Preaching Beyond the Choir

I have been reading a little lately about the poor quality of Catholic homilies, inspired as it were, from recent experience. Catholics are notoriously poor at preaching compared to their Protestant counterparts. There are legitimate reasons for this – the homily is not the focal point of the Mass and is generally limited to under ten minutes. In many other Christian services, preaching is central to the occasion and the sermon is longer and better developed. Fair enough.

Yet in the past, many of our saints were renown orators and people would travel great distances to hear their wisdom. Today, people are more likely to travel to a neighboring parish to escape the dreadful preaching at home than to actually seek out the preaching of a particular priest. In fact, many of them will leave altogether.

Studies have found that many Catholics stop attending Mass because of the quality of the homilies, and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops noted as much in a 2012 document, admitting that “a steady diet of tepid or poorly prepared homilies is often cited as a cause for discouragement on the part of laity and even leading some to turn away from the Church.” (Crux News)

Monsignor Charles Pope, of the Archdiocese of Washington, DC, observed some of the weaknesses of Catholic homilies in a blog post several years ago. Among them,

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.

I have never been someone who favored relaxation of priestly celibacy, that is, allowing priests to be married. But the older I get, the more I observe that quite a number of priests seem to be lacking in life experience and are surprisingly juvenile in their insights into family life and beyond. Perhaps this is because they hear fewer confessions or don’t get out enough into their communities, which suggests that we lay people may need to do more to support them. But whatever the cause, the frequent references to their own upbringing or perhaps seminary life, which might be forgiven in a newbie priest, suggest a lack of engagement in their personal development. Homilies ought to indicate a deeper understanding of modern family life and the issues that people struggle with today and clearly explain how the Gospel of the day is relevant to those struggles.

A congregation consists of people of various ages and experiences and it is important to reach out to all of them, not just the lowest common denominator, the incurious pewsitter. I remember as a child sitting through homilies that I didn’t fully comprehend, but I usually got something out of them – at the very least what Monsignor Pope describes above. As I grew into adulthood, I truly valued those occasions where the homilist took me somewhere I would not have found on my own, deepening my faith, inspiring me to dig deeper still. Sadly, those occasions were few and far between.

I recall specifically one Mass when I was in my twenties. I had done some spiritual reading and came to understand “love your enemies” as a very radical command. Now, granted, I was a little hippy-dippy at the time, but I was on fire thinking about how this impacted my life. So, on this particular Sunday, that was the Gospel, and I could hardly wait for the priest to explain what this all meant for me. Apparently, and I kid you not, it meant that I was to politely tolerate the person at the next desk if they have body odor. Yes, folks, Jesus died so that we would not hurt anyone’s feelings by acknowledging their offensive smells.

Now, I’m not for hurting anyone’s feelings and in fact I’ve put up with more than my share of stinky people, having raised three sons. But, really? That’s the best you can do?

The Church is recognizing that this is reaching a crisis stage and is responding by providing advanced opportunities for homiletic development. Pope Francis has mentioned on several occasions the need for good quality preaching. Hopefully, at the diocesan level, this will become a higher priority. Let us pray!

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