TO SEE YOUR FACE – PREACHING IN A SECULAR AGE
Thomas J. Scirghi, S.J., Liturgical Press, 2017
by R. B. Williams, O.P.
Thomas J. Scirghi, SJ, is an associate professor of theology at Fordham
University. A brief “google look” at his name revealed that his students
seem to like him. I would suspect he is a fine lecturer since he has been
presenting workshops on preaching all over the world for many years. It
appears that he has decided to distill his experience in this relatively
brief book (123 pages). For the reasons that follow, I’m glad he made that
decision. First of all, he provides a sound theology for preaching.
Second, he offers a very thorough process for preparation. Third, he offers
some very practical advice for preaching at sacramental events outside
Eucharistic celebration (Deacons and Lay Ministers take note): weddings and
funerals. Those reasons correspond to the three main parts of the book.
When one can match theology with “how-to,” that is an accomplishment. When
it concerns the very sensitive topic of preaching, it is an achievement.
theology of the book begins with an introduction entitled, “Lord, this is
the people that longs to see your face.” (Ps. 24). The title of the book
comes from that line and sums up the vocation of the preacher as one who
mediates the face of God to the people who long to see that face. (In this,
he builds on the insights of Mary Catherine Hilkert, OP’s NAMING GRACE –
PREACHING AND THE SACRAMENTAL IMAGINATION, which he quotes approvingly.)
The final paragraph of the book sums this up nicely: “So where does the
preacher stand? Some preachers choose to stand outside the house, telling
people what is going on inside the house. They talk about the Lord,
like reporters at a news event. However, effective preachers open up the
house and go inside and bring the faithful with them. They know the power
and the mercy of the Lord, and they know what it is that the people seek.
They are heralds of God’s word. Through their preaching they declare,
‘Lord, this is the people that longs to see your face.’” This theology
addresses the difference Scirghi makes between preachers who are trying to
preach, and preachers who are really preaching! I do like that insight!
second part of the book offers a very thorough preparation process for
homiletic preaching. His process is similar to those proposed in other
resources such as Pope Francis’ THE JOY OF THE GOSPEL, the USCCB’s FULFILLED
IN YOUR HEARING and PREACHING THE MYSTERY OF FAITH, and the very fine
PREACHING MATTERS – A PRAXIS FOR PREACHERS by Bishop Sylvester Ryan and Dr.
Deborah Wilhelm (which I reviewed earlier for this website. He devotes a
chapter each to reflection, research, writing and rehearsing. It is in that
fourth category that I think this book is particularly valuable. The title
of the chapter is: REHEARSE:THE WHOLE BODY PREACHES. I have to admit that a
major reason I consider this chapter so important is my conviction that a
lack of basic public speaking skills dooms anyone who “tries” to preach from
the start, and inhibits those who could “actually” preach. Fr. Scirghi
offers valuable insights on body language and voice that any preacher can
fruitfully use. The principal challenge to any of these very useful
preparation processes lies in the nature of modern pastoral ministry or even
the academic ministry of those who preach either regularly or only
occasionally from the pulpit. These preparation processes presume a time
commitment that may be only a dream for some busy pastors, deacons or lay
ministers. Preaching does not often top the list of priorities to these
final paragraph of Fr. Scirghi’s book, which I quoted above, puts a finger
on a deeper problem. The Second Vatican Council’s document on the ordained
minister (Presbyterorum Ordinis) identifies preaching as the primary task
of the priest: The People of God is formed into one in the first place
by the Word of the living God, which is quite rightly sought from the mouth
of priests. For since nobody can be saved who has not first believed, it is
the first task of priests as co-workers of the bishops to preach the Gospel
of God to all men. #4. I think Fr. Scirghi goes further by going beyond
the “task” of preaching to the identity of the preacher. Unless bishops,
priests, deacons and lay ministers identify themselves as preachers first
and foremost, then the best they will be able to do is “try” to preach,
rather than “actually” preach. Fr. Scirghi offers a way forward on this in
addition to all his practical wisdom for preaching itself (the wedding and
funeral section is very good). For these reasons I urge anyone whose
responsibilities include preaching to read this book and take it to heart.
The “longing to see God’s face” that is in the face of the listeners should
be in the face of the preacher as well.