I just finished my workshop. I told more stories and used other examples than this text. Here is the structure of what I said.
Fr. Ron Raab, CSC: “Bending Toward the Light: Our Posture of Solidarity through Preaching” This workshop will explore our radical change of perspective, insight, faith and posture when we preach among marginalized people. When we listen to and accompany people living in poverty or suffering from mental illness or addiction or abuse, we bend toward the Light of Christ together. We imitate Jesus who bent down to heal Simon’s mother-in-law. We kneel in the sand with Jesus as he doodles, listening to a woman caught in adultery. Jesus uses spittle and clay to open our eyes and to release our tongues. These experiences of living among our desperate poor reveal our deepest humanity and our need for God. This spirituality connects prayer and service and invites liberation and hope for all people.
Notre Dame Preaching Conference 2019
On Good Friday this year I stood by our large mission crucifix in our church while parishioners slowly moved forward in prayer for veneration. For nearly an hour, families, widows and visitors bent their knees or bowed toward the wood of the cross. Each person brought their own need to Jesus with a kiss or touch, each soul longing to make sense out of their lives, the suffering of their families, and of the world.
As each person in our assembly venerated the cross, I prayed on our sanctuary step with my arm and hand up over the crowd and blessed them silently. I wept for them because I know much of their pain and the reasons they came to the cross in the first place. Their questions and prayers seemed to run through my soul. I felt their lives cling to the mercy of God. I sobbed because I caught a glimpse of their depression and addictions, their fear in relationships and their guilt over their wrong decisions. I cried because I could feel on Good Friday much of their despair and the hope they carry with them well beyond the Triduum.
My posture at that moment of the Triduum has become a vital image of preaching and ministry for me. Standing at the Cross praying for my parishioners seems to be the least thing I could do as a pastor on that day, since my role is to connect the saving Word of God to human suffering and turmoil. My role as a preacher is also to understand the depths of human anguish so to reveal where the messages of Jesus’ liberation, mercy and love make a home within them. This moment on Good Friday forms our posture of solidarity among God’s poor within our preaching. On Good Friday, I realized with profound tenderness, that my connection to people’s need for God and the reality of Jesus’ Paschal Mystery helped me surrender to love and the beauty of God’s redemption within us all.
Thank you for joining me in this hour of reflection today going deeper into the mystery of our preaching among God’s beloved. I want to present ten questions in order to open up our conversation around preaching among people who survive the chaos and loneliness of poverty and who face the cross daily in their earthly need. For most of us, our poverty is a spiritual poverty. Our poverty means we all need God in some way. Poverty is not just a lack of financial resources. Our personal grief, loss, being marginalized in the Church, illness or abandonment from childhood, all creates within us a place for God to work. Any form of poverty becomes the emptiness in which Jesus is redeeming with love and hope.
The Word of God is housed deeply in our human experience, the raw and honest nature of our lives on earth. The mystery of God is not otherworldly, but it is incarnate in sweat, fear, weeping and struggle. When we preach relying solely on God and our human need for Jesus, we connect love with hopelessness, compassion with fear, tenderness with sheer exhaustion. This encounter in God, this profound and divine unity of heaven and earth, is our task as preachers.
We are converted not from the scraps from the Word, but from the essence of how God is present in our world. If we are to find for our own lives the healing Word of God, then we must encounter people’s pain and suffering, the very place in which Jesus made his love and compassion known and manifest. The Word is still being made flesh through the essence of our conversion, through our ability to live as Jesus lived and to know people’s anguish as Jesus did while on earth. Our preaching is not to just articulate what Jesus did on earth, but what he is still doing, still revealing in the Eucharist itself.
Our preaching within the Eucharist opens people to the healing remedy and forgiveness of sin, and the profound love of the Kingdom of God that was Jesus’ mission among us. We don’t preach to people in poverty with condescending words or attitudes; we preach because their poverty already opens their hearts to the glory of Jesus presence and his healing love. People surviving poverty, in great earthly need become a doorway of conversion for the preacher; at least I know people have shown me the way to Jesus. Our solidarity with God’s poor becomes a door in which love, tenderness and forgiveness may be known on earth. This door is also open to us as preachers if we can surrender to such a mystery within our own lives.
