The art of preaching, The Anchor, April 19, 2013

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
Putting Out Into The Deep
April 19, 2013

Every Easter Week since 2005 I’ve been organizing a Seminar for Priests at the beautiful Arnold Hall Conference and Retreat Center in Pembroke.

It’s a great opportunity for priests to escape after the exhausting and exhilarating work of Holy Week, to rejoice in the Resurrection with brother priests, to review important aspects of priestly life, to rejuvenate, rest, relax and recreate.

Normally I email out fliers in January and over the next couple of months 40 or 50 priests gradually sign up to participate. This year, however, I was in for an enormous surprise.

I sent out the fliers on January 2 and within two weeks we had already exceeded our capacity of 63 and soon had a waiting list of almost 20 others, including not only from the northeast who regularly attend but also many first-timers from Texas, Michigan, Kentucky, and various parts of Canada, including an archbishop. Many of the regulars who were accustomed to inscribe casually in February or March found themselves on the outside looking in.

I would love to say that the draw was the fruit of a growing reputation of the seminar for faith-filled fun and fraternity, but that seemed to play only a minor role. The major reason is something that I think will hearten many lay people: it was the theme of this year’s seminar, “The Ars Praedicandi: Learning from the Masters the Art of Faithfully and Effectively Preaching Christ.”

Priests were coming to try to learn how they could preach better by studying some of the greatest homilists who have ever preached: St. Augustine, Blessed Cardinal Newman, Father Henri-Dominique Lacordaire, Msgr. Ronald Knox, Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, and Pope Benedict XVI.

It’s clear that Catholic preaching needs work. A recent survey by the National Opinion Research Center showed that only 18 percent of Catholic lay people rated preaching by Catholic clergy as “excellent,” half the rate at which Protestants evaluate their own ministers.

The Church universal recognizes that there’s a problem. Pope Benedict, in his exhortations on the Eucharist in 2006 and on the Word of God in 2010, wrote, “Given the importance of the word of God, the quality of homilies needs to be improved.” He went on to emphasize, “The art of preaching… needs to be cultivated.”

Benedict’s call for a renewal of Catholic homiletics led the U.S. Bishops to publish last November a document entitled “Preaching the Mystery of Faith,” to try to bring about that improvement in bishops, priests and deacons across the country.

“In survey after survey over the past years,” the bishops wrote, “the People of God have called for more powerful and inspiring preaching. A steady diet of tepid or poorly prepared homilies is often cited as a cause for discouragement on the part of laity and even leading some to turn away from the Church … at a time when living an authentic Christian life leads to complex challenges, people need to be nourished all the more by the truth and guidance of their Catholic faith.”

They emphasized that acquiring the art of good preaching is a “life-long and demanding process,” involving not only the remote preparation of prayer, study of the Scriptures, getting to know the people they serve and the development of good public speaking skills, but also workshops and opportunities for supervised practice and training.

We hoped in the seminar to provide a workshop along the lines of what the bishops were asking. The immediate turnout gave evidence that many priests are hungry to improve.

Most priests admit that we have not received adequate formation in the art of preaching. Many of us were trained in what I’d describe as “most common practices” rather than “best practices.” We were told what most priests do, rather than schooled in what the great preachers do. That has in general led to lower expectations that, even when they’re met, leave people undernourished and uninspired.

One of the most common examples of this confusion between “most common” and “best” practices is about the length of homilies. Catholic priests and deacons in the U.S. have generally been trained to keep a homily to no more than 12 minutes, … or 10, … or seven, … or even shorter — with the supposed justification that that’s the limit of most Americans’ attention span today.

But such advice presumes that Catholic lay people are, well, dumb.

It presumes that they don’t have the intelligence that evangelical Protestants have, who — even though they generally go to many of the same schools growing up, listen to the same music, watch the same television programs as most Catholics —somehow are able to listen to their ministers on Sunday for 45 minutes or more.

It presumes that Catholic lay people today don’t have the same intelligence as Catholics did in the early Church, when they would listen to preachers for more than an hour.

It presumes that typical Catholic lay people today, many of whom have been able to go on to college and have listened to lengthy lectures for years, are not as capable of concentration as recent immigrants who didn’t have the privilege of attending high school but who are nevertheless able to listen to untrained preachers in uncomfortable chairs in store front churches for far longer than a half hour.

I, personally, am convinced that all these presumptions are false. Catholic lay people have a short attention span only for uninspiring, unchallenging, insufficiently prepared homilies that can’t rivet and ignite them the way typical Evangelical, Patristic and Pentecostal homilies have gripped their respective auditors.

There are many other such common practices that aren’t “best” or even good.

The seminar was entitled “The Art of Preaching,” because homiletics is an art — involving some God-given talent, hard work, and inspiration from above — and not merely a method or a technique.

Just as in the training of any other art, like painting or playing the piano, it’s key to learn from the masters.

We won’t learn much about painting if we just study what the other kids are doing in kindergarten finger-painting class. We won’t be booking dates at Symphony Hall if our musical instruction just involves listening to the noise the other students are making on colored xylophones. We need to study Murillo and Mozart.

So to learn the art of preaching, it’s important for homilists to learn from the masters, those who show how this integration of inspiration, hard work and talent ought to work.

We examined St. Augustine, the great classical rhetorician who not only remains one of the greatest ever to enter the pulpit but whose “On Christian Doctrine” trained not just his contemporaries but centuries of preachers on how to preach well.

We studied Newman, because he instructs how to profit from, and incorporate, the wisdom, images and Scriptural insights of the Church Fathers.

We pondered Lacordaire, because his preaching not only packed Notre Dame in Paris and helped to restore the faith throughout France after the terror and programming of the French Revolution, but gives us a paradigm to preach powerfully about sensitive political areas, like religious freedom.

We chose Knox, the famous translator of the Vulgate Bible into English, because he shows all preachers how to translate the Word of God effectively into the lives of their people.

We considered Sheen, the most famous Catholic preacher in U.S. history, both because he models for American bishops, priests and deacons how to integrate the fonts of the faith with the daily newspaper, but shows indisputably the possibility and impact of great Catholic preachers in our country.

And we contemplated Benedict XVI, whose brilliant, deep, and accessible homilies have been justly compared to those of St. Leo the Great and which likely will continue to be read and bear fruit in centuries.

The priest’s fundamental duty, the Second Vatican Council taught, is “to proclaim the Gospel of God to all.” For the renewal of the Church, one of the most important requirements is to improve preachers’ fulfillment of this responsibility.

This is something on which the popes, U.S. bishops, and Catholic laity all strongly agree.

And this is something for which last week’s seminar was hopefully a step in the right direction.