When I talk with Catholics who have left the Church, the number one reason I get that they left was poor preaching.This is especially true of those who left for the Evangelical Churches. Catholic priests as a group have the reputation of being poor preachers. I think there are several reasons for this.
- The expected length of a Catholic sermon is 7-10 minutes. This is far too brief a time to really develop well a biblical or doctrinal theme. It results in a slogan based and brief exhortation. In this matter the people of God have to work with us. Most Catholics are upset if the liturgy goes more than 50 minutes. We all need to agree to take more time to be with the Lord. Longer sermons are necessary to really develop and break open most passages. Most Protestant sermons are about a half and hour. True, I don’t want a preacher to go longer unless he really has something to say but it is also true that most priests have to wrap up when they’ve barely gotten started. It’s not a good context for preaching. The old “say it in seven” rule needs to be re-evaluated
- I think many confuse exhortation for preaching. Most of the sermons I grew up with could be summarized in two sentences: “1. Jesus is challenging us to do better today.” And 2. “Let us try to do better” (Now please stand for the creed).” This is exhortation but true preaching takes the Word of God and does four things: Analyzes, organizes, illustrates, and applies it. It doesn’t just exhort us to do better it shows how, and sets for the why and wisdom of God’s Word. This as you might guess takes a little more than 7 minutes.
- Teaching is often lacking– When I ask Catholics who have gone on to the “Word churches” why they like the preaching there more they usually say it is because the minister teaches the Word of God. Perhaps he shows the stages of the faith journey of a biblical character, or Five aspects of a healthy marriage from Ephesians 5. Maybe he expounds on the Four Disciplines of Devoted Discipleship in Matthew and so forth. But the Word of God is both taught, and applied to life in memorable ways.
- The Three Essential questions often go unaddressed – It would seem that every sermon should ask and answer three questions: What? So What? and Now What? I think we Catholic Priests do alright with the “what” but not so well with the other two questions. Homilies are not just about information (the What) they also aim at transformation. Addressing the “What” can help to inform but the “So what” and “Now What” aim more for transformation.
- Good preaching is edgy. It comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. But too many priests are afraid of offending or upsetting. Despite the fact that we serve a Lord who got killed for what he said, too many of us are not willing to suffer even the raised eyebrows of our congregation. We have to be willing to talk forthrightly about serious issues today, about sin, about injustice, about promiscuity and so forth. We have to speak the truth in love but the “Jesus loves you sermons” are not enough. Jesus loved us enough to speak the truth to us even when we killed him for it. We priests have to get a spine, and a heart and be willing to preach even the difficult stuff. It has been my experience that Catholics respond well to tough sermons. They don’t want angry priests but they do want priests who are zealous for the truth.
- How about a little enthusiasm? If you really care about what you are saying shouldn’t it be reflected in your mannerisms and tone of voice? Too many priests have a kind of lecture like discursive approach instead of a fiery Charismatic approach. True enough there are different personalities but a fiery enthusiasm is hard to hide. But being on fire can’t be faked. It comes only from prayer and a deep love for God and His people.
I know you can add to the list above. Perhaps your feed back will help some of us priests improve. So have at it. Be kind and constructive but speak the truth. We priests can use it. And pray, pray, pray. You get the priests and the sermons you pray for. Also encourage us when we do well and gently admonish when we need improvement.
Perhaps we do well to end with the Words of St. Gregory the Great who exhorts the faithful to pray for the Priests in their preaching role:
Pray for us so that we may have the strength to work on your behalf, that our tongue may not grow weary of exhortation, and that after we have accepted the office of preaching, our silence may not condemn us before the just judge. For frequently the preacher’s tongue is bound fast on account of his own wickedness; while on the other hand it sometimes happens that because of the people’s sins, the word of preaching is withdrawn from those who preside over the assembly. With reference to the former situation, the psalmist says: But God asks the sinner: Why do you recite my commandments? (PS 50:16) And with reference to the latter, the Lord tells Ezekiel: I will make your tongue cleave to the roof of your mouth, so that you shall be dumb and unable to reprove the, for they are a rebellious house. (Ez 3:26) He clearly means this: the word of preaching will be taken away from you because as long as this people irritates me by their deeds, they are unworthy to hear the exhortation of truth. It is not easy to know for whose sinfulness the preacher’s word is withheld, but it is indisputable that the shepherd’s silence while often injurious to himself will always harm his flock. (As quoted in the Liturgy of the Hours, Vol 3)
This video is an excerpt of a sermon by Fr. Bill Casey, it’s powerful.