Saturday, February 12, 2011

Faithfully tending to God's Word

“The word of God in the mouth of a priest empty of faith and love is a judgment more terrible than all versification and all poetic chatter in the mouth of a poet who is not really one. It is already a lie and judgment upon a man, if he speaks what is not in him; how much more, if he speaks of God while he himself is godless”. - Karl Rahner

The imagination of the priest has been jostled in recent years to look afresh at his responsibility as tender of the Word. The jostling began in earnest with the conciliar fathers insisting that “priests have as their primary duty the proclamation of the Gospel of God to all”, and has been sustained by Pope Paul VI’s Evangelii Nuntiandi. Seminaries, schools of theology, and continuing education programs for priests have each addressed the challenge of forming effective homilists.

Still, fundamental to the preaching of the word and transcending various approaches to homiletics training is the human formation of the preacher. Effective preachers, then, are found among those mature individuals who are counted as such because of their wisdom, spirituality, and common sense. They are persons who believe deeply and with passion.

In the case of the priest, who is commissioned to make preaching his primary ministry, the desire to tend to the word with reverence and imagination should be evident to all. While a pilgrim with other believers, his sense of himself as a man and a priest disposes the congregation to listen for a word from the Lord. It should be clear that he himself has humbly listened for such a word. In his personal tending to the word, his identity as priest comes into focus. It is in the power of this word that he finds the courage to remain faithfully a man of the Church while remaining his own person.

Capable of honest, intimate friendship, the priest-tender of the word will unselfconsciously communicate that he understands both the joy and pain of loving intimate trust. The sacrament of his own humanity will speak without words the predisposing truth that he has stood in the fire of human trial and emerged tried and true. A redeemed sinner, he will drink daily from the cup of mercy and begin anew to be a living icon of Jesus Christ.

In the process of faithfully tending to the word, the priest discovers that he is also tending to his own soul. More to the core of ministry, tending the word is the purest form of tending to the people he serves. Saved himself by this word, he swallows and dares to do what he was ordained to do, he dares to preach.

Tending the word is at the core of the priest’s spirituality. To him the word has been entrusted. A priestly spirituality, then, that is not grounded in the saving word of God and in tending to the word will lack the depth and power of the word itself.

Abraham Heschel captured the essence of the intimate relationship between word and spirit when he claimed that he preached in order to pray. Prayer, of course, must precede preaching the word of God, for preaching is alive only if it flows from the preacher’s spiritual core, one nourished and sustained by prayer and an abiding state of prayerfulness. Yet, Heschel’s insight is critical. he preacher in order to pray. If a priest’s preaching does not prompt him to pray, at least most of the time, something is amiss in his soul. Those who tend to the word through preaching find a quiet but insistent pull to solitude welling up within them after they have preached. Preaching, Heschel says, is “successful” when it manages to lead the assembly to prayer.

The homily then, that holy tending of the words that is the staff of the ministerial priesthood, becomes the ground and center of the priest’s spirituality—especially of the parish priest’s spirituality. Fidelity to this responsibility and privilege inevitably leads to prayer. In light of his calling to be a tender of the word, the priest’s decision to pray is arguably the most important decision he can make.

Without a decisive commitment to prayer, the ministry of preaching at Sunday and daily liturgies becomes an intolerable burden to the priest—and to those who hear him. Rather than tending to the word, the spiritually shallow priest subverts the word. With unusual passion, Karl Rahner insists:

The imagination of the priest has been jostled in recent years to look afresh at his responsibility as tender of the Word. The jostling began in earnest with the conciliar fathers insisting that “priests have as their primary duty the proclamation of the Gospel of God to all”, and has been sustained by Pope Paul VI’s Evangelii Nuntiandi. Seminaries, schools of theology, and continuing education programs for priests have each addressed the challenge of forming effective homilists. Still, fundamental to the preaching of the word and transcending various approaches to homiletics training is the human formation of the preacher. Effective preachers, then, are found among those mature individuals who are counted as such because of their wisdom, spirituality, and common sense. They are persons who believe deeply and with passion.

In the case of the priest, who is commissioned to make preaching his primary ministry, the desire to tend to the word with reverence and imagination should be evident to all. While a pilgrim with other believers, his sense of himself as a man and a priest disposes the congregation to listen for a word from the Lord. It should be clear that he himself has humbly listened for such a word. In his personal tending to the word, his identity as priest comes into focus. It is in the power of this word that he finds the courage to remain faithfully a man of the Church while remaining his own person.

Capable of honest, intimate friendship, the priest-tender of the word will unselfconsciously communicate that he understands both the joy and pain of loving intimate trust. The sacrament of his own humanity will speak without words the predisposing truth that he has stood in the fire of human trial and emerged tried and true. A redeemed sinner, he will drink daily from the cup of mercy and begin anew to be a living icon of Jesus Christ.

In the process of faithfully tending to the word, the priest discovers that he is also tending to his own soul. More to the core of ministry, tending the word is the purest form of tending to the people he serves. Saved himself by this word, he swallows and dares to do what he was ordained to do, he dares to preach.

Tending the word is at the core of the priest’s spirituality. To him the word has been entrusted. A priestly spirituality, then, that is not grounded in the saving word of God and in tending to the word will lack the depth and power of the word itself.

Abraham Heschel captured the essence of the intimate relationship between word and spirit when he claimed that he preached in order to pray. Prayer, of course, must precede preaching the word of God, for preaching is alive only if it flows from the preacher’s spiritual core, one nourished and sustained by prayer and an abiding state of prayerfulness. Yet, Heschel’s insight is critical. he preacher in order to pray. If a priest’s preaching does not prompt him to pray, at least most of the time, something is amiss in his soul. Those who tend to the word through preaching find a quiet but insistent pull to solitude welling up within them after they have preached. Preaching, Heschel says, is “successful” when it manages to lead the assembly to prayer.

The homily then, that holy tending of the words that is the staff of the ministerial priesthood, becomes the ground and center of the priest’s spirituality—especially of the parish priest’s spirituality. Fidelity to this responsibility and privilege inevitably leads to prayer. In light of his calling to be a tender of the word, the priest’s decision to pray is arguably the most important decision he can make.

Without a decisive commitment to prayer, the ministry of preaching at Sunday and daily liturgies becomes an intolerable burden to the priest—and to those who hear him. Rather than tending to the word, the spiritually shallow priest subverts the word. With unusual passion, Karl Rahner insists that “the word of God in the mouth of a priest empty of faith and love is a judgment more terrible than all versification and all poetic chatter in the mouth of a poet who is not really one. It is already a lie and judgment upon a man, if he speaks what is not in him; how much more, if he speaks of God while he himself is godless”.

Faithful to prayer and lectio divina, to the quiet listening for the voice of God as revealed to him in the events of the day, the tending of the word becomes the priest’s rock of salvation, the cornerstone of his spiritual life.

“The word of God in the mouth of a priest empty of faith and love is a judgment more terrible than all versification and all poetic chatter in the mouth of a poet who is not really one. It is already a lie and judgment upon a man, if he speaks what is not in him; how much more, if he speaks of God while he himself is godless”.

Faithful to prayer and lectio divina, to the quiet listening for the voice of God as revealed to him in the events of the day, the tending of the word becomes the priest’s rock of salvation, the cornerstone of his spiritual life.

- From Donald Cozzens. "The Changing Face of the Priesthood."


"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)