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Ricardo da Silva, S.J.February 13, 2024
Pope Francis greets new English Cardinal Arthur Roche, prefect of the Dicastery for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, during a consistory for the creation of 20 new cardinals in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Aug. 27, 2022. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)Pope Francis greets new English Cardinal Arthur Roche, prefect of the Dicastery for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, during a consistory for the creation of 20 new cardinals in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Aug. 27, 2022. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

This essay is a Cover Story selection, a weekly feature highlighting the top picks from the editors of America Media.

Rare is the opportunity for a one-on-one interview with a cardinal. Rarer still is the opportunity to have him preach and speak for an hour, addressing subjects intimately connected to his life and ministry as a pastor, all while sharing firsthand wisdom on his homily preparation and delivery. Even rarer is the chance to do all this with a cardinal who heads one of the most prominent departments in the Vatican.

This was the immense privilege I had when Cardinal Arthur Roche, the Vatican’s chief liturgist, agreed to open the Lenten season on “Preach: The Catholic Homilies Podcast,” which I host almost weekly. What made this conversation even more moving and memorable was the heartfelt exchange I was able to have with the first-ever cardinal to appear on the show, speaking with him as one priest to another. (Our conversation has been edited for length, clarity and style.)

Cardinal Arthur Roche leads the Vatican department responsible for governing the church’s liturgical practices and sacramental rites. 

“The only thing I ever wanted to be was a parish priest,” Cardinal Roche told me when I asked him to “tell me something surprising about yourself that perhaps our listeners wouldn’t know”—aside, of course, from being “a very proud Yorkshireman from the North of England.”

The road to becoming cardinal

Cardinal Roche—to introduce him formally—is the prefect of the Dicastery for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, the Vatican department responsible for governing the church’s liturgical practices and sacramental rites globally. He has served as a priest for 48 years, bishop for almost 23, and worked and lived at the Vatican for the past 12 years. Initially serving as the dicastery’s secretary, he assumed its leadership in May 2021.

Before moving to Rome, Cardinal Roche was the Bishop of Leeds, England, and also served for a time as chairman of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL), overseeing the translation of liturgical texts from Latin into English.

At 8 a.m. on Ash Wednesday, Cardinal Roche will preside and preach at a Mass inside St. Peter’s Basilica. “And at that Mass will be all the workers of the Vatican City,” he says. “There’ll be between 300 to 400 people, those who work in the supermarket and the various secretariats, [those] who sweep up the roads, who do the gardening, who mend the fences and replace the tiles on the roofs and so on. So that’s the congregation that I’ll be talking to.” And he’ll be doing it all in Italian. (Read a transcript of the only English translation of Cardinal Roche’s Ash Wednesday homily on that day, especially recorded for “Preach.”)

It is striking to me that the cardinal’s opening invitation for the season of Lent in his Ash Wednesday homily is “Come, come back home, where you belong, come back to me. Here you are my child; here in my arms, you are safe. There is nothing to worry about.”

“It seems such a wonderful theme that encapsulates really what our faith is about, but not something that I always think about on Ash Wednesday,” I say to him. “Ash Wednesday is often associated with greater penance and sort of penitential season. I think people think about it in a heavier way.” I ask him, “Why do you choose to start on this note, welcome home?” He responds:

Well, because I think, really, that’s what Lent is all about. Perhaps in the past, people have thought of this as being a pretty heavy season; we have to give up things and we have to do things, and.... But it’s really more about having to look at things more carefully. And particularly look at me personally, and see where I’m going: “What am I doing; am I becoming more of a Christian on my journey through life? Am I becoming more of a witness, more of an ambassador, as St. Paul says, in the second reading on this day? Or am I just somebody who’s drifting along and taking things really for granted—and not really looking quite seriously? Are the things I say, the things I do, the things I think—are they turning me towards eternal life? Are they turning me towards Christ? Are they turning me towards others for love of Christ?”

A new understanding of Lent

This softer, more inviting approach to Lent, encourages me to press the cardinal for an answer to a question that inevitably comes up in this season: “Lent is so often seen as what are you giving up for Lent? Or what are you taking up for Lent, as some people might say, but why is it more than that?”

He recalls earlier times when studying with the Jesuits in Spain and Rome:

I remember being taught that the examination of conscience is really an examination of consciousness. Not how conscious are you of your sins—what you’ve done wrong during the day—but more positively: How conscious have you been today of meeting Christ or being aware of the presence of God in your life?… And turning that round, actually just to help you to grow a little more rather than to hide or go into the shadows, and think, “Oh, Lord, it’s been another one of those days.” No, it’s more: How conscious are you of meeting God on the street, at home with your wife, with your child who’s troublesome, with your fellow workmate who is always difficult? How conscious are you of Christ being in that situation of being with you as well as in them? I think the positive aspect of this is really quite important.

The cardinal deepens his reflection on Lent, by exploring each of the three pillars of Lent—fasting, prayer and almsgiving—sharing personal stories with me to help illustrate each.

This offered me an opportunity to start to understand the cardinal’s mind as a preacher. I ask him about the power of storytelling in homilies—conscious that he hadn’t told a story in his homily for the podcast.

“Well, our Lord Himself uses parables,” he replies. “They were stories. And they’re often very useful to illustrate, in a very strong way, the message of Christ and also to customize it, to contextualize it.” He then shares a tip he once received.

When I was ordained, my bishop said to the newly ordained priests: Now remember, when you’re preaching, in one hand, you’ve got the Bible, and in the other hand, you’ve got the local paper, the local journal. Your job is to bring these two together and to make sense of the difficulties in some of the situations in which people are living. So I think it’s very important if you can do that with a story.

