By Mike Stechschulte Catholic News Service
DETROIT (CNS) — Preaching at Mass is the “best opportunity” most bishops, priests and deacons have on a regular basis to facilitate an encounter with Jesus, so it’s critical for preachers to make the most of every homily, said Detroit Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron.
He made the comments in a new pastoral letter to clergy of the Archdiocese of Detroit titled “The Preacher — Servant of the Word of God.”
It is his third pastoral as archbishop of Detroit, following 2012’s “Forward in Hope to Share Christ,” on pastoral plans and priorities of the Archdiocese of Detroit, and 2013’s “In Union With Christ’s Dying and Rising,” on Catholic funeral rites.
In the new letter, the archbishop draws heavily on themes from Pope Francis’ 2013 apostolic exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium,” which he noted has been called the “playbook for the church” for the new evangelization.
In it, he said, the pope “treats in no small detail the homily as the single moment in which most of us as bishops, priests and deacons have the best opportunity to be God’s instruments on a daily, or at least weekly, basis and help our brothers and sisters to have an encounter with God.”
Archbishop Vigneron said the coldness and indifference of many in the pews necessitates a renewed emphasis on the importance of preaching, especially given that many who attend Sunday Mass are otherwise disengaged from their faith.
“Despite the fact many people in the pews would say that they’ve heard ad nauseam ‘God loves you,’ many of them simply do not know it — and will readily admit as much if asked,” he said. “And this love, knowledge of this love, an encounter with this love, is what changes lives. … Until a person knows this, the faith simply looks like rules and regulations.”
The archbishop noted many or even most church-going Catholics have been “sacramentalized but not evangelized,” and preaching without knowing the audience’s needs is “like trying to plant seeds in concrete — nothing will grow.”
His letter was released June 30, coinciding with the annual archdiocesan priests’ jubilee Mass at Sacred Heart Major Seminary.
In a 10-part section titled “Preaching the New Evangelization: 10 Axioms,” the archbishop said preachers must contend with several types of indifference, from “the spiritual nonreligious” to “the bored and the blase” and even those biased against the reasonableness of the Catholic faith.
“Many people at Mass on Sunday simply don’t want to be there,” he said. “This may sound a bit harsh, but how else to explain why so many come late and leave early, or read the bulletin during the homily, or don’t sing or respond aloud? Mass, and perhaps faith for many, is simply not something that is seen as being life-giving. We need to help change that.”
He said many Catholics operate from a default secular perspective, spending far more time with worldly media and devices than with the word of God.
“This constant barrage of a secular, consumer worldview simply cannot leave them — or us — unaffected. It is often practically atheistic; it doesn’t outright reject God, but it operates as if he did not exist, or as if he has nothing practical to offer us,” he said.
Because of this, preachers must adapt to this realization to make the Gospel message hearable — first by making it matter, he said. To do that, it is critical for a person to know God’s immeasurable love for them.
“Until they have been warmed by the love of God, and unless we allow ourselves to be his agents in doing this when we preach, we will be trying to bend cold steel,” Archbishop Vigneron said. “This warming of the heart done by the Holy Spirit is why the Gospel truly is good news: We are loved beyond all telling! Our lives matter!”
From a liturgical standpoint, the archbishop said too many view the Gospel and homily as simply “reading and commentary,” meaning that “they first listen to someone read the Scriptures dealing with events from long ago — often events that are hard to understand, especially if taken out of context — and then listen to the priest or deacon get up to offer some comments — hopefully not too long and somewhat funny — on those same often unintelligible readings.”
He said the proper way to understand the homily is as “proclamation and response,” and offered a few tips for preachers, including focusing on what Jesus is saying and asking today, and offering a call to action — such as a visit to a local shelter or an invitation to return to the sacrament of confession — based on the day’s readings.
The role of personal testimony also can be a powerful preaching tool and shouldn’t be ignored, the archbishop said. This requires vulnerability, he added, but not necessarily to the point of “inappropriately self-disclosing.”
“Throughout the New Testament, we see that the Gospel spreads most effectively by someone telling others the difference Jesus made in his or her life,” he said. “We need to tell our story.”
Finally, he said, preachers must not be afraid to “preach Christ and Him crucified,” as this is the essential center of the Christian faith.
“The cross is the single greatest demonstration of love ever seen. Help them to understand it,” the archbishop said. “Repeatedly call their attention to it. Help them to understand God doesn’t simply tell us he loves us;he shows us.”