Trying to help preachers

Review by Scott Coleman

Fr Cardó makes the case for the importance of preaching head on: there is a crisis in the Church (of faith, of numbers, of engagement, of personal relationship with Jesus Christ), and preaching is an essential component of the answer.

Most Catholics who engage with the Church come once a week, to Sunday Mass. Thus, although all sorts of parish renewal programmes are of great worth, it is Sunday Mass above all that has a widespread impact. The homily, then, is the priest’s one, big, weekly chance to communicate, to enthuse, to encourage, to contribute to the renewal of the Church and the world.

It’s hard to argue with the premise of Cardó’s argument. Preaching is vitally important, and priests (and deacons and seminarians) need all the support and encouragement they can get. The Art of Preaching certainly communicates the significance of preaching, and thus will certainly enthuse the reader – but is less successful in giving the “very practical advice and tools for the preparation and delivery of the homily” (p.6). The first part of the book (pp.11–119) provides a series of theological and practical reflections on the homily in the life of the Church; the second (pp.123–96) is a homiletics reader, with the texts of fourteen especially successful homilies from throughout history, with some commentary on them.

Too much bad preaching

The first chapters lay the theological foundations of the homily. We are given a firmly ecclesial view of liturgical preaching. The homily is a distinctive act of public speaking, which is shaped by its context within the proclamation of the Word of God. It is no mere add- on to the ‘more important’ parts of the Mass (or other liturgical function) but is an integral part of the sacred action, in which the people are brought into relationship with the living and active Word. Preachers are to engage with the readings of the day or the rite itself (not giving abstract discourses) and with the congregation in front of them (not giving inaccessible academic exegesis). There is too much bad preaching, Cardó argues, and there are plenty of pitfalls that one ought to avoid. Homilies are too often unprepared, moralistic, too full of pop-culture; sometimes they are opportunities for the preacher to show off how ‘nice’ or humorous he is; he might be too concerned with the latest theological fads that he has read about; he might simply be self-centred. With so many challenges and potential mistakes ahead of him, the preacher needs plenty of help.

Techniques

A chapter on public speaking gives some extremely useful, non-theological ideas. Rhetoric is at best little taught, and at worst frowned upon as being manipulative or deceitful, but it is essential that preachers use all the natural techniques available to them, as well as relying upon grace. We thus take in some brief lessons from classical rhetoric about logos (the rational substance of an argument), ethos (instilling trust in the speaker) and pathos (the use of emotion, appealing to the whole human person). Further, the public speaking is not simply about the transfer of information, but should delight and sway the audience/ congregation, moving them to make changes in their lives. Cardó illustrates the power of these tools and techniques with TED talks, a helpful reminder that public speaking is by no means a dead art but continues to exercise the public imagination. This chapter is one of the book’s most successful, being so concrete and applicable.

What people want

There follows a more detailed examination of the theology of preaching, relating it to ecclesiology and post-Vatican II developments in liturgical studies. Priests should view preaching as intrinsic to their ministry, not a burden imposed upon them. It should be Christocentric and specifically incarnational. Cardó develops using themes that are familiar to those who listen to Pope Francis: a priest must know his congregation well. He must be with them in their joys and sorrows, listening to them and sharing their concerns. Then he will be best able to apply the Gospel to their lives, to make it truly incarnate for them. In Chapter 5 we receive ‘advice from the pews’, a series of testimonies from people in various walks of life about what they want (or don’t want) from the homily. These support the thrust of Cardó’s advice, often being rather more blunt, e.g. priests should not merely give ‘sound moral teaching’ but should specifically mention ‘contraception, pornography, materialism, pride …’ (p. 69).

Preparing and delivering

We next review the necessity and mode of preparation of the homily. Much of the advice here is predictable. Study, prayer, and personal holiness are all no doubt essential, but do many priests deliberately fail to pursue these? Maybe some genuinely do not care, but most who struggle to prepare adequately for homilies are simply overburdened with other work. The answer cannot simply be to instruct them to make more time for homily-preparation; how can we help them to find the necessary time and energy?

The chapter on the delivery of the homily is a decent basic introduction, reminding us of the need for good eye-contact, tonal variation, gestures, attention to the audience and so on. Next Fr Cardó holds up St Augustine as the model of an effective preacher, reinforcing many of the themes already presented. The final chapter in Part 1 reflects on the homily as the locus theologicus or ‘place of theology’ in the life of the priest. This is a good exhortation for academically minded priests, showing them how to be genuinely theological and reflective, but doing so in the context of parochial preaching.

Examples

The series of exemplar homilies given in part two gives good breadth in the style, tone, and content of possible preaching. We encounter the emotional (St Ambrose on his brother’s death) and the academic (St Thomas Aquinas on the end of time), the elevated (St John Henry Newman on Gethsemane) and the direct (Pope Francis on journeying). Cardó provides a very brief introduction and a few questions for consideration on each homily. It is a shame that there is not more commentary here. Preachers will find plenty of inspiration here to experiment with new ideas and styles of preaching – but one does need help to translate these historical idioms into a form useful in a contemporary parish.

Does The Art of Preaching succeed in helping preachers to combat the crisis in the Church, to preach the Gospel with confidence, to transform lives? Probably it is a little too basic, but perhaps that isn’t a bad thing. A return to the foundation (why to preach) might well enthuse priests and deacons, and the homiletics reader will give them food for thought. Still, a little more concrete detail on how to preach would give this book a more practical, concrete impact.

Scott Coleman is a seminarian for the diocese of Arundel and Brighton, studying at Allen Hall.

Faith Magazine