Witness and preaching

Duncan Macpherson explores the preparation necessary for preaching which sets ‘hearts on fire’.1

In 1994, Pope John Paul II published a remarkable document entitled ‘Crossing the Threshold of Hope’, a title that grabs the imagination as expressing the desired outcome of every homily – ‘to take the hearers of the good news by the hand, to come alongside each one in their experience of life together with its pain, confusion, guilt and estrangement and to hold out an invitation to cross the threshold of hope and to discover a new sense of living and belonging in Christ’.2 Nearly twenty years later, Pope Francis reinforced this message with the direct and challenging character of his message in his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, focusing attention on the renewal of preaching.

Words which set hearts on fire
The witness of the preacher in the homily necessarily involves a dynamic interdependency between the message of the text, the personal ethos of the preacher, the character of the congregation and contemporary human concerns. Effective communication of the Good News does not only require rhetorical skill; it also requires an awareness that we live today in cultures very different from those of New Testament times. The process of inculturation requires sensitivity to ‘the world in front of the text’ as much as to the world of the text, and of contemporary issues, at the local, the national and the international level. At the local level, it also requires an awareness of the background and concerns of individual members of the congregation. The first question a visiting preacher should always ask is, ‘Can you tell me about your congregation?’ The preacher also needs to take account of his own personal background, enthusiasms, and prejudices. In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis urges that the preacher should aim to offer ‘words which set hearts on fire’, adding that ‘to speak from the heart means that our hearts must not just be on fire, but also enlightened by the fullness of revelation and by the path travelled by God’s word in the heart of the Church and our faithful people throughout history’ (EG 144).

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