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Preacher as Servant to Dialogue

March 10, 2015


Recently, I re-read Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium and I was brought to the realization that the Holy Father proposes, in his section on preaching, the role of “servant to dialogue” as the primary role of the preacher. 

“Let us renew our confidence in preaching, based on the conviction that it is God who seeks to reach out to others through the preacher, and that he displays his power through human words.” (EG, 136)

In the exhortation, Pope Francis begins by calling preachers of the Word to a sacred remembering of the power of preaching.  Throughout Scripture we find God choosing to work with human beings in all of their limits to proclaim his plan and his grace.  From Moses with his stutter through the Old Testament prophets and all their tribulations to John the Baptist to the apostles in their weaknesses and misunderstandings to the great missionary Paul, even though he persecuted the Church – the Word of God is proclaimed.  The Word of God needs to be proclaimed in our day also!  People need to encounter the Word of God in all its richness and all of its challenging beauty and the preacher is entrusted with this sacred task!  

I find it interesting then, that after making this bold and challenging proclamation, Pope Francis moves to the almost seemingly mundane character of dialogue and conversation as the foundation of preaching. 

“It is worth remembering that “the liturgical proclamation of the word of God, especially in the Eucharistic assembly, is not so much a time for meditation and catechesis as a dialogue between God and his people, a dialogue in which the great deeds of salvation are proclaimed and the demands of the covenant are continually restated”.   The homily has special importance due to its Eucharistic context: it surpasses all forms of catechesis as the supreme moment in the dialogue between God and his people which lead up to sacramental communion. The homily takes up once more the dialogue which the Lord has already established with his people. The preacher must know the heart of his community, in order to realize where its desire for God is alive and ardent, as well as where that dialogue, once loving, has been thwarted and is now barren.” (EG, 137)

To help explore this move toward dialogue and conversation I would like to quote in length a section out of Fr. Robert Barron’s book, The Priority of Christ: Toward a Postliberal Catholicism.  

At one point in his book, Fr. Barron reflects on intersubjectivity as a component of true knowledge. 

“For the Christian, authentic knowledge comes not through isolation or objectification but rather through something like love.  Therefore it should not be surprising that the fullness of knowing would occur through an intersubjective process, with knowers, as it were, participating in one another as each participates in the thing to be known.  If, as the Johannine prologue implies, the ground of being is a conversation between two divine speakers, it seems only reasonable that the search for intelligibility here below takes place in the context of steady and loving conversation.  

In a lyrical and compelling section of “Truth and Method,” Hans-Georg Gadamer reminds us that a healthy conversation is something like a game.  As two players surrender to the movement and rules of the game of tennis, they are carried away beyond themselves in such a way that the game is playing them much more than they are playing it.  In a similar way, when two or more interlocutors enter into the rhythm of an intellectual exchange, respectful of its rules and of one another, they are quite often carried beyond their individual concerns and questions and taken somewhere they had not anticipated, the conversation having played them.  The fundamental requirement for this sort of shared self-transcendence is a moral one: each conversationalist has to surrender her need to dominate the play for her purposes; each must efface herself, not only before the others but, more importantly, before the transcendent goal that they all seek.  To have a conversation is humbly to accept the possibility that one’s take on things might be challenged or corrected, that the other’s perspective might be more relatively right than one’s own.”

Holding these thoughts with those of Pope Francis we can see that preaching has as its true basis and foundation the very common and universal reality of honest conversation and dialogue more so than any latest and trendy fad, philosophy or method regarding public speaking and debate.  Rather than belittling the preaching task these depth explorations of conversation and dialogue show forth the true richness of understanding afforded this important and critical task!

The homily takes up once more the dialogue which the Lord has already established with his people. The preacher of the Word, along with the people of God, is himself caught up in this ongoing conversation between the Lord and his people yet he has a truly unique and important role to play.  The preacher must allow himself to be caught up in the game and therefore overcome the constant and often subtle temptation to dominate the play for his purposes.  This is a renunciation and an asceticism that every preacher must develop in his life.  If a homily is too self-referential then it has missed the mark and probably most of the people of God have already tuned out.  To make use of the above analogy – a person cannot play a good and rousing game of tennis if he is more concerned about how he looks rather than the game!  To preach is to enter into the great game of the dialogue between our risen Lord and his people! 

The proper progress of the dialogue though is dependent upon respect of the rules given.  The homilist is to be the servant to dialogue.    

The dialogue is Christ’s and not the preacher’s.  If preaching is to mean anything then somehow Christ must speak through the preacher’s words to the heart of those who are gathered.  This means that the preacher must learn how to get out of the way and not try to dominate the play for his own agenda or emotional needs.  Any person acquainted with the task of preaching will know that this is not as easy to do as one might think but it is essential.

