What's the Problem with Catholic Preaching? What Can we Do About It? II ~ Rev. Michael Connors, CSC
Rev. Michael E. Connors, CSC, is the Director of the Marten Program in Homiletics and Liturgics at the University of Notre Dame. In the latest issue of "Encounter," the Marten Program Newsletter, Connors shares some of the most important lessons he has learned about preaching over the past 40 years in the second of a three-part series.
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People of all sorts of theological orientations seem to agree that Catholic preaching is too often failing to move hearts, minds, and wills. I myself share the urgency of this moment, and got into this homiletic business in part because I sensed the pressing need for renewal in the pulpit. What’s the problem? What can be done?
We do have many good preachers in our Church – priests, deacons, lay ecclesial
ministers, ordinary folk – and their workaday efforts should not go unnoticed nor
underappreciated by the rest of us. Yet my sense of Catholic preaching’s shortcomings tells me that many of our appointed preachers have not been well trained. At the most foundational level, we still have too many clergy who do not think and act like preaching is really important. Neither their own prior experience of ministry nor their initial formation has impressed upon them that preaching is among the most important things they will do as a priest, deacon, or lay minister, and thus among the most important claims on their time. They lack the interior conviction that would fire them to work at it and get better at it.
Closely allied with that is the issue I raised in the first installment in this little series, namely, that our formation programs too often don’t have a clear enough sense of the goal of preaching which the Church puts before us: to lead people to Christ. If there is one thing we could do to improve the quality of Catholic
preaching, it is to get all of formation efforts on board with this two-fold goal: preaching is crucially important as one of the primary means by which the Church leads us into the arms of a loving Lord, and thus deserves thorough, sustained formation, both initial and ongoing.
I emphasized that we need a clear focus on the nature and goal of preaching, and that my understanding of that goal, as gleaned from the Church, can be summed up as encounter with God. Our preaching aims to bring the hearer into contact with, and union with, the Lord. From many years of preaching, and fewer years of teaching preaching, this is my most important learning. The Christian life has its roots and ongoing vitality in a spiritual experience of the Triune God. Everything else flows from that lived experience with God. The encounter changes us, converts us, transforms us. If attended to with faith, it draws us along the path of discipleship or holiness, a life of witness to and service to Jesus in his people.
This is not a plea for uniformity. Homiletic styles and theological approaches have
always been diverse in the Church, and this is part of the glorious treasury of the faith. But the diversity has to be rooted in a deeper unity, a unity found in the person of Jesus Christ, head and members. He is the touchstone of all Christian preaching in all ages and places. On the basis of that conviction, there are a number of ways we might approach our task and bear fruit for our people. In a preliminary way, I suggested a few of those ways in my earlier piece:
Always preach good news. Help your hearers understand why the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus matters, how it leads to a life of hope and love. Good preaching challenges the hearer, of course, but the challenge is always undergirded by good news.
Recall what you know “works” to bring people into that encounter, what worked for you, what you’ve witnessed made a difference in the lives of others.
Preaching is a form of spiritual leadership, so preach in the language of spirituality, a language which speaks of God and intimate relationship with God, a language which is direct, urgent, intimate, and scriptural.
Help people to see what healthy relationships look like, and what community looks like. The Christian life is not solitary; it is inherently intertwined with others. A welcome into community can be a powerful incentive to plunge into the life of faith.
I'll add a few other things here:
Make one point, and one point only. This is to say, the homily should have a unity of theme and purpose. One of the most common mistakes preachers make, in my view, is trying to do too much in ten minutes. The ear and the heart can only grab onto so much. Do the hard work of discernment: what one thing do my hearers at this time and place need to hear from this biblical text? Resist the “throw umpteen things against the wall and hope something sticks” temptation. One point, well and fully made, suffices for today, and will have a better chance of having a deep and lasting impact if the focus is clear and sharp. Leave the other possibilities for another day. When the Smith family piles into the family SUV after Mass, all of them (at least from adolescence upwards) should be able to say, in a simple sentence, what the homily they heard was “about.” In preaching, nothing is as “sticky” or memorable as unity. But use different avenues with which to support and fill out your one point (see the next point). Give it body and depth and different kinds of appeal, but make sure it all hangs together.
Always preach to the mind, heart, and will of your listeners. Once you have discerned the single point of the homily, your task becomes the question of how to make that point “happen” for the hearer. When the Word of God speaks to us as it should, it invades and grips all parts of the human personality, as St. Augustine saw so well sixteen centuries ago. A good homily feeds and challenges the mind, causing us to reflect and igniting our desire to understand. But if your preaching stays only in the cognitive realm, the Word’s impact will likely be limited to the hearer’s cognition. Many homilies are heavy on the “left brain” or cognitive appeal, deploying exclusively discursive language. This is important, to be sure, but it needs to be balanced with appeal to the imagination, the “right brain” which is fed by story, image, metaphor, illustration. Imagination is a key part of intelligence, too, and most people’s religious imaginations are undernourished. Help people “see” what you’re saying and why it matters, how it illuminates the world and our situation in it. Complete the triad by seeking to warm the listener’s heart to the presence of God and what God offers us. Invite him/her to fall in love with Jesus each time you preach. Bring passion and verve to your preaching. And stimulate the listener’s will to respond – “doing” actually completes the process of “knowing,” as the biblical authors understood so well. Don’t shortchange any of these human faculties, every time you preach; all are necessary for the full penetration of the life-giving, life-changing Word into all quarters of who we are.
Have a thread, a pathway for the hearer to follow. One scholar of homiletics says that too much preaching is “pearls but no string.” It’s not enough to have good things to say; make the further act of charity of carefully considering how best to help your hearers to really get it. Along with thematic unity, plot a step by step path for your hearer to follow. Good preaching holds the listener’s interest by taking her/him on a journey of discovery; it has a quasi-narrative quality which keeps the hearer in a kind of suspense to find out where the homily is going and how it will get there. Choose a deliberate structure or “form” for your homily – there are dozens of different homiletic forms, but even a poorly chosen one is better than disorganized chaos. Challenge yourself to be able to explain each move you make, why you make it and why you make your points in the order in which you make them. Structure is not neutral; it is vitally important to maximizing impact and memorability. Good homiletic design can sustain and even build interest, and conduct the hearer consciously and more deeply into the presence of the Lord.