Msgr. Rossetti’s Lecture

Sunday, March 15, 2015
5:30 p.m.
Corso Auditorium
The Pontifical North American College
Annual Carl J. Peter Lecture

“Preaching the Word:
When People Stop Listening”


Rev. Msgr. Stephen Joseph Rossetti

Homily as Sacramental Grace

If a bishop, priest or deacon is standing in the pulpit and delivering a Sunday homily, and the people stop listening, he is not actually preaching.  If there is no one receiving the message, then the dynamic act that is preaching has not occurred.  The homilist is speaking, yes, he is talking about the Word, but I would like to posit to you that he is not actually preaching it.  An essential part of preaching is its two-way engagement.

Both parties must be engaged—the speaker and the listener.  It is true that people in our Catholic congregations do not actually verbally respond in the moment.  Although a good Baptist congregation might shout out an occasional AMEN in the middle of a preacher’s homily when they feel moved.  Preaching is nevertheless a two-way communication of sorts.  Pope Francis, in Evangelii Gaudium, said of the homily, “It surpasses all forms of catechesis as the supreme moment in the dialogue between God and his people” (EG, 137).  Thus, the Holy Father characterizes the homily as a kind of dialogue between God and the people.

It is not simply speaking about the Word or passing along ideas.  Rather, it is a dynamic interaction in which there is a grace that is truly transmitted. Pope Francis called it: “an intense … experience of the Holy Spirit, a consoling encounter with God’s word” (EG, 135).   Thus, it is a graced encounter with Jesus in his Word.

Many of us today are concerned with adult Catholics’ lack of knowledge of the faith.  Many Catholics stopped learning after confirmation.  We want them to know more.  So, there is a tendency to want to make up for that.  We are tempted to make the homily a kind of catechesis or lecture.  But, as the Holy Father said directly and explicitly, “It (the homily) should … avoid taking on the semblance of a speech or lecture” (EG 138).  It is more.

The very recent Homiletic Directory (2015) published by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments summarized important insights in our understanding of the homily.  “Because the homily is an integral part of the liturgy, it is not only an instruction, it is also an act of worship” (p. 15).  We see already in this instruction a sense that the homily is more akin to a prayer, or a hymn of praise, than it is to a professorial lecture.

Of course, in our homilies, we do teach a little.  For example, some preachers will help the congregation understand the context of the Gospel story by including a few facts about life and culture at the time of Jesus.  The homilist will also certainly want to include articles of the faith that are particularly applicable to the Scriptures of the day.  In fact, the appendix to the Homiletic Directory has a helpful listing of sections of the Catechism of the Catholic Church that correspond to the scriptural readings for Sundays and holy days.  Our homilies indeed must be rooted in the theology of the Church.  But, ultimately, the act of preaching is more.

Referring to Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium (7), the recent Homiletic Directory wrote, “The homily also possesses a sacramental significance” (p. 16).  This is important: the homily itself has a sacramental significance.  This is so because Christ is present in the minister preaching and also present in the assembly receiving the Word.  True preaching has a kind of sacramentality to it, of its own.  Christ is dynamically present in both preacher and congregation, moving and inspiring both.

When we think in this way, when we recognize the sacramentality of the homily, then we begin to understand its essence and its sacredness.  One of the shortest homilies on record was Jesus simply saying to the Twelve, “Follow me” (Mk 1:17).  And they did.  There was no long discussion of who or why or how.  It was simply an invitation: follow me.

One cannot humanly explain why anyone would respond simply hearing these two words.  Clearly, this Gospel passage implies a powerful graced moment.  As Jesus speaks his Word, the grace of conversion is transmitted, and hopefully accepted.  This experience is not so foreign to us today.  I suspect there are many here who themselves heard this mysterious call in similar fashion.  For you, there was no long discussion of why following Jesus would be a good idea.  No, the call then, and now, remains mysterious.  It is also intensely personal and compelling.