How do we learn from people in poverty about how to rely on God?
I continue to learn to rely on God from ordinary people. When our human situations have forced us to lose many of our possessions, our homes and jobs, our families and our sobriety, we face the daily task of survival. People who struggle to survive the course of the day show us all how to find Jesus.
When I lived among people surviving the streets, I realized that I hide behind many pretentious aspects of my profession such as education, clericalism, my insurance and paycheck, my food and healthcare. One of the first things I learned about preaching among God’s beloved poor, was to enter into liturgical and personal prayer as a moment of self-stripping, by paying attention to all of the walls I hide behind, all of the benefits of wealth and healthcare that protect me as a priest.
We preach the Word of God and reveal the raw mercy and presence of God to be made known in our world. Our preaching may open up the authentic life of our people. I am humbled by how many people who are tired, lonely, depressed and jobless finally come to the conclusion they need God today, not in an abstract or theoretical nature of God, but true mystery and hope in order to survive. When all seems lost in life, we grow closer to the Divine. I have spent my life discovering this raw and emotional faith among people surviving poverty and loss.
We learn from people in poverty about how to rely on God only if we are willing to let go of our control, false power, false authority as preachers, and learn how to surrender to God even when we live privileged lives in the Church. Our preaching must come from our own naked truth of who we are in God. Serving people who need the basics of life and the hope that only God will get them through another day, strips our own human nature bare. There is no pretending when we serve people in need. Our words and lives cannot just speak pious prayers or pretentious sayings that come from academic solutions to life.
People rely solely on God for daily bread and human solutions. As a preacher, I have learned to rely on God in the action of the liturgy for the words I need as a preacher. I cannot bottle up my words or pull an old homily out of a file when I am standing emotionally naked in the church offering people words of invitation and healing. I learn to trust the Holy Spirit in preaching to provide for me in the same way people learn to stand in a line for food, laundry vouchers, bus passes or to see a doctor at a medical clinic. I learn slowly how to trust God to put words into my mouth as God feeds me Jesus’ presence in his Body and Blood.
How does our preaching erase the lines of “us” and “them”?
Several years ago, Richard Hanifen, the retired bishop from Colorado Springs, told me upon my return to the diocese that he had one goal for me as pastor. If I could do this one thing as pastor, it would be enough. He said when I refer to “the poor”, change “the” to “our”. This is one way in which I try to break down the walls of “us” and “them”.
We also must be attentive to basic language. We are invited to proclaim the gospel of love with “people” language and not the language of “labels” that we so easily use to divide groups of people. Rather than referring to “the homeless”, we use the preferred language of “people surviving homelessness”. We strive to help educate about people and their experiences rather than labeling people to keep them separate from our experiences. We use the examples of people living with depression and mental illness or people experiencing addiction.
Overcoming these dividing lines may be the preacher’s greatest task. However, as preachers we need to know first hand the mercy, the tenderness and the beauty of God. This is our life work and spiritual journey. Preachers may so easily hide behind the words they speak. As preachers of grace and mercy, we must humble our sinful pride and understand the turmoil and difficulties of human life. We also must come to grips with our own dividing lines of how racism, homophobia, xenophobia, misogyny, and other dividing lines within our own human hearts. We must recognize that the Word of God comes to real people no matter how we wish to divide or limit God’s action and redemption.
The real work of grace for the preacher is to be in union with divine love where there are no divisions or walls or power struggles. In my priestly life, I am converted and humbled by my own stubbornness and ego when I am in contact with people who have greatly struggled to survive. I have listened to the stories of prostitutes and the tragic journeys of people with addictions realizing the faith and tenacity of people who teach me what real struggle is and how genuine faith is lived in the Church.
It is my task as a preacher to help educate people to erase the false divisions of who is suitable for God’s love. Some people believe that God comes to only the well deserved, the wealthy, the educated, and people who speak the same language or whose skin color is the same. I also must invite people who feel they do not belong in God, people who survive homelessness, long-term poverty, addiction to drugs and alcohol, into the mystery of God’s healing remedy and compassion. My words must respect, invite, and unite all people into the hope that God’s redemption remains for all of humanity.
