the word; insist upon it, welcome and unwelcome.” … I dare to say, “You wish to stray, you wish to be lost; but I do not want this.” For the one whom I fear does not wish this. And should I wish it, consider his words of reproach: “The straying sheep you have not recalled; the lost sheep you have not sought.” Shall I fear you rather than him? Remember, we must all present ourselves before the judgment seat of Christ.

This is a powerful reminder to every priest and every Christian. Do not lose your zeal for souls. Do not give up. Preach until the day you die, whether your words are welcomed or not.

Even if you should lose your zeal, never forget that the Lord has not lost His. We will all report to Him one day to render an account of our lives. Priests, above all, must be stirred to zeal. If our own love for God and for souls should flag, at least let a holy fear of the day of judgment move us!

Love is the better motive, but failing that, may we be moved by the fear of the Lord and of the day we shall be called to account for our ministry. Further, we must not fear the anger of men more than the indignation of God should we fail Him in the goal for which He ordained us.

Steeled and motivated by this, Augustine concludes with a stirring summons to resolve:

I shall recall the straying; I shall seek the lost. Whether they wish it or not, I shall do it. And should the brambles of the forests tear at me when I seek them, I shall force myself through all straits; I shall put down all hedges. So far as the God whom I fear grants me the strength, I shall search everywhere. I shall recall the straying; I shall seek after those on the verge of being lost.

Amen. Stir in us, O Lord, a zeal for souls. Give us your own love and strength. May we desire souls with your very desire for them. Priests, parents, and leaders: Take heart and be courageous lovers of souls!

To Teach as Jesus Taught – A Reflection on the Qualities of Jesus as Preacher and Teacher

blog.8.31As a priest I am called to preach and teach, and as such I must look to Jesus Christ as my model. In this I refer to the real Jesus of Scripture. Too many people today have refashioned Jesus into a sort of “harmless hippie,” an affable affirmer, a pleasant sort of fellow who healed the sick, blessed the poor, and talked about love but in a very fuzzy and “anything goes” manner. But absent from this image is the prophetic Jesus, who accepted no compromise and called out the hypocrisy in many of His day.

Thus I must look to the real Jesus of Scripture. The real Jesus clearly loved God’s people, but on account of that love could not suffer some limited notion of salvation and healing for them. Rather, He zealously insisted that they receive the whole counsel of God. He insisted that dignity for them that was nothing less than the perfection of God Himself (cf Mat 5:41).

As a teacher, Jesus often operated in the mode of the prophets. Prophets have a way of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. Truth be told, we are all in both categories. We must be able to accept the Jesus who one moment says, “Blessed are you,” and the next adds, “Woe to you.” Jesus the teacher and prophet will affirm whatever truth there is in us, but, like any good teacher, He will put a large red “X” beside our wrongful answers and thoughts.

Yet despite Jesus’ often fiery and provocative stance, the scriptures speak of his renown as a preacher and the eagerness with which many heard Him.

And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes (Mat 7:28).

Sent to arrest him the temple guard returned empty handed saying: No one ever spoke like that man (Jn 7:46).

And all spoke well of him, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth (Luke 4:22).

And the common people heard him gladly (Mark 12:37).

But even Jesus could have a bad day in the pulpit. In Nazareth, they tried to throw him off a cliff for suggesting that Gentiles might have a place in the Kingdom (Lk 4:29). In Capernaum, many left him and would not follow him any longer because of His teaching on the Eucharist (Jn 6:66). In Jerusalem, the crowd said that He had a demon because He called Himself “I AM” (Jn 8:48). And thus Jesus warns all who would teach and preach: Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets (Lk 6:26).

And thus Jesus was a complex preacher and teacher. He was no mere affirmer; He often unsettled and troubled people, even as He consoled and comforted at other times.

Let’s consider some of the qualities of Jesus as a teacher and ponder the sort of balance that He manifests. It is a balance between His love for us, His students, and His zeal to tolerate no lasting imperfection or error in the pupils whom He loves too much to deceive. These qualities of Jesus as a teacher are presented in no particular order. Some are “positive” in the sense of being aspects of His kindness and patience. Others are “negative” in the sense that they illustrate His refusal to accept anything less than final perfection in us.

