Preaching the Heart of the Gospel

Although I grew up in a nominally Catholic home, neither of my parents was particularly religious. We attended Sunday Mass occasionally as a family, but as we got older the demands of family life, sports, and other obligations quickly began to crowd out church. My siblings and I were enrolled in the local Catholic school system, each receiving a basic catechetical formation. However, though Catholic school gave me the beginnings of a “Christian head,” it was not until I was in college that I really began to have a “Christian heart,” and this was prompted by the death of a family member. As I entered college, I began wrestling with the “big questions” of life. Who am I? What is my purpose? Is there more to life than this? Fortunately, I had made a few friends in those short few months. One of them, recognizing my existential searching, invited me to attend Mass with him. I ended up sitting in the college chapel on the First Sunday of Lent attending Mass for the first time in years.

Before I knew it, I was attending Mass on campus regularly. I wish I could say that I was there because of the Eucharist. I certainly knew that I was receiving Jesus in His body, blood, soul, and divinity each week; my “Christian head” told me that much. But I had not yet realized the significance of the Eucharist in my life because my own relationship with God was at its earliest stages. In reality, I was there because our campus chaplain, the pastor of the local parish, gave some of the best homilies I had ever heard up to that point in my life. He preached about a God who became incarnate, who walked among us, who even chose to die for us (for me, even!). He invited me to make a personal response to Jesus’ invitation to follow Him as His disciple, and he did it every single Sunday. Sometimes it was subtle: inviting me to bring some important part of my daily life and struggles to God in prayer. Other times it was more direct: I was invited to hand over control of my life to Christ, trusting that He would provide whatever grace I needed. Within a few months, my friends convinced me to attend an evangelizing campus ministry retreat, and like Peter and Andrew on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, I “dropped my nets” and made the decision to follow Jesus one evening during Eucharistic adoration.

My chaplain’s preaching began a chain of events that ultimately led to my conversion. He had done something that for most of my life as a Catholic I had never seen before: he proposed the basic “core” of the Gospel, the kerygma, to me and my peers. Pope Francis describes the kerygma in this way: “Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you.”1 How was it that up to that point in my life, no one had ever proposed these most basic truths to me?

As my relationship with Christ deepened, my experience of the sacraments also began to change. Rather than simply going through the motions, I began to see each Mass as an opportunity to encounter the living God in his word, in my peers, in my chaplain, and most importantly in the Eucharist. My catechetical knowledge of what we were doing when we worshiped God suddenly became experiential knowledge. I became aware of the many ways God’s grace shapes and transforms us. I began to go to confession and work on my moral life. It was as though I had been asleep for most of my life, and was suddenly awakened.

I wish I could say that my experience is unique. You have seen the statistics yourself: The West is going through a period of rapid secularization. Large numbers of people are disaffiliating from the faith of their childhood, and Christianity is no exception. A recent study from the Pew Research Center confirmed what we already know: by 2070, it is likely that Christians in the United States will be a minority.2 Especially in the last few decades, we as a Church have grappled with the best solution to slow or reverse those trends. While it is true that our parishes, schools, and other Catholic institutions may need to shrink to reflect the new reality, and many dioceses have initiated processes to do just this, we should not resign ourselves to the belief that all we can do is manage the decline. In fact, we can use this as an opportunity to reexamine how we propose the saving news of Jesus to people of our own time so that people can become fully awake in their faith.

Preaching: The Most Important Thing A Priest Does

To begin, I am going to make a big claim to my brother priests: Preaching is the most important thing you do in your priestly ministry. Yes, you read that correctly. I can already hear some of you protesting. “What about celebrating Mass?” “What about hearing confessions?” “What about the important outreach my parish does in the local community?” All those things are good, and all of them are things that your parish must devote your time and attention to doing well. But, unless you are preaching to facilitate an encounter between Jesus Christ and your people, unless you are proposing the kerygma to your people and giving them concrete opportunities to make a personal response that leads them to initial faith or deeper faith, most of the other activities you do in your parish will not bear the kinds of fruit God intends. Saint Paul talks about this in the Letter to the Romans:

The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we preach), for, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. But how can they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how can they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone to preach? And how can people preach unless they are sent? Thus faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ (Romans 10:8b–10; 14–15a, 17).

When priests are asked about their vocational call, many will describe a desire to celebrate the sacraments or to serve. That is understandable; these are some of the most fulfilling parts of my priestly ministry as well. My brothers, I would invite you to consider that on the exceedingly long list of things that you do as a priest each week, crafting good preaching needs to be at or near the top of your list. While some may find preaching challenging, it is a challenge that, if taken seriously, has the power to transform the hearts of the People of God, and likely our own as well.

