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Posted September 26, 2007

Carl J. Peter Lecture - A Vocation to Preach

"Maybe the greatest threat to the Church is not heresy, not dissent, not secularism, not even moral relativism, but this sanitized, feel-good, boutique, therapeutic spirituality that makes no demands, calls for no sacrifice, asks for no conversion, entails no battle against sin, but only soothes and affirms."
Archbishop Timothy Dolan

On January 14th, the North American College welcomed her former Rector, Archbishop Timothy Dolan, as guest speaker for the annual Carl J. Peter Lecture on homiletics. Speaking in the auditorium where he often gave his now well known Rector's Conferences, the Archbishop of Milwaukee presented to the students and faculty a talk entitled "Preaching: An Ecclesial Vocation".

While sharing his familiar wit and candor, he encouraged the seminarians and priests of the College to always see their role as preachers of the Word in the larger context of the Church, whom they represent. The Archbishop quickly noted that one's personality, style, and tone must never be lacking from preaching. However, personal character should not detract from one's duty to stand in persona Christi. While all the baptized are called to proclaim the Christian message, those entrusted with the office of preaching should proclaim Christ and not oneself or one's personal agenda.

This being said, a priest carries out the mission of preaching only in the heart of the Church. Ministers who stand in persona Christi speak for the Church, the Bride, and follow his example. Such preaching points to Christ and his Bride, and not to one's personal opinions. Lastly, he noted that committed preachers never shy away from preaching the Cross.

With his thoughts, memorable stories, and catchy humor, Archbishop Dolan encouraged the students and faculty of the College to be priests who forever proclaim Christ, his Church, and his cross. May the example of those great preachers who go before us continue to inspire the upcoming generations of priests, and may the name of Christ be forever proclaimed.

Preaching: An Ecclesial Vocation

Preaching at the Eucharist is an ecclesial vocation; it comes from and is an intimate part of the Person of Christ, and of His bride, the Church.

Now, I must express a couple of caveats, lest one be already tempted to jump to unintended conclusions from my just-stated thesis.

For one, I am not saying that our personality, our temperament, our humanity does not affect our preaching. You bet it does. As St. Thomas Aquinas insisted, grace builds on nature, and we bring our human nature with us -- some of us with much more weight than others -- every time we stand before God's people and dare to preach. Never are we to be robots, empty shells, devoid of color, care, and character in the pulpit. So, I am not saying that our ecclesial call to preach, not our person, but in persona Christi, turns us into mechanical "tin-men." We gladly bring our humanity with us, to give warmth, color, naturalness, credibility, a heart, to what we preach. But our person is -- to borrow again from the Angelic Doctor -- only the "accident." The substance must be Christ! And I am afraid that too often today the "accident" our own person, our own agenda, trumps the substance of the Person of Christ and the message of His Church. That injunction is as fresh as yesterday's office of Readings, when St. Hilary of Poitiers prayed to the Lord, "I am well aware . . . that in my life I owe you a most particular duty: to make my every thought and word speak of you."

Thanks to the towering Magisterium of the Servant of God, Pope John Paul II, the theme of the identity of the priest as one who acts in Persona Christi has been revived and emphasized. At the core of our being, ordination so configures us, "re-orders" us, that we now act in the very person of the Second Person of the Most blessed Trinity, a concept developed especially in Pastores Dabo Vobis. I don't know about you, but I find it rather easy -- awesome, to be sure -- but simple, to see myself acting in Persona Christi when I utter the words of consecration at Mass, for instance, or absolve a penitent in the sacrament of reconciliation, or christen a baby or an adult. What I am proposing in this Carl J. Peter Lecture is that we are also acting in the Person of Christ when we preach. Jesus preaches to His people in and through us. "He who hears you, hears me!" If this does not stop you short, I don't know what will.

Let me elaborate on this in three points:

First, we are called, in the ecclesial charism of preaching, to preach Jesus. In my home archdiocese of St. Louis, there is a parish church where, as you approach the pulpit to preach, you see an inscription from the gospels carved into the ambo. The passage? "Sir, we would like to see Jesus," the earnest, direct appeal of the Greek visitors to the apostles as recorded in the Fourth Gospel. The first time I preached from that pulpit I was captivated by that statement. As I looked out at the hundreds of people before me, that was their plea, their desire, the mission statement they were giving me: "Sir, we would like to see Jesus."

If, as I contend, preaching is an ecclesial charism, then, as homilist, we, representing the Church, speak lovingly of the Church's spouse, Christ. Poetically implicit in the liturgy of the Word for this second Sunday of Ordinary Time, in the passage from Isaiah and the Fourth Gospel, is that nuptial imagery. While preaching, we speak with, from, and for the Church, often about her spouse, Jesus Christ.

Secondly, as a preacher, we speak for, with, and from the Church. It is an ecclesial act. This follows logically, because, for us as Catholics, Christ and His Church are one. Just ask Saul of Tarsus, who found this out the hard way on the road to Damascus. "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" Not, notice, why do you persecute my Church, my people, but, "Why do you crucify me?"

But we are totally and unequivocally men of the Church as preachers. What St. Ignatius of Loyola wrote for his prospective Jesuits applies to us: we are resolved to serve "the Lord alone and the Church His Spouse." Remember his conclusion of the Spiritual Exercises, where he refuses to admit any discrepancy between the love of Christ and His Church? "I must be convinced," he writes, "that in Christ our Lord, the bridegroom, and in His spouse the Church, only one Spirit holds sway, which governs and rules for the salvation of souls." And, as Cardinal Avery Dulles concludes, "St. Ignatius' allegiance is not to some abstract idea of the Church, but to the Church as it concretely exists on earth, with the Roman Pontiff at its summit." Referring to St. Ignatius, the cardinal concludes that the hierarchical and Roman Church is "the true spouse of Christ our Lord, our holy mother."

We're hardly blind to the defects, flaws, and imperfections of the Church. Ecclesia semper reformanda. We see her, warts and all. At times we can even agree with Flannery O'Connor and remark, "It's not suffering for the Church that bothers me; it's suffering from her." A groom will honor his bride's dark side; a son well knows his mother's eccentricities. But, in the words of the great Newman, our love for and trust in the Church, both our bride and our mother, is innate. "Love for Christ and His Church must be the passion of your lives!" as John Paul the Great told priests.

Thirdly, finally, as we preach of Jesus, as we speak with, for, and from His Church, we must speak of the Cross. The temptation is there to soft-pedal the cross. "A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministration of a Christ without a cross," in the oft-quoted words of H. Richard Niebuhr. Well, in the words of that great American philosopher, Huckleberry Finn, from my home state of Missouri, "It ain't the parts of the Bible that I don't understand that bothers me. It's the parts I do understand," and I understand the Bible to teach that the cross is an inevitable part of what we paradoxically call the "good news." So, our preaching, if we preach Christ, if we preach with, for, from, and in the Church, must preach the cross. If our charism of preaching is Jesus-centered, and ecclesial -- as it must be -- it must also hold high the cross of Christ.