Skip to comments.Low Expectations and Catholic Preaching
Posted on 04/29/2004 5:30:50 AM PDT by Aquinasfan
Among all the qualities Protestants look for in their clergy, the one consistently rated highest is that he (or she) be a good preacher. With Catholics it is very different. First, they dont get to choose the priest or priests assigned them by the bishop, so there is not much point in drawing up a list of the qualities theyre looking for. More important, the Catholic sensibility reflects a theology of the priesthood that accents the sacred office more than the talents of the person, or lack thereof. This is sometimes attributed to the mystique of the priesthood, but is more accurately understood as the mystery of the priests participation in the priesthood of Christ. He acts in persona Christi. Personal qualities are not unimportant, but they are secondary. Among the most valued qualities, it would seem, is that the priest be holy, kindly, and approachable. It is not expected that he be a fine preacher, and there are many wonderful priests who are not.
Catholics go to church to be encountered by the Real Presence of Christ in the Mass, not to hear a sermon. If there is a well-crafted and well-delivered homily, that is a plus, and something of a surprise. It is only human that low expectations and low execution go together, the one reinforcing the other. Few will dispute the generalization that Catholics do not expect and (therefore?) do not get good preaching. Homiletically speaking, priests are under little pressure. Ten minutes of more-or-less impromptu reflections vaguely related to the Scripture lessons of the day, combined with a little story or personal anecdote, is good enough. For weekday Masses, it is usually three or four minutes of even more impromptu remarks. The daily Mass sets the pattern; the Sunday homily is simply a few additional minutes of the same.
When I tell my Catholic confrères that in Lutheran seminary we were taught that every minute of a twenty or thirty minute sermon should be preceded by at least an hour of preparation, they respond with incredulity. In truth, I doubt that many Lutheran pastors keep to that regimen, but they know that the Sunday sermon is a thing, if not the thing, by which they will be judged by their people. The Catholic Mass is composed of the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, but when Catholics speak of going to Mass it is chiefly the second they have in mind. The Liturgy of the Word is the preliminary to be endured on the way to the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Of course, Word and Sacrament should not be pitted against one another. Since apostolic times, Christians have been called to come together for both. But the Word and, more specifically, the preaching of the Word has fallen upon hard times among Catholics.
It will be objected that the situation is much better than it was before the Second Vatican Council. Hilaire Belloc was among many who thought it an inestimable advantage of being Catholic that one did not have to listen to sermons. After the Council, a Sunday homily based on the lessons of the day has been mandatory, but the succeeding four decades have produced, it seems, little more than an observance of the letter of the law. The quality of homilies is a common complaint among Catholic lay people and would no doubt be much more common if they had much experience of good preaching. As one priest friend half-jokingly remarked in defense of homiletical mediocrity, We must be careful not to raise their expectations.
The sorry state of preaching is reflected in, and no doubt encouraged by, the pap that passes for devotional writing and homiletical helps among todays Catholics. My favorite was one I came across in the sacristy on St. Matthias Day. Matthias, it will be remembered, was chosen to replace Judas among the Twelve. The little book of homiletical helps said the theme for the day was that it is natural to make mistakes; even Jesus made a mistake in choosing Judas.
Usually, however, it is not so much a matter of heresy as of banality. In my parish, Immaculate Conception in Manhattan , we use Celebrating the Liturgy, the Mass guide published by Liturgical Press. The gospel reading for the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time is the wedding at Cana . (Incidentally, how can Protestants get along without the idea of purgatory as preparation for heaven? In the absence of a long stretch in purgatory, there would be no alternative to sending the liturgists responsible for defaming time as ordinary straight to that other place.) The Churchs theological and homiletical tradition on the wedding at Cana is vast and wondrously rich. Augustine, Chrysostom, Gregory of Nyssa, and Thomas Aquinas all made marvelous connections between the water at Cana and the previous Sundays baptism of Jesus, between this wedding and the anticipated wedding feast of the Lamb, between Cana and the mixing of wine and water in the chalice, and, above all, between this wine and the blood that was shed on the cross and is given in the Eucharist. The gospel reading is filled to the brim, like the jars at Cana , with invitations to the spiritual and theological imagination.