Paul’s own conversion came with such an intense experience on the road to Damascus.  Presumably it was rather brief in time but certainly life-changing.  The experience carried an exigency of which Paul was very much aware.  He wrote, “Woe to me if I do not preach it” (1 Cor 9:16).  Such a revelation is the Word from God to a particular person.  It is a grace with your name on it.

This then is the context for our understanding the nature of the homily.  It is sacramental; it invites one to follow Jesus; it transmits a personal grace to the hearer; and, I would add, it carries within it a personal grace for the preacher as well.


Homilies Need to Improve

I   suspect this sacred understanding of the homily is implicitly understood by many, certainly by our experienced pastors.  After years of experience in the pulpit, who has not had moments when parishioners have shared how a particular homily moved them greatly?  These people say such moments changed their lives.  Hearing parishioners describe it, the preacher realizes that something powerful happened that was well beyond anything he personally could have accomplished.  We often are surprised by grace, especially when we are its instruments.

Sadly, in the USCCB’s 2013 document on preaching, Preaching the Mystery of Faith, the U.S. Bishops said:

“We are also aware that in survey after survey over the past years, the People of God have called for more powerful and inspiring preaching.  A steady diet of tepid or poorly prepared homilies is often cited as a cause for discouragement on the part of laity and even leading some to turn away from the Church.” (p. 2)

The homily and the Sunday Mass are the primary graced interactions between priest and people.  The people want more out of our homilies.  But, I would quickly add, we ourselves want more as well.  The Homiletic Directory wisely and compassionately observed, “Every homilist wants to preach better, and at times, the many demands of pastoral care and a sense of personal inadequacy can lead to discouragement” (p. 13).

We have all experienced boring homilies that, at times, have bordered on painful.  As one of my homiletics professors noted years ago, many priests do not actually give one homily on a Sunday.  If you listen closely, they are stringing together two or three homilies on a related subject.  So, the homilist makes his initial point and it is typically rather engaging and everyone is interested. Then, in the same homily, he segues into a second, related subject.  Now, it is becoming tedious.  Sometimes, sadly, he even segues into a third related subject.  Now, no matter what he says, the experience will be one of mental pain.  As Pope Francis said, “We know that the faithful attach great importance to it, and that both they and their ordained ministers suffer because of homilies: the laity from having to listen to them and the clergy from having to preach them!” (EG, 135).

As a psychologist, I wonder about the ability of preachers to empathize with their congregations.  You should be able to tell when people are not listening.  You should be able to tell when your homily has become a source of pain.  To engage effectively in ministry, one must be able to empathize with others; one must be able to sense the experience of the person in front of him/her.  Empathy also applies to groups.  When the preacher is standing in front of a group, he should be able to sense if they are listening or not.  Are they engaged or are they desperately waiting for the homily to end?

The people will typically give us about two to three minutes to engage them.  If we do not, then they will drift off.  You’ve lost them.  If you, as the homilist, pay attention, you will then hear books starting to rustle, feet shuffling and bodies fidgeting.  You can feel the attention of the community drifting away.  The energy in the room dissipates.  At that point, all real preaching has ended.  The preacher might be “addressing words,” but the graced sacramentality of the moment is gone.

Nevertheless, the people are resilient and faith-filled.  They typically shrug it off and think to themselves, “Well, Father is a good priest and we support him.”  Indeed, the satisfaction rate of people in the USA with their pastors is high.  In the midst of the abuse crisis in Boston in 2002, the Boston Globe reported the results of a study of local parishioners in the city:  62 percent had a favorable opinion of Pope John Paul II who was immensely popular, but a huge 75 percent had a favorable opinion of their local parish priest (Boston Globe, 4/17/2002, Michael Paulson, “Most people want a resignation”).  People loved John Paul II but they loved their own pastor more!  The people do love us and they stand behind us, even in some very dark hours.  Perhaps this is all the more reason to give such loyal people a Sunday homily that is truly a sacramentally graced moment.  They deserve it.  I know that the people, and we priests, all want it to be so.

So, what is the problem?  Why do people stop listening?


