Deacon Ken G. Hobbs III preaches at St. Timothy Church in Laguna Niguel, California. Spencer Grant

Preaching Hard Truths

Our charge as deacons is to preach the Gospel

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In my homilies, I generally seek to avoid controversial topics. This has been my policy for a few reasons, the foremost of which is my own cowardice (I didn’t say they were all good reasons). I want to be liked by others, so I try to avoid conflict as much as I can.

I have other reasons for avoiding controversial preaching, which I hope are more pastoral. For better or for worse, Catholics are not immune to the political divisiveness infecting our country. The mere mention of Republicans or Democrats in a homily is enough for half the congregation to tune out. I want people to receive the message I preach, so I strive to eliminate as much interference as possible. If hearing a politician’s name is going to close the minds and hearts of my listeners, that’s as much a source of interference as a bad microphone or wailing police siren outside.

I also respect the fact that people come to church to find refuge. They get more than their fair share of political controversy out in the world. It’s what they are exposed to daily on the internet, on television and on the radio. They don’t need to hear those same talking points repeated in the homily. They need to hear the Gospel.

Building Bridges

Of course, the Gospel is meant to engage the world. Our homilies cannot be pure theological treatises or exercises in exegesis. We need to build bridges between the Gospel and the world. But I think we can also trust the faithful, for the most part, to build those bridges themselves, if the Gospel is preached with clarity. We don’t need to connect all the dots for them.

This doesn’t mean that I never mention any controversial topics, only that I tend to avoid making them my main theme. Once in a homily about love as the foundation of the moral law, I mentioned homosexual acts in a list of several other sins that violate human dignity.

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NEED HOMILY HELPS?

The Priest magazine publishes weekly questions that offer pointers to form your homily. Visit www.thepriest.com/homily-helps/.

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A college student approached me afterward, visibly upset. It was the first time she had ever heard in a Catholic Church that homosexual acts were sinful. She made an appointment to speak with me later that week. That ended up being the first of several conversations we had about sexual morality, allowing me to provide a greater context and foundation for the Church’s teachings. Her formation in sexual ethics up to that point had come entirely from the secular world, but she ended up being one of my more faithful students.

Had I simply stood behind the ambo ranting about the homosexual agenda, she (and many others) would have run for the exit and never looked back.

Handle with Care

Controversial topics are like explosives. If they are not handled with care, they can easily blow up in your face, doing more harm than good. So when I decided my homily for the Fourteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time would focus on abortion, I did so with a bit of fear and trembling.

I don’t like talking about abortion for the same reason I don’t like talking about murder, rape, child abuse or cancer. It’s not a pleasant topic. But in the days following the historic overturn of Roe v. Wade, several parishioners shared with me the struggles they were having with pro-choice family and friends venting their anger at them. News of Catholic churches being vandalized left many fearing for their safety. In light of these things, when I opened the Lectionary to prepare for my homily that week to find the Gospel of Jesus sending his disciples into the world “like lambs among wolves” (cf. Lk 10:1-12, 17-20), I felt I was being called to address the issue of abortion directly.

Setting the Tone

After praying to make sure this is what the Spirit wanted me to preach, the first thing I did was inform my pastor. Though I knew he would have no objections, I didn’t want to catch him by surprise with a homily that might result in him getting angry emails or phone calls. In crafting my homily, I made sure to limit myself to what the Church teaches, avoid political polemics and root my message in the Gospel. Finally, in my delivery, I made sure that my tone was one of love and not condemnation.

Though it was not part of my original text, I ended with a message to any woman in the congregation who may have had an abortion in her past, or to any man who may have assisted someone in procuring an abortion.

“You may be feeling guilt,” I said. “You may be feeling regret and shame. You may not know what to do with those feelings. But I want you to know that we are glad you are here. We love you. The Church loves you. God loves you. If you have not found it yet, there is healing and forgiveness available. Jesus is there for you in the confessional, as he is there for all of us, and there is no burden so great that he cannot carry it for you on his shoulders all the way to the cross.”

Impact

After Mass, one person told me it was the best sermon he had ever heard (I told him he needed to listen to more sermons). Several people asked for copies of the text to share with friends. At least one person walked out angry. The ushers told me that she went into a tirade in the narthex, ranting that “homilies aren’t supposed to be political.” I’m sure others shared her opinion without expressing it quite so vocally. These strong reactions say nothing about the quality of my preaching; they only demonstrate that abortion is a divisive issue, even among Catholics, which I already knew.

More meaningful is the woman who approached me after Mass with tears in her eyes to tell me she had been moved to go to confession for the first time in 28 years. She had carried the burden of her abortion that whole time but my homily inspired her to finally let Christ take the burden from her. We hugged and cried and praised God together. The Holy Spirit gets all the credit for that.

Not a Pat on the Back

Controversial homilies are a quick and easy way to get a strong reaction, which can stroke the ego of any preacher. There can be a temptation to be controversial just so we can pat ourselves on the back for being a “bold voice” and not being afraid to preach “hard truths.” But controversy for its own sake is neither to be sought nor avoided. Our charge as deacons is simply to preach the Gospel. That’s controversial enough.

Like the 72 disciples Jesus sent ahead of him as lambs among wolves, our proclamation of the Gospel will not always be well-received. Our job is to proclaim it anyway, with all the charity we can muster. Given the choice, I’d still much rather avoid controversy when I can. I am just a coward, after all.

DEACON MATTHEW NEWSOME works for the Diocese of Charlotte as the Catholic Campus Minister for Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina.

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RESPONDING TO CURRENT EVENTS AT CHURCH

Father Michael White, in an article titled “Responding to Current Events at Church,” published in The Priest magazine, June 2022, offers these tips to respond to major events:

Discern: Not all major events will need to be addressed the same way. Varying levels of impact mean that the response of the Church should vary, too. The least intrusive ways to acknowledge a major event could be on your website or social media pages. Some situations will warrant a stronger statement, which could include a petition in the universal prayer.

The strongest way to respond will always be by using the weekend homily. When COVID-19 caused the first series of lockdowns in March 2020, we scrapped our existing preaching plans and dedicated a series of homilies to directly addressing concerns, frustrations and worries of the parish in the context of the week’s readings.

Acknowledge the situation: Wherever you discern to mention the situation, it’s important to realize that acknowledgment alone is very powerful. It gives people space to grieve and demonstrates that the parish hears them.

Recognizing that acknowledgment alone is valuable also helps us avoid making politically charged or prescriptive statements. When we are focused on exhibiting empathy and sympathy, there is less space for partisan judgments.

Give people tools to respond, not answers: It might be tempting to offer clear answers to the big questions posed by tragic events. What can be even more helpful is to give people tools to respond in their own way. This could include providing instruction on a new prayer practice, offering relevant wisdom from Scripture or directing them to outside resources.

Some situations may present the opportunity to collectively act as a parish community. You may choose to respond to a natural disaster with a food drive, missions trip or prayer vigil. For issues farther afield, your parish may choose to respond financially. Each of these allows parishioners to respond healthily.

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