How do we preach the Cross of Christ from our common bruises and powerlessness?
Most people who worship on Sunday are struggling to make sense out of their suffering. I have come to learn this reality as a pastoral minister. I also learn that I cannot hide my own bruises and pain from God or from people. After all these years, I still learn from a woman who drank daily until she blacked out, every day for over thirty years. She delivered a baby on her apartment floor and she never told anyone she was pregnant. After the baby was delivered, she cut the umbilical chord with a pair of scissors. She then cracked a beer.
Her son died of a drug overdose when he was sixteen. He never experienced his mother sober, not for one day. She got sober five years later and she eventually was received into the Church. She remains for me a deep well of hope. I turn to her in my prayer, especially when I am faced with others who struggle with prostitution, with drug addiction, with ill children and various issues that overwhelm people’s lives.
I understand from people that the Cross of Christ Jesus within us is truly redemptive and holy, but it is the work of God and not anyone on earth. The redemptive love of Christ Jesus in our own suffering takes time, a lot of time. This hope that we preach, this compassion and tenderness that flows from our mouths as preachers cannot be false or flimsy, it cannot be ultra pious or judgmental. The hope that we preach must be rooted in the real, the genuine suffering of people who long to survive another day on earth.
What we preach, how we preach, who we preach, is rooted deeply in the revelation of mystery in our human condition. I cannot fully enter into the suffering of people; that is impossible. I can however, spend my life bending my ear and my life toward the stories that seem impossible to bear so to reveal to people who long for God something that will rouse continuing hope within them.
The Cross of Christ is revealed in the continuing action of God, in the real time of people’s pain and sorrow. The cross represents the sacrifice of our people as well as Christ Jesus. The cross reveals hope for all people. I am constantly called into solidarity among people, opening my own bruises and hardships, preaching from how God is calling each of us into new life through redemptive suffering and sorrow.
How do we pray and preach from a solid ground of honesty, genuine faith, maintaining the dignity of people?
I discover in pastoral ministry the beauty of people. Our faith is ultimately about people and how we come to new life in Christ Jesus. I am converted by people’s honesty about life. In fact as a priest, I am often envious of how people can be so brutally honest about their own journey and their own struggles. I am often confined to my role as pastor that often enables me to hide my own struggles and reality.
Preaching the person of Christ Jesus challenges us into the depths of honesty, revealing the dignity of people. Preaching cannot put people down or demoralize them. Our preaching cannot be haughty or moralistic. To offer people the redeeming love of God, we must enter the mystery of love for our own lives and this requires of us sheer conversion for our own lives. This action of honesty is the work and life of the preacher, since we must learn how to pray in order to speak words of hope to other people.
The ministry of Jesus in the world was to restore relationship. He lifted up Simon’s mother-in-law from illness and she resumed her service to others. He opened the wounds of a leper and healed them and restored his place in the community. We use words to do the same healing work in our communities. Words heal as the hand of Jesus. Words unite and restore as Jesus’ ministry once did with his life on earth. Words find their way into people’s souls to bring forgiveness and mercy. Words satisfy the soul in the same way Jesus’ touch brought people back into healthy and good relationship. Our preaching has the opportunity to restore the dignity of people.
How do we heal relationships and experience communion and unity in God’s Word?
To become genuine preachers, we must have our hearts broken. The Word of God lays bare our hearts if we can honestly listen and pay attention to Jesus. People facing the violence of despair, neglect and turmoil also break through our often defended and prideful lives as preachers. These experiences create an entryway into the gospel and to the reality of people’s situations, illnesses and sin. This is the beginning of communion with one another and with God. This is the beginning of relationship in faith, creating communion and unity in the Word of God.
I am converted when my heart breaks for people. God is doing the breaking and the breaking open. I believe this as a preacher and pastoral minister. This is the beginning of healing the relationships that have remained hardened by doubt and sin.
We cannot blame people for their poverty, their addictions or mental illness. Our blame is toxic to other people. So the Word is a source of inspiration and healing for all involved. People live in the wake of broken relationships from being abused from an early age, learning how to drink alcohol and use drugs to cover up pain. Severed relationships pile up like twigs along a roadside. We offer as preachers a relationship with God who is not like any of those previous human relationships. This is a radical shift for people who live in such poverty, addiction and loneliness, and for every Christian.
