Here in Michigan, where I live and serve, voters have a duty this Election Day (November 6) to defend unborn children from being killed in untold numbers by the enshrinement of nearly unlimited abortion as a constitutional right.
With the overturning of Roe v. Wade and the subsequent advancement of state legislation attempting to legalize abortion throughout the United States, Michigan’s Propsal 3 serves as an extreme example of the grim reality across the country.
The lethal consequences of Proposal 3 should make the blood of any thinking and feeling person run cold. Even those who, tragically, support abortion should shudder at the gruesome extremeism of the proposal, which would allow unfettered abortion for all three trimesters of pregnancy–including partial birth abortion, undercut parental rights and the protection of young expectant mothers, and notoriously would allow non-medical professionals to perform abortions in facilities that are not accountable to cleanliness standards.
As an aside, a good friend of mine recently told me that this past summer she was legally obligated to accompany her seventeen year-old daughter so that her daughter could get her ears pierced. Yet under Proposal 3 even younger girls could get an abortion without parental consent.
Given the clarity of the evil threatened by Proposal 3 and similar proposed legislation in other states, is it not equally clear that priests and deacons ought to preach strongly in opposition to such proposals? Absolutely, but when and how they preach on this topic are somewhat more complex questions.
I teach a course in homiletics, on the nature of the homily and practice of preaching homilies during Mass and other liturgical celebrations, at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. Recently, my students and I discussed strategies for preaching on Proposal Three, and I hope that the considerations I offer below faithfully represent at least some of the ideas that emerged in that conversation, as well as in my own praying and thinking about such preaching.
Here are some things to consider, whether you are a priest or a member of the lay faithful, when it comes to preaching on abortion (and other challenging topics):
1). The homily is always a liturgical action, rooted in the word of God and part of the Sacred Liturgy itself. A preacher must strive to offer God’s message to His people about the topic in question, rather than giving a political speech informed by his own opinions. A homily can and sometimes should apply to political attitudes and action, since the political sphere is part of human life and has moral weight and consequences. But the homily must always be a function of the Liturgy of the Word, not a “stump speech.”
2). The Gospel of Life is truly “good news.” I have preached about abortion and other difficult topics many times, and it is always intimidating to do so. It is not easy to preach a word that will challenge so many people. We are all called to repentance and conversion, but it can be very difficult to speak sharply on an issue as fiercely contested as abortion. But upholding the dignity and sanctity of human life is truly good news, and allowing the Lord to remind me of the freedom and life that preaching this challenging word brings to His people gives me confidence and hope.
3). Both “full-on” issue-centered homilies and homilies that refer to an issue have their place. A threat as grave as that posed by Proposal 3 requires at least one homily fully dedicated to the issue. In fact, the priests and deacons of the Archdiocese of Detroit are receiving resources to help preach up to seven Sundays on this urgent topic. But such “full-on” homilies are often well complemented by homilies in which the preacher makes either a substantial or even a passing reference to the issue. There is an old saying that “repetition is the mother of learning.” Repetition also reinforces the people’s sense of the preacher’s own conviction about the seriousness of the issue. No matter what, parish priests should ensure that all of their people are equipped with all of the preaching they need to act as holy, well-informed citizens at the polls on Election Day.
4). Preaching happens in a larger context of evangelization, catechesis, and pro-life advocacy. It is impossible, even in the most complete homily, to say all that needs to be said about a topic such as abortion. Priests, deacons, and other pastoral leaders need to devise strategies to inform and motivate their people in a variety of ways. Informational evenings, bulletin articles, and information available at church doors and on parish web sites are a few of the ways to get the word out. In preparing homilies, preachers should take such efforts into consideration, but must also keep in mind that the Sunday homily is a supremely privileged mode of parish communication. The homily’s power as a liturgical act, rooted in God’s word, its reach to vastly more people than any other mode of parish communication, and the level of dedicated attention given to the homily by people who desire to be formed by God’s word to them all make the ministry of homiletic preaching extremely and uniquely important.
5). Every priest and deacon has his own set of strengths and weaknesses. Some priests and deacons are highly articulate, while others do best to keep their homilies simple and to-the-point. Some preachers are impassioned, while others are more emotionally sober. Some are great at analytical and nuanced thinking, while others struggle to express all the logic and subtlety of their inner convictions. Preachers need to be patient with themselves, even as they challenge themselves to do more in their preaching than they will find comfortable. People need to be patient with their priests and deacons, even as they respectfully encourage them to embrace this sacred duty of preaching.
6). People are complex. Homilies express God’s covenantal word to His people. God calls His people to be His own, to become and remain faithful to Him in all times and ways. In most Sunday congregations, there are wildly varying degrees of fidelity. Priests and deacons need to take this into account, neither caving in to the sinful attitudes of those who doubt the Lord and His Gospel nor turning the homily into a pep rally for the self-righteous among us. God’s word, and the homily that explains and applies this word to the lives of His people, should inform, enlighten, challenge, console, guide, and motivate all of those present to the highest degree possible.
7). Homiletic preaching has two ultimate goals: the glorification of God and the salvation of souls. What message will give God the most glory this Sunday? What message will help the most people get to heaven? These are the guiding questions any homilist should ask himself every week. And when it comes to glorifying God and saving souls, priests and deacons must think not only of the people in their congregation, but those who may be influenced, helped, or (God forbid) hurt by those people. And so it is completely correct for a preacher to consider how his homily can help to glorify God by protecting unborn children from murder, making it possible for them to be born safely and to receive the saving grace of baptism.
All of us, priests and people, need to pray for each other and for our country during this difficult time. We must pray that all of us will have the charity and courage to speak up and stand up for life and protect the most vulnerable among us, loving and protecting unborn children and their mothers in every way possible.
May God be glorified and Christ’s saving work be advanced in every homily, and in the response of every person who hears the preaching of God’s saving word of life.
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