The church repeatedly stresses the importance of preaching in our ministry. In the Vatican II Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, it says, “The People of God are joined together primarily by the word of the living God. And rightfully they expect this from their priests. Since no one can be saved who does not first believe, priests, as co-workers with their bishops, have the primary duty of proclaiming the Gospel of God to all.3 Our attentiveness to the ministry of the word, whether it be liturgical or catechetical, is the privileged means by which people come to know Jesus Christ in the midst of His church. “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).

In that same document on the priesthood, we read a description the three munera (offices) that priests perform, all of which are derived from the diocesan bishop: teaching, sanctifying, and governing.4 These three munera constitute an essential unity, but at the same time there is a hierarchy. They are always listed in the same order: teaching, then sanctifying, then governing. That is because the teaching office (and thus the function of preaching) is directed toward bringing about faith in those who do not yet believe or deepening the faith of those who already do. And this makes sense: the disposition of faith is necessary if the offices of sanctifying and governing are to be fruitful. Put another way: all the other things we do as priests — celebrating the sacraments, giving counsel, teaching catechumens, helping people to discern their vocations, etc. — will be most fruitful when people approach these things with faith.

That is because there is an essential reciprocity between faith and sacraments, and our church is beginning to wrestle with this reality at every level. For example, a few years ago the International Theological Commission, the official theological body that advises the magisterium, which is made up of theologians and Church leaders from across the globe, wrote, “Confession of faith precedes sacramental celebration, while sacramental celebration secures, seals, strengthens, and enriches faith. Yet in pastoral practice today, this dynamic is blurred or even ignored.”5

One need only appeal to the ordinary experience of parish ministry to see the truth behind this statement. Ask any priest and he will tell you many stories of parents who request baptism for their children who then never return. How many of your teens who receive confirmation disappear? Likewise, how many priests have had the experience of witnessing the marriage vows of a couple only to have them vanish? We used to presume they would be back when it came time to baptize and catechize their children, but increasingly they do not return. Whenever people lack faith in Jesus, the seeds of grace promised by the sacraments will be planted in rocky soil (c.f. Matthew 13: 1–9).

Unfortunately, we have accepted this reality as “normal.” We assuage our consciences by telling ourselves, “The sacraments will provide.” But the sacraments are not magical. While it is true that sacramental grace can remain dormant in a person, then sprout and bear fruit at a later time, this usually happens when a person’s faith in God becomes personal, when they have an experience of God that causes them to move closer to Jesus. In short, our pastoral praxis cannot be in contradiction with our understanding of grace.

Preaching to Facilitate an Encounter with Christ

I was speaking with a woman named Bernice a few months ago who had experienced a conversion to Christ while attending a retreat. She had been a Catholic her entire life, yet up until that time God had merely been a “higher power,” an impersonal force who governed the universe and who cared a great deal about enforcing the rules. While attending the retreat, the speakers (both clergy and laity) described a God who was quite different than what Bernice had heard through her years of lived Catholic experience. This God cared deeply about those He created and desired human beings to know Him. The speakers also described the Son of God, who has always existed but who chose to enter human history so that humanity could see God’s face. This Jesus walked among us, taught us, healed the sick, and talked about a Kingdom where all people would know the fullness of God’s love, mercy, and provision for their lives. He also chooses to die so that this vision of the Kingdom can become reality. The speakers talked about knowing this Jesus (and being known by Him), how their lives had been transformed by following Him and having a relationship with Him.

I asked Bernice what she thought about the retreat talks. She thought for a moment, and then said, “Father, I am embarrassed to say this. But I have been a Catholic my whole life and somehow, I had never made the connection between God and Jesus. I learned on the retreat that Jesus is God, and honestly that shattered my idea of who God is and what He is like.” This woman, who most people presume is a pious person because she attends Mass regularly, had missed an essential detail of the story of salvation history. In her mind, there was a dramatic split between God and Jesus — the former being the distant rule enforcer, and the latter being someone she could relate with but certainly was not God. For the first time in her life, someone had put the proverbial puzzle pieces together: She realized for the first time that Jesus is “the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation” (Colossians 1:15). This realization had completely changed the trajectory of Bernice’s life, leading her to a relationship with Christ for the first time. As that relationship has grown and developed, she has become a daily communicant and spends much of her time serving the poor at the local homeless shelter.

There are lots of people like Bernice in our pews each week. A recent poll asked American Catholics who reported attending Mass weekly (or more frequently) their level of agreement with the statement, “Jesus was a great teacher, but he was not God.” Fifty-six percent either somewhat or strongly agreed, while only 29% strongly disagreed. In contrast, 70% of evangelicals strongly disagreed with the statement and 21% agreed (the rest were unsure or had no opinion).6 The data and our pastoral experience agree: Lots of people lack an understanding of some of the basic principles of Christianity, and that makes it more difficult for them to make a personal response to Christ’s invitation to follow Him.

