Guest post by Fr. Jonathan Mitchican.
Some years ago, I wandered into Sunday Mass at a Catholic parish not far from where I lived. I was a member of the clergy of another Christian community then, but I had a strong sense that had been growing in me for years that God wanted me to become Catholic. It had taken me a long time to get up the courage to go to Mass, but there I was. Things seemed to start off alright even though I was not familiar with the music or some of the responses, but then the priest began to preach. His homily was staid and not well thought out. He told an anecdote about his mother that I knew for a fact was not original because I had heard another preacher use it not long before, attributing it to an anonymous author on the internet. Then he intimated that perhaps Jesus was not really completely divine and told us that the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand was not actually a miracle at all, that everyone just shared really well. The homily was atrocious in both delivery and content, but not nearly as atrocious as the celebration of the Eucharist that followed which involved the priest inviting a sixteen or seventeen year old kid to pull the Sacrament out of the tabernacle for him and then distribute it to the faithful while dressed in shorts, flip flops, and a “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” t-shirt.
I left that Mass distraught and convinced that I could never become Catholic. Fortunately, God knew better and led me home to the Church anyway. Obviously, the most troubling part of that Mass was the way the Sacrament was treated, not the terrible homily that preceded it. Looking back now though, I can see how the two are related. To be sure, in the celebration of the Mass it is the Sacrament that is absolutely paramount, but there is a direct line between bad preaching and bad practices regarding the Sacrament. If we do not take the Word of God seriously in the pulpit, eventually we will stop taking it seriously at the altar as well.
It is no secret that there is a crisis in Catholic preaching today. There is a general sense amongst many of the laity that Catholic priests simply are not able to preach well. People complain that homilies are boring and increasingly out of touch with the experiences of everyday life.
Some of this reaction is almost certainly attributable to the influence of many Protestant traditions in which the sermon serves not as the appetizer but the main course of worship. Some of it is probably also a product of the entertainment-driven media culture we all now live in that has caused our attention spans to become embarrassingly thin. As a priest myself who preaches regularly, I am fully aware of my limitations and the fact that I can be boring and sometimes seem pedantic, especially when compared with the latest entertainment, so I am inclined to want to pin much of the problem there.
But we are fooling ourselves if we do not acknowledge that our preaching crisis also stems from the attitude that many of us priests imbibed during our formation that preaching does not matter. It is mere icing on the liturgical cake. All that really matters are the Sacraments, not our prattle leading up to them. Besides which, given the shortage of priests today and the incredibly high set of demands placed on the average parish priest’s schedule, there really is no time to prepare for a homily.
This attitude is antithetical to what the Catholic Church teaches about the importance of preaching. In Dei Verbum, the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, preaching is strongly emphasized as the tool that binds us to the preaching of the apostles. The teaching of the apostles “was to be preserved by an unending succession of preachers until the end of time.” Bishops in particular have been given “the sure gift of truth” so that they may preach. Preaching is how the Word of God found in Scripture is made clear. Of all the ways in which the Church seeks to teach and share the Gospel, “the liturgical homily must hold the foremost place.” The Council Fathers make similar statements in other documents as well, even going so far at one point as to say that “the first task of priests as co-workers with the bishops is to preach the Word of God to all” (Presbyterum Ordinis). The Catechism echoes all of this, quoting from Dei Verbum but adding that the homily is “an exhortation to accept this Word [the Scripture just heard] as what it truly is, the Word of God, and to put it into practice” (CCC 1349).
The early Church Fathers saw preaching in an even more refined light. To them, it was an art form, not unlike medicine which they also viewed as a more creative pursuit than we tend to see it as today. In his second Oration, St. Gregory of Nazianzus refers to priests as “physicians of the soul.” He says of preaching, “The scope of our art is to provide the soul with wings, to rescue it from the world and give it to God, and to watch over that which is in His image, if it abides, to take it by the hand, if it is in danger, or restore it, if ruined, to make Christ dwell in the heart by the Spirit; and, in short, to deify, and to pour heavenly bliss upon, one who belongs to the heavenly host.” It is hard to imagine preaching alone accomplishing all of this–and to be sure, Gregory means it not in isolation but as a part of the whole practice of pastoral ministry–but what this emphasizes unmistakably is the power of preaching. It is not merely a human activity, but one that, when exercised properly, brings divine healing to those who hear it.
