WASHINGTON, D.C. — Effective preaching about Scripture, daily life and social concerns occurs when a priest is in right relationship with the community of faith of which he is a part, Archbishop John C. Wester of Santa Fe, New Mexico, told an online conference of priests.
A preacher must have an “interior sense that he is one with the people” he is called to serve, Wester said June 24 during the annual gathering of the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests.
The association’s three-day conference took place virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic. Priest participants heard from presenters who addressed the theme “Our Catholic Faith in the Political World.”
A preacher is part of the community not above it, Wester said, explaining what it means to be in right relationship. He said there is danger in a preacher thinking that “he is wiser, smarter, more powerful” than the other members of the faith community.
He called the duty of a priest to be a chaplain to the laity. He recalled an image used by Pope Francis who described how a “preacher must lead from the front, sometimes from the middle and sometimes from the rear.”
As a member of a faith community, the priest-preacher also must listen to others and preach second, the archbishop added, encouraging the priests to listen to the word of God as well as the word of the people.
“When the people sense that there is this unity between them and the preacher, they will trust, they will listen,” he said.
Throughout his presentation, Wester drew widely from the work of Jesuit Father Walter Burghardt, who died in 2012 and was regarded as one of U.S. Catholicism’s top theologians and preachers.
The archbishop said Burghardt often stressed the importance of understanding that Jesus’ ministry encompassed more than forgiving sins and individual morality. Burghardt, he said, wrote that the social focus of the Bible is evident from the first page of Genesis in showing that God did not intend for people to live in isolation from each other, but that God “had in mind a people, a human family, a community of persons, a body genuinely one.”
Through such understanding, the archbishop said, right relationships can be built and maintained as opposed to the trend toward “individualism or tribalism in our church and in our society today.”
Effective preaching does not mean shying away from controversial topics such as immigration, abortion, racism in the church and society, the role of women in the church or other pressing concerns, Wester said.
He called on the priests to understand that “it takes real prudence and closeness to the people to whom we are preaching, knowing what will persuade and what will turn off, what will plant a seed and what will harden hearts.”
The preacher’s place is not to solve issues, but to raise important issues and to raise consciousness about them, Wester explained.
Recalling that Jesus used parables to make a point and to teach his followers about the kingdom of God, Wester called on the priests to do likewise by drawing on examples from everyday life to explain a Scripture passage and to encourage people to think about their response to the social justice concerns they confront.
Participants also heard from Sister Simone Campbell, a Sister of Social Service, who is executive director of the Catholic social justice lobby Network, and Sister Carol Keehan, a Daughter of Charity, who is former president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association of the United States.
Keehan told the priests their insight on social issues such as economics, health care and abortion, and on church practices regarding marriage education and rules for receiving holy Communion, are important to church leaders. She said that becoming immersed in those issues can lead to “a bumpy ride to get the truth.”
“Bumpy ride or not, we have an obligation to help the church know and understand important issues, problems and their impact,” Keehan said.
“Jesus is so clear in the Gospel about religious leaders who lay burdens on people they cannot carry and then do nothing to help them. You know well the burdens people are carrying that we should help lift,” she said.
Becoming involved in contemporary concerns can be risky, she said, leading to criticism for not being “loyal to the church, not accept church teaching and many other painful accusations. Still, she added, “our conscience compels us to action.”
Sister Keehan called on the priests to interact with elected officials to help guide them in their vocation of service, even in the polarized and money-driven political environment that exists today.
“Even though we may not want to swim in that pool we must for the good of our country especially the most vulnerable,” she said.
Campbell discussed how priests can engage in practical action, such as voter registration and addressing life issues in the run-up to the Nov. 3 election. She outlined concerns Network has highlighted in a “Life Score Card,” which focuses on equally defending the unborn and those who already are born, outreach to victims of human trafficking, poverty, opposition to racism and exclusion, and other social concerns.
She suggested using Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation on the call to holiness in today’s world, “Gaudete et Exsultate” (“Rejoice and Be Glad”) to guide their ministry. She said that as the pope has suggested, the beatitudes can be used as an examination of conscience that anyone can undertake.
The priests’ association honored Keehan and Glenmary Father Les Schmidt of Big Stone Gap, Virginia, with its Pope St. John XXIII Award.
Keehan was honored for her work in developing and supporting the Affordable Care Act. Father Smith was honored for more than a half-century of work on social justice issues in Appalachia and the South including workers’ rights, mountaintop-removal mining and criminal justice.