Personal Holiness for Homily Preparation

I  actually do not think the problem is our oratorical skills, although it is good to develop such skills.  Priests spend an enormous amount of time speaking to people, so these skills are important.  But the Homiletic Directory noted, “It is not necessary to be a great orator in order to be an effective homilist” (p. 13).  If the homily were simply a lecture or a teaching, then having great skills as an orator would be more important.  But, as a graced moment, something more, something deeper is needed.

What is it that people really want?  They want to experience God.  They want a taste of the Divine.  They want, just for a moment, to enter into the grace of God and to have their hearts touched by the Divine.

I recall listening to a talk by Mother Teresa of Calcutta.  It was truly a graced moment.  If you actually wrote down the words she spoke and looked at them, they were very basic.  But while she spoke, every eye was riveted on Mother and every ear strained to hear her words.  Similarly, when you hear the words of Pope Francis, these too are very simple.  But, his words carry a power to them that engages the listener.  You feel drawn in.  It feels like the Pope is speaking to you.

Understanding the homily as a sacramental, graced encounter suggests first something about the one who delivers it.  One cannot completely separate the person from the message.  Surely, the grace of God operates through the preacher regardless of the state of his soul—ex opere operato.  But it is easy to overemphasize, and thus distort, the meaning of this theological phrase, which I think we tend to do.  As noted by the American Bishops (Preaching the Mystery of Faith: The Sunday Homily, 2013), “To preach the Gospel authentically to the Christian community, the homilist should strive to live a life of holiness” (p. 33).  It might sounds a little trite, but it is true and it is integral to the homiletic encounter.

Every one of us has seen the powerful effects a holy pastor can have on a parish and, sadly, we have seen the other possibility as well.  St. John Vianney began his ministry in his little parish in Ars with years of fasting and prayer.  The fruits of his subsequent labors were astounding.  On the other hand, in our day, we have seen the devastation in the wake of priestly scandals.  If we have learned anything from the times, it should have spoken to us and demanded of us, at the very least, that we live our priestly lives with integrity.

To be an effective instrument in the pulpit transmitting God’s grace implies that we allow such grace to work through us.  The words we use are important.  But, the power and efficacy of the words spoken will be strongly affected by the faith and the radiance of the grace in the one who delivers them.

Thus, like St. John Vianney, our ministry and our preaching begin with personal preparation, prayer and study.  The time you are spending here in your seminary formation is not incidental.  You are growing in wisdom and age, but you also need to grow in grace.  You cannot measure grace but the people will recognize its presence, or its absence, in you.  A layperson was recently speaking to me about a priest she admired.  She spoke of his inspiring ministry and then she turned to me and said, “He is the real deal!”  She recognized in him an authentic follower of Jesus.  Each of us can be, and should be, the “real deal.”



Holiness begins with conversion.  I have spent a bit of time with our evangelical and fundamentalist brothers and sisters.  Some of them have the practice of asking, “Have you been saved?”  If you say, “Yes,” they will likely ask you when and where it happened.  For them, salvation is often a specific moment when they personally experienced the grace of Jesus.  We Catholics might experience and conceptualize the same salvation of Jesus differently, but the question they ask is not irrelevant.

So I ask you, “Have you personally come to know that God loves you and, in Jesus, has forgiven you?”  If you do know this, really and truly, then you cannot help but be excited by the Good News.  Something wonderful has happened to you and you naturally want to share it.  Then, when you stand up in the pulpit and preach, you will be excited and engaged.  You will be preaching from the heart and everyone will feel it.  If not, if the grace of Christ has not yet touched you, then you really have nothing to preach.  You will be simply repeating theological truths, no matter how important, that you read in a book or heard in someone else’s homily.

The biblical understanding of the word “to know” is much deeper than a merely intellectual understanding garnered through study.  It implies an intimate deep connection.  It is for this reason that the former translation of the story of the Annunciation used the word “know.”  Mary says, “How can this be, for I do not know man?”  Western secular intellectualism has drained our understanding of knowledge of its real depth.  To know Jesus is to have a deep, loving relationship with him.  We know that this divine love has washed us clean, and yes, it has saved us.

