Saint Meinrad Seminary & School of Theology

Formation and Education for the Life of the Church

Preaching on Hot Button Issues

by Fr. Scott Woods


Editor's note:  This post originally appeared in Voices from the Vineyard, found at

"I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!" These are the words of Jesus, as reported by Luke (12:49). "To Set the Earth on Fire" was also the theme of the 2017 Notre Dame Preaching Conference sponsored by the Marten Program in Homiletics and Liturgics.

The four permanent deacons with whom I minister at St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Findlay, Ohio, invited me to join them at the conference this past summer. They had gone before and thoroughly enjoyed it, and I have to say, I'm glad I accepted their invitation.

Like the Holy Hill, the campus of the University of Notre Dame is a special place. It's big and beautiful and abounds with tradition. It doesn't take long before you feel at home at what a friend of mine - who's a Notre Dame fanatic - refers to as "the holy land."

Another similarity between the Dome up north and the Hill down south are the relationships both have with the Marten Family, which has generously supported the study of homiletics and the formation of preachers at both institutions for many years. Thanks to the Martens' investment in the Church, preachers from around the world came to Notre Dame to learn how to set the earth on fire by our preaching,

My participation at the conference, which featured top-notch speakers and helpful workshops, affirmed the initial formation I received at Saint Meinrad. We who have worshiped in St. Thomas Aquinas Chapel have had the flame of faith stoked within us by some wonderful preaching we've heard.

We who have listened to up-and-coming homilists reflect on the Living Word in practice chapels, and strived to identify their focus and function statements, have had the flame of faith stoked within us by some wonderful teaching we've received. We, who while deacons, preached in parishes in the local churches of Evansville, Indianapolis, Louisville, and Owensboro have had the flame of faith stoked within us by the patience and kindness of the faithful who endured our best and worst moments at the ambo on ministry weekends!

On September 13, the Church observed the Memorial of St. John Chrysostom. The one known for his "golden mouth" knew it was his sacred responsibility to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, and that he did - even to the point of dying in exile. It's our sacred responsibility also - to set the earth on fire.

I sometimes remind parishioners that I've not been sent to them to win a popularity contest. While it's nice to be liked, I know that's not what I'll be accountable for when this preacher appears before the Eternal Word for judgment. I also tell parishioners that rather than sending a letter to the bishop if and when I upset them, they should be sending one if I never leave them feeling frustrated!

Comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, as Chrysostom did, is not difficult to do these days. All it takes is daring to address any moral issue, which is usually interpreted as a political statement. However, I'm more and more convinced that, while there may indeed be a price to pay for the bold proclamation of the Gospel, our sisters and brothers are waiting and longing for it.

I believe the people of God should hear about the pressing issues of our time and place from the ambo instead of Facebook and Twitter, Fox News and MSNBC, Breitbart and The New York Times alone. Matters of pressing public importance like immigration, health care, racism, and care for our common home can also be addressed - and more importantly - from the rich treasuries of sacred Scripture and sacred tradition.

A few times now, after addressing hot-button issues like the death penalty, parishioners have told me after Mass, "That was a difficult homily to hear." I reply, "It was a difficult homily to preach, too!" I also explain that I'm preaching to myself even more than I'm preaching to them because I'm not where I need to be yet either.

Together we are the pilgrim Church. Together we're waiting on the living and effective Word of God that pierces the heart more surely than a two-edged sword to challenge us, correct us, encourage us, and strengthen us in our bold proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ that sets hearts and the earth on fire with Divine Mercy.

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Echoes from the Bell Tower is a blog devoted to observations on Christian faith, spirituality and everyday events, by authors with a connection to the Benedictine values found at Saint Meinrad Archabbey and its Seminary and School of Theology. Contributors include students, permanent deacons, Benedictine oblates and Saint Meinrad monks. Their stories, thoughts and ideas highlight the mission and vision that ring out from the bell towers on this Hill in southern Indiana.