I. His authority – The Scriptures often speak of the “authority” with which Jesus taught. For example, Scripture says of Jesus, he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law (Mat 7:29). For indeed the teachers of Jesus’ time played it safe, quoting only reputable authorities in a wooden sort of way. But Jesus taught with authority.

The Greek word translated as “authority” is exousia, meaning to teach out of (one’s own) substance, to speak to the substance of what is taught. Jesus would often say, “You have heard that is was said … But I say to you” (cf Mat 5 inter al). And so Jesus spoke from His experience of knowing His Father and of knowing and cherishing the Law and its truth in His own life. He brought a personal weight to what He said. He “knew” of what He spoke; He did not merely know “about” it.

This personal authority was compelling and, even today, those with this gift stand apart from those who merely preach and teach the “safe” maxims of others but do not add their own experience to the truth that they proclaim. Jesus personally bore witness in His own life to the truth He proclaimed; and people noticed the difference.

How about you? You and I are called to speak out of the experience of the Lord in our own life and to be able to say with authority, “Everything that the Lord and His Body, the Church, have declared is true because, in the laboratory of my own life, I have tested it and come to experience it as true and transformative!”

II. His witness – A witness recounts what he has seen and heard with his own eyes and ears, what he himself knows and has experienced. Jesus could say to the Jews of his time, If I were to say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and I keep his word (Jn 8:55). He thus attests to what he personally knows. He is not just reciting facts that others have said.

In a courtroom, a witness must attest to what he has seen and heard for himself. If he merely recounts what others have said it is “hearsay.” A witness can raise his right hand and say, “It is true, and I will swear to it. I have seen it for myself.”

And thus Jesus could witness to what He had heard and seen, of His Father and of us.

It is true that we cannot witness immediately to all that Jesus could, for He had lived with the Father from all eternity. But, as we make our walk, we can speak to what the Lord has done in our life and how we have come to know Him in conformity with His revealed. Word.

III. His respect for others – The Latin root of the word “respect” gives it the meaning “look again” (re (again) + spectare (to look)). Frequently in Scripture, especially in Mark’s Gospel, there appears the phrase, “Jesus looked at them and said …”

In other words, Jesus was not merely issuing dictates to an unknown, faceless crowd. He looked at them; and He looks at you and me as well. It is a personal look, a look that seeks to engage you and me in a very personal way. He is speaking to you, to me. His teaching in not merely for an ancient crowd; it is for you and for me. He looks to you, and He looks again. Are you looking? Are you listening?

Do you look with respect to those whom you are called to teach, or to the children you are called to raise? Do you engage them by your look of respect and love?

IV. His love and patience for sinners – Jesus could be very tough, even exhibiting impatience. But in the end, He is willing to stay with us in a long conversation. One text says, When Jesus went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them at great length (Mk 6:34). Yes, He teaches us at great length; He stays in long conversations with us. He knows that we are dull of mind and hard of heart, so He persistently and consistently teaches.

Do we do that? Or do we quickly write people off? Jesus had a long conversation with a Samaritan woman who, frankly, was quite rude to Him at first (John 4). He had a long conversation with Nicodemus, who was also at times resistant and argumentative (Jn 3). He had a long conversation with His Apostles, who were slow and inept.

How about us? Are we willing to experience the opposition of sinners, the resistance of the fleshly and worldly? Do we have love and patience for those whom we teach? I have met some great Catholics who were once enemies of the Faith. Someone stayed in a conversation with them. What about us?

V. His capacity to afflict and console – Jesus said, “Blessed are you,” but just as often said “Woe to you.” Jesus comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable. All of us fall into both categories. We need comfort but are often too comfortable in our sins. A true prophet fears no man and speaks to the truth of God.