I think many of you have come to such an awareness of this saving love of Jesus.  It may have come in a specific moment as our evangelical brothers and sisters profess, or it may have been a slow and steady process of having the eyes of one’s soul opened.  But the result is the same.  When we come to know the saving power of Jesus, the most natural thing in the world is to preach.  And, like Paul, we will feel compelled to do it.  As Jeremiah exclaimed, “I say I will not mention him, I will no longer speak in his name. But then it is as if fire is burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones” (20:9).  The power of Christ in us compels us to preach.  As Pope Francis wrote, “What is essential is that the preacher be certain that God loves him, that Jesus Christ has saved him and that his love always has the last word” (EG151).

But, if such has not been your experience yet, do not despair.  Pray and ask for this grace, daily, assiduously.  I assure you, in God’s time, such a welcome prayer will be answered.

But I know that many of you have already come to such an awareness.  I often ask seminarians how many of them have had a personal spiritual experience that was critical in their entry into the seminary.  Most raise their hands.  Our steady trek toward greater holiness builds on this initial knowledge of the risen Lord.  Perhaps one of the most exciting things about being a Christian and serving the Lord is the wonderful growth in our knowing God down through the decades of our lives.  After thirty years as a priest, I feel like I am now becoming a bit more ready to preach.

As the years pass, we come to know more deeply how indescribably beautiful our God is.  We become enthralled with his radiant joy and love.  We gaze into the divine presence and we are transfigured.  How can we not preach with power about such a God?  It is like a fire in our hearts.  We are shocked and saddened that so many turn away from Him in whom our hearts rejoice.  We want everyone to know this beauty, ever ancient, ever new.  Inadequate though our words are, when we preach from a deep knowing of God, our words will contain a bit of this divine grace and, from time to time, it will touch people’s hearts.


Preparing the Homily

Thus, remote preparation for preaching begins with growing in holiness.  We preach about the God whom we have ourselves encountered and in whom we ourselves grow in knowledge and love.

However, proximate, more immediate preparation for preaching begins with prayer.  Pope Benedict XVI wrote directly about this in Verbum Domini (#59): “Preachers need to be in close and constant contact with the sacred text; they should prepare for the homily by meditation and prayer, so as to preach with conviction and passion.”

Among the seemingly limitless array of subjects we could address in our homily on any given day, how does one choose?  We are tempted to choose an idea that appeals to us personally or perhaps something that we have used in the past.  However, such might not be the right choice.  How can the homilist know?

Out of the vast array of possibilities, it often happens that, during prayer and reflection, an idea bubbles up.  It rises up from the depths of our prayer and stays in our consciousness.  This spiritual discernment is, hopefully, a movement of the Spirit.

Based on the liturgical and biblical readings of the day, the homilist discerns the message God desires to give to his people.  As the homilist, it is not my message.  It belongs to God.  It is his action.  As Pope Francis said, “It is God who seeks to reach out to others through the preacher, and that he displays his power through human words (EG, 136).  Only God knows what the people need to hear and only He can direct a personal grace to each person present.

So, the process of preparing the homily begins with prayer, especially over the readings of the day.  The priest not only prays over the readings for the Sunday, but also over the readings of each day, giving a short (very short) homily at daily Mass.  My daily homilies are often only one minute.  You can say a lot in sixty seconds.  And you can say nothing in twenty minutes.  One of my close parishioners, shortly before his untimely death of cancer in his 40’s, told me that he found some of my most inspiring words and ones that touched him the most came from my one minute, daily homilies.  I was surprised.  I never forgot the comment.

Our assiduous praying over the daily and Sunday readings takes time.  But this time is not wasted for us personally.  In fact, daily praying over the lectionary is an important part of the spirituality of a parish priest.  The Benedictine monk engages in a daily lectio divina of the Scriptures.  This nourishes him and is a critical part of his spiritual growth.  For the parish priest, meditating on the lectionary is his daily lectio divina.  This process enriches our own spiritual lives.  We also have the grace of being able to share our insights with the people.