Our communion with people does not ignore the broken past. The Word of God desires a home in human suffering. In fact, we build the Church on human suffering and not pious rhetoric and remaining perfect in life. Our preaching cannot become plastic and prideful. We cannot become puppets who preach about externals and rules. Preaching is not creating a people in lockstep or for people to hide their lives of anguish. Our preaching must come from the breath of Jesus Christ, the one who restores, loves and unites our Church.
How do we preach in order to survive daily life and liberate fear?
We must touch suffering in order to heal it, in every aspect of life, and with our words in preaching. Being vulnerable with our own lives, without judgment and blame is the beginning preparation for the preacher. Bringing the love, the mercy and the hope of Jesus Christ into the reality of every day life liberates fear for all involved.
I still learn from a woman I knew years ago that came to our parish who had survived horrific abuse as a child. Her mind was so shattered that she developed seven different personalities in order to survive. Her mother locked her in a closet for days at a time and smeared her body with feces. She had gone to a therapist for many years but avoided going to church because she did not want to be known.
Her fear was tangible. She would sit with me shaking as she struggled to find the words that could free her from those years. She always thought she had to change herself. She thought that the only way to liberation was her inner resources. However, she learned that God was slowly doing the changing within her. Her prayer life was fiercely beautiful. Her sharing with me opened many doors to God in her life. Her example also revealed to me how to pray through and with my own life.
This liberation she discovered was through a community that prayed, where the Word of God was not only proclaimed but also lived. Her healing truly came from her ability to begin listening to how the Word of God was forming the people who were also broken and lonely. I began to see how much people rely on preaching with sincerity and genuine hope and not preaching with words and phrases drenched in shame or blame.
The Word of God reveals liberation, forgiveness and peace. When we are ready to begin to trust God and the community in which it is proclaimed and lived, our hearts begin to let go of much resistance and insecurity. We also begin to see in our lives that we are not in charge of the freedom that comes to us in God and in new relationships. We must teach people the importance of trusting God no matter our pain, no matter how much we try to protect our own truth or believe that we are in charge of our own lives. Change happens within the human heart when we are invited into the deep love that God has for us. Only then can we enter into the mystery of liberation from our isolation, fear and pain.
How can our preaching shelter people’s infidelity and shepherd our unworthiness?
Many people come to Eucharist to be seen or noticed or because that is what the family has always done on Sunday. Some people believe that showing up for Mass on Sunday will certainly buy them a ticket to heaven. Others believe that obligation will win them a place with their loved ones when death is sure to come.
Underneath the glaze of obligation and the eternals of showing up, lies so often in people a deep sense of unworthiness. People feel their lives are not right or not good enough. Many believe that hiding their true lives from God will be better that revealing the truth. This sense of unworthiness before God is a place where the preacher is invited to offer genuine care and love. The work of our lives as pastoral ministers is rooted here in the loneliness of people who feel they are not enough in God.
Our words have the ability to shepherd people into pastures of hope, where Christ Jesus breaks through the mistrust, the turmoil and loneliness people feel about who they are in God, and in relationship with other people. Our words as we break open the scriptures must touch the reality of people’s lives well beyond labels and externals. The words that are formed to express the liberating love of Jesus have the potential to unlock for the people their notions of not being good enough in living the Christian life. For many people are burdened by sin. They may feel that their sin remains stronger than the love God has for them. They may hold on to their sin because they assume God could not possibly love them or forgive them because of their past.
Preachers need ears that hear the pleas and cries of people. Preachers need eyes that see the long road home for people. Many people who sit in our pews feel dehumanized in varying ways. The mother who lost her husband from a car accident, the husband who is just released from jail, the teen who is bullied, the executive struggling to get off drugs, all possess an unworthiness that needs to be transformed and redeemed. Our preaching has the opportunity to pull away the veil of hopelessness for our people and to reveal the tenderness and mercy of God within the depths of their human experience.
How do we preach realizing we have enough money to hide our suffering?
