Summary of Why Preach by Fr. Peter John Cameron

Introduction: Why Preaching

There is preaching in the Church because God’s people “live waiting for a Word that will make a difference… for breakthrough News” (14).

“Preaching is not speech-giving. No one was ever saved by a message. It would have been a waste of time for the Word to become flesh if it sufficed for the Father to send a memo instead of his Son” (15).

Chapter 1: The Starting Point of Preaching: Beginning from Human Experience

Preaching must begin from human experience, from “what is most universal, what is most commonly shared and innate to every human being” (17), that is, our deep need for truth, beauty, love, goodness, justice, and happiness.

A preacher must be aware of his own profound need for these things, and he must be attentive to this condition in his hearers.

Since most people live divorced from their hearts, that is, separated and distanced from these deep fundamental desires, the preacher must “give people back their hearts” (22) and awaken within them both a sense of their inability to satisfy their restless hearts, the big questions of life, a longing that leads to God and an expectation of God to fulfill it, who seeks us first and draws us close to Him.

“Any answer that a preacher intends to offer his people must be in response to a question. Giving the answer to a question that has never been asked is the perfect definition of boring. The answer might be brilliant,… but if I do not comprehend its relevance to my life, if I cannot grasp how it corresponds to what is urgent and important to me, then it is not worth listening to” (20).

The preacher must offer his hearers a proposal – a proposal that is an appropriate response to a lived question in the hearers. At the heart of this proposal “is an exceptional Presence that corresponds to their hearts – a Presence that answers their burning yearning and that moves them to say Yes to the preacher’s proposal (41).

Questions to ask while praying over the Scriptures in preparation to preach:

  • How does this Scripture respond to the elementary needs (deep desires, universal human experiences) of those who will hear it?
  • How does this living Word revive, accentuate, or intensify my present, lived encounter with Jesus Christ?
  • What concretely does it propose as an answer to the urgent questions of the human heart?

“The genius of Sacred Scripture is that it offers not simply a message but rather a divine and life-giving Presence. In other words, the preacher looks for the correspondence between what the Scripture offers and what the human heart is begging for. Like the game Jeopardy, we preachers read the Scripture identifying the Answer, but what we speak aloud is the corresponding question – that’s the key to winning” (41).

Chapter 2: The Method: Preaching Is an Encounter

Preaching must focus on providing an “encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (DCE 1, Pope Benedict XVI).

An encounter is something unexpected and surprising, something new, fresh, eternal, something that “launches” us.

“Preaching is not speech-making; it is not a discourse. Preaching is like trying to describe some phenomenal play at a baseball game. It’s trying to recapture the amazing happening for someone who did not see it, we use an appropriate style and only as many words as are needed to re-create the event in such a way that the other can experience it” (55).

The preacher can only effect this encounter if he “returns again and again to what happened to himself personally. (This is the reason for prayer.)” (56). Preaching must be an event that awakens us and makes us alert, an even that mediates The Event.

“The encounter that is Gospel preaching proceeds from the preacher’s own first encounter with the Event who is Jesus Christ as well as from the daily encounters that renew that first Event and amplify it” (56).

“In order for preaching to be an encounter, the preacher himself must be living out of his own real, actuating encounter with Jesus Christ” (64-5).

“The living center of your preaching of the Gospel is the encounter with our Lord himself” (St. John Paul II).

Chapter 3: The Soul of Preaching: Piercing the Pearl of Sacred Scripture

We must appreciate the Bible’s literary aesthetic in order to be able to preach in an adequate way. Since “the Bible is a work of inspired literature” (71), we must read it with the same literary predisposition that we show to a novel, a poem, a letter, a short story, a play, or any other narrative (72). Rather than being a precise doctrinal textbook to convince the mind, Scripture is a work of art in narrative form.

“Holy Scripture not only teaches us, it acts on us; it not only teaches us to act, it makes us act… It is not simply that the inspired Word speaks about Christ; it is rather Christ who speaks, and “with authority”; the text of the Bible does not only speak about grace, it is itself an act of grace” (Alonso Schökel).

“When preaching falters, very often it is the result of the preacher not using an approach to Sacred Scripture adequate to the preaching event… Frequently this occurs because the preacher does not “expect enough” of the text; he does not ask the kinds of questions of the text that the text begs him to ask of it. Too often he opens the Bible looking for some “ethical point” or “lofty idea” to extract and convert into a homily; but being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea. That is why Sacred Scripture offers so much more – it offers us an encounter with a Person” (80).

“The key to our method of lectio divina is very simple but absolutely indispensable: the preach is to approach Sacred Scripture as if encountering a person” (88).

3 dynamics at work in the text:
(1) Objective Dynamic: Be very curious and keep asking why to any fact, details, and information noted.
  • “The more we ask “why” of the text in this way, the more the text opens itself up to us and reveals its level of meaning (the spiritual sense)” (89).
(2) Personal Dynamic
  • Since God reveals Himself through the persons and relationships that fill Scripture, we must give our attention to the particular characters, make notes of the actions and dialogue that transpire in the passage, being attentive to the verbs used, then engage in a theological reflection of the data.
(3) Response Dynamic
  • Look at distinct vocabulary, syntax, images, symbols, themes, parallelisms, literary devices.
  • “Read the Scripture as you would a detective novel, being especially attentive to any “clues” the author has inserted that will enable you to get at the heart of the mystery” (93).

