Sermons and the Sacred

Father James Martin explains why sermons are not the place for politics.

Nine years ago I was ordained a Catholic priest. The year before I served at a large New York parish as a deacon, for me the next-to-last stage before the priesthood. And one of the deacon’s main tasks was to preach at the Sunday Mass. And, frankly, I was terrified.



It’s not that I had never spoken publicly before. Or spoken about my faith. Nor was it the fact that as a preacher you have to juggle a lot: you have to explain Scripture to the congregation, you have to invite them to see how it might be meaningful to their lives, you have to present church teaching; and you also have to pay attention to the news of the day. As the Protestant theologian Karl Barth said, Christians should live with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. And rather than telling people what to think or what to do, it’s better to help them form their consciences to make their own decisions. That’s why many Catholics are bothered by priests who, either explicitly or implicitly in sermons and homilies, endorse one political candidate over another.



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And, by the way, you have to do all that in just a few minutes. One of my favorite recommendations for preaching is: “Be clear, be brief and be gone!”



No, what made me nervous was that I was dealing with something sacred. You may know that Catholics believe that God is present in the Eucharist, that is, the consecrated host. But you may not know that Catholics believe that God is also present in the Mass in three other ways: in the congregation, in the priest, and in the Scripture reading. In other words, when you read the Gospel and preach, you are plunging yourself into something sacred, something that is much bigger than just your own commentary.



What finally helped me relax about all this was when I discovered that I wasn’t in charge. Let me explain.



One Sunday I gave what I thought was the most brilliant homily ever. I had worked on it for weeks, and just thought it was terribly insightful, and would probably change lives. After Mass I waited for the inevitable praise. And you know what everyone said? Nothing! Normally people say a few polite things on the way out. Like, “Nice homily.” But nothing.



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