Monday, January 27, 2014

Where Have All the Good Preachers Gone?

January 27 is the feast of St. John Chrysostom,
Patron of preachers,
in the traditional Roman calendar
It’s no secret that preaching in the Catholic Church today is of a generally abysmal quality. There are shining exceptions, no doubt, and if you are fortunate to be part of a community with one or several competent preachers, count your blessings.

Most Catholics have to endure superficial, long-winded, random, vague, and social-justicy homilies week after week—sometimes even heretical ones. Something has gone wrong. Pope Benedict XVI knew it, and offered the world a stunning example (and corpus) of beautiful, profound, clear, concise, nourishing, orthodox preaching. While it is doubtful that any pope will equal Benedict’s preaching for many a decade or century, Pope Francis, for his part, has a vigorous homiletic style that gets his points across loud and clear, often by means of the Jesuit tactic of “three words.” 

What we need, evidently, is for the internal memo to make the rounds: Priests and deacons everywhere, work hard on your preaching! It seems to me, on the basis of conversations with many priests, listening to a lot of preaching in my lifetime, and studying classic homilies as a theologian, that there are a few key principles to success. I offer a summary of these principles in a spirit of genuine appreciation for the demanding work of preachers everywhere and with a hope that something in these reflections may be found helpful.


First, preachers should follow St. Augustine’s rule that we need to interpret Scripture by Scripture, and so they should be using concordances to deepen their understanding and enrich their preaching. (A software program like BibleWorks is an amazing tool.) The most powerful homilies I’ve heard are not the ones sprinkled with cartoons, newspaper stories, personal reminiscences, self-help lingo, and so forth, but rather, the ones shot through with the Word of God, which “is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12)

St. Paul tells us: “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17). Why don’t we get genuine teaching? And reproof and correction? As for training in righteousness, when’s the last time you heard a strong call to holiness, righteousness, integrity of faith and purity of conscience? And yet that is the persistent message of Scripture to us.

Wouldn’t it be galvanizing to hear, during the Christmas season, a homily preached on these two verses: “Your all-powerful word leaped from heaven, from the royal throne, into the midst of the land that was doomed, a stern warrior carrying the sharp sword of your authentic command, and stood and filled all things with death, and touched heaven while standing on the earth” (Wis 18:15-16). The Church has always applied this text to the coming of Jesus—and yet there is such a paradox: the helpless child lying in a manger...a stern warrior? How does he fills things with death—didn’t he come to bring life? Right away, one begins to see all the wonderful things that could flow out of this theme.

The virtual abandonment of seriously Scripture-based preaching is the single greatest defect in Catholic homiletics today. Look at any Father or Doctor of the Church, or the greatest teaching popes, and you will see that their homilies are literally woven out of strands of Scripture. St. Augustine and St. Bernard of Clairvaux furnish some of the best examples of this.


Which leads into a second key principle. In order to understand the Word of God they are to expound, preachers should be leaning heavily on the greatest theological sources after Scripture: the Fathers of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas (e.g., the Catena aurea on the four Gospels [online or book form], or the Commentaries on Matthew and John, the Commentaries on the Letters of Paul—what a treasure-trove!), and the writings of the mystics, like the Carmelite doctors. I was so delighted when I saw, some time ago, an American bishop take Blessed Columba Marmion, a sublime spiritual writer, as a basis for his Lenten preaching. That’s what we need to see: rich fare for the minds and hearts of the People of God.

As Catholics, we believe that Divine Providence has raised up for us twenty centuries of holy men and women who illuminate for us the wisdom of Scripture. We do not try to do it all on our own—and when we do, the results are usually bad. Look at the preacher who speaks “off the cuff” about the day’s Gospel. Such homilies, as we all know, are some of the worst, very often straying into confusion, randomness, and false doctrine, all for lack of suitable guidance. It is an act of humility and a spiritual work of mercy towards the faithful to seek such guidance and to rely upon it. In Book IV of On Christian Doctrine, St. Augustine even says: If you don’t know how to preach, start by adapting stuff from the Fathers. Don’t be worried about “copying”; you could hardly do better than to copy them!

Clergy and religious are bound to the Liturgy of the Hours, part of which is the daily Office of Readings. Why, then, do we so rarely hear the Office of Readings enter into preaching? Are the clergy actually reading it? So often there are perfect passages that illuminate the readings from the lectionary, and you would think that universally we would be hearing constant use being made of this Office. But it struck me recently, when our chaplain made several references to the Office of Readings, that he’s the first one I’ve ever noticed who’s done that. Is this Office some great secret that only the clergy are supposed to know about, that they are not allowed to share with the faithful for some reason? Clergy out there: Can someone enlighten me as to why this is not a much more common influence on preaching than it appears to be?


Above I spoke of finding and leaning on reliable authorities. But who is reliable? And can we ever be certain of the truth of what we are preaching? For Catholics, there is always a third key principle: the Magisterium of the Church. Preachers should be taking in a steady diet of magisterial wisdom, for instance the Catechism and papal encyclicals, and making use of them. If a priest needs to preach on married love, where better to look than Pius XI’s Casti Connubii? If on the duties of Christian citizens towards their country and its government, Leo XIII’s Sapientiae Christianae? If on the nature of the sacred liturgy and the holy sacrifice of the Mass, Pius XII’s Mediator Dei? The list could go on. With such a wealth of profound and eloquent teaching given to us by the Church, it seems incongruous that it is so rarely shared with the people.

Pope Benedict XVI comes to mind once again. His papal preaching is exemplary in every respect: in its lucid doctrinal content, in its eloquent and concise style, in its reliance on the best sources, in its pulsing spiritual vitality and conviction. If we are looking for a model to learn our preaching from, we will not find a better one.

The three principles of this article can be summed up in a formula that will be familiar to students of the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum: (I) Scripture, (II) Tradition, and (III) Magisterium. It is hardly surprising, then, that the Joseph Ratzinger who assisted in the drafting of Dei Verbum during the Council should have given us, as Pope Benedict, a touchstone of what one might call “Dei Verbum preaching”—preaching of the Word of God, permeated with Sacred Scripture, richly endowed with Tradition, and informed throughout by the Magisterium.

A closing thought, again from St. Paul’s second epistle to Timothy:
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching. (2 Tim 4:1-2)
That’s a mighty and momentous charge; it is a charge given to every bishop, priest, and deacon. It is time that the clergy renew their dedication to preparing and delivering homilies that meet the desperate needs of the Church of our time, and so, become the evangelizers God has called them to be.

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