Working with the Preacher

We Catholic priests are not usually known for outstanding preaching. True, there are some among us who are gifted preachers, but as a group we compare poorly with Protestant Preachers at least insofar as delivery and creativity go. I have commented elsewhere on the problem of poor preaching in our beloved Catholic Church( . What I would like to do here is to note that the quality of preaching is not only dependant on the preacher but is also dependant upon the congregation. In our critique of Catholic preaching we tend to wiegh in heavily on the priests’ shortcomings. But in this article I’d like to propose that our congregations in our parishes also have a role improving Catholic preaching.

My own experience as a priest powerfully underscores the role of congregation in helping to craft the preaching moment. I have served almost all of my 20 years in African American parishes. In these settings the congregation takes an active part in the preaching moment. Acclamations and affirmations such as “Amen!” “Go on!” “Make it plain preacher” “Hallelujah” and the like are common. Hands are often raised in silent affirmation, nods of the head move through the congregation. Now all of this affects the preaching moment powerfully for me and helps it take shape and come to life. There is also an air of expectation in the church as the Homily moment arrives. African American congregations want a good sermon and are eager to hear what the preacher will say. People expect to hear a word that will change them. I have heard some in the African American community refer to tangible energy in the room as “the hum.”

That there are high expectations of me is both encouraging and challenging. That I am expected to do well means I have to prepare, I have to pray, I have to summon my talent, memory for scripture and experience of culture and weave them into a homily that is from the heart but well prepared. High expectations encourage me to strive for sermons that are not just adequate but also aimed at the superlative. And the beauty is that it is not all up to me. The congregation knows its role and they pray and work with me when I preach and together we form a kind of partnership. To be sure, I am the one who teaches with the authority that Holy Orders confers. But I am not alone delivering a monologue of sorts to a largely passive audience. All this brings the preaching moment much more to life. There is an enthusiasm in the congregation that is contagious and leads me to enthusiasm for what I say. A final observation here of mine would be the question of length. The usual length of a sermon in the African American Parishes is closer to a half an hour unlike the 8 to 10 minute lengths expected elsewhere. It is a great luxury to be able to spend a little more time preaching through the whole text of a gospel or epistle not just a thought or exhort ion. Now I would never recommend to a priest that he preach a half an hour is he only has 10 minutes of material but my point is not that a sermon must be longer but that congregations might relax a bit on the time concerns. Many of my brother priests feel very constrained by the expectation of a very brief sermon.

Two quotes to end with. One from recent times and one from antiquity. The first quote is from, the Scripture Scholar  William Barclay who is commenting on how Jesus was expelled from the synagogue in Nazareth:

There can be no preaching in the wrong atmosphere. Our churches would be different places if congregations would only remember that they preach far more than half the sermon. In an atmosphere of expectancy the poorest effort can catch fire. In an atmosphere of critical coldness or bland indifference the most Spirit-packed utterance can fall lifeless to the ground. (In The Gospel of Mary, p. 140)

The second quote is from Gregory the Great in his Homily on the Pastoral Office:

Pray then for us that we [preachers] may have strength to labour for you as we ought, that our tongue may not be slack to exhort, and that, having undertaken the office of preaching, our silence may not prove our condemnation at the tribunal of the just Judge. For oftentimes by reason of their own sins the tongue of preachers is tied, oftentimes on the other hand it is because of the sins of their people that the gift of eloquence is withheld from pastors. By reason of their own sins the tongue of preachers is tied, according to the words of the Psalmist, “ But to the sinner God hath said, Why dost thou declare My justices ? ” (Ps. xlix. 16.) And again, the voice of preachers is hindered because of the sins of the people, according to the words of the Lord to Ezekiel : ” Iwill make thy tongue stick fast to the roof of thy mouth, and thou shalt be dumb, and not as a man that reproveth, because they are an obstinate house ” (Ezec. iii. 26). As though He said expressly : The gift of eloquence is withdrawn from thee, because while the people offend Me by their sins they are not worthy to have the truth preached to them. Through whose fault it is that speech is withdrawn from the preacher is no easy matter to decide. But that the silence of the pastor is hurtful to himself sometimes, and to his flock at all times, is beyond all doubt. (Lib 2.4)