Thus for a true prophet (as Jesus was) there are no permanent allies to please and no permanent enemies to oppose. The determination of every moment is based on conformity or lack of conformity to the truth of God. Jesus said to Peter, “Blessed are you, Simon bar Jonah” (Mat 16:17). And He gave him the keys to the Kingdom and the power to bind and loose. But in the very next passage, Jesus says to him, “Get behind me, Satan!” (Mat 16:23)

No true prophet or teacher can say, “Correct,” or “Blessed are you” every moment, because we all fall short of the glory of God! Jesus had absolute integrity when it came to assessing everything by the stand of God’s truth and Word. Do we?

VI. His parables – Stories are an important way to teach. A story that registers with us will rarely be forgotten. It is said that Jesus used more than 45 parables; some are full stories while others are just brief images. He used parables to link His sometimes complex teaching to everyday life and to plant a seed of truth for our further reflection.

What stories and examples do you use? Teachings that consistently fail to make use of these risk being seen as merely abstract and can easily be forgotten.

That said, parables are somewhat like “riddles.” They admit of various understandings and interpretations. A good parable leaves its listener wanting more, seeking a definitive interpretation.

For example, a movie will sometimes have an ambiguous ending, stirring hopes for a sequel that will provide more information. Some stories and parables are compact and definitive. Others are open-ended and ambiguous, craving for an ending.

Consider that the parable of the Prodigal Son is not really finished. It ends with the Father pleading for the second son to enter the feast. Does the son enter, or refuse to do so? This detail is not supplied. That’s because you are the son and you have to supply the answer. Will you enter? Or will you stay outside sulking that if the kingdom of Heaven includes people you don’t like you’d just as soon stay outside.

Parables are powerful, but for various reasons. Learn stories and learn to share them!

VII. His questions – Jesus asked well over a hundred questions in the gospel. Here are just a few: “What did you go out to the dessert to see? “Why do you trouble the woman?” “How many loaves do you have?” “Do you say this of me on your own, or have others told you of me?”

Good teachers ask questions and do not rush to answer every question. A question is pregnant with meaning; it invites a search. The “Socratic method” uses questions to get to the truth, especially on a personal level: “Why do you ask that? “What do you mean by this?” “Do you think there are any distinctions needed in your claim?”

This method makes a person look inward to his attitudes, prejudices, and presumptions. Good teachers ask their students a lot of questions; questions make us think.

Here is a list of one hundred Questions that Jesus asked: 100 Questions Jesus Asked. Read them; they will make you think—a lot!

VIII. His use of “focal instances” – Jesus does not propose to cover every moral situation a person might encounter or teach every doctrinal truth in an afternoon.

For example, many today say that Jesus never mentioned homosexual acts and concludefrom His silence that He must therefore approve of them. Really? He also never mentioned rape. Do you suppose that He approves of rape? Further, He did speak of homosexual acts, through His appointed spokesmen (the Apostles), and thereby condemned them.

But no teacher can cover every possibility, every sin, or every scenario. So Jesus uses “focal instances,” in which He illustrates a principle.

This is most commonly done in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) where, to illustrate the principle that we are to fulfill the law and not merely keep its minimal requirements, He uses six examples or “focal instances.” He speaks to anger, lust, divorce, oaths, retaliation, love of enemies, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. And in Mathew 25:31ff, the Lord uses the corporal works of mercy to illustrate the whole of the Law.

These are not an exhaustive treatments. of the moral life. Rather, through the use of illustrations, the Lord asks us to learn the principle of fulfillment and then apply it to other instances.

Good teachers teach principles, since they cannot possibly envision every scenario or situation. Having instructed their students in first principles, they can trust that their students will make solid decisions in many diverse situations.

Good teachers teach students to think for themselves, not in isolation, but in ongoing communion with the principles learned, and through dialogue with authorities when necessary for assistance and accountability.

IX. His use of hyperbole – Jesus uses a lot of hyperbole. It is easier, He tells us, for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter heaven (Mk 10:25). If your eye scandalizes you, gouge it out (Mat 5:29). There was a man who owed ten thousand talents (a trillion dollars) (Mat 18:24). It would be better for you to be cast into the sea with a great millstone about your neck than to scandalize one of my little ones (Mat 18:6).

Hyperbole has memorable effect. It’s hard to forget effective hyperbole. Who of us can forget Jesus’ parable about a man with a 2×4 coming out of his eye who rebukes his neighbor for the splinter in his? I often tell my congregation, “Go to church or go to Hell,” which is my way of saying that missing Mass is a mortal sin.