For the sake of the people and for ourselves, we ought not ascend to the pulpit ill-prepared, putting the Spirit to the test.  Pope Francis said the preacher who does not prepare himself and does not pray is “dishonest and irresponsible;” (EG145) he called him “a false prophet” (EG151).  This warning is not unwarranted.  In my own survey of 2,482 American priests, I asked them how much time they spend in private prayer of any kind each day.  Sadly, by their own admission, 19 percent of them said they prayed a total of 15 minutes each day or less.  One wonders about their homilies.  They might be good orators, but are they really preaching?

The homily is, for us preachers, an integral part of our spiritual lives.  A truly inspired homily is a grace for the people.  A truly inspired homily, and the graced process of preparing it, is a grace for the homilist as well.


Man of Communion

Up to this point, I might have given you the false impression that preparing a homily is simply a private affair between the priest and the Holy Spirit.  Much of it is.  But, just as preaching itself is a sacramental encounter that encompasses the homilist and the people, so too is its remote and proximate preparation.

Time and again we are admonished to craft homilies that speak to the needs of the people present.  The homily might be called the face of the Gospel in the current context.  The scriptural writings themselves are not altered over time, but the Good News itself is dynamic and manifests itself in different aspects and with different faces over time and across cultures.

The priest’s life is spent among the people.  He must be a man of communion, in John Paul II’s words, and live in a real communion with the people.  He visits them in the hospital when they are sick.  He goes to their homes and shares a meal with them.  He is part of their lives.  He knows their joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties (GS, 1).  It is out of this communion and love for his people that the homily grows.  As Pope Francis said, “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” (EG, 134).  A lovely phrase: “contemplate the people.”  How often do we “contemplate the people” while we are preparing our homilies?

I remember a priest who told me about his Sunday homily preparation.  At the beginning of the week, he would sit down with a group of his parishioners and they would pray together over the scriptural readings for the following Sunday.  Together, they would talk and share about what they “heard” in the Scriptures.  The laity would provide input on what they thought and how the Scriptures were touching them.  I never had the privilege of listening to one of his homilies but I suspect they were always attuned to the needs of the congregation.

Whether you employ such strategies or not, the homily must arise out of the situation of the people in the pews.  This is only possible if we are truly men of communion.  Our relationship with the people is not incidental to the fruitfulness of our labors.  As we get to know the people, we learn to love them and they come to love us.  United in this parish family, we can encourage and challenge them from the pulpit and they do the same for us throughout the week.  The homily is the sacramental moment for us to address them on Sunday; the rest of the week is the “sacramental” moment when they address and challenge us.


Preaching in the Streets

So far, we have discussed preaching inside a church, and some reasons why people in the pews stop listening.  But there is another reason.  Sadly, in many parts of the world, our churches are emptying.  As secularism sweeps the globe, which is occurring in dramatic ways, many people who desperately need to hear the Good News do not.  Because they are no longer coming to us, they will never hear the Word unless it is brought to them.

We can fashion inspiring homilies but if the church is empty, there is no sacramental encounter, no graced moment, and thus no preaching.  St John Paul II and the popes after him have called us to move beyond simply trying to maintain what we have, in a kind of desperate attempt to plug the holes in a leaking ship.  This can lead to a deadening, self-focused introversion.  Ultimately, the ship will sink.

In this context of going outside of the church building, preaching is a broader notion.  It is the task for all Christians, not just for the ordained.  Nevertheless, you and I as ordained ministers have an increasingly important role and obligation to bring the Good News to them.  While such evangelizing preaching is the responsibility of all, as shepherds we ought to be leading.  A church alive is necessarily a missionary church, always pushing beyond its current borders and pushing you and I, its ministers, beyond our comfort zones.

