150 years ago, one of Isaac Hecker’s original companions in the Paulist community’s founding, Paulist Father Francis Baker (1820-1865) preached a sermon at the Paulist Mother Church, entitled “The Preacher, The Organ of the Holy Ghost.” The occasion was the 4th Sunday after Easter in the historic Roman Calendar, for which the traditional Gospel reading would have been John 16:5-14.
Father Baker started with the text, When He the Spirit of Truth shall come, He will lead you into all truth (John 16:13). After clarifying that this refers to “truth relating to our salvation” and not ordinary scientific knowledge which we are expected to discover “by our own intelligence,” he asked how this promise is fulfilled. His answer: “The Holy Ghost leads us into all truth necessary to our salvation by the public preaching of the Word of God.” Acknowledging the human limitations of preachers, Baker asserted “a law that goes all through Christianity, and even through all the arrangements of the natural world. In ever department of human life, God makes man His representative – man fallible and weak.”
Writing in the mid 19th-century, Father Baker could still easily assume an existing moral consensus. For him, natural reason illuminates the natural moral law and forms consciences accordingly. Thus, the preacher is not required, so to speak, to start from scratch. Rather his task is to build upon what people already know. “A man believes more, he is more conscious of his belief, his belief becomes more distinct, more serviceable, when he hears it from another’s lips.” But the preacher must also proclaim those revealed truths that are beyond natural reason: “it must depend on the preacher’s office to keep these mysteries in men’s minds, and to secure for them a place in men’s intelligence and affections.”
One of the images Father Baker used, which I suspect must have been a consolation to preachers then just as it is to preachers now, was “the Divine Sower scattering the seeds of truth and virtue.” It is an image that I think every preacher ought to keep constantly in mind – not just because it explains why not everyone will respond positively, but because it highlights God’s extreme generosity and patience, which ultimately account for whatever fruit preaching produces.
But Baker became genuinely poetic depicting the experience of preaching as a renewed Pentecost: “See, the priest has clothed himself to celebrate the unbloody sacrifice. He has ascended the altar. Already the clouds of incense hang over the mercy-seat, and hymns of praise ascend; - but he stops, he turns to the people. Why doe she interrupt the Mass? Has he seen a vision? Han an angel spoken to him, as of old to the prophet Zacharias? Yes, he has seen a vision, He has heard a voice. A fire is in his heart. A living coal has touched his lips, the Breath of the Spirit hath passed over him, and he speaks as he is moved by the Holy Ghost.”
Living in this much more prosaic age, I confess I have never imagined my preaching in this way. And, frankly, I think it somewhat challenging to do so, for all sorts of reasons which reflect today’s changed sensibilities. That said, however, it is a challenge to take somewhat more seriously the unique encounter with the Lord which we believe occurs at the altar and to allow oneself to be as awestruck by it as the prophets were.