08 July 2009

How to proclaim the Kingdom?

14th Week OT (Wed): Gen 41.55-57, 42.5-7, 17-24; Matt 10.1-7
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Sisters of St Mary of Namur

During my early grad school years, I once went with a couple of friends to Mobile, AL to celebrate Madri Gras. We stayed at a downtown bed and breakfast and even managed to make it to Sunday Mass at the cathedral even though none of us were Catholic. I remember walking with friends near one of the city's notorious bars. On the street, a preacher shouted at the revelers to repent of their on-going debauchery and come to Christ. He had signs with scripture verses neatly printed on them. A large, well-worn Bible. At the time, I watched this circus act with seething contempt. With every word the preacher spoke I chomped at the bit to refute him, to call him out as a bigot and an idiot. My friends, knowing my spiritual inclinations and my love of a good debate, steered me clear of this guy, hoping that I wouldn't ruin the fun by engaging a religious freak. Being a good friend, I allowed myself to be deflected back into the festival. But to this day, I remember. I remember his call to repentance; and most of all, his fervor. He was taking Christ's charge to the apostles very seriously, go out and make this proclamation, “The Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” How seriously do we take this charge? And how do we follow his instruction?

In the older history of the Catholic Church, we have numerous examples of preachers taking to the streets to exhort repentance by proclaiming the arrival of the Kingdom. Dominic, Francis, Aquinas, Savonarola, Vincent Ferrer. But for most of us, this sort of loud and proud exhortation on the street is embarrassing. Why is that? What about proclaiming the arrival of the Kingdom and the necessity of repentance embarrass us so? Christ clearly says that we must do it. If we don't do it, why not?

We could say that we shy away from this sort of preaching b/c it tends to put people off. Who wants to hear that they are sinners and need to repent? Maybe we blush b/c it just sounds so strident, so belligerent; we don't like public confrontation. Maybe we are afraid of being challenged in a way that we aren't prepared to answer. Do we want to be associated with what many see as brainless religious fundamentalism? Or maybe, just maybe, we don't really believe that the Kingdom is at hand or that there is any need for repentance. After all, God loves everybody just as they are. Why exhort people to change? It sounds so controlling, so much like we want to dominate those who disagree with us. OK. Fair enough. But what do we do with Christ's clear instruction to preach the arrival of the Kingdom?

The standard answer here is to say that there are many ways to announce the Kingdom. Street-preaching is one but not mine. Don't we announce the Kingdom at Mass? When we work at the homeless shelter? When we protest for just immigration policy? Yes, it's possible. But virtuous pagans can work for the poor and immigrants. They can even attend Mass! What makes what we do any different from what anyone conscious of social injustice would do? There's a philosophical difference at play. Certainly a religious difference. But the difference that matters is that we do what we do for the greater glory of God. We are sent to seduce the human heart back to God. We are sent to be the Face of Christ for all those who have not seen or heard the gospel. And to those who have seen and heard but turned away. If we preach for any other reason, we are being disobedient.

The bonus of our ministry is that in proclaiming the Kingdom and the necessity of repentance to others, we are forcefully preaching to ourselves that we too are in need of repentance, in need of being reminded that the Kingdom is at hand. We cannot lose this humility. And maybe that's why excited street preaching is so unappealing—it's looks and sounds prideful. I've got what you need. Where's the humility in that? The truth is: Christ and his Church have what we ALL need. Can we say that with love and not sound condescending? We can, if our deeds match our words. Proclaiming the Kingdom without doing kingdom-works is a waste of breath. Doing kingdom-works without proclaiming the kingdom is a waste of calories. Words and deeds reveal the Lord for all to see and all to hear. Most especially to those who would dare to preach his gospel.


  1. Great post, Father.

    I wonder if Jesus would actually be outside bars and dives preaching for people to repent? Most likely, he'd be INSIDE bars and dives, preaching the message. Among, yet separate; just like he was fully human, yet fully divine as well.

    But as we are merely human, it's a bit more difficult to manage!

  2. Kathleen9:32 AM

    Great message, Father. How wonderful to read your regular homilies,thoughtful reflections, and occasional rants again.

  3. That street preacher is there every Mardi Gras. Great homily.

    Rob, in Mobile.