Now most of us are not the type to stand on the street corner and start shouting out the message of Jesus.  Not so very long ago I remember being in the subway in Washington DC and listening to a man crying out lines from the New Testament.  He was obviously a bit mentally disturbed.  But, as I listened, he was doing a pretty good of preaching the kerygma– God sent his son, Jesus, who died and rose for us; he calls us to repent of our sins; he will come again and we will be judged.  Perhaps God has called this street person to preach, yelling his message in a crowded subway.  But I am fairly certain that your Bishop would prefer that you find other ways to spread the Gospel.

I have found that, if we mingle with people, if they know that we are Catholic priests, then there are regular opportunities to begin a religious discussion and to raise fundamental questions.

I was riding in a taxicab a few weeks ago.  The driver was not Christian but had faith questions about which he was serious.  He was happy to have the opportunity to talk to a priest.  He then said he wanted to have faith but did not.  He seemed very sincere.  I told him that faith is a gift from God.  I recommended he pray for a few minutes every day, asking God for this gift of faith.  I told him, “God will certainly answer this prayer.”  I suspect he did just that.

Just because our society is becoming increasingly secular and there are fewer religious symbols and ideas in the public forum, does not mean the Spirit is not alive and working in the world.  I am increasingly inspired by how regularly I see signs of grace moving in people outside of our walls.  Our job is to recognize it, be available, and to fan these initial flames of faith.

A few years ago, I was in Mexico trying to learn some Spanish.  Each day after the lessons, we celebrated Mass at the home of the devout Mexican family where we were living.  There was a man in his 70’s staying there, an American.  After a couple of weeks, we got to know each other a bit.  I noticed he never prayed with us.  At one point, we had a discussion and it was apparent that he did not practice any religion.  I asked him, “Have you ever thought about what will happen to you after you die?  You’re not getting any younger.”  Not too subtle I suppose but I tried to say it nicely.  He blurted out, “I don’t believe in all that religion stuff.”  I responded, “I didn’t say anything about religion, I simply asked if you had thought about the next life.”  Again, he said, “I don’t believe in religion!” Then, there was an awkward silence….  The next day he showed up for Mass.

In such cases, preaching, as a graced sacramental encounter, is much more basic but no less important.  Perhaps it is more important in today’s secular world.  In our churches, we preach to the saved.  But in the streets, we “preach” to many people who have not yet come to faith.  I suspect that taxi driver will never have another opportunity to be with a Catholic priest in private and discuss the faith.  It is also likely that the man in his 70’s in Mexico will never again have the opportunity to speak with a priest about important questions.  Let us not deprive the people of such possibilities.  It might just be a salvific moment for them and, ultimately, for us.

I recommend two things.  First, as you can tell, I am not passive about it.  While I might not be as aggressive as the man yelling in the subway, I will bring up the subject of faith and fundamental questions regularly.  I find wearing my clerics is often a good entrée into such a discussion.  Second, such “preaching” is most effective in the context of a relationship.  As people get to know us and respect us, they are much more receptive to such invitations to faith.  But the homily you give on the streets will be first and foremost the witness of your life.  So, live your priestly vocation with integrity and joy.

At the same time, these people in the marketplace grace us.  Their perspectives and innate goodness often touch us and inspire us to be better.  While I know the truths of the faith, many of them live it with more integrity and love than I do.  I do not mean this as some sort of self-denigrating pious platitude.  It’s simply a fact.  For example, I am regularly awed by the sacrifices of parents in raising their children.  I quietly grouse to myself when I have to get up early in the morning.  They, especially mothers, are regularly awakened in the middle of the night to attend to a sick or hungry little child.  I live a comfortable life yet these fathers work two and three jobs, sacrificing their comfort to provide for their spouses and children.  They understand sacrificial love.  I am not sure I do as well as they.

Preaching, in this broadest sense, is a sacramental encounter in which both the preacher and those receiving the message are graced.