For the Fathers, the art of preaching is not in the content of the homily, which is always to come from the unchanging deposit of faith, but from the way in which the message is applied. A homily is not like any other piece of writing that one might do. It is not even really like a speech, other than in the sense that it is meant to be spoken aloud and not merely to be read from the page. A homily is meant to be given to a specific people. It is the preacher’s job to take the Word of God and apply it appropriately to the group of people that has gathered for the Mass. It is non-transferable from place to place.
This means that, ideally, the priest needs to know the people. He needs to have some sense of their hopes and fears, their temptations and their virtues, what they accept easily and what they struggle to believe. The analogical and typological readings of Scripture given by the Fathers often reveal just how multivalent and vital Scripture can be. The same passage of Scripture can be used to comfort, to delight, to chastise, or to inspire, depending on how it is applied. Therefore, the responsibility placed on the priest or the deacon who preaches is a great one. He must choose carefully.
As with any art form, creativity in preaching is crucial. It is a dangerous thing, to be sure, to tell preachers that they need to be creative. Obviously, that becomes problematic quickly if creativity is seen as a license to avoid orthodoxy. But again, proper creativity in preaching comes not in the content but in the approach. What kind of examples does the preacher use? Does he lead people deeper into the mystery of God or is he only self-referential? What tone is set by the way the preacher uses his voice, where he allows it to rise or fall? Does he take account of the reactions of people in the room while he is speaking? Does he have a clear enough sense of where he is going that he can step away from his text if the Spirit leads him to do so?
What all of this amounts to is that preaching forms a kind of dynamic relationship. Both the preacher and the congregation have to be able to trust one another as the homily progresses. Indeed, it is in that exchange that not only the people grow in faith but so does the preacher. “Just as you are hungry to listen to me, so am I hungry to preach to you,” says St. John Chrysostom, “My congregation is my only glory.”
So what prevents this kind of preaching from happening in Catholic parish life today? To be blunt, nothing but our own unwillingness to embrace it.
Of course, there are things that get in the way. It is hard to create an intimate preaching dynamic in a parish with many thousands of families and only one or two priests on staff. Likewise, there are uncontrollable variables that the preacher cannot always prepare for, like large numbers of newcomers or visitors or a lack of familiarity with the language spoken by most of the people in the room. None of this, however, relieves us as clergy of the responsibility of trying to cultivate the art of preaching in our ministries to the best of our ability.
Some people might object that this understanding of preaching is neglectful of the centrality of the Eucharist, but as the USCCB has pointed out, “In the Eucharistic celebration the homily points to the presence of God in people’s lives and then leads a congregation into the Eucharist, providing, as it were, the motive for celebrating the Eucharist in this time and place” (Fulfilled in Your Hearing). This too is part of the art practiced by the preacher, that the homily not become its own animal–easily excised and isolated from the rest of the Mass–but that it be of such a nature that the Eucharist flows naturally from it. It has always been something of a puzzle to me that some Protestant groups refer to the response of faith generated by the Sunday sermon as an “altar call” when they vociferously deny that they have anything that could be called an altar. In the Catholic Church, we worship at the true altar upon which the true Lord of heaven and earth offers Himself up on our behalf. If our preaching does not leave people yearning to be fed at that altar, we are not doing our jobs.
There is no reason for Catholic preaching to be stale or boring. There is every reason for it to be the most dynamic and powerful preaching around. Preaching belongs properly to the Catholic Church. The first pope was, after all, a fairly excellent preacher (cf. Acts of the Apostles 2:14-41). One of the greatest revivals of orthodox faith in the history of the Church was brought about by St. Dominic and his followers whom he dared to call the Order of Preachers. The Word of God itself, found in Holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition, is entrusted to the Catholic Church. The Bible is a Catholic text.
The Church has long been a patron of the arts. May she be renewed in that most fundamental of Gospel-imparting arts, preaching itself, and may we do all we can in the Church to support a culture that makes solid, powerful preaching a bedrock expectation.
Fr. Jonathan Mitchican is Chaplain at St. John XXIII College Preparatory in Katy, TX and the host of the podcast God and Comics (godandcomics.com).