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Greer HannanSeptember 29, 2023
A woman with her back to the camera pauses before entering a Catholic church with several people sitting in the pews. (iStock/AJ_Watt)  

In services for homeless people, the field in which I work, the current buzz phrase is trauma-informed care. The concept is simple, but its execution is demanding. It makes an acknowledgment of trauma the fundamental premise for how we engage with people seeking homeless services, and it influences every aspect of how we interact with service users.

When someone exhibits a disruptive behavior, instead of asking, “What’s wrong with you?,” we ask, “What happened to you?,” knowing that the behavior is most likely rooted in an unspoken trauma.

People experiencing homelessness have a much higher prevalence of adverse childhood experiences (abuse, neglect or household dysfunction before the age of 17, abbreviated as ACEs) than found in the general population. Over half of homeless individuals have at least four ACEs in their personal histories, according to a 2021 study in The Lancet Public Health. Trauma-informed care affects our approach to every aspect of service, from how we word questions on an intake assessment to how we set up our spaces and how staff at every level communicate with service users.

A person of faith might read Scripture passages through the lens of a traumatic experience and listen to homilies for cues on how to make sense of a traumatic experience.

What does trauma-informed care have to do with preaching? Members of the clergy should realize that church congregations reflect levels of trauma similar to the wider population, and many people in the pews are seeking to process their trauma through a lens of faith. For example, according to a 2022 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in four women has reported surviving a rape attempt in their lifetime. As of this writing, the Gun Violence Archive has determined that over 30,000 American lives have been lost to gun violence so far this year. And in 2021, the C.D.C. recorded over 100,000 drug overdose deaths in the United States, making it the leading cause of death for adults under age 45. These are among the many traumas that Catholics carry into the pews with them.

A person of faith might read Scripture passages through the lens of a traumatic experience and listen to homilies for cues on how to make sense of that experience. People might also interpret their congregation’s perceived level of openness and hospitality as a commentary on whether they still belong within the community in the wake of trauma. Trauma makes people feel isolated and marginalized, and someone may be looking for evidence that the good news of the Gospel is still meant for them and that they still belong in the body of Christ, no matter what they have suffered.

Preaching is always a privilege, offering an opportunity to speak with authority about “the reason for the hope you have” in Christ. It is a privilege I feel keenly as a layperson who occasionally has the opportunity to preach in my parish. Sunday Mass is often the only regular pastoral care that Catholics receive, so the lectionary and preaching play a major role in how Catholics understand the church and the tenets of Christian faith. Congregants extrapolate that what they hear on Sunday morning must be the way that the institution of the church thinks, and the way that God may judge their lives.

A sermon that takes no account of how traumatized people may hear the Scripture may leave such people feeling as though they are not included in the body of Christ.

The first rule of preaching should be to “do no harm,” and if we fail to take a trauma-informed approach to preaching, we will do harm. We risk unintentionally making people feel excluded or unfairly judged when we fail to consider the presence of trauma in our congregations. A sermon that takes no account of how traumatized people may hear the Scripture may leave such people feeling as though they are not included in the body of Christ. In preparing a sermon, we must ask ourselves: How might someone who has suffered a significant trauma hear this Scripture? What is the good news that they need to hear in this text? How might this passage be misunderstood by someone processing trauma, and how can we head off that misunderstanding? How might this be heard by someone who experienced trauma within the institution of the church or at the hands of a minister?

A preacher who knows their congregation well, a pastor who smells like their sheep, may readily think of relevant scenarios. For instance, on the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time this year, we heard again Jesus’ injunction to forgive not seven times but 77 times. That was preceded in the readings by the passage in Sirach that calls out clinging to anger as a hallmark of sinners. How might someone hear these texts if they have been victimized by a serious crime? Will they be left feeling that their ongoing struggle to forgive is a reason for condemnation? Will they conclude that they no longer belong in the Christian community, or perhaps should disengage until they can forgive? Might these feelings be compounded if the perpetrator is also a member of the congregation or even a minister?

Two weeks later, on the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, we heard Paul exhorting the Philippians to be “united in heart, thinking one thing” and to “humbly regard others as more important than yourselves.” This immediately followed Ezekiel suggesting that death is meted out fairly, according to our sin or virtue. How might someone experiencing domestic violence hear these readings? Will a person whose self-esteem is already compromised by abuse feel obligated to sacrifice their own safety or well-being upon hearing these words? Will a survivor of abuse feel obligated to keep silent in the name of promoting unity or out of fear of being accused of promoting gossip? Might someone who has been victimized feel that their suffering is a deserved punishment?

Will a survivor of abuse feel obligated to keep silent in the name of promoting unity or out of fear of being accused of promoting gossip?

A preacher who unintentionally dismisses those who feel marginalized by these texts can risk alienating them entirely. But there are many natural ways to correct for this, such as by acknowledging upfront how a passage has been misinterpreted in the past or by being clear about what the preacher does not intend in their message. Preachers can also acknowledge groups of people who may feel overlooked or condemned in the lectionary, but of course they should not single out individuals or dismiss readings altogether.

We are good preachers to the extent that we have entered into the wounds of Christ and speak from those wounds to extend healing to the body of Christ. Those wounds may be personal, or they may be the wounds we feel through the pain of empathy with the people we serve. Preachers have an opportunity to be a living icon of Christ the wounded healer when we preach from a hermeneutic of trauma-informed pastoral care.

[Related: “Preach: The Catholic Homilies Podcast,” hosted by Ricardo da Silva, S.J., helps Christian preachers develop their craft and captivate their congregations in more effective ways.]

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