Preaching the Gospel of Joy

Let me finish by addressing a subject that is very dear to Pope Francis’ heart and, in fact, so many saints before him.  He warns us: “One of the more serious temptations which stifles boldness and zeal is a defeatism which turns us into querulous and disillusioned pessimists, ‘sourpusses’” (EG, 85).  Similarly, good Pope John XXIII, in his opening homily to the Second Vatican Council setting the stage for this historic gathering, warned against the “prophets of gloom” who see nothing but “prevarication and ruin.”  With them he said, “I feel I must disagree.”

I remember my homiletics professor in the seminary, Fr. Gabriel O’Donnell OP who said, “It is easier to preach the bad news than it is the good news.”  Wise words.  It is easy to make the people feel awful and walk out of Mass with their heads hung down.  That’s an easy homily to write.  Perhaps there is a day for that on a Friday in Lent.  But most of the time, especially on the Lord’s day when we celebrate the resurrection, if we cannot radiate just a little of God’s joy and peace, then have we really meditated on the Gospel?  One of the defining characteristics of sanctity is a radiant joy.  “God save us from these sour-faced saints,” said Teresa of Avila.  As she well knows, sanctity does not wear a sour face.  Or St. Francis de Sales, “A sad saint would be a sorry saint indeed.”  Likewise, Our Blessed Mother Mary rejoices in God her savior.

Would preaching a Gospel joy be an insult to all the suffering around us?  In his Apostolic Exhortation, Gaudete in Domino, Paul VI said, “This situation nevertheless cannot hinder us from speaking about joy and hoping for joy.  It is indeed in the midst of their distress that our fellow men need to know joy, to hear its song.”  More than ever, it is this joy, this Good News, that human hearts instinctively long for.  When people see and experience our authentic Christian joy, many will recognize it.  They will recognize that this is what they have truly been longing for.  Some will join us.

In the end, after you leave a parish assignment, when you have finished several years of preaching, the one homily that everyone will remember, the lasting word that will remain indelibly etched into their memories, will be the look on your face.  Let it be a message of joy.

This sounds incredibly difficult– preaching true joy.  Actually, it is not.  The Good News is filled with joy.  Perhaps the most common words in the New Testament are related to joy and rejoicing.  “Rejoice in the Lord always, I say it again rejoice” (Phil 4:4).  Joy is the hallmark of the early Christian community, despite their sufferings and hardships.  Many went to their deaths rejoicing and singing.

We are joyful because it is Jesus’ gift to us, “That my joy might be in you” (Jn 15:11).  What was the source of Jesus’ joy?  Paul VI gives us the answer, “If Jesus radiates such peace, such assurance, such happiness … , it is by reason of the inexpressible love by which He knows that He is loved by His Father” (Gaudete in Domino).

When God touches us, his joy is indelibly marked in our souls.  If the life of Jesus and his loving relationship with the Father becomes yours, then you will not be able to contain your joy.  It will radiate through your actions, the words you preach and through the look on your face.  Then, when you stand in the pulpit, the homily will indeed be a sacramental moment.  It will be all that the people hope for and all that you were hoping it would be.


Concluding Remarks

I  have given you a challenging task, perhaps a bit overwhelming.  Make the homily a sacramental moment.  Live a holy life.  Prepare the homily through prayer and discernment.  Live in love and communion with the people.  Let them move you and “preach” to you, just as you challenge and encourage them.  Finally, share Jesus’ joy with the people.

This is a tall task but it is one to which you and I aspire.  We will not always reach the mark, but some days we will.  When we do, it will not be we who are speaking but the Spirit will be moving us.  Ultimately, it is God who is the homilist.  But we must give him a chance to work through us.  If we do, he certainly will.

In the end, you will find the one who is first addressed by the homily and the one who first transformed by joy is yourself.   We are blessed to be preachers of the Good News of Jesus.  We are blessed to love and to be loved by God’s people.  May God’s joy radiate through these sacramental encounters.  May his love be ours forever.

The Pontifical North American College community would like to thank Msgr. Rossetti for his exceptional Carl J. Peter lecture and for his permission to share his lecture with our online community.