In late June of this year, I had occasion to concelebrate a newly ordained priest’s First Mass. Following a well-established custom, this newly ordained priest had asked an older, more seasoned priest to preach the homily. Since we had already passed Pentecost, Most Holy Trinity and Corpus Christi—three consecutive Solemnities with rich and suggestive texts all their own—I was interested to see what the homilist was going to do with the readings for the Twelfth Sunday in Cycle A.
Unlikely that it is for you to remember the gospel text assigned for that Sunday (June 25th), allow me to summarize briefly its content. It begins with the evangelist quoting the advice that Jesus imparts to the apostles during their public ministry. On the occasion in question, the Lord says plainly, “Fear no one” (Matt 10:26). With all the unknowns and the unpredictability of the sacred ministry in front of a newly ordained priest, it seemed like a good place to start for the homilist and the priest offering the Holy Eucharist for the first time in his life. It struck me as somewhat parallel to that part of the Farewell Discourse in which Jesus enjoins the apostles at the Last Supper, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me” (John 14:1).
For the apostles, they would indeed be troubled—and deeply so—with the specter of losing Jesus to a cruel death on the Cross. But with John the only apostle to show up at Calvary the next day, it seems that Jesus’ exhortation to take courage (cf. John 16:33) has fallen, mostly, on deaf ears. Apostolic witness and priestly ministry both require the virtue of courage. Peter and Paul exemplify this personal attribute in the Acts of the Apostles, and so too does a sixteenth century saint who was not a priest but who nonetheless died a sacrificial death and thereby challenges every priest to be courageous no matter the consequences.
That sixteenth-century saint is Thomas More and that is where the First Mass homilist led us next in his reflection. After noting the wise English jurist as a man of principle, the homilist made what I thought was his most important point, namely, that Thomas More was fearless in discharging his responsibilities before God. The priest then must be similarly fearless in the discharge of his responsibilities before God. Sound advice, I dare say. But just how is fear vanquished? Well, according to Saint John in his First Letter, fear is driven away by love (cf. 1 John 4:18). Love in turn engenders confidence, a confidence that sustains us even onto our day of judgment, the apostle says (cf. 1 John 4:17). And then not even our strongest earthly enemy can rob us of this friendship with God.
Until fear is overcome though, it does inhibit us in some real, undeniable ways. When, for instance, we are just starting out in a new community, we are concerned—and, yes, to the point of being fearful—that we are not going to fit in. Every newly ordained priest must face this anxiety as he arrives at his first assignment. What if I should preach against sexual sins as the readings for a particular day suggest, will that endear me to my congregation? Unlikely, the newly ordained priest thinks to himself and he therefore chooses some other concern to address in his homily.
We learn quickly what will win us plaudits in our preaching and what will not, and early tendencies easily become well-ingrained patterns in rather short order. After a while, our preaching can be guided by an avoidance of some of the hard truths of the Gospel. If and when this scenario develops, that is, we stay clear of the hard truths of the Gospel, it is likely that a shift has occurred even if that has not been our intention. The shift is one in which our preaching proposes to our congregants a Christianity without the Cross all the while they are offered in Holy Communion the Body and the Blood of the One Who died upon the Cross for our salvation. This, obviously, is not the way Saint Paul preached.
Toward the end of his ministry, Saint Paul gathers the presbyters of the Church at Ephesus to say goodbye to them (cf. Acts 20:17). In his address, the Apostle to the Gentiles recalls how he “bore witness for both Jews and Gentiles to repentance … and to faith” (Acts 20:21). And then, significantly, he adds, “I did not shrink from proclaiming to you the entire plan of God” (Acts 20:27). With that last comment, Saint Paul toots his own horn a little bit. He was no shrinking violet, he knows it and he does not want anyone to forget that fact. What he says here though is even more important in reference to the message itself. Boldly, he declares that nothing of God’s message has been left out of his preaching. No attempt has been made to edit out what he or others may have construed as the less sanguine parts of God’s message. In other words, the Good News is not the Good News if it is sliced and diced to make it more palatable to those who have need for its wholeness.
Deliberately leaving things out is not good. For one thing, it certainly is not the way God looks out for us. He gives us all that is necessary for us to please him. We, on the other hand, do omit things on account of fear—fear that our standing with parishioners will fall if we dare to raise certain subjects in the pulpit. We learn from the start not to go there. And we don’t go there … in our preaching for the entirety of our priestly ministry.
Do Not Conform to the World
There is of course something that can put an end to our silence. It is what we correctly call conscience. Here again the example of Saint Paul is instructive. In the twilight of his ministry and following his arrest and imprisonment, the apostle appears before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. Explaining his uninhibited witness to Jesus and the New Way, he announces, “I have conducted myself with a perfectly clear conscience before God to this day” (Acts 23:1). The apostle could very well have chosen some other defense for himself, but he manifestly did not. He made it about conscience.