One of my seminary professors once signaled me that I was giving an incorrect and heretical answer to a complex theological issue. He did this by saying, “Charles, you are on the edge of an abyss.” I stopped immediately and gave the correct and orthodox answer!

Good teachers use hyperbole at the right moments.

X. His use of servile fear – Jesus made frequent use of “fear-based arguments.” He warned of Hell, of unquenchable fire, and of the worm that does not die. His parables feature of a lot of summary judgements wherein people are found unprepared, are excluded from Heaven, or are cast into darkness. One parable ends with a king burning the town of those who failed to accept his invitation to his son’s wedding banquet (Mat 22:7). Another has a king summoning those who rejected him to be slain before his eyes (Lk 19:27). Jesus warns of the wailing and grinding of teeth. He also warns of a permanent abyss between Heaven and Hell that no one will be able to cross.

Many today are dismissive of fear-based arguments. But Jesus used them; He used them a lot. So Jesus never got the memo that this is a poor way to teach. It is true that, for the spiritually mature, love can and does replace the need for fear-based arguments. But, frankly, many are not that mature, and a healthy dose of fear and the threat of unending regret is often necessary.

We ought not to exclude, as many do, the voluminous verses in which Jesus warns in vivid language of the consequences of repeated, un-repented sin. He is not playing games; He is speaking the truth.

To teach as Jesus did is to include warning of judgment and of Hell.

XI. His anger and zeal – Jesus does not hesitate to express His anger and grief at the hardness and stubbornness of many. One day He said, You unbelieving and perverted generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up with you? (Matt 17:17) And in Mark’s Gospel we read, And they were bringing children to Him so that He might touch them; but the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw this, He was furious and said to them, “Permit the children to come to Me; do not hinder them” (Mk 10: 13-14). Another day, in the synagogue, Jesus was angry at their unbelief: After looking around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And he stretched it out, and his hand was restored (Mk 3:5).

Yes, Jesus memorably cleansed the temple and drove out iniquity there. He engaged in heated debates with the Jewish leaders and with unbelievers. He did not hesitate to call them hypocrites, vipers, liars, and the sons of those who murdered the prophets.

Here, too, is a teaching moment that renders what is taught memorable and meaningful.A parent who never reacts with anger risks misleading his child into making light of or not being serious enough about wrongdoing, disrespect, or stubborn unrepentance.

We must be careful of our anger. We do not have the kind of sovereignty over it that Jesus did; neither are we as able to see into people’s hearts as He was.

But there is a place for anger, and Jesus uses it—a lot, actually. Anger signals an important teaching and rebukes a lighthearted response.

XII. His refusal to compromise – There was in Jesus very little compromise about the serious teachings of doctrine or those issues related to our salvation. He said that either we would believe in Him or we would die in our sins (Jn 8). Jesus also said that He was the only way to the Father and that no one would come to the Father except through Him. He declared that no one who set his hand to the plow and looked back was fit for the reign of God. Jesus said that no one who would not deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Him was worthy of Him. We are told to count the cost and decide now, and we are warned that delay may be a deadly thing.

Much of this is countercultural today, a time of uncertainty, in which there is an inappropriate sort of pluralism that thinks that there are many ways to God. Many insist on a softer Christianity, in which we can love the world and also love God. Sorry, no can do. A friend of the world is an enemy to God.

Jesus teaches His fundamental truths in an uncompromising way. This is because they are truths for our salvation. Following these truths vaguely or inconsistently will not win the day. Some disciplines need to be followed precisely.

To teach as Jesus did involves insisting that the fundamental doctrines of our faith be accepted fully and wholeheartedly.

XIII. His forgiveness – Forgiveness may not at first seem to be an obvious way of teaching. But consider that teachers often have to accept that students don’t get everything right the first time. Teaching requires a patient persistence as students first acquire skills and then master them.

A good teacher does not compromise the right method or the correct answer; He assists students who fall short rather than immediately excluding them. In an atmosphere where there is no room for error, very little learning can take place due to fear.

