In my experience as a preacher for the past ten years, I have seen the impact and effect that words can have on people. The general congregation (at least those that I have had the opportunity to preach to each week) are basically a grateful group for having been shown respect by preachers who do their work and preparation before going up to the ambo on any given day at Mass. As I made preparations to leave my parish the past couple of weeks to begin life anew as a student once more, many kind notes and cards were given expressing thanks for the effort to bring some change in their lives through the words I have spoken. And if I have been such an instrument, I do thank the Lord for being such.
But do words really have such power? I guess they have the power to peak one’s interest, to catch the attention, and if the phrasing and choice of words are apt, they can even transport them to another place and time. But why then do most congregants find that even after years and years of hearing homily after homily, sermon after sermon (yes, there is a difference between the two of them) lives are still somewhat unchanged, and hearts generally untouched? I know that there is no scientific evidence available, but I am quite sure that the numbers of lives that really become transformed by mere preaching and having listened to a good homily are inversely proportioned to the numbers that turn up at Masses week after week.
Perhaps this is because the reality is that words can only do so much. What really transforms and what truly invites transformation is when the one speaking becomes a true channel of transformation himself. In other words, the congregation or audience have an unspoken need to see that the very life of the speaker or preacher or in this case, the priest, is living a life as close to the words that tumble out of his mouth as possible.
And this is not just something that we priests must be aware of. Parents who want to guide the hearts of their children must also know that their very lives and actions become the barometer of mummy’s or daddy’s words. What we human beings really search out for are role models in the various areas of our lives, and this is the far more difficult and challenging part of preaching and teaching.
At our level best as teachers of life, we can imitate John the Baptist and point out the way, but as far as real transformation, we make such little progress it can become a tad depressing or even discouraging. There really is far more admiration than transformation and changed living in the religious and priestly arenas and this is something that saddens.
When the disciples of Jesus went to him and complained that there were some demons that were stubborn and resisted exorcism, Jesus replied that ‘this kind can only be cast out by prayer and fasting’. Herein lies the true power of effective devil-battling and spiritual warfare which many of us don’t take seriously enough.
What Jesus alluded to is the need for true integration in our lives on all areas if we want our words to really be effective. There is a lot of disintegration in the world today, both in the secular as well as in the religious and spiritual platforms. Bankers are distrusted, politicians are paid scant respect when their skeletons are dragged out of the closet, and priests and religious drag the good name of God down many notches when scandals of various proportions hit the pages of newspapers.
How is it that great saints have had the real power to effect positive changes in people even though some of them were cloistered away, sequestered perhaps, in convents and monasteries? It must be the belief in the universal power of an upright and moral heart that transcends physical barriers and nation boundaries and knows no borders. I must believe that my yen for holiness even though half a world away has its effects on lives and hearts that are beyond my physical reach.
This conviction must sustain my wanting to continue to practice with love and conviction the daily disciplines of prayer and regular abstinence for a universal effect of transformed hearts and lives, and inspire others to do the same.
Only then can words really make a real difference.