The Apostle of the Gentiles was convinced that
preaching makes Christ present
and his grace effective in peoples lives.

The gospel reveals that Jesus spent much of the years of his public ministry praying and preaching. St. Mark records him to say: Let us go elsewhere, to the neighboring country towns, so that I can preach there too, because that is why I came (Mark 1 38).

After the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, Peter and the other apostles took up Jesus preaching mission. By a miraculous intervention of the risen Lord, Paul of Tarsus was added to their number and given the specific mission of preaching Christ and him crucified to the gentiles. It is helpful for the priest to ponder Paul and his preaching mission to help him understand the commission he received directly from Christ to preach the gospel. In this article, I shall seek to isolate a few truths from the life and writings of St. Paul to illustrate the centrality of preaching in the life of priests.

Commission from Christ to preach

Paul was convinced that he had been commissioned by the Lord himself to preach the gospel: For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission (1 Cor. 9:16).

It is incorrect to think that the commission to preach comes from the bishop. The priest surely preaches in communion with the local bishop, and with his permission. The commission to preach, sanctify and govern the People of God, however, comes directly from Christ in the rite of ordination.

For instance in the rite of the diaconate, the ordaining prelate, handing the book of the gospels to the newly ordained, says: Receive the gospel of Christ, whose herald you now are. Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach. When does the deacon become Christs herald? This certainly happens before he receives canonical faculties from his bishop. It transpires in the sacramental encounter the deacon has with Christ in the sacrament itself!

This reality is even more forcefully brought out in the rite of ordination to the priesthood. Immediately after the litany of the saints, the bishop presents the candidates to Christ for ordination. He says: Hear us, Lord our God, and pour out upon this servant of yours the blessing of the Holy Spirit and the grace and power of the priesthood. In your sight we offer this man for ordination: support him with your unfailing love.

The bishop is the instrument of Our Lord in the administration of the sacrament. Through the sacrament of holy orders, Christ himself consecrates men as priests, giving them a share in his authority and power. Therefore, it is appropriate to say that as St. Paul was commissioned by the Risen Lord to preach, so priests are likewise chosen and sent by him to be his herald. This commissioning takes place in the rite of ordination.

Although it is surely the prerogative and responsibility of diocesan bishops to oversee the preaching of the gospel in their local churches, to provide ongoing formation of the clergy in the doctrinal, liturgical and moral teaching of the church, and to grant or revoke faculties to preach, it is theologically incorrect to think that the priest is bound to reflect the approach of the local ordinary to the content of the faith or his personal style. That the priest is a co-worker of the order of bishops and not merely of his local ordinary, and receives his authority to preach from the Lord himself should fill every priest with the confidence of St. Paul to present all of Catholic doctrine without ambiguity or compromise.

Preaching with authority

Paul understood that his mission was to preach Christ and not himself. This was the source of his confidence and boldness. Near the end of his life, Paul explained the mission he had received to the presbyters of the church of Ephesus: I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may accomplish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God (Acts 20:24).

Everywhere in his preaching, Paul states that what he teaches is only what Christ taught. When teaching on the Eucharist, for instance, Paul says: For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me. In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lords death until he comes (1Cor. 11:23-26). Accordingly, Paul expected total and unhesitating acceptance of his teaching since he (Paul) was only transmitting the truth that comes from Christ. He insisted that it was really Christs truth that he, Paul, preached.

In rare instances, when Paul presents his own personal slant on things, he notes that his reader is free to accept or ignore his teaching. This is clear from 1Cor. 7:12, where Paul proffers his own personal point of view regarding believers marrying unbelievers. He is careful to tag what is his own opinion or interpretation with the implication that his Corinthian readers are at liberty to accept or not what is merely his personal view of the matter.

Obviously, this truth is crucial for priests who are ministers of the word of God. Priests are heralds of Christ whose task is only to present the truth of the gospel as it is handed on by the sacred tradition of the church. This fidelity to the truth of Christ is of the utmost importance as is the assiduous study of the faith in the years that both precede and follow priestly ordination.

Paul was aware that the Holy Spirit spoke through him, giving him the concepts, the words, and the power that made his preaching effective and fruitful. Although he does not limit his lists of charisms to the preaching mission, Paul evidently received and experienced these charisms especially when he preached the word of God. In his experience, the Holy Spirit imparted them to him for the edification of those who received the word. In fact, one is tempted to see each of the charisms listed in 1Cor. 12:7-10 as directly related to the preaching task, at least in the ministry of Paul: The particular way in which the Spirit is given to each person is for a good purpose. One may have the gift of preaching with wisdom given him by the Spirit; another may have the gift of preaching instruction given him by the same Spirit; and another the gift of faith given by the same Spirit; another again the gift of healing through this one Spirit; one, the power of miracles; another, prophecy; another the gift of recognizing spirits; another the gift of tongues and another the ability to interpret them.