Again, forgiveness does not deny that which is correct; it continues to teach what is correct. Forgiveness facilitates an environment in which learning can thrive and perfection can at last be attained.

Jesus, while setting high standards, offers forgiveness, not as a way of denying perfection but as a way to facilitate our advancement by grace and trust.

XIV. His equipping and authorizing of others – Good teachers train new teachers. Jesus trained the Twelve and, by extension, other disciples as well. He led and inspired them. And He also prepared them for a day when He would hand on the role of teacher to them. We who would teach need to train our successors and inspire new and greater insights.

Teach me, Lord, by your example, to teach as you taught and to preach as you would have me preach.

A Reflection on the Modern Error of Preaching Mercy without Repentance

111413There are of course many ways of describing the pastoral, liturgical and theological struggles of our day. But one very simple way of describing current problems that touches on all these areas is simply this:  that a presumptive attitude of mercy without repentance is both taught and widely held by far too many modern Catholics, and other Christians.

There is much talk of how God loves us, is rich in mercy, is kind and forgiving. And all of these things are true. But another essential truth is that these gifts, these essential attributes of God, are accessed by repentance. It is repentance that opens the door to mercy, forgiveness, and kindness.

Perhaps an analogy will help. Consider a man who is in very poor health. Perhaps he has  a host of problems that surround obesity such as hypertension, cholesterol, diabetes etc. Now modern medicine has a lot to offer people who are struggling with poor health. The healing help includes everything from medicine to surgery, to information on nutrition etc. But in order for this man to access that healing help, a number of things are first necessary:

  1. He may need others to testify to him some concern for his health, for many exhibit various levels of denial as to their condition especially when it involves things like overeating, smoking, or drinking.
  2. He then needs to accept that his condition is serious enough that needs both help and change.
  3. He needs to decide to seek the help of the medical profession and follow through on that decision by scheduling and keeping an appointment with a doctor.

Now, when he does this, AND ONLY when he does this, will the healing help of the medical profession unfold for him. It is not enough for him to say, “Well isn’t it great that there are doctors, medical professionals, information, and medicine that can help me! It’s just wonderful that there are so many caring and professional people out there who can help and save me!” No,  that is not enough. He has to make a change and actually reach out and develop a relationship with the medical community. He has to actually take the medicine. It is not enough to praise the medicine, he has to take it. It is not enough to feel reassured that there are people out there, he actually has to go to them, interact with them, and set a new course.

And this is an analogy for the spiritual life and repentance. God’s offer of mercy and healing love stand, and are offered to everyone. But these magnificent gifts must be accessed through repentance. That is to say, we must come to understand the seriousness of our condition, turn to God, call upon his mercy, and begin to receive the glorious medicine he offers: the medicine of his Word, of the Sacraments, of prayer, and walking in fellowship with the Church, which he established as his ongoing presence and voice in the world (cf Acts 2:42).

The Greek word that is usually translated as repentance or repent is metanoia and it means more than simply to clean up our act. Most literally it means to come to a new mind, or a new way of thinking. This is why God’s word, the teachings of the Church, and preaching are so essential for all of us. Whereas perverse councils separate us from God, (Wisdom 1:3), God’s truth proclaimed in the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church summon us back to him, summon us to a new mind, a new way of thinking. It convicts us of error and sin, but also announces the Savior who is the saving Truth who sets us free.

But of course it is not enough for us simply to hear of this new way of thinking, we must actually come to it, decide for it. Repentance is to actually embrace this new mind, and this unlocks all the blessings the healings, the mercy, and the salvation that is promised. We must allow the grace of God, interacting with our freedom to effect an actual change, a decision in our life that changes the way we think, the way we act, and puts us into a saving relationship with the Divine Physician Jesus.

Like the patient above, we must be brought to understand the seriousness of our condition, come to know that there is saving help available, and then by positive decision, rooted in grace, actually reach out to lay hold of that help.

Repentance is the door, is the key that unlocks mercy.

Yet too often today mercy is preached without reference to repentance. Too many who preach and too many who hear have come to see mercy as granted without any human engagement. One simply has it automatically, no matter what.

