Sent to preach!

More than just teaching, preaching is a pastoral and spiritual adventure. Sometimes challenging, sometimes exhilarating, it takes us back to the heart of our vocation and our priestly ministry.

22nd February 2024

don Maxence Bertrand

Preaching is a vocation

We have been called to preach. Like Moses, Jeremiah, Peter and the apostles, Paul and so many others. We have been caught in our ambitions and desires, in our shyness and weakness. For what reason? We don’t know. And like a treasure, we carry within us the witness of Jesus: “He who sent me is with me”. (Jn 8:29)

I often think of Moses’ concerns: “Suppose they do not believe me” (Ex 4:1) “I have never been eloquent…” (Ex 4:10) ” “O my Lord, please send someone else” (Ex 4, 13).

The preacher’s legitimacy does not lie in himself, but in the one who sent him.

If preaching is a vocation, then it is not merely about something to be said or transmitted. It’s about consecrating your life and your history to that Word. The prophets and apostles understood, sometimes trembling, that their entire being was at stake in this call.

This is why, before any quality of speech, the preacher can rely on this “gift received” that needs to be rekindled (2 Tim 1:6) and return often to that “love of the early days” (Rev 2:4) that once seized him.

“It is not necessary to be a great orator in order to be an effective homilist. Naturally, the art of oratory or public speaking, including the appropriate use of the voice and even of gesture, is an ingredient of a successful homily.  […] What is essential, however, is that the preacher makes the Word of God central to his own spiritual life, that he knows his people well, that he be reflective on the events of the times, that he continually seeks to develop the skills that help him preach effectively and above all, that in his spiritual poverty, he invites in faith the Holy Spirit as the principal agent that makes the hearts of the faithful amenable to the divine mysteries.”[1]

Preaching is a mediation

Beyond all the practical advices concerning rhetoric and style, in my opinion this is the only major criterion for assessing our preaching: Am I talking about God? Am I talking to the people? Perhaps the spiritual challenge of preaching is simply to avoid slipping into a two-way conversation:

  • God and me. The faithful would then be witnessing from the outside a personal meditation that might be profound in its own right. “The preacher also needs to keep his ear to the people and to discover what it is that the faithful need to hear. A preacher has to contemplate the word, but he also has to contemplate his people.” (Evangelii Gaudium, 154). Who are we talking to? Jesus does not speak in the same manner to the crowds, the disciples, the Pharisees or the Twelve.
  • Me and the faithful. The relationship is more direct, the preaching more lively and perhaps more appealing. But without theological depth, without listening to the Word, grace is lost. Spiritual worldliness expresses itself in political, psychological or literary trivialities…

If preaching is a mediation, we must be careful not to make the faithful or God himself bystanders to our ministry.…

Preaching is a translation

“If in a tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is being said?” (1 Co 14, 9) Preaching is a translation because the Word became flesh. He made himself visible and spoke the language of his fellow men to convey the mystery of mercy and salvation..

“Obviously, great words of our tradition such as “expiatory sacrifice”, “redemption of the sacrifice of Christ”, “original sin” are today almost incomprehensible. We cannot simply work with lofty formulas, though true, without placing them within the context of today’s world. Through study, and what our theology teachers and our personal experience with God tell us, we must concretize and express these great words in such a way that they form part of the proclamation of God to the people of today. ” (Benedict XVI, Speech to the clergy of Rome, 26th February 2009)

Our religious vocabulary is not always audible. When we use the term “conversion” in our preaching, many people will think that we are talking about a change of religion. The most devout will understand that we are calling for this transformation of the heart through the power of the Gospel.

Preaching is an effort at translation, because we are invited to give “an accounting for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet 3:15). The challenge is to serve the mystery without flattening it, to open up the treasures of knowledge and not to lock up the Kingdom of Heaven (Mt 23:13).

Another way of translating is to find images that evoke something in people’s imagination. It is the profound meaning of the parables that allows the mystery of God and the everyday life of people to come together. “At first sight, the listener has no trouble entering the ordinary world of the parable, but very quickly he realises that there is precisely something that doesn’t fit in with the ordinary, that the ordinary is taking on, in the words of Jesus, a decidedly extraordinary character: the sower who wastes the seed, a hen who is the Saviour, a shepherd who abandons ninety-nine sheep to look for another… This is how the reconciliatio oppositorum is achieved, which He who is extraordinarily ordinary came to preach and synthesise in Himself: the Son of God who is the Son of Man.”[2]

« We wish to see Jesus ! » (Jn 12:21) It is the demand made to Phillip in the Gospel according to Saint John. It is also what can resonate in the hearts of preachers in simplicity and faith.

[1] Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Homiletic Directory, § 3,  2015, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, .

[2] Nicolas Steeves, Gaetano Piccolo, Et moi, je te dis : imagine !, Paris, Les éditions du Cerf, 2018, p. 100.