For preaching to be effective, the preacher must be in dialogue with Christ and in dialogue with the community of the Church.  The preacher must know Christ and allow himself to be known by Christ fully.  The preacher must know the heart of his community, in order to realize where its desire for God is alive and ardent, as well as where that dialogue, once loving, has been thwarted and is now barren.  In order to know his community, the preacher must be with his community.  He must have the “smell of his sheep” on him as Pope Francis has famously said.  When the community is not known there is always the danger of preaching at people rather than assisting the great dialogue that the Lord has begun.  Would it not be an extremely sad thing for a preacher to come before the gates of heaven only to there be given the realization that his preaching was more of an interruption to our Lord’s great dialogue with his people rather than an assistance?

If authentic preaching has as part of its basis knowledge of the community then homily preparation is just as much about visiting the homebound, celebrating with families, serving the poor and weeping with those who mourn as it is about studying the Scriptures and reflecting on Biblical commentaries.  The preacher who shuts himself away in a rectory or a parish office is stunting his preaching potential and doing a great disservice to his community.  Christ dwells in the midst of his people, especially the poor.  Whenever and wherever Christ is encountered deeper understanding of Sacred Scripture is gained.  In order to be a servant of dialogue, the preacher must go out into his community.   

A little later in his Exhortation, Pope Francis offers these words that again situate the preaching task squarely in the life of the community with some profound implications: The Lord and his people speak to one another in a thousand ways directly, without intermediaries.  But in the homily they want someone to serve as an instrument and to express their feelings in such a way that afterwards, each one may choose how he or she will continue the conversation.  (EG, 143)  Believe it or not, preacher, it is not your gifted eloquence, flourishing rhetoric or funny jokes that unite heaven and earth!  Christ and his people are already united; they are already in dialogue in a thousand ways directly.  Daily (in prayer, in struggle, in joy, in temptations, in uncertainty, in gratitude, in the depth of the human heart) Christ and his people are conversing, recognized or not on our part.  The preacher does not have the task of scaling the heavens in order to unite heaven and earth (and honestly I don’t believe the people are looking for this).  The preacher, as servant of dialogue, does have the task of being open to being led by the Spirit to speak the words that help the people catch a glimpse of how heaven and earth are already united and interacting in their lives!  (The Holy Father offers three practical resources to aid in this: appeal to imagery, cultivate simplicity in ones words and be positive.)  Upon catching this glimpse, the people will then continue the conversation with the Lord in their own way.  As a servant of dialogue the homilist is to listen, to seek to be an instrument and then to let go … then repeat.              

Finally, the preacher himself must both allow the dialogue to carry him as well as call forth sacrifice in his life.  As two players surrender to the movement and rules of the game of tennis, they are quite often carried beyond their individual concerns and questions and taken somewhere they had not anticipated, the conversation having played them.  In humble prayer, the preacher must first encounter the Word and let the Word speak to him, once something sparks then the preacher must let the Word carry him to where it wants him to go.  We need to trust that the Word of God is indeed active and alive and we need to trust that the Word will take us to what the community needs to hear.  Within this trust, the preacher must even sacrifice of bit of self for this to happen.  To illustrate this dynamic of service to dialogue here are two images given by the author Annie Dillard in her book, The Writing Life:

“To find a honey tree, first catch a bee.  Catch a bee when its legs are heavy with pollen; then it is ready for home … Carry the bee to a nearby open spot – best an elevated one – release it, and watch where it goes.  Keep your eyes on it as long as you can see it, and hie you to that last known place.  Wait there until you see another bee; catch it, release it, and watch.  Bee after bee will lead toward the honey tree, until you see the final bee enter the tree.  Thoreau describes this process in his journals.  So a book leads its writer.  

You may wonder how you start, how you catch the first one.  What do you use for bait?

You have no choice.  One bad winter in the Arctic, and not too long ago, an Algonquin woman and her baby were left alone after everyone else in their winter camp had starved … The woman walked from the camp where everyone had died, and found at a lake a cache.  The cache contained one small fishhook.  It was simple to rig a line, but she had no bait, and no hope of bait.  The baby cried.  She took a knife and cut a strip from her own thigh.  She fished with the worm of her own flesh and caught a jackfish; she fed the child and herself.  Of course she saved the fish gut for bait.  She lived alone at the lake, on fish, until spring, when she walked out again and found people…”

Might it be possible that the New Evangelization is calling forth a new approach to preaching?  I believe that Pope Francis is sharing some profound thoughts in this regard for our consideration – the preacher as servant to dialogue.