Yet that is not what Scripture teaches. Most notably, Simon Peter on Day One of Pentecot and the going for of the gospel preached a sermon laying out who Jesus is, and how we, in our sin and rebellion killed the very author of life. The text from Acts says,

When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:37-38)

Thus, when asked what they are to do, Peter does not say, “Don’t worry, all is well, God is mercy. He says, “Repent and baptized.” In other words, come to a new mind, come to your senses, reject your sins, be washed clean and come to Jesus. And this will unlock the supreme blessing of the Holy Spirit of God, who is the mercy of God, the love of God the very life and grace of God!

And how is this accessed? Repentance.

Isaiah had said, The Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their sins,” declares the LORD (Is 59:20).

And to the Disciples in Emmaus Jesus said, This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. (Luke 24:46-48)

And thus preachers and teachers in the Church, who are Christ’s witnesses, must proclaim repentance that unlocks the forgiveness and mercy of God.

St. Paul warns, In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30).

Thus those who preach and teach mercy without repentance are deceivers and likely themselves deceived. And those who think of mercy without reference to repentance are deceived.

Faith and repentance are the supernaturally transformed and assisted human element that is necessary to unlock mercy and the graces of God. To ignore or deny this amounts to a denial of human freedom and does not help God’s people. Rather it hinders them, for mercy is accessed through repentance, and without it, the door cannot open. Repentance must be preached to all the nations because repentance, by God’s grace opens the door.

Are We "Down with the People" or Up with the Cross? A Call to Courage in Preaching the Cross

070713Some forty years ago the Venerable Bishop Fulton J Sheen admonished the priests of his day in these words:

We become real priests when we empty ourselves, and no longer seek our [own] identity, and where we are lifted up to the cross, not going “down to people.” Too many of us today feel we have to be loved…[thinking] the young will not love us unless we talk like them, eat like them, drink like them, clothe ourselves like them. No! They will not love us simply because we go down, they will love us when we lift them up. Else, the world will drag them down…. (Retreat for priests, “The Meaning of Being a Priest)

I remember those days of the seventies when priests, religious sisters and adult parish leaders wore jeans, sandals, and flashy sweaters. The men grew their hair longish, and the parish leaders recast “Sunday school” as a “rap session.” (Rap in those days did not mean anything related to music, it meant “to talk” but in a way that was “real” and “down with the struggle”).

The goal, it would seem,  was not for the clergy religious or adult leaders to teach, but rather to “relate” and to “facilitate a discussion.” I remember it was considered “hip” (i.e. cool, popular etc) to have the class sit on the floor in a circle. The “teacher” was “one of us” and would often start by saying something like “I do not have the answers, but together we can explore the questions.”

Even those of us in our rebellious teens knew there was something amiss here. I wonder if the “hip” priest, nun or youth leader knew that we laughed at them behind their back. Frankly, they DID look strange trying to dress and act like us. And though we humored them, we knew we had them in our back pocket. They were not to be taken seriously, and we didn’t.

I will not excuse our violations of the 4th commandment, but it was hard not to laugh and even mock them behind their back. We used to particularly laugh at one cleric who showed up with a guitar strapped to his back. And thought he did a pretty swift “Peter, Paul and Mary” gig, he did not. And when he left the room, convinced that he had “reached us,” we would “imitate” him derisively (I am sad to say) playing our air guitars and changing the lyrics to the silly songs he sang.

Of course, one might argue we would still have done so had they taken the traditional role of standing before us, commanding respect, and being in the role of teacher, rather than “fellow searcher.” Perhaps, but at least in the second scenario something would actually have been taught that we might later remember when we got over our “too cool for school” schtick.

Ah the Seventies, a sad and “dorky” time that endured well into the 90s and is still operative in some places today.

I think most younger priests today, who had to endure a lot of that silliness are clear that, as Sheen says, going “down to the people” is not an ultimately effective pastoral approach. Most younger clergy are clear enough that people, young and old, are appreciative when we dress and act as clergy. Religious Sisters too, are far more respected and appreciated when they wear the full habit and exhibit the qualities of dignity and grace that go with their honored state. It is no mistake that the traditional orders attract vocations, while the secular-clad, aging “hippie” orders are all but dead.