Preaching as spiritual fatherhood

Paul understood his preaching as spiritual paternity. To the Corinthians, Paul writes: I am writing all this not just to make you ashamed but to bring you, as my dearest children, to your senses. You might have thousands of guardians in Christ, but no more than one father, and it was I who begot you in Christ Jesus by preaching the gospel (1Cor. 4:14-15).

Paul knew that this fatherhood in the Christian community was the result of the distinct yet inseparable missions of the Word and the Holy Spirit. When Paul preached Christ, he experienced that his proclamation made the Lord present in all the power of his saving death, resurrection, and ascension. He understood that through the instrumentality of the preacher, the Lord himself calls people to faith, conversion, and baptism.

He experienced that the Holy Spirit anoints the word of the preacher and prompts the listener to believe that word and surrender in faith, hope, and love to the Risen Lord. Without this synergy of the Risen Christ and the Spirit, on the one hand, and the preacher, on the other, there can be no faith, no baptism, no church. The Apostles knew that by proclaiming the Word in the Spirit, he was begetting the church of God. Among the most rewarding experiences of the priestly ministry is begetting and nourishing the life of Christ in peoples souls through the preaching of the Word of God.

The Apostle of the Gentiles was convinced from personal experience that preaching makes Christ present and his grace effective in peoples conversion. Preaching imparts the seed through which the Holy Spirit produces the new life of grace. He believed that this begetting of new, divine life is accomplished in ecclesial communion with many other ministers of the word of God. He wrote to the Christians of Corinth: What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are equal, and each shall receive his wages according to his labor: For we are Gods fellow workers; you are Gods field, Gods building (1Cor. 3:6-9).

Suffering for the Gospel

Paul was ready to suffer for the gospel and was indefatigable in his preaching mission. In 2 Corinthians 11:23-28, Paul enumerates some of the hardships he endured on his preaching missions: Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one?I am talking like a madman?with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times, I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times, I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches.

Paul sought no remuneration, no human reward for his preaching. He preached because it was his mission, his life: What then is my reward? Just this: that in my preaching I may make the gospel free of charge, not making full use of my right in the gospel.

Paul was painfully aware of his human weaknesses and his need to rely totally on the grace of him whose word he preached. In fact, he gloried in his human weaknesses precisely because these caused him to trust with more confidence and boldness in the grace of the crucified and risen One. If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness (2Cor.1 1:30).

With, I suspect, a sense of hum or Paul, at one point, reports what people say about his writing: His letters are weighty enough and full of strength, but when you see him in person he makes no impression, and his powers of speaking are negligible (2Cor. 10:10). Paul did not take himself too seriously. He was not in any way full of himself. He understood that his fruitfulness as a preacher came not from his human abilities and talents, but rather, from the power of the word itself and his dependence on grace in the context of his many human weaknesses.

Preaching for all people

Paul understood his need to truly communicate the word of God to those to whom he preached: For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

It is of the highest importance that the priest be able to take the theology he has learned in the seminary and present it, in all its integrity, to his people in liturgical preaching and catechesis. He must know how to announce the mystery of Christs death and resurrection in such a way that people will turn away from sin to faith in the living God. He must also learn to explain the mystery of Christ in a comprehensive way and unfold its implications in the lives of his people through catechetical instruction. This is what St. Paul means when he says, I have become all things to all men. It is the task of priestly formation and programs of ongoing formation after ordination to help the minister of the word distinguish baptismal faith from theology, and transmit that faith through catechetical instruction, and strengthen it in liturgical preaching.

Many preachers have been struck by the beautiful statue of St. Paul in the courtyard of the Roman Basilica that enshrines his mortal remains. St. Paul seems to be in profound contemplation of the mystery of Christ as he grasps the Sword of the Spirit (Eph. 6:7, Rev. 4:12) in his hand, ready to use it at a moments notice. The Sword of the Spirit, of course, is the preaching of the word of God. Paul went to the boundaries of the world of his time, filled with zeal to carry that word to all people.

This powerful image of Paul is an icon of the preaching ministry. In imitation of St. Paul, the priest seeks. an ever-deeper encounter with Christ in contemplative prayer. There he learns not to depend on himself and his own talents, but on Christ and the Holy Spirit. In contemplation of the truths of the faith, Christ teaches him to wield the Sword of the Spirit and beget the new life of grace in souls.

Paul in Romans makes the priestly nature of preaching explicit: But on some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit (Rom 15:15-16).

The Pauline Charism which is so evident in the life and ministry of Pope John Paul II is nothing less than the perfect balance of these two realities: contemplation of the mystery of Christ and zeal to bring the knowledge and love of Christ to every human person. Herein is the quintessence of the priest's spiritual paternity.

Reverend Frederick L. Miller is associate professor of Systematic Theology at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, Pa. Currently he is a member of the faculty at the North American College in Rome. His last article in HPR appeared in November 1997.


Homily and Pastoral Review, October 2004, p. 56-60.