Sermons and the Sacred
Father James Martin explains why sermons are not the place for politics.
BY: Fr. James Martin
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.
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.
The next week I delivered what I thought was, to be blunt, a pretty bland homily. I had little time to prepare it; I rushed through it, and wasn’t saying anything new. But after Mass people came up to me in tears, telling me how profound it was. It was a reminder that it’s God who speaks to people through homilies, not me.
That’s just one reason that sermons should never be partisan or political or, worst of all, Democratic or Republican.
Now, that doesn’t mean that the church should not participate in the real world. Some of the greatest of the saints, like St. Francis of Assisi, St. Ignatius Loyola, and St. Teresa of Ávila, all encouraged an active spirituality, one that grasped that the church’s sacred mission is lived out in the secular world. The long tradition of Catholic social teaching also encourages speaking out about the problems of the world, especially those of the poor. More to the point, Jesus of Nazareth was profoundly concerned with real-life matters, and spoke passionately about compassion, justice and mercy.
Yet Jesus was also wise enough to avoid overtly political questions. The Gospel of Luke recounts that when Jesus was asked whether the ancient Israelites should pay taxes, he recognized the question as a clever political trap. If he said yes, he would be accused by his own people of colluding with the Roman authorities. If he said no, he would be accused by the Romans of sedition, a crime that carried the penalty of death. So, slipping out of the trap, he said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
All the more reason a priest should never take political sides in a sermon or homily. Because you are not preaching your own words. You are preaching about the Word--capital W.
And, in the end, that word isn’t yours at all. It is God’s.