“When you are brought before synagogues, rulers, and authorities, do not worry about how to defend yourselves or what to say. For at that time the Holy Spirit will teach you what to say” (Luke 12,11-12).
In the 1990’s a friend of mine invited me to visit an unusual church in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. He took me there on a Sunday morning. Even though church attendance was beginning to decline in other parishes, this large church was packed to the roof. Most interesting: teenagers too were keen attendees.
I soon found out the reason. The parish priest, whom I shall call Rupert, preached sermons of a different kind. They were not the flimsy ‘spiritual homilies’ on Gospel passages delivered in other parishes. Rupert’s sermons dealt with serious issues.
In fact, Rupert delivered high-quality instructions on key issues. For instance, one series of sermons dealt with ‘God and evolution’. It presented the scientific reasons for accepting evolution. It probed the question of whether science and faith are in conflict with each other. It explained why the Genesis creation accounts do not contradict evolution, and so on.
Another series of sermons explored: “How do we know ‘God’ exists?” It unfolded various features of our universe requiring a ‘deeper dimension’. It examined the reasons why some leading scientists refuse to accept a God. It rejected the familiar idea of the ‘Supermanager God’. It pointed out that we can only speak about God in images and what this means. It invited the audience to adopt new ways of thinking and speaking about God.
Other series looked at: “How can a good ‘God’ allow suffering?”; “How does our Christian idea of ‘God’ differ from the concepts of God in other religions?”; “Can we trust what TV, radio and other media say about ‘God’?”; “How to understand the violent ‘God’ of the Old Testament?” and “What did Jesus teach about ‘God’?”.
When I met Rupert after Mass, he told me that he held a weekly meeting with a group of teenagers to test the contents of his next sermon.
Preaching at Sunday Mass
For evangelical Christians the sermon is the central part of a Sunday service. It usually amounts to an instruction on Bible texts that lasts for at least an hour. The preacher delivers a detailed interpretation of scriptural passages. The listeners usually have a copy of the Bible with them so that they can read the passages the preacher is speaking about. Often they also carry a notebook and pencil to record teaching they find really helpful.
In contrast to that, Catholic sermons are usually short ‘homilies’. Liturgical documents present these as reflections on the readings of the day. It results in brief ‘pep talks’: preachers more or less repeating what was said in the readings with some explanation on how this could influence everyday life. In reality, homilies are usually entirely predictable, shallow, ‘pious’ talk. The situation has worsened in many countries because priests are getting older and cannot retire for lack of new vocations.
Now, of course, for Catholics the sermon is not the central part of the Eucharist. For Catholics what matters most is an immersion in the sacramental reality: the renewed self-sacrifice by Jesus and our encounter with him in holy communion. But this should not mean that the crucial instructive role of the sermon is lost.
Most teenagers and young adults find our Catholic sermons a waste of time. Worse, the pious language with its outdated imagery conflicts with our modern views of a scientific, evolving world. The sermons are one reason why many stop going to church.
What does Jesus think about this?
Jesus preached. And he adapted the way he preached to his audience.
- To ordinary people who were only half interested in what he had to say, he presented parables. And he explains why: “This is why I speak to the crowds in parables: although they see, they don’t really see; and although they hear, they don’t really hear or understand.” He meant that the parables would intrigue people and force them to think (read the whole of Matthew 13,10-17).
- To people who were keen to listen to him, he spoke more clearly like in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).
- When talking to the Samaritan woman, he refers to ideas and images familiar to her: living water, worship on the mountain, the coming of the Messiah (John 4,4-26).
- Addressing the priests in the temple, on the day they carried water from the pool of Siloam to the temple compound, Jesus again uses images they understood (John 7,37-39).
- When arguing with the scribes and pharisees, he employs the legal terms they were used to (Matthew 13,13-36).
Jesus obviously expected his Apostles to do the same when preaching. Preaching was their main task. They were to boldly enter every village and every town. They could do so with authority. They were commissioned to preach. “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet. Truly I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town” (Matthew 10,14-15).
And, predicting the persecution they would face in the future, he reassures them that they will be able to explain the message to each different audience in an appropriate way. “When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how to defend yourselves or what to say. For at that time the Holy Spirit will teach you what to say” (Luke 12,11-12).
The Acts of the Apostles show how the Apostle Paul adapted his approach to different audiences. A clear example is his speech on the philosophers’ hill, the Areopagus in Athens. “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: ‘to an unknown god’. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship — and this is what I am going to proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands . . .” (Acts 17,22-24; read more fully here: Acts 17,1-34).
Do our honey-tongued Sunday homilies really proclaim Jesus’ message to people of our day and age?
Our teenagers and educated adults are facing serious assaults by the religion-ignorant, or often religion-hostile, media of our secular age. Should we through our sermons not confront the challenge and proclaim our faith in a way that makes sense to our contemporaries?
Published by arrangement with the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.