Appeals to conscience by our contemporaries ought to make us wary these days—such is the strong pull culturally in favor of going with the flow and not behaving differently from what “modern” people do. We do know however that we cannot conform to the world. That happens to be the specific teaching of Jesus for the apostles at the Last Supper (cf. Jn 17:16). Yet in having the apostles avoid an attitude of worldliness, Jesus does not pray for the apostles to be taken out of the world (cf. John 17:15). He prays instead that they be consecrated (cf. John 17:17)—as he was.
More than forty years ago (1976), a Polish archbishop was invited to preach the Lenten retreat for the pope and the Roman Curia. At the time, only the Holy Spirit knew that the retreat master, Cardinal Wojtyla, would become Pope John Paul II two years henceforth. The future Successor of Saint Peter chose as the theme for his meditations the expression Sign of Contradiction. The title derives from Simeon’s prophetic utterance to Our Lady in the temple. “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted” (Luke 2:34).
The Presentation of the Lord in the temple is the archetypical consecration. The evangelist, Saint Luke, makes this abundantly evident in his description of the event. The Blessed Mother and Saint Joseph present the Child to the Lord (cf. Luke 2:22). It is a ritual act that likewise corresponds to the law of the Lord. For what has just happened in this joyful mystery can only be rightly called a consecration (cf. Luke 2:23). As with other consecrations of the Lord, the spoken words are just as momentous as the physical acts.
The words coming out of the mouth of Simeon at the Presentation convey an incontestable Christological content. The messiah has truly come but his messianic mission will be far from easy before he gets to Calvary. There are those who reject Jesus because “no prophet is without honor in his native place and in his own house” (Matt. 13:57). There are those who reject him in Capernaum, walking away “and no longer [accompanying] him” (John 6:66) upon hearing that he is the Bread of Life. Rejected was he then and rejected is he now. But not even rejection by the ransomed of any and all times deters the Lord from carrying out his propitiatory sacrifice on Calvary. Rejection is just not outside the ambit of the Lord’s mediation. And neither is it outside of the mediation of those men who are made other Christs by priestly ordination.
Good Preaching Necessarily Draws Opposition
Following Christ, all priests of the new dispensation are called in their consecrations to speak words that will be opposed. In his public ministry, Jesus spoke words which drew opposition all the time, none more resisted than this word: Repent! Evangelization and catechesis are always moments for conversion. When priests speak in the pulpit, we have a privileged moment for that opposition and resistance to the word to be broken down if we approach our work in the right way. Context, discernment and prudence are key factors in all pastoral endeavors and never are they more essential than in preaching about sensitive topics like God’s gift of sexuality. The overwhelming pastoral need in this area still requires an act of the will on our part. And once that is in place, I still may want to know: Where do I start?
Next year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Humanae Vitae, Blessed Paul VI’s encyclical on the integrity of the marital act, reminding us that we cannot detach its life-giving meaning from its love-giving meaning without deleterious consequences. It came as the Sexual Revolution was just ramping up. Five decades on, everywhere we look, we see the bitter fruit of that revolution. It begs the question, then, what if we did not go silent in the pulpit on Humanae Vitae? What if we mustered the courage to speak on its truth and did not give in to fear?
Silence on this issue has made it seem that most priests have been unconvinced of Humanae Vitae’s rightness for the faith. It has also made it seem that some priests value their popularity a bit too much. It is good to recall here Jesus’ warning: “Woe to you when all speak well of you” (Luke 6:26). This warning comes with the judgment that false prophets are revealed precisely in the fact that everyone says nice things about them (cf. Luke 6:26). Any false prophet is ipso facto disqualified from being a sign of contradiction.
Let me finish with a few comments about the saint I invoked at the beginning of this essay. Saint Thomas More is in every sense of the expression a saint for our times. Although he was married and had children, celibate priests ought to be mindful of the things we have in common with him. While his conflict was with the king, it was over the indissolubility of marriage, a matter that should concern us all. All Catholics—regardless of their vocations in life—ought to be able to recognize that marriage is a permanent union raised to the dignity of a sacrament by Christ. Without a vibrant marriage culture however, society is inestimably weakened. And so is the Church.
Vocations to the priesthood take root in families and are nourished within this milieu. The flourishing of marriage and family life is tethered ever so fragilely to the flourishing of vocations to the priesthood. But who among us can make the case that marriage and the priesthood are flourishing at this time? All the empirical data suggests not a flourishing but a wilting. Marriage and the priesthood have been harmed enormously by a misuse of sexuality. A return to health for both vocations however is not going to be found in laxity and compromise. No, it will arise out of a defense of what is true. Jesus assures the apostles at the Last Supper that they are already consecrated in the truth. It has occurred in the very word he speaks to them (cf. John 17:17). Let us be re-invigorated to preach that word in season and out of season. For the good of the culture and our faith, let us be and remain signs of contradiction!
Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail of “The Preaching of Saint Paul at Ephesus” painted by Eustache Le Sueur in 1649.