My blog neighbor Fr. Dwight Longenecker bemoans the state of Catholic preaching—and the seeming lack of response to said preaching:
I sometimes feel like the dog who barks at the train. He doesn’t bark at the train because he thinks the train will stop. He barks because he’s a dog. I know preaching isn’t pointless, and I should stop looking at what seems like a lack of results. Instead I should see all the many people who are listening and learning and wanting to grow in their faith.
Well, yes. Or you can think differently about this holy exercise that some of us gamely undertake.
The beautiful, humbling fact is: this work is not ours. It belongs to the Holy Spirit. It dwells, like all these exercises, outside of our own time, for purposes we can’t always understand. The results may not be immediate. They may not even be evident. And they shouldn’t be. We are undertaking the work of God for reasons and designs we cannot fathom.
I have at my desk a prayer card from the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, in Conyers, Georgia—the place where my vocation first took root about 15 years ago. On one side is the famous prayer of Thomas Merton: “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going…”
On the other side is a quote from St. Bernard of Clairvaux:
“Our works do not pass away as they seem to do; rather, they are scattered like temporal seeds of eternity. The fool will be astonished when he sees a great harvest shooting up from a little seed—good or bad harvest according to the differing quality of the sowing.”
This could be said, I think, about preaching. We cannot always know what seeds we are planting.
Another prayer I appreciate very much, which makes the same point, is one often attributed (wrongly) to Oscar Romero. In fact, it was penned by the late Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw:
It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view. The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us. No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection. No pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the Church’s mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything. This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.
Amen. The prophecy in which we hold a small share is one we may not even understand. All we can do is pray that a seed is somehow planted in fertile soil—not, please God, in rocks or among weeds.
Before I prepare to preach, I silently whisper a short litany, asking for companionship from the Holy Spirit, Mary, St. Stephen and St. Joseph. “Be with me,” I pray. “Help me.” The first gives grace; the second reminds me of obedience; the third is a model of courage; and the fourth, the silent member of the Holy Family, knew when to shut up.
Finally, I ask God for one simple gift: let whoever needs to hear what I have to say—what He has to say—hear it.
That’s all I can do. After that, it’s out of my hands.
I can understand why it can seem at times that preaching feels pointless. But as Bishop Untener put it, “We are prophets of a future not our own.” And I take consolation and hope from my friend Thomas Merton: “I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road…”
That’s all any of us can ask for, isn’t it?
That, in fact, is the point of so much that might otherwise seem “pointless.”
For more, check out what Jennifer Fitz had to say on this topic.
UPDATE: I’m reminded of a story about the late, great Fred Rogers, a.k.a. “Mr. Rogers” of television fame. Before becoming a fixture on Public Television, he served for a number of years as a Presbyterian minister in Pittsburgh. Not long after he was ordained, he attended a service at a neighboring church. The young Mr. Rogers spent an anguished hour listening to an interminable sermon, squirming in his seat and mentally ticking off all the things the preacher did wrong—muddy theology, sloppy rhetoric, bad delivery. Fred Rogers was not impressed. At the end, he was glad it was over and got up to leave and heard sniffling behind him. He saw a woman turn to her companion and say, “That was one of the most beautiful sermons I’ve ever heard. I really needed that.” It proved to be a valuable lesson for Mr. Rogers. Every soul in every pew is different. You can’t always be sure how God will work.