June 24, 2016
For Father Patrick Mullen, Pastor at Padre Serra Parish in Camarillo, CA and Scripture professor at St. John’s Seminary in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles for the last 17 years, there is one foundation for the task and craft of preaching: Jesus.
The point of departure for every preacher is the question, “How did Jesus preach?” This basic question is relevant and crucial if preaching is to be a catalyst for parish transformation.
At the core, Father Mullen states, Jesus preached the Kingdom of God. While throughout history, there has often been a focus on getting people to church and active, Jesus’ message centered around the inbreaking of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Primarily, Jesus preached to the crowds about the kingdom through parables. Jesus constantly connects the kingdom, in Father Mullen’s words, with the “stuff of everyday life”- Sowing seed (Mt 13:24, 31; Mk 4:26), baking bread (Mt 13:33), a net (Mt 13:47), a plow (Lk 9:62). When preaching these texts, Father Mullen cautions against romanticizing Jesus’ pastoral imagery. In the minds of first century Palestinians, the object lessons of Jesus brought to mind the dirt and sweat of daily life. Perhaps Jesus wandering Silicon Valley today might raise similar questions in people’s minds about our computers and smartphones.
To accomplish today what Jesus did in his preaching, the preacher’s basic task is to connect the intent of Jesus and the authors of scripture with the needs in the pew and the local community. This outlook determines Father Mullen’s approach to the scriptures in crafting a homily.
It is important, Father Mullen says, to first ask as the Council document Dei Verbum does (cf n.12), what the passage is saying to its original audience. (When it comes to homiletic research and preparation, Father Mullen recommends resources from St. Louis University and the lectionary-based ecumenical resource Text Week.) If preachers do not attend to the context of scripture, they risk misconstruing the actual message of Jesus.
Once the original context is there, the key question for Father Mullen becomes, “Why should we care now?”
This last question grows out of two places: 1) The pastor or preacher’s personal prayer, and 2) the pastoral needs of the local community. Father Mullen says that the best preachers he knows are those with “a huge pastoral heart,” who “truly know and even admire the people they pastor.”
Despite some preachers’ preference for a longer message, Father Mullen aims for around a seven-minute homily, agreeing with Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen who once said, “If you want me to speak for an hour, I’m ready. If you want me to speak for 10 minutes, I’ll need a week.” Father Mullen’s goal is to develop one point very well rather than multiple ideas simultaneously, so that like a parable, he can leave the congregation with a deeper thought to dwell on. Additionally, he strives to create a sense of balance with the Liturgy of the Eucharist and even within the totality of the Liturgy of the Word, believing that a shorter, focused homily allows room for the Word of God proclaimed in the scripture readings to speak and teach on their own authority.
Despite the thorny or sensitive particulars that sometimes occupy the task of preaching, Father Mullen always returns to this norm, what he calls “the Big Picture”: How is what you are saying Good News?
Jesus preached the Kingdom of God, and that is good news indeed.
By: Evan Ponton, Assistant to the Pastor, Church of the Nativity, Timonium, MD