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You are here: Articles > Pastoral Issues > The Catechism on Preaching  Back one page.
The Catechism on Preaching
(Crisis) June 1996

Peter John Cameron

Pope John Paul II has asked that all the Church's pastors use the Catechism of the Catholic Church "assiduously in fulfilling their mission of proclaiming the faith and calling people to the Gospel of life." But how is the preacher to approach the Catechism from the perspective of homiletics so as to "make a very important contribution to that work of renewing the whole life of the Church?"

The Context of Preaching

The preacher's utterance proceeds from and participates in a permanent and definitive context: Jesus Christ, "the Father's one, perfect, and unsurpassable Word." Therefore, since "there will be no other word than this one," the task of the preacher is to preach this Word Jesus.

To this end, the whole of Jesus' human life invites penetrating scrutiny. For every visible aspect of the Lord's life played a redemptive role in Revelation as "a sign of his mystery." Even the least characteristics of Christ's mysteries "manifest 'God's love ... among us."' For this reason, the Lord in his own preaching relied on "the signs of creation to make known the mysteries of the Kingdom of God," since "from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator." Therefore, true preaching in the context of Christ demonstrates how "the whole of Christ's life was. . . the actualization of his word and the fulfillment of Revelation."

Authentic preaching in the context of God's Word serves as a unifying force for God's people, for "by his word ... Jesus calls all people to come together around him." Yet, the preaching of Jesus is not selfdirected; his words reveal and personally refer us to the splendor of the Father. Preaching in the context of Christ means uniting others to the Father through Jesus, aided by the employment of every medium of communication.

To achieve this, the preacher requires a hermeneutic that enables him to understand and interpret the meaning of Christ's life in context. "All that Jesus did and taught, from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, is to be seen in the light of the mysteries of Christmas and Easter."

It is for this reason that the Eucharistic Liturgy provides the most appropriate context for preaching. The Catechism describes the homily as the extension of the proclamation of the Word of God that exhorts the faithful to accept God's Word in all its fullness and to put it into practice.

Preaching possesses a relational power that participates ontologically in the efficacy of the Liturgy:

By means of the words, actions, and symbols that form the structure of a celebration, the Spirit puts both the faithful and the ministers into a living relationship with Christ, the Word and Image of the Father, so that they can live out the meaning of what they hear, contemplate, and do in the celebration.

Jesus Christ "inaugurated his Church by preaching the Good News, that is, the coming of the Reign of God, promised over the ages in the scriptures." Thus, to preach in the context of Christ also means embracing what Jesus preached - the Beatitudes, the Kingdom of God, conversion, and the Decalogue.

The manner of the Lord's preaching was as important as his message. His characteristic parables ask for a radical choice on the part of the hearer: "to gain the kingdom, one must give everything."

To whom did Jesus preach? "In the Church's preaching this call [to conversion] is addressed first to those who do not yet know Christ and his Gospel." "Jesus is sent to preach good news to the poor." "The Gospel was preached even to the dead. The descent into hell brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfillment." In short, the preaching of Christ addresses those in need of hope, and "Christian hope unfolds from the beginning of Jesus' preaching in the proclamation of the beatitudes."

What Is Preaching?

The Catechism defines preaching as the faithful perpetuation, interpretation, and propagation of the "speech of God, that is sacred Scripture.

Preaching stands as the faithful Church's obedient response to the command of the Master. In this way, preaching remains the lifeblood of the Church and the Church's supreme obligation. In his divine Providence, the Lord relies on the universal action of preaching as the means by which God's saving actions become seen and known by all in the world. Preaching, therefore, remains an instrument of revelation.

As an extension of the Word of God, the homily is "an exhortation to accept this Word as what it truly is, the Word of God, and to put it into practice." As a mediator of divine life, preaching provides a way for people to assimilate, appropriate, and actualize the Word of God. Preaching, then, is a saving action, a saving encounter, whose power is manifested through the saving actions of Christ in the liturgy.