But the cardinal issues two caveats: “I think it’s also important to avoid being too autobiographical, you know, because it’s not about us. It’s about the Gospel.” He also warns about getting lost in the manner of delivery—which is why he almost always writes out his homily in full and sticks to the text he has prepared. (What he said next made a profound impression on me and has stayed with me since the interview.)

Sometimes with a homily, you get the impression that the liturgy stops, and then you have the homily, and then the liturgy begins again. But the homily is a part of the liturgy and it should sound as if it’s part of the liturgy. So you shouldn’t suddenly be going into high mode—well, you know: “Here we are, chaps” and get on with it—and start preaching in a different sort of key. It should have a resonance with what has gone before it, the readings, and what is coming after it, the Eucharist.

The cardinal notes a yet more practical reason why preachers might consider writing out their homilies in full:

All the great preachers of Christianity, from earliest time—St. Augustine, St. John Chrysostom, the fathers of the church—we wouldn’t have known what they were preaching about, had they not written it down.

What struck me most during the cardinal’s homily was his emphasis on connecting Lent and Easter. “Why,” I ask him, “is it important on Ash Wednesday to make that connection, to take us to Easter?” He draws my attention to the “Homiletic Directory,” a perhaps lesser-known resource among preachers produced in response to the Synod on the Word of God convened in 2008 by Pope Benedict XVI. At that synod, “there was an overwhelming plea by the bishops, universally, to address the whole question of preaching,” the cardinal says.

The directory took several years to complete and was released in 2014 when Cardinal Roche had already been appointed secretary to the then Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. In responding to my question, he refers to an insight he has gleaned from the directory, which, he says,“gives you the first note that you should be tapping on your lectionary piano and the leitmotif that helps you to travel through the whole of the lectionary.”

I’d really like to highlight that because the overarching theme throughout every reading from Advent, right through the Christmas period, the ordinary time of the year, Lent, the season of Easter, etc., is the paschal mystery: the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ. And it is so important that every sermon, in one way or another, should be connected to what Christ gave us in this redemptive act, which is part of our own journey. Every day, we all go through a paschal mystery. Indeed, we’re plunged into his baptism, we’re fed with it at the Eucharist, etc. And it’s something which I would really recommend to every preacher to study very carefully, because you will see most beautifully crafted in that document what the connection is between all the seasons underneath the redemptive act of Christ’s paschal mystery.

I loved this insight, and it connected to something I had shared previously on “Preach.” Years ago, a dear friend studying theology remarked upon how her professor would always balk at the suggestion that Masses should be themed to attract attention and give a focus to the congregation and preacher. Her professor’s remark was simply: The theme is always the same: the paschal mystery. I remember this and immediately respond: “Every Mass is a celebration of Easter.”

The homiletic directory is but one resource the cardinal turns to in his preparation. He highlights the Liturgy and Life Study Bible, which connects the prayers found in the Roman Missal with their origin in the sacred Scriptures. “They will be identified in all the passages of the Scriptures as you go through the Bible,” the cardinal says. “Additionally, it shows how they connect with all the seasons of the year. It’s a remarkable resource and certainly something that every preacher should have close to him as he’s preparing his homily.”

But I can’t leave our conversation without connecting the cardinal’s work in his dicastery with the mission of Pope Francis and his vision for a more synodal church. “How do you think that synodality can influence preaching?”, I ask the cardinal. “What are you hearing from the rest of the world that can really inspire us to rethink and reimagine what we’re doing in the homily?”

What we found in the synod was that the consensus came very, very easily, because you were listening to people, and people realized that they were being listened to. And I think that with preaching, there’s a similar process also with regard to our approach to the Word of God as we’re contemplating the Word of God. But taking on what Pope Francis says in “Evangelii Gaudium” about contemplating the people, listening to the people—what are their concerns? What are they really struggling with? What are the things that they're seeking? …What do my people really need? What are they thirsting for? What are they hungering for? Where is it broken? I find this, and I think that it’s that attitude—which I believe to be deeply synodal—is something that will grow. I am absolutely sure of this.

This prompts me to ask the cardinal a follow-up question: “How should a preacher walk the line on the one hand, between connecting to the Bible and connecting to the reality of our lives? And yet, to steer clear of polarizing politics?” The cardinal recalls his time as a bishop in England when he encountered a similar malady:

I think it’s really important that we do avoid politics. Of course, we can talk about the reality. What does Joel have to say to our leaders today, where they're faced with shortage of food, shortage of water in Europe, a shortage of gas because of the war in the Ukraine. What does the Lord have to say…. I think it's very unlikely if you pray the Scriptures—if you really look at the Scriptures and you are living in the world, you're not living in an ivory tower somewhere—I think it's impossible not to connect what you receive from the Lord with what you are trying to live out in your daily life.

I couldn’t resist the temptation to ask him for one last bit of advice before we parted. “What is the one thing that you'd like to say to every preacher in the world if you could get to them?”

I would say really take preaching—take your homily—very, very seriously. And don’t be the person who looks on Saturday night to see what he has to say on Sunday morning. But start very early in the week to look at the readings and to pray them, and to really pray them—to go through them time and time again. Let them speak. Let the Word of God speak. I think that’s the heart of being a good preacher. I think it’s the heart of knowing what is there and also realizing what the people in front of you need encouragement about.

In the days since our conversation, I have found myself deeply grateful for the hour I shared with the cardinal. I am reminded, over and over, of his final note of encouragement. Fortunately, I wasn’t too overwhelmed at the end to eexpress my profound gratitude for his time. ”I love that,” I say to him. “Preaching is when the heart of the Word of God speaks.”

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