 This video is an excerpt of a sermon of Dr. Martin Luther King “A Knock at Midnight.” Listen to the role that the congregations plays in the sermon. I realize that this sort of interaction with the preacher will not work in every congregation. Why in some suburban parishes if you started to “get happy” in Church the ushers might come to your side and give you the bum’s rush 🙂  But even if this sort of response isn’t available to you the priest will know when you’re engaged and praying with him. Work with the preacher!

13 Replies to “Working with the Preacher”

  1. Thank you God, that you have sent us such a great Pope in Benedict XVI.

    You want an example par excellence of a good homily? Just take a look at the homilies of Pope Benedict/Cardinal Ratzinger. I don’t know that he can “preach,” but he certainly can TEACH. And THAT is what has been lacking in far too many homilies over the years.

    Now, the parish I’m at now has excellent priests who give excellent homilies, but for many, many, many years, through the 80s and 90s (I didn’t go to Mass much in the 70s, but it was the same then, too), nearly all of the homilies I heard were the unremarkable warm and fuzzy. Sometimes, they were fairly substanceless fluff, other times they were oriented toward the personal, some personal story about the priest. Didn’t hear much of the rah-rah, fired up, charismatic-type sermon, but what I’ve seen from our Protestant brothers and sisters, those tend to be rather empty of real content as well.

    Rarely, back then, was the homily all that relevant to the readings. And almost never was it an occasion for catechesis. I cannot remember ever learning anything new about the Faith at a homily. Certainly almost never a defense of the Churches teachings on the “hard issues.” (Is it any wonder that so few Catholics know the “why” of the truth of Humanae Vitae?) I might have come away with good feelings, but I cannot remember ever coming away saying, wow, I didn’t know that, or I never realized that. Perhaps I did once or twice, but I cannot remember it.

    Now, with the model of our professor Pope, Benedict, following a foundation built by our philosopher Pope, John Paul II, I am hearing much better homilies — homilies with substance, homilies actually expounding on the Liturgy of the Word, homilies that are sometimes demanding, that is, given in a no-nonsense, no excuses manner, homilies enthusiastically teaching the Faith, grounded in love and truth.

    That is what is needed, homilies that are vibrant, homilies that are a light unto a dark world, homilies given with a loving zeal to share the Good News with the world. Homilies that understand that the Word is Living, not merely ink on a page or sounds coming from one’s mouth.

    1. I can so relate to what you are saying about the “I didn’t know that” experience. I can count on one hand (with fingers to spare) that this happened. One time I can recount that had to do with a teaching on contraception that I never knew and hadn’t considered. It changed my thinking from, “If someone believes differently, that’s okay with me,” to “I see why this is wrong for everyone everytime.” Of course, others were very upset with what had been said- in church, no less!

    2. The problem with the sort of “preaching” this poster wants to see more of is that it is in reality usually just a pedantic lecture on Church doctrine. Most Catholic preaching (I am a life long member of the Church fails to connect the Faith to everyday life experiences, which is just what people really need.

  2. It’s a funny thing, some of the very people who have complained that the sermons are boring have been the same ones who complained when one of our priests preached on the topics of fornication, masturbation, contraception and abortion. People actually walked out during some homilies and it was hard to watch the shock register on this good, honest and loving priest’s face. So, I guess it’s okay to be moved but not pushed.

  3. Please, skip the histrionics! Poor preaching in Catholic churches is easily remedied: (1) Preacher must PREPARE the sermon/homily and rehearse it before giving it. (2) Preacher must keep it short (less than 10 minutes) and stay on point (focusing on one main point and one main point only). (3) Preacher must speak slowly, distinctly, enthusiastically and use correct English (get professional help is needed).

