Skip to comments.Why Catholics can't preach - and prefer not to listen
Posted on 05/12/2004 11:23:37 PM PDT by AskStPhilomena
It is said that the Devil hates preachers even more than he hates exorcists. A preacher, after all, ministers to multitudes, driving away error and encouraging conversion of heart by the exposition of Catholic doctrine. Common opinion suggests that todays homiletic standards should give the Evil One little cause for concern. Everyone, or so it seems, has a pulpit horror story of banality, heresy or simple incoherence, even from traditional priests. Having accounted for exaggerations, clerical bad hair days and the posturings of the professional sermon critics among us, it does seem that much, perhaps most, preaching, is substandard.
Its harder to establish the reasons for this lack of eloquence. Laying the blame on a lack of proximate preparation seems the most popular course - Father is too busy or lazy to prepare properly. Many priests dont seem to read much more than the daily newspapers, and become preachers of The Weekend Australian rather than the Gospel. The television and the internet have established themselves as the sacerdotal diversions of choice. Its not that the means of social communication, as the Vatican coyly dubs them, are unimportant, just that as a promoter of homiletic skills they are intrinsically limited. Gone are the days of the presbytery library brimming not just with texts of the Fathers, theology and lives of the saints but also with classics of literature in several languages.
Loud, long and severe
The Curé of Ars as a young priest is said to have slaved over the preparation of his sermons, writing them out in full on the sacristy bench and going to the high altar to pray when he needed inspiration. Having completed them he would commit them to memory. His sources were limited to the standard manuals of the time and his sermons reflect his chief preoccupations - the evils of dancing, drinking and impurity. You have to wonder whether the laity who complain about the irrelevance and tedium of contemporary preaching would deal well with the words of a saint like St John Vianney. His extensive denunciations of all kinds of vice and every spiritual malaise would drain the blood from any face. Nothing he said was for the sake of consolation but rather for destroying the calm of those content with laxity and sin. It was noted that his listeners didnt even have the luxury of sleeping through his often very loud sermons.
He was not thought of as a good or learned preacher. Both long winded (his average was about an hour and forty minutes) and severe (he was accused of having a Jansenist temperament), he often forgot his place, resuming, if at all, after a long pause. One of his brother priests absentmindedly mislaid the text of about twenty of the saints homilies because he didnt think them very interesting or important. It was only when he began to preach ex tempore, abandoning his youthful rigorism, that the Curés words hit home. As a toothless old man mumbling in the pulpit about the love of God he would reduce the whole church to tears of penitence - his sermon was his life. Anything that involves the action of the Holy Spirit is a lot more complicated than any of us imagine.
We can compare the preaching of this saint to that of another holy man, Henry Cardinal Newman, his contemporary. He coaxed and cajoled his listeners, pointing to the beauty of the Church and its teaching, secure in the conviction that the Truth, once announced, attracted the mind. His was a soul that rested peacefully in that Truth, inviting others into its tranquil harbour. You couldnt imagine Newman shouting at a congregation in the way that Vianney did, yet both were holy, both influenced the people of their time, neither had truck with error or vice.
Much has changed in the course of two centuries and those who lament that their clergy dont preach like Henry Newman or John Vianney should bear in mind that, by and large, a modern congregation wont sit still for more than twenty minutes or consent to listen to anything more challenging or complicated than a joke about the football. St John would be viewed as an arrogant bore gratuitously insulting his respectable parish, Bd Henry as an uncaring elitist preaching over the heads of simple folk. You can be more or less certain that both would be reported to the diocesan authorities or their religious superiors as troublemakers and unpastoral. A.N.Wilson wrote a novel which begins with a dense Jesuit who didnt know how to preach. He coped with the challenge by reading other peoples sermons. As long as he chose the words of those who pandered to the current fashions he was considered a celebrity preacher, given honour and advancement. His fall occurred when, running short of time, he selected a book at random on the way to the pulpit - a collection of Cardinal Newmans homilies. Unfortunately for him it contained an oblique reference to the glories of High Mass in Latin. His career as a preacher ended ignominously.
Humbert of Romans, a medieval theorist of preaching, suggests that the Holy Spirit inspires the preacher in direct proportion to the devotion of the people. It is worth considering that bad preaching is not just a clerical problem, but a function of the low regard in which this ministry is held by everyone in the Church, despite protestations to the contrary. In the same way that the merest glimpse of even a completely cold thurible provokes Pavlovian coughing fits, the accession of the priest to the pulpit often reduces the congregation to a state of evident catatonia before he says a single word. A culturally ingrained habit of thought, of both clergy and laity, considers the preaching of the Church not so much an action of Christ the Teacher but an address whose principle function is to deliver the congregation from boredom. The recent tendency to employ nonclerical preachers at the liturgy - their proper functions lie elsewhere - has not helped this perception.
The French chronicler of manners, Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, records the custom of one famous old canon who would periodically pause during his longer instructions to consume a pickled walnut, while he allowed the congregation leave briefly to clear their throats and nasal passages. He also records an ecclesiastical difference of opinion over the propriety of allowing ladies to have their servants bring them cups of hot chocolate during extended preaching. However quaint these historical portraits they reveal a period in which preaching was taken seriously. It was an event of Divine Mercy at which you might to find edification, grace or conversion of heart.
In an age when the preacher competes not just with the cabarets and soirees of Ars but with increasingly expert and technologically advanced electronic media and cinema proper training of the clergy in sacred eloquence is only part of the solution. We have to have good listeners as well as good preachers.
This also is a completely false misunderstanding we hear all the time from Catholics.
Another Amen Brother.
I always shake my head in disbelief when someone tells me that whatever kind of Church they belong to follows the Bible and only the Bible, and all the Bible.
Then they spout some passage or another to prove their point, completely disregarding other passages and in fact whole chapters that mitigate the point they are trying to make.
Granted, it*s not always easy to reconcile one passage with another, But the Church (there is only one Church) does it. Opposed to so-called evangelical congregations who decide what they want to believe, then go to the Bible to prove it in selected passages.
I*ll bet they don*t dwell a lot on John 6 where Jesus tells us that we must eat His Body, for it is food indeed - and that those who didn*t believe, turned away from Him.
So who's right-Urban II (who called Muslims infidels) or John Paul?
Right now I arguing with another Catholic that the Muslims don't have the Holy Spirit. YIKES!!! You can double speak this all you want but the fact remain that the positions are incompatible.
"...they [Protestants] are now being recognized as a valiant struggle against the tide of Islam."
I suppose its better than declaring Muslims OK in God's sight. Personally, I would rather see them come to a saving knowledge.
You've asked me to demonstrate an inconsistency and I have. If you wish to ignore the evidence it won't be the first time I've experienced this from my Catholic friends.
From you, "The main "inconsistency" you have demonstrated is your unwillingness to admit that the Churches teaching on the need of mohamidiams to convert to the one true Faith remains unchanged."
I'm not the one who is saying the Muslims don't need to convert. Perhaps John Paul need better speech writers.
Maybe I need to get my handy dandy Calvinist anti-papal reading glasses out...
It would be helpful to go over to the Papal & Islam thread as this is becoming redundant.
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