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Guidelines for Preaching During a Tragedy

Fr. Robert Waznak, S.S.
Professor Emeritus — Washington Theological Union

1. Liturgy. We should all reflect on what the Order of Christian Funerals advises:

The homilist should dwell on God’s compassionate love and on the paschal mystery of the Lord, as proclaimed in the Scripture readings. The homilist should also help the members of the assembly to understand that the mystery of God’s love and the mystery of Jesus’ victorious death and resurrection were present in the life of the deceased and that these mysteries are active in their own lives as well.

That elegant statement will remind us why we are in the pulpit in a time of tragedy and death. Of course we are not there to preach a eulogy but to proclaim the paschal mystery of Christ, the paschal mystery of our beloved dead, and our own paschal mystery. We heard a marvelous example of this preaching by Michael Duffy, O.F.M., at the funeral of his friar friend Mychal Judge, O.F.M., the beloved chaplain who was killed while anointing a fireman at the collapsed World Trade Center. Father Duffy proclaimed; “What a wonderful say to die! Mike was at the center of things, he was praying to God, and he was helping others.”

2. Scripture. The 1982 U.S. Catholic bishops’ document Fulfilled in Your Hearing reminded us that in a homily “the preacher does not so much attempt to explain the Scriptures as to interpret the human situation through the Scriptures.” Often in homilies preached on special occasions, preachers ignore the proclaimed Scriptures because they feel their own ideas are primary. Instead of relying only on our feeble words and images, we must learn to interpret our sad times and tragic experiences through the words and images of the proclaimed Scriptures. The homily preached by George Carey, the archbishop of Canterbury, at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London on Sept. 14 is a fine example of interpreting life through the Scriptures proclaimed. The archbishop said, “I am hopeful for the people of America: hopeful that as ruins are rebuilt, so also a shaken people will be restored.” He creatively drew upon the words of Isaiah, “first spoken at a time of disaster and despair in the life of his own people.”

3. People. The homily must never be “my” homily but a homily of the gathered faithful. Preachers must pay attention to the mood of the assembly. Billy Graham was most pastoral in his sermon at the National Cathedral. He lovingly told the people that “God understands your anger.” He also was not afraid to go beyond the acknowledgment of anger and boldly proclaim that “God can be trusted ... He is a God of mercy and love and not the author of evil.” Some liturgists (David N. Power) and some theologians (Mary Catherine Hilkert) have reminded us of the tradition of preaching as a lament, as naming the pain and revealing the tears. Once again, there are times when we must not be so anxious to fast-forward to Easter Sunday.

4. Christ as our Compassion. What still has not penetrated our pulpits are the insights of some contemporary theologians who have meditated deeply on the Jesus of Golgotha and offered us a Jesus who suffers with us and who is our Compassion. Some like Jurgen Moltmann, quote from the novel Night, written by the Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel:

The S.S. hanged two Jewish men and a youth in front of the whole camp. The men died quickly, but the death throes of the youth lasted for half an hour. “Where is God? Where is he?” someone asked behind me. As the youth still hung in torment in a noose after a long time, I heard a voice within myself answer, “Where is he? He is here, he is hanging on the gallows ....

5. Mystery. Appalling statements are sometimes heard in funeral homilies — e.g., “God needed another angel in heaven and that is why she died.” Preachers offer a petty God and give the impression that the preacher actually knows the will of God! I was touched not only by the humility but the good theology Billy Graham preached when, concerning the reality of evil, he said, “I really don’t know the answer totally to my satisfaction.” But Graham went on to profess boldly his belief that our God is a God of mercy and not of evil.

Karl Rahner’s final answer to the problem of evil was an appeal to faith and to the mystery of God: “The incomprehensibility of suffering is part of the incomprehensibility of God.” Rahner was not afraid to admit that indeed, suffering “is the form .... in which the incomprehensibility of God himself appears.”

We must not be afraid to preach mystery. We do not have the power to end evil, suffering and death. But we do have the grace that comes from the paschal mystery which invites us to pick up the shattered pieces of our world and make something holy out of them.