Frank Brennan SJ, A Virtual Year: Homilies during pandemic, edited by Sean Burke, Newman College 2021 ISBN 9780645359008
Bill Uren SJ, Notwithstanding: Forty more homilies, Newman College, edited by Sean Burke, 2021 ISBN 9780645359015
Among university colleges Newman College is distinctive today for the strong part that Christian faith plays in its public life and symbols. The Importance placed on the celebrations of the Eucharist, its choir and the constant appeal to the tradition of John Henry Newman, a masterly preacher, are some examples. In that respect it echoes the religious seriousness of all the denominational Colleges of the early 20th century.
Those churches and colleges put a high value on preaching. Particularly in Anglican and Protestant churches it was common for preachers and theologians to publish their sermons. At a time when the Sabbath was publicly observed and before television, sermons could stretch to an hour or more. Ministers who lacked faith in their own wisdom or eloquence often read to their congregation a sermon by a renowned preacher.
Today collections of contemporary sermons are few. These two books of homilies preached to the students and friends of Newman College by Bill Uren and Frank Brennan, successive rectors of the College, record the way in which faith and contemporary challenges have been addressed in a turbulent time. Both collections bring together the Scriptural readings of the day, the events of the week, the large questions asked by students and the Catholic community, and the cultural resources of Catholic culture. They suppose in their hearers a questioning faith, a desire for knowledge and a commitment to a just and beautiful world, and the expectation of being taken seriously.
Both collections of sermons respond to these challenges in an exemplary way. In the differences between them they weave a rich tapestry. Both attend closely to the readings of the day. Fr Uren typically works closely at the text, bringing out the drama of the Gospel stories and the surprising behaviour of their protagonists. In this way he reveals the surprising and challenging message within them. He then speaks thoughtfully and honestly of the relevance of the passages to questions and situations of current interest. His style is simple and conversational, with a natural formality and authority that commend his judgments while encouraging the freedom of his hearers to respond each in their own way. He can challenge without browbeating or shaming them.
Some of the homilies take the form of lectures on such issues currently disputed in Church or in society as the ordination of women, divorce and priestly celibacy. In these homilies he carefully sets out church teaching in its sources and its complexities, describes clearly the questions it raises and the responses to them, and so offers a deep and considered understanding of them.
Fr Brennan’s homilies share in these virtues. He faced the additional challenge of preaching during the restrictions of Covid, and of addressing a virtual as well as a physically present congregation. He ties his reflections to Scripture in a variety of ways: he sometimes dramatises the Gospel story, and at other times recounts events that beg an instinctive response that then needs to be reviewed in the light of the scriptural text that he then reads. In other sermons, the reflection on Scripture is followed by an extended reflection on an anniversary, on a saint or on a historical event that raises contemporary issues. These include slavery, the use of nuclear weapons, reconciliation, and other matter of current interest. In drawing on a wide range of literary and historical sources, references upon his personal history, and salty quotations from Pope Francis, he models for his hearers a way of responding to the Gospel.
The two collections suggest that good homilies come in many shapes. They are not works of art but three-way relationships between preacher, congregation and the Gospel. In their form they must respect the gifts, the situation and the freedom of each partner. These homilies by Bill Uren and Frank Brennan, with their emphasis on careful argument, their appeal to the wealth and range of the Catholic tradition and their attention to the depth of the issues raised do justice to their educated audience. In their printed form they will continue to stir reflection and will form part of the record of these extraordinary years in society, Church and College.
Whether future preachers will read them to their congregations, of course, remains to be seen.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ
Feature photo by Dom J on Pexels.