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Houston, We Have a Problem

Part of the problem with preaching is that we don’t know we have a problem. If I were to admit that a lot of preaching is boring, disconnected from people’s lives, hard to follow, and hard to understand, you might just stop reading. So, I won’t.

Instead, I’ll say, “we have room to improve.” And this is the issue: we don’t acknowledge how bad things really are. If a priest gives a mediocre homily, people will say, “Oh, that was so good.” If they hear a halfway decent homily, people exclaim, “Wow, such a good preacher.” And if a preacher is truly talented, they become an almost celebrity in Catholic circles.

I think we have dropped the bar too low. When you compare Catholic, Protestant, and secular public speaking the average quality is very different from one group to the other. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying all preachers are bad. I’m simply saying we need to acknowledge there is an objective need for improvement.

Preaching, Sacraments, and Sacramentals

A lot of the success for a Protestant church rides on the pastor. Catholic churches are very different. An individual priest will come and go. There is less focus on the person of the pastor, and more focus on the sacraments. Sacraments give sanctifying grace “ex opere operato” (God works through them independently of the holiness of the priest). This is great, but it is also easy to put all your eggs in one sacramental basket: “The homily isn’t important, because we have the Eucharist. That’s what the Mass is really about.”

However, from a theological perspective, that’s not entirely correct. There is a second half to the economy of grace: sacramentals and actual graces. These depend almost entirely on the disposition of those involved–both the minister and the receiver. While not strictly “necessary” for salvation, actual graces (blessings, holy object, non-biblical spiritual writing, spiritual direction, etc) are all an important part of an individuals growth in holiness.

However, among all the opportunities for actual graces, preaching takes an important place. It is not just a sharing of opinions and feelings, nor is it a good man’s spiritual reflections. Above all, it is a proclamation of the Gospel. And Romans says, “Faith comes through hearing.” Books are great, but a living transmission of the Gospel is indispensable.

No Time For Training

A young seminarian may feel like the priesthood is a long way off, but the truth is that there’s actually not much time and too much to learn in those few years. A newly ordained priest is usually not given his own parish right away, because there is still so much to take in–real on the job training! In many cases a pastor can be the accountant, youth director, liturgist, theologian, janitor, marriage counselor, sports coach, and a priest. It really takes a lot of generalized training and / or a rare individual to do ALL of that well.

However, despite the fact that they will spend hours every week doing public speaking, there are so many other other things to learn. Many priests have just a few classes on preaching–and many cover more of the theological elements rather than the practical methods of effective communication.

The Bearer of Bad News

However, in most jobs when someone spends hours and hours doing something, they begin to improve. Sadly, this is more difficult for priests since they very few chances to get good feedback. Almost no one wants to go to their priest and say, “Father, the homily was totally irrelevant to my life.” “I couldn’t understand a thing you said.” or “Thanks, I’m able to really catch up on some sleep Sunday mornings!”

Instead, the few times priests hear about their preaching is when well meaning people come to them at the end of Mass and say how wonderful the homily was. Please forgive my cynicism here, but while in some cases it may be true, I think many times they are really saying is, “I have been so starved for good preaching that this seemed great!” Hunger is the best seasoning.

A Simple Recipe for Success

I propose 3 simple ingredients to get better preaching:

  1. Awareness of the need
  2. A commitment to constant improvement
  3. A system to get regular, honest feedback in an atmosphere of trust

The first point may actually be the most difficult, but very few priests I know decided in seminary that they wanted to be mediocre. In most cases a man becomes a priest because of a powerful call to serve God and His people that resonates deep in his conscience. I hope for the best in people, and believe that most preachers do want to do a good job. They just need to be made aware of a need… gently.

Second, while some people see preaching as a talent (a natural ability), most of us develop it as a skill (something we can improve). Even the worst preachers can be better–and the best way to get there is consistency.

Lastly, the piece that most most priests don’t have is regular feedback. Depending on the parish, the office staff may or may not be the best ones to provide this. Criticism needs to be brutally honest, but always constructive and uplifting. There has to be mutual trust between the priest and the person (or people) providing feedback.

I think with awareness of the need, constant growth, and regular feedback anyone’s preaching can improve.