What do You Think of Catholic Preaching?

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.

  1. 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
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

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(http://blog.adw.org/2009/07/uh-oh-catholic-preaching/) . 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!

What Young Adults Want– Relevant Homilies

Preacher2Yesterday, I was on the phone call with a young adult leader discussing topics for an upcoming lecture series, when he made the following comment:

“There are so many topics that the media talks about all the time, but those topics aren’t preached from the pulpit. So we’d want to hear about those.”

Yikes! Are Sunday homilies so disconnected from modern life? I would hope not, but this young adult makes me think that the answer is yes.

As an example of what he’s referring to, I went to a popular news website and browsed for some topics.

End of Life issues
Cruelty to animals
Prayer in public places
Financial hardship
Same-sex marriage
Climate change
War in Afghanistan
Just wages

It’s true – I can only remember one homily in the recent past that addressed one of these topics.

What can parishioners do to support relevant homilies? First, love your priests and deacons in Christian friendship. Secondly, give them feedback about their homilies and suggest topics that you feel are more relevant to modern life.

Here are two encouraging excerpts from the General Instruction of the Roman Missal:

29. Although in the readings from Sacred Scripture God’s word is addressed to all people of every era and is understandable to them, nevertheless, a fuller understanding and a greater effectiveness of the word is fostered by a living commentary on the word, that is, the Homily, as part of the liturgical action.

65. The Homily is part of the Liturgy and is strongly recommended, for it is necessary for the nurturing of the Christian life. It should be an exposition of some aspect of the readings from Sacred Scripture or of another text from the Ordinary or from the Proper of the Mass of the day and should take into account both the mystery being celebrated and the particular needs of the listeners.