“What’s Wrong With Catholic Preaching?”
Fr. Charles E. Bouchard, O.P., Prior Provincial
Dominican Province of St. Albert the Great
Remarks delivered at the Minneapolis Club, November 17, 2011
The famous Southern Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor says that after a relative converted to Catholicism (which would have been unusual in the American south in the 1950s), many people were aghast. They wondered why on earth anyone would do such a thing. “Well,” the relative said, “the preaching was so bad I figured there must be something else to keep folks coming back.”
Unfortunately, Catholic preaching still falls far short of what it could be. Too often it fails to inspire, uplift and console; it fails to answer the real questions people bring. Sometimes, it fails to interpret – or even to mention — the Scriptures.
There are a number of reasons for this.
Preaching is hard. If you didn’t know better, you might think preaching is a 10 minute ramble about your latest hunting trip, your vacation, your favorite TV show or anything else that happened to cross your mind as you entered the sacristy (Garrison Keillor once mentioned a pastor who “just kept talking till he found something worthwhile to say”). In fact, preaching is an art and a highly disciplined process of interpretation. It starts with the Scriptural text, and through prayer and study brings that text to life in a persuasive message for a particular group.
The first step in this process is to understand what the biblical word meant in its original time and place. This requires knowledge of biblical languages, culture and history. Then the preacher has to figure out what the word means today, for this group of people. Finally, the preacher has to ask the “so what?” question. If this is God’s word and if it is true, then what difference does it make? Who does it compel me to be? What does it compel me to do?
One of the biggest challenges is to bring the word to the actual world in which they find themselves to answer the questions that people really have. I remember being at mass once during the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal. The preacher read the Gospel, and then made a comment about Monica Lewinsky. All of us thought he was going to preach on it, to help us make sense of this mess, to help us see it in light of the Scriptures. Instead, he moved on to a completely different topic. He had missed a “preachable moment” – a chance to let the Scriptures speak to what was on everyone’s mind, to help us see a way through the darkness. There was a palpable feeling of disappointment. We felt cheated.
For Catholics preaching is even more complicated because it usually takes place during the Eucharist. So in addition to understanding and interpreting the Scriptures, the preacher must also put them in the context of this great act of thanksgiving, and relate it to the liturgical season.
Good preaching takes time. I was shocked when a homiletics professor told me that the preacher should spend one hour of preparation for each minute of a homily. I have come to believe this is true. Yet who has the time? It is no secret that our priests are stretched too thin. Our congregant-to-clergy ratio is much higher. A large Catholic parish might have two or possibly three priests. A large Protestant “mega-Church” might have 7 or 9 full time pastors It’s not hard to see why Protestant preaching is better. Yet despite the demands on their time, Catholic preaching could be much better if priests allocated their time as though preaching were their top priority. Study after study shows that’s exactly what parishioners want them to do.
The talent pool is too small. In the Christian tradition, ministry requires at least two things: gift and office. This means that anyone who wants to minister must first give evidence of the gifts of the Spirit that would make this ministry effective (remember St. Paul’s enumeration of various gifts, all of which are necessary for the Body of the Church?). But these gifts also need to be authorized, or ordered, for the sake of the community. In the Catholic Church we call this ordination. Unfortunately, office and gift do not always go together. You can have the office of priesthood without the requisite gifts (think of a validly ordained priest who can’t speak in public). Or you can have the gifts without the office – think of a woman who is a highly skilled preacher but can’t be ordained.
When I was president of our graduate theology school, we provided preaching education for hundreds of seminarians, priests, lay people and sisters. We saw great talent for preaching in each group, but only the priests were allowed to preach on Sunday morning. There is no reason the Church cannot widen the pool of preachers by finding ways to authorize or “ordain” others who have specific gifts to do so. Failure to do so is an offense to the Gifts that have so obviously been given.
Preaching is overwhelmed by our sacramental life. If you ask a hundred people what is most distinctive about Catholicism, most of them will respond “the mass,” or “the sacraments.” Indeed, this is what Flannery O’Connor’s cousin referred to as “something else.” Yet for us, it cannot be one or the other. We need a vital sacramental life AND we need excellent preaching. For without preaching, how would we know what these sacraments are? They would become mere magic. Preaching helps us understand the mysteries we celebrate and prepares us to be fully open to sacramental grace.
Preaching is a two-way street. It’s easy to blame the preacher for a bad homily, but the congregation has a role to play as well. Good preachers don’t preach “in general.” They preach to a specific congregation before them whose needs, hopes and fears they attempt to address. But congregations are not passive receptacles. They have an active role in receiving, nurturing, pondering and even challenging the word they have received.
Congregations must uphold their end of the bargain by preparation – reading and praying with the Scriptures before they are preached and asking, “What does this passage mean? What does it say to me? How does it speak to what I just read in the news?” They must challenge their preachers, ask them questions and above all, let them know that they are paying attention. When priests know that parishioners are listening, they will devote more time to their preparation.
Catholic preaching may not be as good as it could be, but if all of us – preachers and hearers of the Word alike – assume our respective roles, we can together make excellent preaching the lifeblood of the Church.