Every preacher has enough money to hide his or her own suffering. I hold up this reality to my own heart every time I preach. No matter the congregation in which I preach, no matter the liturgical year or the group of people who will hear my words, this is the filter in which I speak the gospel. Because I have resources that keep me fed, housed and healthy, the words that I proclaim come from privilege.
I remember a volunteer who helped in our daily hospitality center. Her mental illness was kept at bay with medication. She told us that she was fragile and that she may have days on which she could not volunteer. She was always simply dressed, her grey hair pulled back into a bun. Her quiet manner was very effective among our people.
She disappeared for several months. Then one day, she sat at the front door of our building screaming and weeping. She was covered in filth and feces. Her face smeared with tears and dirt and food. Her hair was matted and wild around her face. I opened the door and sat down on the sidewalk with her in the chaos of our urban street.
She screamed at me with water and mucus flowing from her eyes and nose, “Fr. Ron, you have all those pretty words in the chapel. Don’t you have words that can heal me?”
All I had at that moment was my presence on concrete. I had no pretty words, just my own realization of how my words are so often shrouded in power and privilege. I also realized how she desperately longed for God’s words that could free her and hold her.
She has become my patron saint of preaching. I will never forget her cries for God and the Word that could free her. In her tears, I found my own longing for Jesus’ words to free the world. In her tears on the street, I found a new authority for my actions, my ministry and my preaching in the sanctuary.
How can we preach at the crossroads of addiction and co-dependency?
Loneliness is a killer among people in poverty and with those who suffer addiction. Our preaching may act as an antidote to such isolation and fear. The words we chose may become an invitation to people to realize that addiction is a disease and not the fault of the individual. Preaching messages of peace may in fact save people’s lives.
We cannot control people or change people’s perspectives or situations in our preaching. This always needs a reality check as we preach and lead within the Church. Alcohol soaks the Church, our leadership, and our own communities. Our preaching must come from Christ’s liberation for our people and not from our own need to please people. Our own words do not change people’s lives or fix their faith. This can become a trap for many preachers and leaders in our Church today.
Our personal and professional boundaries become part of our preaching preparation when we enter into relationships in pastoral ministry. As a preacher, I understand the wound of such addiction in people and the need to please people in the Church. Our relationships with Church leadership as well as preaching in our communities may become a trap for us in co-dependent behavior. We struggle to please bishops and struggle to bring Good News to our people. In all of these relationships, alcohol and drugs shift the reality of our leadership on all levels. We must face the liberating words of Christ beginning within our own lives, addictions and fears.
How do we preach expressing God’s desire for unity, wholeness and salvation?
God desires the best for us. I experience such desire in my preaching and ministry on the pastoral level. Our goal is to get out of the way of God and allow this desire to open up possibilities and healing within our people. This is the real unity we all long for in our lives and within the Church.
Preaching the reality of Jesus Christ is the core of our identity. This is the invitation for us as ministers, to create the Church from such faith. We must continue to go deeper into the mystery of God, reaching well beyond the elements of our need to control other people. Faith becomes our source of unity and peace.
The preacher must love God and people. This is not a pious notion or throwaway line. We must cultivate within our lives the love God has for people. Even after all these years of preaching, I am still working to receive the love God has for me and to become vulnerable enough to pass this love on to others.
The peace of Christ Jesus longs to make a home within us. In fact, the love and peace of Christ Jesus lies within us always, we just need to be present to such a reality. This is the mystery for which we are starving. Until we discover the mystery of Jesus, our people will flail in restlessness and continue to judge and condemn other people. Jesus offers us, no matter our economic backgrounds or status within the Church, a true and lasting voice. This is how we create the Church with our preaching, to reveal to the Body of Christ the love God has for people.
Preaching in solidarity among people surviving poverty, brokenness and loneliness means that we create a Church of the poor and not a Church for the poor. This union and identification with people’s struggles opens new doors for all Christians because we are all poor in our own ways, meaning that we all need God. This is key to our preaching, creating a community no matter the reality of people’s situations or economic backgrounds, that simply needs the tenderness and mercy of God. This becomes the work of salvation for God’s beloved.