Here is the theme for the day proposed by Celebrating the Eucharist: For their own time and custom we can well imagine that the couple in this Sundays gospel probably spent a proportionate amount of time preparing for their own wedding day. We identify with Marys sensitivity in noticing that the wine was running short (this would surely spoil a perfect day!) and Jesus sensitivity in keeping the miracle quiet (the focus was on the couple, not him!). Do you suppose Miss Manners is writing for Liturgical Press? The banality deepens, however. We are told, The purpose of the miracle wasnt to save the wedding couples day or to draw attention to Jesus. The purpose runs deeper: the sign revealed Jesus glory. So the miracle draws attention to the glory of Jesus without drawing attention to Jesus. One sympathizes with the priest who depended upon this vacuous incoherence for homiletical inspiration, and sympathizes even more with the people subjected to the resulting reflection.
This, I am sorry to say, is more or less par for the course for Celebrating the Liturgy, and Celebrating the Liturgy is, I am sorrier to say, better than most other Mass guides on the market. (Such Mass guides are commonly called missalettes, producing, someone has remarked, homilies that are sermonettes, and people who are Christianettes.) My apologies for inflicting this upon you. It is simply that I sat down to work on Sundays homily on the wedding at Cana and happened to notice the theme proposed by Liturgical Press. I admit to being easily distracted and easily provoked. Were it otherwise, there would be no Public Square each month. But now back to work on this homily, in the hope that it will not lower Catholic expectations even further. Some of the people will have read the stated theme in the Mass guide, so maybe I should work in something about the exquisite sensitivity exhibited by Jesus and Mary.
And a little story, preferably a funny one, never hurts. This one, too, is from my Lutheran days. Mrs. Schultz was most exceptional among Lutherans of German extraction in that she was a teetotaler. She objected also to the use of wine in the Lords Supper and regularly argued the point with her pastor. Finally, the pastor was exasperated and said, Weve gone round and round on this, Mrs. Schultz, and you simply have to admit that Our Lord himself used wine when he instituted the Supper. Ja, Ja, Pastor, said Mrs. Schultz, and thats one thing I never liked about Jesus. There, that should make memorable the deeper lesson of the wedding at Cana : Be tolerant of those who take a nip from time to time. As the years go by, Im getting the hang of Catholic preaching. St. Augustine would not have approved and Chrysostom would have been scandalized, but what did they know about sensitivity? They were hopelessly pre-missalette.
So the question is, what do we do about it?
It doesn't get any 'banaler' than this 8-P
Now there's an oxymoron.
Yes. We're somewhere in between. We get general exhortations to go out and live the Gospel. The problem is, no one has any idea how to "live the Gospel" in modern life, or even what "living the Gospel" means! Ugh!
And then there is the music. The gabbing before Mass. The failure to genuflect before the Tabernacle...
Thanks! Maybe these should be mailed anonymously...
Catholics have no say in the matter, so we get atrocious preachers.
Nothing will improve the preaching until congregations demand that their priests improve.
Send your pastor a critique of his homily. Let him know that it's lousy. Let him know when it's good.
Priests who can't take the time to reflect enough on Scripture to pray, and deliver, a ten-minute exhortation on the Gospel of the Sunday just as well sit down, observe a moment of silence, and recite the Creed.
So what is he is a convert from So. Baptism?
Fr. Corapi on EWTN is great. Priest and former Ranger. Now that's a great combination!
(...and former high-flying accountant and cokehead, which gives him a special insight into the nature of evil, but I wouldn't include that under the category of greatness.)
With all due respect to sartorius, it's stuff like Homiletic and Pastoral Review that are to blame. Many clerics get lazy, and rely way too much on homily aids, to the point where, if pressed for time, they just read the homily right out of the magazine!
Many priests and deacons don't see the homily as a high priority. Until they do, they won't spend the five or six hours it takes to read, research, pray, and put together a solid ten minute homily. And, prayer is the most important part. It helps make your words part of you; they come from you, not from someone else. And they have power, when they come from you.
I can't imagine getting up in front of a congregation after an hour of preparation, or reading someone else's work. (Reading a homily is death, anyway)
But, many of my confreres regularly cheat their people of the nourishment they expect from reflection on the Sunday readings.
And, forget about doing something like Toastmasters, to improve speaking skills. They think a semester of homiletics in the seminary or six sessions of "public speaking" in diaconate training gives them all they need.
If you don't practice, you won't get better.
And, if you're not getting better, you're getting worse.
I have a good friend who critiques me every Sunday that I preach, and he's brutal. But, I need that, and so does anyone who else who thinks they know how to handle themselves in front of an audience.
I didn't mean to imply that you advocated the reading of homilies.
But I have a thing against homily aids, as I've seen too many priests use them as a crutch to substitute for their own lack of preparation. Using a story or an example or something is fine.
But, a priest who can't develop a solid ten-minute homily on his own, in his own words will never be an effective preacher.