The Catholic Preacher

The Catechism calls on the wisdom of St. Paul in stating the fundamental principle of preaching:

"How are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher? And how can men preach unless they are sent?" No one - no individual and no community can proclaim the Gospel to himself: "Faith comes from what is heard." No one can give himself the mandate and the mission to proclaim the Gospel.

The Catholic preacher is the person who has been called, set apart, mandated, and missioned by the Church to preach. The preacher is an apostle.

The preacher himself cannot generate the faith that enables Christians to live the gospel. But he is called to serve as an instrument of grace for bolstering both the faith and the charity of the Church. The first in the Church to fulfill this sacred duty of distributing graces and divine gifts via preaching were the apostles . . . sent forth in a pattern that reflects the Incarnation.

Like the gospel itself, the power to preach with authority was passed on by the apostles to their successors. So august is this privilege of preaching that it stands as the chief priority in the ministry of every bishop and priest. In fact, the extension of the preaching office to presbyters defines the very identity of the priest.

The entire formation of the priest is ordered to the mission of preaching in its fullest sense. This program of formation quickens the faith life and spiritual maturity of the potential preacher, transforming him into an authentic witness of the gospel. The message of preaching relies on that witness. The preacher must never underestimate the redemptive efficacy of his own good example as a key agent in realizing the objective of preaching.

In this respect, the preacher is always first of all an exemplar:

The revelation of the vocation and truth of man is linked to the revelation of God. Man's vocation is to make God manifest by acting in conformity with his creation in the image and likeness of God.

This truth applies preeminently to priests inasmuch as they "are signed with a special character and so are configured to Christ the priest so as to act in the person of Christ the head."

At the same time, though, the preacher relies on the exigencies of art, which is "a freely given superabundance of the human being's inner riches ... a form of practical wisdom, uniting knowledge and skill, to give form to the truth of reality in a language accessible to sight or hearing."

In this respect, the preacher is also an artist. His preaching strives to express "the truth of his relationship with God." He accomplishes this via the beauty of his homiletic words that bear "a certain likeness to God's activity in what he has created." As art, the homily gives form to the truth of reality of salvation and new life in Christ to the degree that it "is ordered to and ennobled by the ultimate end of man."

The preacher's graced ability to touch lives and change them attests to the homily's artistic nature. The vocation of all sacred art is to evoke and glorify "the transcendent mystery of God - the surpassing invisible beauty of truth and love visible in Christ." Like all genuine sacred art, the artistry of preaching should draw "man to adoration, to prayer, and to the love of God.... to the increase of God's praise and glory . . . [by] turning men's minds devoutly toward God."

The preacher is also a pray-er. He relies in a crucial way on meditation, for meditation "engages thought, imagination, emotion, and desire" so as "to deepen our convictions of faith, prompt the conversion of our heart, and strengthen our will to follow Christ." Through meditation, what we read becomes our own "by confronting it with ourselves.... We pass from thoughts to reality.... We discover the movements that stir the heart."

The preacher dwells within an unending mystical dialectic, carrying him from contemplation to action. He meditates so that he can mediate. The preacher's life of prayer, made plain and compelling by the probity of his preaching, persuades the faithful to develop their own life of prayer and meditation.

What Informs Preaching?

Preaching responds to the innate human desire to know God. In God, the human spiritual longing will be satisfied, for "the Church teaches that the one true God, our Creator and Lord, can be known with certainty from his works, by the natural light of human reason."

In a particular way, preaching appeals to the intellect of the human person who discovers certain ways of coming to know God "which allow us to attain certainty about the truth." The preacher compels the hearer both to contemplate the wonder of the human person and to look beyond the self to the world where we find invaluable indications of God's presence and action in order to "come to a knowledge of God as the origin and the end of the universe."

In this process, Jesus remains central, for it is Christ who "makes man fully manifest to himself and brings to light his exalted vocation." To accomplish such a reflection, three things are required of preaching.

