Preaching – A Spiritual Reflection
And so we now find ourselves in the month of May. May is a full month in the Catholic church with the Easter Season, May Court, First Communions, Confirmations and more than a few weddings. In addition, May is the month when the Church celebrates Consecration of Religious Sisters and Brothers as well as Ordination of Deacons and Priests. Thus, allow me over the next few weeks to offer some reflections on priests and priesthood.
When asked in formal surveys, polls and questionnaires, the NUMBER ONE complaint of Roman Catholics is… poor preaching.
There is good reason for that. A lot of Catholic preaching is sub-standard.
In 1982, the U.S. Bishops Conference published a document on the topic entitled, Fulfilled in Your Hearing. (Available for purchase here. No on-line versions seem to be currently available). It was a document that seems to have been much criticized recently as being out-of-date. Nevertheless, perhaps because of my personal bias towards materials that are practical, I found it rather useful, and over the years, even provided copies of it to a number of interested parishioners from whom I regularly solicited feedback on my homilies. They found the document sound and even a useful tool for good, spiritual reading for themselves.
In 2012, the US Bishops promulgated a new, follow-up document on preaching and homilies entitled, Preaching The Mystery Of Faith, The Sunday Homily. (pdf version can be found here). Preaching the Mystery sets out to address anew what has been heard from the pews over the years:
We are also aware that in survey after survey over the past years, the People of God have called for more powerful and inspiring preaching. A steady diet of tepid or poorly prepared homilies is often cited as a cause for discouragement on the part of laity and even leading some to turn away from the Church
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was quite concerned about this and a huge proponent of addressing the issue especially within the context of the “New Evangelization.” An article about his thoughts on the matter (written in 2012 by Lluis Clavell on the website, Collationes) goes into the former Pontiff’s thoughts in depth.
The author is Dr. Luis Clavell, professor at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome. He quotes Paragraph 59 of Benedict’s Apostolic Exhortation preaching and homilies, Verbum Domini or “On The Word Of God In The Life And Mission Of The Church:”
In (Paragraph #46 dealing with “The Homily” found in) the Apostolic Exhortation (on the Eucharist entitled) Sacramentum Caritatis, I pointed out that “given the importance of the word of God, the quality of homilies needs to be improved. The homily ‘is part of the liturgical action’ and is meant to foster a deeper understanding of the Word of God, so that it can bear fruit in the lives of the faithful.”
Preaching the Mystery … is heavily theological and catechetical. It was written so for a purpose:
[This current] statement will give special attention to the biblical and theological foundations for effective liturgical preaching and will consider the proper connection between the Sunday homily and the Church’s liturgy and catechesis. We intend that this theological and pastoral reflection on the Sunday homily will be followed by the publication of practical resources that will help renew the preaching ministry of the Church, so urgent at this time. (Emphasis mine).
It provides much, rich material and, in my opinion, builds upon some of the thoughts originally found in Fulfilled In Your Hearing. Fr. John Guthrie (Associate Director, Secretariat of Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations at the U.S. Bishops Conference) has prepared a nice PowerPoint presentation and has provided background and insights on both documents. (A copy can be found here)
I’ve read Preaching the Mystery and found it to be as it claims – biblical and theological. If I have a beef about the document, it concerns the “official” audience for this publication:
(We address) our brother priests, who, by virtue of presbyteral ordination, share in the apostolic office to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as well as to our deacons, who may preach the homily in accord with the provisions of canon law as ministers of the word. We also address those who are responsible for the formation and training of future priests and deacons as well as those who conduct continuing education programs for clergy, inviting them all to take to heart this reflection on the ministry of preaching in the context of the Sunday Eucharist in the special circumstances and needs of our time (Emphasis mine).
No mention of the laity. Ok, I get it. It’s primarily a pedagogical document aimed at seminary training. But don’t the “People of God who, as Benedict wrote, “have called for more powerful and inspiring preaching” have a role to play in this educational process? If preaching is such a key aspect of the “New Evangelization,” don’t they have “skin in the game” when it comes to solid preaching? Is it felt that they can’t handle an understanding of the “biblical and theological foundations for effective liturgical preaching?” Are such documents above their theological understanding? Yes the document does suggest that tools, such as a homiletic faith-sharing-group, can be invaluable in developing “holy preaching” that is Christ-centered, fruitful, inspiring and relevant. But I hope that the next document, which will offer, “practical resources that will help renew the preaching ministry of the Church” includes a more active role of the people to whom that ministry is actually directed.
“Now Father, isn’t it dangerous for you to put such a statement out there? Aren’t you exposing yourself to unrelenting criticism, additional work and disappointment?” Maybe. Think of the last time you heard a sub-standard homily. Ask yourself the following questions:
- How long did I pray for the homilist the week before you heard the homily?
- What specific, intentional prayer (or prayers) did I say specifically for that homilist and his homily preparation?
- Have I ever criticized a priest’s homily? Did I mention this to the priest/deacon himself?
- Have I even mentioned it to a priest/deacon when he preached a good homily? Did I articulate to him why?
- Did I, following a critique, offer to sit down with the homilist on a regular basis and help him craft his homilies or offer my own insights into the Scripture readings for the coming week?
- Did I, following a critique, ever go to the homilist and say that I was going to commit, on a regular basis, to intentionally pray for him and his homily preparations?
We’re in this together – give and take. Sermons should be given as gifts and received as gifts to be shared with others. I’ve been told that my homilies are not bad. Thank you. I am grateful for the compliment and the feedback. But they can be better – they have to be. If St. Monica is going to grow and be a vibrant, dynamic, mysterious and welcoming parish, good preaching is going to play a major role. In this, I have my role, you have yours. If we do that, the Lord will do His part too. Together we can begin to enter into the “Mystery of the Word” and, once in the depths, see what the Lord provides.