How can we preach so as to help facilitate an encounter with Jesus in our hearers? Pope Francis reminds us in Evangelii Gaudium:

[We] have rediscovered the fundamental role of the first announcement or kerygma, which needs to be the centre of all evangelizing activity and all efforts at Church renewal. The kerygma is trinitarian. The fire of the Spirit is given in the form of tongues and leads us to believe in Jesus Christ who, by his death and resurrection, reveals and communicates to us the Father’s infinite mercy.7

When we make announcement of the kerygma a cornerstone of our preaching, it has the power to present or re-present the saving power of the paschal mystery to people. There is power in proclaiming the name of Jesus because it is the one name which contains what it signifies.8 By naming Jesus, we open the door for people to have a potential encounter with Him. By walking people through the first announcement of the Gospel message, they understand God’s plan of salvation and His desire for them to be part of that plan. Preaching the kerygma proposes the Gospel and invites a response.

The way to begin consciously incorporating kerygma into preaching is to first become familiar with it on a personal level. As John Paul II reminds us, “the priest — like every other member of the Church — ought to grow in awareness that he himself is continually in need of being evangelized.”9 Before we can foster our identities as priests of Jesus Christ, we need to foster our identities as beloved sons of the Father who have been loved and redeemed by the precious blood of Jesus. We ourselves need to constantly be re-evangelized. We need regular opportunities to respond to God’s invitation of grace. Before we can become good preachers of the Gospel, we must first and foremost be good hearers of the Gospel.

Crafting Kerygmatic Preaching

There are many ways that the kerygma can be articulated. Here is a summary of one possible way:

  1. God created the world out of love. He created human beings in His image and likeness so that we could be in union with God and with one another.
  2. Humanity turned away from God through sin, and separated ourselves from Him. While we can still acknowledge God, sin has made it more difficult to choose being in union with Him.
  3. However, God does not abandon humanity. God chose to send His Son to become one like us in all things but sin. Jesus, who is both God and man, was born into our world as the human face of God. In Jesus’ life and ministry, He reveals the Father fully to us, fulfilling every desire of our hearts, and showing us how to be fully human. To reconcile humanity with God, Jesus chooses to undergo his passion on the cross. His death and resurrection restore our relationship with God.
  4. Jesus invites us to become his followers, to accept his invitation of friendship with God and become members of his Church. He sends the Holy Spirit to remain with us, be our advocate, inspire us, and strengthen us. We are invited to a life of discipleship, following Jesus and inviting others to know, love, and serve God.

There are many other possible ways of describing the kerygma. One of my favorites is “The Great Story of Jesus in Nine Acts” which Sherry Weddell describes in chapter ten of her book Forming Intentional Disciples. It is well suited for people who do not have familiarity with Christianity because it does not use “churchy” language. Also, it focuses on the Kingdom of God, which is the object of much of Jesus’ own preaching and ministry.

How many and which kerygmatic elements one includes in preaching depends upon the context. In a retreat or parish mission, one may include all the elements over the course of several talks. In a liturgical setting, it may be possible to summarize the kerygma in a single homily, but many times it may only be possible to include one or two aspects. However, over the course of an entire liturgical year it is certainly possible (and necessary) to preach the entire kerygma multiple times. Every time we preach, there needs to be some kerygmatic element that helps draw people more deeply into the economy of salvation.

In liturgical preaching, we can err in one of two ways: on the one hand, we can preach the kerygma while neglecting the biblical text we have been given. On the other hand, and I must confess that this is much more common in the Catholic world, we can preach the text while neglecting the kerygma. In practice, we need to do both. The key is learning how to “weave” kerygmatic elements into preaching. Homiletic preaching, the Church tells us, “should take into account both the mystery being celebrated and the particular needs of the listeners.”10

Both are necessary: Over the course of the liturgical year, the church “unfold[s] the entire mystery of Christ”:11 his incarnation; his baptism and public ministry; his proclamation of the kingdom; his teaching and healings; his passion, death, and resurrection; the sending of the Holy Spirit. These mysteries correspond to different elements of the kerygma and can be easily incorporated into preaching. Likewise, priests need to be attentive to the questions and experiences of the lives of their people: the universal desire for happiness, the pain of broken relationships, struggles with sickness and death, etc. Christ speaks to all of it, and preaching is often the means by which God’s love, mercy, and provision reach people as they navigate life.