First of all, preaching must take into consideration the impact and value of signs and symbols in human knowing, feeling, and interacting, for "man expresses and perceives spiritual realities through physical signs and symbols.... Man needs signs and symbols to communicate with others ... The same holds true for his relationship with God."

At the same time, preaching must respect and harness the inestimable role of discourse in mediating the truth. The language of preaching must dutifully proclaim the saving works of God and bring to our perception the mystery those works contain.

However, more than anything else, divine charity informs authentic preaching. Without love, we lose the impulse to preach. Love assures us that we can know God. Aflame with that assurance, love impels the preacher to move others to know God. Therefore, the preacher's heart - in the profoundest sense - must first be informed by God's love.

The Content of Preaching

The substance of preaching reflects the trinitarian nature of God and the action of the three Divine Persons in the economy of salvation. Preaching extends the dynamic, lifegiving self?communication of the Father to the Church.

This understanding underscores the incarnational aspect of authentic preaching; through the graced action of the preacher, the Word continues to dwell among us. The person of Jesus Christ in all his "unsearchable riches" (Eph. 3:8) remains the focus and terminus of preaching by way of the kerygma. True preaching, therefore, both manifests and embodies the incarnate nature of Christian faith.

Therefore, "the Roman Pontiff and the bishops, as authentic teachers, preach to the People of God the faith which is to be believed and applied in moral life." The font of faith and moral guidance is the gospel. The gospel "is the revelation in Jesus Christ of God's mercy to sinners," and "the heart of all the Scriptures."

If preaching participates in the dynamic of divine self-revelation, then the name of Jesus is the very center of that revelation. The bestowal of the divine name signals the consummate privilege of God to his people. For the holy name of Jesus remains the seminal instrument of salvation and sanctification in the life of faith.

Moreover, the inspiration and animation of all Christian preaching proceeds from the Holy Spirit in the way that the logos proceeds from the Father. The same Holy Spirit who inflames God's preachers to proclaim the paschal mystery also empowers God's people to embody that mystery in a graced life formed by sacrifice and sacrament.

In this way, the mission of the preacher images the very mission of the Holy Spirit. What the Catechism attributes to the work of the Holy Spirit can also be applied to the preacher's task:

The Spirit prepares men and goes out to them with this grace, in order to draw them to Christ. The Spirit manifests the risen Lord to them, recalls his word to them and opens their minds to the understanding of his Death and Resurrection. He makes present the mystery of Christ, supremely in the Eucharist, in order to reconcile them, to bring them into communion with God, that they may "bear much fruit." In short, the content of preaching is the light of the living God - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The Objective of Preaching

As an extension of the mission of the Holy Spirit, preaching makes more and more explicit the significance of revelation. Man "is the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake, and he alone is called to share, by knowledge and love, in God's own life." To realize our human dignity, that is, to partake of the life of God means to be drawn into the blessed trinity's eternal exchange of love. This "secret" gets revealed through the sending of Christ and the Spirit, and becomes further disclosed via preaching.

Therefore, preaching must incorporate the motives of the Incarnation. The Catechism stresses four: "The Word became flesh for us in order to save us by reconciling us with God; the Word became flesh so that thus we might know God's love; the Word became flesh to be our model of holiness; and the Word became flesh to make us 'partakers of the divine nature."' To facilitate our own embodiment of the ends of divine self-giving, preaching strives to promote reconciliation, to engender God's love, to provide a pattern for sanctity, and to effect conformity to the life of Christ.

God's offer of intimacy demands a response on our part. For "God willed both to reveal himself to man and to give him the grace of being able to welcome this revelation in faith." In fact, "by revealing himself God wishes to make men capable of responding to him, and of knowing him and of loving him far beyond their own natural capacity."

