The Challenges of Preaching
Advent offers the opportunity to be a messenger of God’s hope during uncertain times
The more I preach as a priest, the more I come to appreciate how challenging it can be. I remember one of the newly ordained priests who was assigned to the parish in which I was pastor telling our staff how terrified he was to preach. Preaching was not something that came naturally to him. And yet, the irony in all of this is that no one would ever have known this information unless he had shared it, because, even as a young priest, he exuded confidence and passion at the pulpit. More importantly, he was faithful and diligent in his preparation.
The challenge of preaching has more to do than just with confidence, speaking before a crowd or the mechanics involved. Preaching is hard because of the audience, which can show up preoccupied with other concerns. The preacher, because he is human, can bring that same sense of preoccupation to the pulpit, too. Suffice to say, the humanness of both the congregation and the preacher can become a weakness in the preaching process.
But God’s grace always prevails. I cannot help but think of Jeremiah who, when called by God to be a prophet, remarked, “‘Ah, Lord GOD!’ I said, / ‘I do not know how to speak; I am too young!’ / But the LORD answered me, / Say not, ‘I am too young.’ / To whomever I send you, you shall go; / whatever I command you, you shall speak. / Have no fear before them, / because I am with you to deliver you” (Jer 1:6-8).
The Lord touches Jeremiah’s mouth and places him over nations and kingdoms, “To uproot and to tear down, / to destroy and to demolish, / to build and to plant” (Jer 1:10).
Jeremiah then goes on to prophesy and preach. Very quickly he comes to discover another challenge of preaching — namely, the message. What he preaches, the people of that day do not want to hear. It is hard to speak when people do not want to heed the message. Nevertheless, the preacher must never stop preaching.
One of the exciting features of beginning the Advent season is that every preacher has the opportunity to reclaim the voice. It is not our voice, but the voice of God, projected through our vocal cords, that cries out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” The message that we share is not our own but God’s. Above all, the result is not our personal affirmation that comes with an attaboy from the congregation but rather the movement of hearts and the salvation of souls.
St. Francis de Sales said this best when he said, “The test of a preacher is that his congregation goes away saying not, ‘What a lovely sermon,’ but, ‘I will do something!’”
The message that we are blessed to bring to the faithful during this Advent season is one of hope in what is for all of us during this pandemic, a dark and uncertain time. While this Advent will be different in many ways due to the pandemic, the message that is to flow from the lips of every preacher remains the same: “Be hopeful and prepare the way of the Lord.”
I don’t know about you, brother, but every time I preach a homily, I am not only mindful of the congregation, but also myself. I believe that with every homily I preach God is challenging me to do something for him. This, of course, brings us to what is unquestionably the greatest challenge in preaching — to practice what we preach. It is not then just about words or a voice, but a lifestyle lived with and for the Lord.
In the Rite of the Ordination of Priests, the ordaining bishop has the option to address those to be ordained during the homily with an instruction contained in the rite. He says: “Impart to everyone the Word of God, which you have received with joy. … Meditating on the law of the Lord, see that you believe what you read, that you teach what you believe, and that you practice what you teach.”
Brothers, Advent is an opportune time to recommit ourselves to meditating on God’s Word, to be God’s prophetic voice and to practice what we preach by truly being men of hope.
FATHER DAVID J. BONNAR, editor of The Priest, is a pastor of 16 years in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, where he has served in numerous roles. To share your thoughts on this column or any others, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow and like The Priest magazine on Facebook.