Of course, there are limitations to kerygmatic preaching, especially when it is done in the context of the liturgy. As the catechism teaches, “‘The sacred liturgy does not exhaust the entire activity of the Church’: it must be preceded by evangelization, faith, and conversion.”12 We cannot ask the Mass to do all the “heavy lifting” on its own, to do more than it is intended to do. Yet at the same time, the data tells us that for large numbers of those attending Mass, evangelization, faith, and conversion may not have taken place (or at least not fully). The Liturgy of the Word at Mass is one of the privileged places for kerygmatic preaching to take place, if for no reason other than that is where we encounter the vast majority of Catholics. Unless there are explicit kerygmatic threads in every homily preached, we miss the opportunity to accompany people through conversion and into a better disposition to fruitfully receive of the sacraments. The best approach is to include the kerygma at every moment where the word is proclaimed, both liturgical and otherwise.

The other important thing to consider is that there is more to kerygmatic preaching than just content. We need to include kerygmatic elements in our preaching, but this does not imply a simple recitation of facts about Jesus (that he became incarnate, that he died, etc.). The importance of these kerygmatic elements lies in the fact that they reveal something about God: His love for us, His desire for union with us. Put another way: the components of the kerygma provide the “what,” but our preaching needs to use these elements to supply the “why.” In my experience, this is the most important part of kerygmatic preaching, because it is the part that people wrestle with, and it is the part that, with the prompting of the Holy Spirit, leads people to genuine faith and conversion.

There are several ways of evaluating whether our preaching is kerygmatic. The Church gives us a few questions that can help guide our reflection:13

  1. Is it centered on Christ? Does the message center on Jesus, his ministry, passion, death, and resurrection? Does it emphasize both the divinity and humanity of Jesus?
  2. Is it trinitarian? Do we communicate the reality of God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?
  3. Does the message focus on the gift of salvation that Jesus offers?
  4. Is it ecclesial? Does it focus on the need to have a personal relationship with God as a member of the Church?
  5. Is it invitational? Does it invite a person to make a fundamental choice of life to follow Jesus, or does it at least invite the person to take one step closer to God?

In my own preaching, I make a conscious effort to invite people to ask for the grace to respond to whatever aspect of the kerygma the Gospel has proposed that day: to trust Christ more fully; to surrender parts of our lives that are outside our control; to give thanks for blessings received; to know, love, and serve Him more fully.

We need not fall into the belief that incorporating the kerygma into preaching means we need to “water it down.” Pope Francis reminds us, “We must not think that in catechesis the kerygma gives way to a supposedly more ‘solid’ formation. Nothing is more solid, profound, secure, meaningful, and wisdom-filled than that initial proclamation.”14 The kerygma provides a foundation of rock upon which all our proclamation of the Gospel can rest.

Learning how to incorporate the kerygma into preaching takes time and deliberate effort on our part. Yet this is the task that the Church calls us to in our own times. Missionary proclamation of the heart of the Gospel, the kerygma, has the power to win those who are far from God and to reinvigorate those who are indifferent or lukewarm. I hope and pray that each of us may be drawn more deeply into the mystery of Christ’s love in such a way that His love shines through in our preaching.

  1. Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Nov. 24, 2013, no. 164.
  2. Pew Research Center, “Modeling the Future of Religion in America,” September 13, 2022,
  3. Second Vatican Council, Presbyterorum Ordinis (Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests), Dec. 7, 1965, no. 4.
  4. The magisterial documents use the terms “teaching,” “proclamation,” and “preaching” interchangeably. All refer to the teaching office of the bishop.
  5. International Theological Commission, The Reciprocity Between Faith and Sacraments in the Sacramental Economy, no. 2,
  6. LifeWay Research, 2020 State of American Theology Study Research Report, p. 9,
  7. Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, no. 164.
  8. Catechism of the Catholic Church, §2666.
  9. John Paul II, Pastores Dabo Vobis, Mar. 25, 1992, no. 26.
  10. Dicastery for Divine Worship and the Disciple of the Sacraments, General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 65.
  11. Dicastery for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year and the Calendar, no. 1.
  12. Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1072.
  13. Congregation for the Clergy, General Directory for Catechesis, Aug. 15, 1997, no. 102–118.
  14. Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, no. 165.
Fr. Brent Bowen About Fr. Brent Bowen

Fr. Brent Bowen, O.P. is a Dominican Friar of the Province of St. Albert the Great. He is a student in the Doctor of Ministry program at the Catholic University of America as well as a speaker for the Catherine of Siena Institute. He has a BS in Air Traffic Management, and Master’s degrees in Business Administration, Theology, and Divinity.


  1. Avatar Carole Brown says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    This is so very needed.