Gospel preaching constantly reminds us that our chief responsibility in responding to God's invitation to intimacy is to acknowledge the all-important primacy of God's own initiative in our lives. Preaching moves our minds and our wills to respond to the truth in a self-perfecting life of belief. For "our duty toward God is to believe in him and to bear witness to him" since "ignorance of God is the principle and explanation of all moral deviations." The Church relies on preachers to be instruments of the truth who "go out to meet [the desire of those who obey the prompting of the spirit of truth], so as to bring them the truth." Unfortunately, "the precepts of natural law are not perceived by everyone clearly and immediately. In the present situation sinful man needs grace and revelation so moral and religious truths may be known by everyone with facility, with firm certainty and with no admixture of error."

Moreover, the preacher appeals to the manifold ways that God has revealed his truth and beauty to his people. Thus, thanks to the graced agency of the preacher, "when he listens to the message of creation and to the voice of conscience, man can arrive at certainty about the existence of God, the cause and the end of everything." For through the assistance of the Holy Spirit, "the understanding of both the realities and the words of the heritage of faith is able to grow in the life of the Church."

The preaching that opens our hearts to divine friendship and our minds to God's saving truth in turn impels us to receive new life. In so doing, revelation in faith and love refuses to leave us as isolated individuals. Rather, it calls us into divine communion by way of holy community.

The Word that gives birth to the individual Christian and to the Church itself continues to sustain the life of God's people. Through the devotion to the Church that preaching engenders, we discover the full truth about ourselves:

The Church receives from the Gospel the full revelation of the truth about man. When she fulfills her mission of proclaiming the Gospel, she bears witness to man, in the name of Christ, to his dignity and his vocation to the communion of person.

That dignity is wondrously revealed in the divine work of "Justification." Gospel preaching constantly emphasizes that the "desire for true happiness frees man ... so that he can find his fulfillment in the vision and beatitude of God." In this way, the preacher effects conversion. If "God shows forth his almighty power by converting us from our sins and restoring us to his friendship by grace," then it is the preacher who aids in the conversion process, especially by offering that reconciliation which renews our friendship with God.

The renewal and restoration made possible through preaching must be extended universally to the world. To accept this obligation is to acknowledge humbly a fundamental truth: "I cannot believe without being carried by the faith of others, and by my faith I help support others in the faith."

Since the Church "teaches [man] the demands of justice and peace in conformity with divine wisdom," the preacher's role is to remind Christians of their charge to participate in the good of the community.

In summary, in fulfilling the objective of making divine revelation more explicit and accessible, the preacher acts as a prophet. In drawing others to assent to divine truth in a life of active faith, the preacher functions as teacher. By unifying Christians within the fold of the Church, the preacher serves as priest and minister. The preacher brings about the aim of restoration, reparation, and reconciliation via his role as healer. As evangelist and peacemaker to the world, the preacher acts as ambassador.

The Praxis of Preaching

The praxis for preaching flows from the tradition of the transmission of the gospel. The preacher, who is blessed with the same grace of revelation that inspired the sacred writers, is charged to be obedient to the Bible in his interpretation and proclamation. Rooted in the spirit and the word of the sacred writers, the preacher also emulates the procedures of the apostles of the oral stage. That is to say, the contemporary preacher continues to hand on the Word of God both by the probity of his own spoken word as well as the excellence of the personal example he gives.

Building upon this theological foundation, the Catechism offers a few practical directives to the preacher regarding preaching method. The preacher is charged to be sensitive and accommodating to the mentality of his congregation. At the same time, regarding the mode of his preaching, the preacher must remain alert and responsible in his use of language. Yet, the preacher takes up his auspicious task with the confidence and surety that flow to him from the very efficacy of the gospel. And all of this is accomplished through the authentic preacher of Jesus Christ whose preaching truly glorifies the Blessed Trinity: "The glory of God consists in the realization of this manifestation and communication of his goodness." +

Readers who are interested in learning the specific citations from the Catechism for further study may contact Father Cameron at St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers, New York.

REV. PETER JOHN CAMERON, O.P. is chairman of the Department of Homiletics at Saint Joseph's Seminary, Dunwoodie in Yonkers, New York.

Reprinted with permission of Crisis Magazine. For subscriptions call 800-852-9962.

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All contents © copyright, 1998-2017
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