Podcast: How synodal listening transformed this preacher’s homilies and faith community
Father Brett Williams tries to connect his homilies from week to week. “Our discipleship isn’t limited to Sunday to Sunday,” he says; it needs to be seen “within the context of our ongoing journey.” He cautions that this path may include moments when “it seems dark, and there doesn’t seem to be any progress,” as well as times when it’s “fantastic, easy, wonderful to be a disciple of Jesus.” He believes that “when we create either a series or a linkage between Sundays, people start to see this journey more clearly.”
Brett serves as the pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Durban, South Africa, and previously chaired the synod committee for the Archdiocese of Durban. He openly acknowledges that his ordination at the age of 35 made him a “late vocation.” Prior to entering the seminary, he pursued a career as a college lecturer and served as an international cricket umpire for two decades.
Listen to Brett’s homily for the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, on this week’s episode of “Preach.” After the homily, he shares with host Ricardo da Silva, S.J., a Jesuit priest from South Africa, associate editor at America, and associate pastor at the Church of St. Francis Xavier in Manhattan, how the practice of synodal listening, really listening to each other, has shaped his preaching.
Our discipleship isn’t just from Sunday to Sunday, and it’s a little unit that we park off in the church on a Sunday. .
Scripture Readings for the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
First Reading: Is 5:1-7
Responsorial Psalm: Ps 80:9, 12, 13-14, 15-16, 19-20
Second Reading: Phil 4:6-9
Gospel: Mt 21:33-43
You can find the full text of the readings here.
Homily for the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, by Brett Williams
I don’t really have green fingers. Most of the plants that I tried to grow, or care for, end up dying; usually a slow, horrible death. So perhaps I’m not the best person to speak about growing grapes. The image of a vineyard in Jesus’ parable would have been very familiar to the chief priests and the elders of the people.
The prophet Isaiah had used the same image centuries before. If we read through some of Isaiah’s writings, it becomes very clear to us that God chose Israel. He chose them as his own people out of all the many different nations of the world. And he chose to not because they had done anything to deserve it; they weren’t particularly special. And neither was their choosing meant to give them a position of authority, privilege, or status over the other nations. Instead, Israel’s election came with responsibility—responsibility and obligation for all people, not just a privileged few. Israel was meant to mirror God to all the nations of the world.
Israel’s election came with responsibility—responsibility and obligation for all people, not just a privileged few.
St. Matthew, in his Gospel, uses Isaiah’s story to explain to his community much the same. The privilege of being the people of God has expanded now beyond Israel. It is given to everyone, to every nation; all are welcome in the Lord’s vineyard and all have a role in making it grow and flourish.
For us, modern followers of Jesus, the message of this parable remains pretty much the same. The vineyard has been entrusted to all of us. And we are called to work together, not only to care for the good news, the Gospel, but to give it life, to help it grow and, by the lives we lead, bear fruit. We today are meant to mirror God to our world.
And so the question is, “Are we growing anything…. Are we growing anything in our lives and in the life of this parish community?” You will remember, I hope, I know Catholics haven’t got the greatest memories. But I hope that you remember our Synod consultation process that happened very nearly two years ago now.
The privilege of being the people of God has expanded now beyond Israel. It is given to everyone, to every nation;
In that process, we identified five areas where we needed to continue to grow and make a difference. The first area was to develop a parish that worked in teams. And so this idea, which we found in divine renovation, of team leadership, became very important for us. And we have focused on trying to grow that and develop that. The second area was a commitment to involve and encourage, support our young people, the youth and young adults of our parish community. The third area was to increase faith formation, particularly family faith formation, and so our “Gift” program was developed. The fourth area was for us to create a greater sense of belonging, a sense of belonging to a community. And so we were challenged in our Synod consultations to see how we could be more intentional, more intentional about inviting especially the hurt and marginalized into our community. And then the final area was that we needed to be a parish more focused on assisting the poor and the unemployed. And in South Africa at this time, those are two vital areas that we have a role to play in.
And so now as the Synod gets underway in Rome this month, we are challenged to reflect on the progress we are making and to redouble our efforts to ensure that our discipleship does not become narrow, ritualistic and lifeless. The Prophet Isaiah would say, yielding wild grapes—bitter grapes, most probably too. All the things we do here in our parish: daily Mass, devotions, Bible study, Alpha, Vine Connect groups, leadership formation, Caritas and the feeding scheme. All these things are meant to help us to develop our sense of responsibility, responsibility for the kingdom, and to grow our discipleship.
We were challenged in our Synod consultations to see how we could be more intentional about inviting especially the hurt and marginalized into our community.
Sometimes, however, we do ministry while forgetting why ministry is important, forgetting its purpose.
All that we do should help us to build and nourish our relationship with God. All that we do should grow our discipleship. And all that we do should encourage a sense of core responsibility; core responsibility for the mission of the church.
It is committed discipleship that mirrors Christ, that reflects Christ to the people we meet. And so to continue making this Synod happen in Rome, our Synod here in South Africa, we must ask each other, we must ask ourselves, and we must ask God, “Can we commit? Can we each commit to making a real effort to do something; to do something about maybe just one of the five areas we identified two years ago? What area speaks to me the most? What do I feel most urgent—most important? Can I do something to take responsibility?” Only when our discipleship becomes an affair of the heart, and not just of the lips, will we be transformed—will our lives be truly changed. As we’ve spoken many times before here in our parish, that is the goal of our baptism, transform, change, renew lives. It is what happens when we get our hands dirty and grow our faith.