    Sunday after Sunday we get off-the-cuff peace and justice drivel; and drivelers by nature ramble on and on, driving their listeners into self-induced comas. Shame on any Catholic priest who is afraid to sermonize (teach) about abortion, extramarital sex, etc.

    Let’s sort out the difference between homily and sermon–they are not always one and the same thing, though combining them can be done to great effect. Homily = an explanation of text, religious text. What do the readings mean, imply, etc. This can be done well, briefly. Perhaps better done briefly as people will more easily grasp and remember. Sermon = what Holy Church TEACHES and what needs to be done in order to save our immortal souls. But, of course, because we’re all going to Heaven anyway, we don’t need sermons anymore!

    1. Wow William you’re a tough case! I would avoid using words like histrionics to describe what other cultures do. It can be offputting you know. Your comments center on what the preacher must do and I have commented on that elsewhere. However what I was really interested in was what you think the people of God might do to work with the preacher. While I do not disagree with all your points I might encourage comments that a a bit more helpful than telling priest to get professional help if necessary. 🙂 Cheers!

  4. LOL at “relax a bit on the time concerns.” I thought there was an unwritten rule “thou shalt not exceed 10 minutes.” 🙂

    1. Yes, there are some who are adamant that the sermon MUST be brief. And yet, most of the protestant preachers who are oft times admired by Catholics for giving better sermons preach a good deal more than 10 minutes. Again I don’t recommend speaking longer as an end in itself. If a good exposition of the reading or topic can be done in 10 minutes fine. I just think it can also take longer and that there may be a place for this in Catholic liturgy.

  5. Honestly, I never knew that there was the kind of preaching Msgr. is talking about in a Catholic church. I have been to other services where there is the “Halleluia” respose but never in a Catholic mass. I think I may have to check that out.

  6. Those responsive black congregations of whatever tradition did not just happen. They were educated and elicited to respond. I have seen this recently in a lecture that was almost a sermon by a black former minister who is now a Catholic layman. Periodically he would say something like “Amen?” with a definite question mark in his voice, and the audience would respond “Amen.” If the homily or sermon is well structured to get the congregation actually thinking about what the preacher is saying and affirming the Catholic faith as their own, eliciting an “Amen” can certainly be a way of getting that active participation sought by Vatican II. It would be refreshing. And by personally participating in this responsive act of faith, the parishioner is less likely to become concerned about the minutes and more likely to be concerned about the meaning. Amen?

  7. I wonder if the years and years of bad preaching have conditioned the “faithful” to expect little to nothing from their priests. Then, the uninspired Fathers oblige the expectation…. a self fullfilling prophecy. Yet, as a former Evangelical Pastor who came into the church in 2004 i’m appalled at the level of teaching, preaching, evangelizing, discipling, formation that I encounter everyday in the Catholic faith as well as the lack of conviction. It’s hard for me to believe that this your second article is of much significance compared with your first on the topic which I found to be excellent. Sure it helps to have a responsive group when you are a speaker. It helps a great deal! Nevertheless, it’s difficult for me to see how an excellent and prophetic sermon is ever dependent on the audience.

  8. I look at going to Mass this way. I go to Mass to give worship to Almighty God and receive the Sacraments. Personally I prefer the transcendent and vertical aspects of Mass. If the priest gives an awesome homily, that’s great, it’s the icing on the cake.
    With Protestants it’s all about the preacher or the music (no Sacraments) if the preacher does not suit them, they go and find one that does. This happens to some extent with Catholics but not as much.
    I often think how hard it must be to give homilies… I’m sure that there are many times when a Priest really wants to call a spade a spade and preach the hard truths but… is afraid of driving some people off or firing somebody up.
    As far as the congregation offering up utterances during the homily – I would have to say, that is not a part of my spirituality – and leave it at that.

  9. My top five Television era “preachers”.
    Rated for content and delivery style.

    1. Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen
    2. Fr. John Corapi S.O.L.T.
    3. Fr Bill Casey C.P.M.
    4. Fr Wade Menezes C.P.M.
    5. Fr. James Buckley F.S.S.P.

    Honorable Mention – Mother Angelica

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