But, while the externals may be more intact today than in the dorky 70s and 80s, the desire to be loved is still a deep wound with which many clergy, religious, parents and lay leaders struggle. At the end of the day we must always ask, do I fear and serve the Lord or do I fear and please man?

We serve a Lord who, while popular at times, made a journey to the cross that few, even among his 12 were willing to follow or found pleasing. They were looking for a Messiah who was “down with the struggle” on their terms and who would usher in a new worldly kingdom of power and prosperity. Yes, this is what it meant for them that Jesus be “down with the struggle.” But Jesus went up to the cross and few would follow him there. Only St. John, Mother Mary and several other women made it there.

Those of us who lead, Clergy, Religious, parents, and lay leaders must point to the Cross and be willing to lead others there. As for pointing to what is popular and “hip” and what will make us seemingly “loved” and accepted, any newscaster or Hollywood star can do that.

It is true that we ought not engage in all or nothing thinking, or set up a false dichotomy. To be up with the cross and not merely “down with the folks” is not an absolute conflict. Pope Francis has surely reminded the whole Church that we need to be out among the flock, and out in the public square.

But here is the key, we must be there are Christians, as Catholics, as followers of Jesus, who, who charity but also with clarity announce the Gospel. And key to the Gospel to to point the Cross as the way to glory and healing.

And we preach the cross not as an abstraction, but as focused on some very real and sometimes difficult choices. We preach a cross that includes turning away from the pleasures of sin and the flesh, to embrace, chastity, self-control, openness to life, even in difficult circumstances. The cross means there is to be no abortion, even in rape and incest, we are to work out our marital difficulties instead of splitting. We hold up the cross in calling the unmarried to perfect chastity, to homosexuals there is the call of perpetual continence. We preach the cross of enduring persecution, forgiving our enemies, humbling ourselves through confession, of atoning for our sins and obedience to the Commandments. We hold up the cross when we insist on generosity to the poor, and the forsaking of greed and the accumulation of so many unnecessary things. We hold up the cross when we remind others of their duties to family, community, the Church and the nation.

The Cross is not an abstraction and we who would lead must be up with Jesus and the Cross if we are ever to be “down with the people” and “down with the struggle” in any effective way.

We who are the leaders of the Church, have the mission to reflect the teachings, wisdom and way of our founder Jesus Christ. Many today mistakenly think our job is to find out what the majority of people think, and reflect that. No, this is not our job. We are to be Christ and his voice, his wisdom and his teaching in this world. This goes not only for clergy but also for parents. We are to preach his gospel, the whole counsel of Christ in season and out of season, popular or unpopular. We point the way of Christ.

And Christ had this “crazy” way of the Cross. The cross is like a tuning fork for us. It is the “A 440” that helps us to know if we are in tune with Jesus or just reflecting the world, if we are just “down with the people” or up with Christ on the cross.

Many that Good Friday told Christ they would be believe if he came down from his Cross. But he he would not come down from that cross just to save himself, he decided to stay, to save you and me. Had he been down with the people where they wanted him, he could not have saved them, or lifted them up.

A few quotes from scripture to finish:

  1. Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it….If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” (Mk 8:34-38)
  2. Jesus said, “I do not accept glory from human beings” (John 5:41)
  3. Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. (1 Cor 1:20-25)
  4. You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. (Gal 3:1)
  5. If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse! Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ. (Gal 1:9-10)
  6. We speak as those approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please people but God, who tests our hearts. You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed—God is our witness. We were not looking for praise from people, not from you or anyone else… (1 Thess 2:4-6)

Are we with Christ, or just “down with the people?” If we are with others, as we should be, are we there with Christ? Do we preach his way of the cross, or do we seek merely to please men?

Are we up with Christ and the Cross, or merely down with the people and the pillow of popularity and the esteem of men?

Here is a favorite video of mine that both illustrates the silly 70s, but also shows the dark side of “tolerance.” Meet Prof “Stanford Nutting” (i.e. stand for nothing):