Learning From Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers’ “Why Be Catholic?” — Part 2

A few weeks ago I offered notes from Deacon Harold’s presentation at St. Augustine Parish in South Bend. This is Part 2 of stepping back and thinking about (and hopefully learning!) from his  style and content. (Here’s Part 1).

Thinking About Deacon Burke-Sivers’ Talk/Sermon

Great recognition and application of the stages of evangelization. Deacon Harold made it very clear that it’s important to really engage with where people are at, i.e. while St. Thomas Aquinas might offer a moving (and certainly valuable) justification for the existence of God, St. Thomas Aquinas is not likely to have the same weight or pull on an unbeliever as he might on us. So, we need to start with real basics, without immediately jumping to quotations from our tradition (even if they are from some of the greatest Christian thinkers in history!). In this example, he demonstrated some of the unique considerations of pre-evangelistic and evangelistic preaching. 

Importance of pre-evangelistic and evangelistic preaching. Pre-evangelistic and evangelistic preaching are mentioned in Fulfilled in Your Hearing (1982, USCCB), but don’t receive a full explanation or description. I think Deacon Harold provided a great example of what this might look like in a Catholic context. In Show Me How to Preach Evangelistic Sermons, R. Larry Moyer notes that many “Church leaders who rarely speak to an audience of non-Christians feel very comfortable before their own people but may lack confidence before an audience of unbelievers” (p. 17). This is probably true for us as Catholics as well. Ask many priests, ministers, and catechists if they’d rather prepare a talk on the existence of God to be presented to “seekers” or indifferent agnostics, or a talk on the spirituality of Catholic marriage to be given at a diocesean family life conference –and most would probably choose the later.

By preaching evangelically and apologetically, Deacon Harold was modeling for us how we can start these same conversations (confidently!) with those we may interact with. This reveals the reality that while pre-evangelistic and evangelistic messages are directed at non-believers (by definition), hearing these messages greatly edifies and helps believers as well because we learn through example how to articulate our faith. Deacon Harold’s message was such that an unbeliever could connect to it and engage with his points without being distracted by too much “church” language or terminology–at the same time the predominately Catholic audience could learn apologetics by example. 

Was Deacon Harold preaching or speaking? Does it matter? I asked this question (in a general sense) to a group of about 2o Divinity students, seminarians, ministers, and professors a few weeks ago in a discussion seminar following my talk on Evangelistic Preaching. I think this is an open question for reflection, and received some valuable comments from the group. One seminarian pointed out that using the word preaching is important, because it implies a specific relationship with the Word of God. It signals that the person speaking has allowed the Word to place a claim on them. It signals to the hearers that this is not just information being presented, but a privileged encounter with the Word of God in faith. Sr. Jamie Phelps, O.P., added that sometimes, however, the word preaching is confusing for hearers since it is often not through of in the broad sense that would include non-liturgical preaching or preaching by any baptized believer (in contrast with the uniquely clerical preaching of Eucharistic homilies).  

In principle, I agree with the seminarian, that preaching is a powerful term. We shouldn’t toss it around flippantly, but by recognizing and claiming the power of preaching the Word of God, we are making a statement of faith. We shouldn’t shy away from making that claim when done in proper humility, preparation, and communion with the local church (diocesean bishop).  Yet, it is true that while this is theologically correct–some people might be confused (and possibly put off) by a non-liturgical evangelistic sermon given by a baptized (non-cleric) male in a Catholic parish being called preaching.

Deacon Harold is (obviously 🙂 ) an ordained deacon, but the question of preaching outside of liturgy still exists. As a member of the audience for his talk, it truly felt like I was listening to preaching (great preaching at that!). His talk was rooted in the Word and deeply grounded in prayer. I would be comfortable defending the claim that he did more than just give a talk, he preached (to use the terms of Stephen Wright) a teaching/evangelistic sermon.

EvangelizationFaith FormationPreaching | Tagged 

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