Chapter 4: Putting the Word into Words – The Language of Preaching

Cardinal Danielou insisted that “preaching is not a discourse on God; it is the Word of God. It is an act of God working through the ministry of the priest. The Word of God for the Bible is not the mere enunciation of a thought. It contains a dynamis, an efficacy… It touches hearts and converts them, it arouses faith, it brings about sanctification. It is alive. Nothing can imprison it” (Christ and Us, 180-1). The medium of preaching – the fact that it is a certain kind of speech – itself plays an integral role in this faith arousing and sanctifying. 107-8

“If Christ opted for the medium of such lively, personal, immediate speech with which to encounter his hearers – purposefully eschewing a medium that was didactic, academic, or pedantic – shouldn’t every preacher of Christ do the same?” (108)

Since belief, in the thought of Josef Pieper, “is the result of assenting to a trusted someone who proposes something to our freedom” (112), when a preacher is an admirable and loving presence, we find it nearly impossible to resist or contradict what he proposes. We listen and accept his testimony. We are assured that his words are to be trusted.

“The medium of the preacher is speech that is lively, conversational, down-to-earth, direct, immediate, personal – not formalistic” (115).

Chapter 5: Homiletic Missteps – The Poison of Moralism and Its Antidote

The problem with moralism is that it proposes a plan and not a Person, a list of dos and don’ts rather than an invitation into the mysteries of the Faith, a demand on human will to keep God’s law that is separate from grace’s goal of human flourishing.

Moralistic preaching: (1) Diagnostic – pointing out the “bad news” without administering Christ’s cure; (2) Voluntarism – “just try harder” to be holy; (3) Ultimatum – “do this/don’t do that, or else.”

Authentic moral preaching = The preacher’s personal witness and authority – his own friendship with Christ gives us the force, the motivation, and the thirst for a moral life – this evokes a response to the aspirations of the human heart for truth and goodness that leads to a loving adherence to the Person of Jesus Christ and rightly orders every subsequent choice and decision we make, thus finding true human dignity.

  • “In proposing a particular moral truth, the starting point must be its beauty. Once people are shown the good, they are then irresistibly drawn to follow it because they recognize how it corresponds to a crucial need of their hearts” (142).
Be explicit about the agency of grace in the moral life… Gospel preaching emphasizes that it is Christ who desires this for us, and it is Christ who carries it out (142).
  • In terms of tone and delivery of preaching that conveys moral instruction… be wary of words like “should”, “strive”, and their ilk. In terms of your presentation, don’t speak at the people but to them, personally and compassionately like a loving father (143).

“You have to meet love before meeting morality. Otherwise it’s torture” (Camus).

Chapter 6: The Fruit of the Encounter – Preaching is Regenerating

Preaching is one of the preeminent ways that the priest-preacher exercises his vocation as father.

  • “Know that people come to church like the prodigal son returning home profoundly needy, hoping for a second chance at life; they want to be regenerated. They are in search of their own character and destiny” (164).

People want a preacher to regenerate them as a father (the one who generated him in the first place).

  • Since no one can regenerate unless he is being regenerated, a priest-preacher needs to experience this personally in his relationship with Christ.

Chapter 7: The Habit of Preaching — Some Pragmatics

  1. Begin at the beginning of the week. Give your homily time to mature.
  2. Work from a sole sheet of paper. Copy out lines of the Scriptural text. Write out phrases that strike you. Don’t wait to write. Start writing down your thoughts and impressions immediately.
  3. Meditate on your findings. Approach the sacred text as if it were a person. Ask yourself big questions like this: How does this Scripture text provoke me and raise an ultimate question in me about my religious sense, about suffering, meaning, purpose, life, my need for beauty, truth, goodness (or what “problem” does it exposes or create for my situation), and what is the answer that it gives & how is Christ offering me an encounter with his Presence in this Scripture passage?
  4. Summarize your homily in 1 sentence — a proposal that engages the hearers’ freedom, prompting them to make a judgment that hopefully moves them to assent.  This self-imposed creative constraint must lead to a definiteness that rejects whatever does not in some way or other bring out this one distinct proposition which he has chosen.
  5. Use compelling examples. “Well-selected samples are indispensable to authentic Gospel preaching because they substantiate a preacher’s claim by showing how a concrete Word becomes flesh here and now. Examples honour our need to know from the starting point of experience… Realistically, the examples a preacher uses are usually what people remember most about preaching. This attests to just how human a thing examples are! Obviously, examples are the way we think about, organize and make sense of reality. Examples are the way we remember it.
  6. Determine the length of your homily according to a proper proportionality. Fr. Cameron recommends 8 minutes for the Sunday homily — this ensures that the homily is not longer than the most important element of the Liturgy, the Eucharistic Prayer.
  7. Preach without a manuscript. Since the point of preaching is to regenerate others, preaching without a script ensures immediacy, contact, engagement, rapport. The preacher must assimilate the message, to preach from experience rather than just ideas. People will see your humanity and vulnerability and love you more and listen more attentively if you preach without notes.
  8. Always memorize your ending. Be certain how you intend to conclude.
  9. Speak directly to the people. Speak like a father who has something important to tell his children. Offer a Presence not an idea. Be earnest, personal, direct.

Conclusion: Preaching Why

“If every day of our lives we live regenerated by the encounter with Christ, then we will have all we need to preach why and to preach well” (184).

“Jesus Christ himself has prayed for us and for those who will come to believe because of our word (see Jn 17:20). This gives us every reason to approach our preaching with confident and daring boldness” (185).

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