Deacon Greg pointed me to this great article on Catholic Preaching which talks about what I would call “the general unpreparedness” of Catholic preachers.
Listening to sermons at Mass, one often thinks, like the professor in the Narnia Chronicles, “What do they teach in school?” Not that the sermons are necessarily all that bad, but they are rarely as good as they would be had the priest been better taught. It’s like listening to a fiddler who hits most of the notes but doesn’t know how to keep time — because, one suspects, he learned the fiddle from an accordion player.
I am not going to deliver the usual lament about preaching (often delivered, a friend reminded me, by lapsed or lukewarm Catholics). When I was an Episcopalian, friends worried that I might become a Catholic always brought up the liturgy and the preaching. Even then this struck me as irrelevant, but they saw the two bodies as brands in competition, and so thought that I was about to spend the same amount of money for a bashed-up Saturn as I would for a perfectly maintained Mercedes. Why endure old Father O’Shea when you can sit at the feet of the Rev. Canon Horace Q. Swizzlestick III, D.D.?
But in my experience of almost eight years as a Catholic, I have rarely heard a genuinely bad sermon, and I have heard a few very good ones. Even some of the most ineptly composed and delivered sermons included some striking insight that redeemed the mess. Perhaps I’ve been blessed — or maybe my standards are low — but I haven’t found Catholic preaching to be the horror show I was led to expect, even by some Catholics. (I hear horror stories, and I’m sure they’re true, but I cannot tell any.)
Bravo! On Busted Halo® several years ago I had the opportunity to share my thoughts on preaching. I suggested in the article that I will give a particular amount to the weekly collection based on how hard i think the preacher worked on his homily. Here’s a few points for preachers to ponder that would garner my top $25 donation:
The $25 Heavenly Homily: This homily breaks the bank (notice that I’ve provided an extra $5 tip over our allotted amount). I’ll eat ramen noodles all week if a preacher can cover these points:
Does it step into the Present? The stories of scripture are over 2000 years old but that doesn’t mean that it was only relevant then. What implications does the story have for us in the 21st Century?
Did I learn something new? A preacher should never reach into the file cabinet for the “canned homily” they gave last year. If I have to hear Fr. Tony’s story about his grandmother one more time during lent, I’m going to rush the pulpit and sack him.
Is it based on the scriptures of the day? The priest who went over the new mass practices issued by the Bishops during his homily took the lazy way out.
Did it mention Jesus Christ at least once? Hello? Isn’t this obvious?
Does it contain an element of challenge? (see the “Snuggles Teddy Bear Homily” below).
Is it vibrant and engaging. If Father talks in a low monotone he shouldn’t wonder why Timmy’s asleep in the 5th row every week.
It’s called a public speaking class—find one.
You can read more “homily types” here. As there are $25, $20, $15, $10, and even the loose change in my pocket homilies.
One more quick story about preaching:
A young woman had her three rambunctious boys (Ages 7, 5 and 3) in the 4th row at a particular parish in New Jersey. Of course, as boys are wont to do, they weren’t the best behaved in the pew despite the best efforts of the mother to keep them in line.
One would slug the other and then was kicked in return. Another would pinch the youngest who would then cry or scream and hit the oldest with a missalette. While the family was of course a slight distraction, most of their poor behavior occurred before mass began. During mass an occasional elbow might hit someone and the usual fidgetiness of young boys took hold. So the priest about half-way through his homily bellowed:
“YOU! The one with the three horrible children! You are a terrible mother! I have worked so hard on my homily all week and your children are distracting everyone from hearing it. Take your children and get out! Come back only when they are more well-behaved!”
What an awful man and such an unkind dismissal. It was then that a parishioner rose and stated:
“Um, Father. Perhaps if you weren’t so boring and actually had something interesting to say the children would be less rambunctious! And maybe the rest of us would listen if you weren’t being such a jerk!”
25 other people left the church with that young woman that day. So for those of us who get the opportunity to preach at mass or as i do in other formats (reconciliation services, etc) it should be a good reminder to us not too get too high and mighty about our own efforts.