View from the Pew: Preaching
Greg Watts makes a plea about homilies.
What’s the difference between an Easyjet pilot and a priest delivering a homily? One knows how to take off and land, and the other doesn’t.
The homily at Mass is an opportunity for the priest to unpack the scriptural meaning of one of the readings, usually the Gospel, and inspire, uplift, or even challenge the congregation.
Yet if you ask most Catholics after Mass what they thought of the homily, you are likely to be met with a shrug or a nonplussed shake of the head. Many would have switched off within the first minute, and their thoughts turned to what they were going to have for lunch, whether they turned the washing machine on before leaving the house, or the peculiar hairstyle of that woman sitting a few rows ahead.
A well delivered homily requires a good take off, a smooth journey through the Bible, and a good landing. Or to put it another way, a beginning, a middle, and an end, something small children grasp when it comes to bedtime stories.
Of course, there are some priests who know how to preach effectively and engage the congregation, and they put time and effort in during the week to achieve this. However, in my experience, they are as rare as a hot dog stall at a vegan festival!
Giving the Congregation a Lettuce
Frequently, a priest will begin a homily by recounting the Gospel story he’s just read and will often end by presenting the congregation with a ‘lettuce’. Let us ask… Let us think about… Let us try…
I remember a priest beginning a homily on the Feast of the Guardian Angels by saying, ‘We don’t know much about angels’, and then talking about them for twenty minutes. I don’t think anyone was any the wiser when he’d finished.
Use Language People Understand
Pope Francis, in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangeli Gaudium, 2013, (E.G.), dedicates 18 pages to the preparation and delivery of the Sunday homily. He says, “Preachers often use words learned during their studies and in specialized settings which are not part of the ordinary language of their hearers. These are words that are suitable in theology or catechesis, but whose meaning is incomprehensible to the majority of Christians. The greatest risk for a preacher is that he becomes so accustomed to his own language that he thinks that everyone else naturally understands and uses it.”
The 2008 Synod of Bishops on the Bible recommended that homilies be improved. In 2014 the Congregation for Divine
Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments produced what it called a “Homiletics Directory’. It is 120 pages of ‘Vaticanese’, and I can’t imagine many clergy have read it, or that it would provide any concrete help in what it calls “the art of communication.”
Poor preaching, though, is not just a problem in the Catholic Church. You find it in the Church of England as well. Alan Bennett brilliantly satirised this in his sketch “Take a Pew”, where he played a vicar giving a sermon. “Life’s like a tin of sardines. All of us are looking for the key.”
Sure, preaching isn’t easy. You have a congregation of mixed age, education and background, and each person is at a different stage in their relationship with God. But the reason you undergo training and education is to learn how to do something. If you spend, on average, six years training to preach the Word of God and you can’t do it effectively, that’s like someone training to be a plumber and being unable to fit a washer on a tap.
What is a Good Homily?
The key to a good homily, Pope Francis says, is simplicity and clarity.
“Our language may be simple but our preaching not very clear. It can end up being incomprehensible because it is disorganized, lacks logical progression or tries to deal with too many things at one time. We need to ensure, then, that the homily has thematic unity, clear order and correlation between sentences, so that people can follow the preacher easily and grasp his line of argument” (E.G., 158).
I would add that repetition can also be a valuable tool, as any teacher knows. About ten years ago, I attended Mass at English Martyrs church in Walworth, and I can still remember the message of the homily. The priest, a young Indian, was preaching on the story of the cure of the paralytic in Luke’s Gospel, where some men, because of the crowd, lower a paralysed man on a stretcher through the roof and place him in front of Jesus. Jesus forgives his sins and then tells him to get up, pick up his stretcher and go home. In the course of his homily, the priest repeated the phrase, “Get up, have faith, move on” six times. That’s why I still remember it.
When I’ve led communications workshops in seminaries, I’ve used the Easyjet analogy, explaining that a good take off grabs the attention of the congregation, so they are more likely to listen to what you have to say, and a good landing will leave them with something to think about. Among the tips I’ve given seminarians are:
- What do you want to say? Sum it up in a sentence – if you can’t do this, then you aren’t clear about it
- Don’t try to make too many points- just make one
- Avoid lots of abstract nouns -keep your homily concrete
- Illustrate your point by using examples or images
- Avoid clichés or ‘Churchspeak’ -speak in plain English
So why is the quality of preaching among priests so poor? My theory is that the root of this can be traced back to the Reforma- tion when an over emphasis was placed on the sacraments as a way of countering the “Scripture alone” Christianity promoted by the Protestants.
Are poor homilies driving Catholics away?
Only around ten percent of the 5.2 million Catholics in England and Wales attend Mass on a regular basis.
Could this decline in Mass attendance have anything to do with poor preaching? Bishop Robert Barron, an auxiliary in Los Angeles, certainly thinks so. He said in a 2015 Word on Fire podcast, “A major concern that can and should be addressed in the Church is that of bad preaching.
Again, and again, people said that they left the Church because homilies were ‘boring, irrelevant, poorly prepared,’ or ‘delivered in an impenetrable accent.’
Speaking as someone who is called upon to give sermons all the time, I realize how terribly difficult it is to preach, how it involves skill in public speaking, attention to the culture, expertise in biblical interpretation, and sensitivity to the needs and interests of an incredibly diverse audience.”
The You Tube priest
If you’re looking for an example of someone who knows not only how to preach but also to utilise modern tools of communication to evangelise, then you need look no further than Bishop Barron. He is an eloquent, engaging and confident communicator. One of his aims is to present the ideas and insights of great thinkers such as Augustine, Aquinas, and Newman in a language and way a secular culture can understand, which is why he was invited to give talks at the headquarters of both Google and Amazon. His You Tube channel has over 360,000 subscribers. He is also the presenter of the acclaimed and imaginative 10-part TV series Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith, which was filmed in 15 countries and shows how great art, architecture, literature, and music have been used to illustrate the teachings of the Church.
Bishop Baron understands that the majority of Catholics are not to be found in church on a Sunday. (There’s a joke that goes, what’s the largest group of Christians in the USA? Catholics. What’s the second largest? Ex-Catholics). So, if you want to try and reach the lapsed (or resting), then you have to go to where they are. You have to use social media.
Time for a change
If you take yourself back to attending Mass as a child and compare the experience to today, you will discover that when it comes to homilies little has changed. Some people might think this is a good thing. I don’t. I’m not talking about Church teaching; I’m talking about how the Church communicates its teaching.
Teachers are regularly assessed by other teachers on the quality of their teaching when they undergo classroom observations, for which they are graded. (If a priest complains about having to give three homilies over a weekend, he should try teaching seven hours of classes back-to-back). If their grade is poor, they are given support to improve. Many businesses carry out annual staff reviews. It’s all about maintaining professional standards.
Are priests ever assessed on their quality of preaching? Once they are ordained, they are pretty much left to their own devices. I’d like to see each bishop or religious provincial carry out annual assessments of the preaching of all his clergy. It could be done along the lines of a mystery worshipper, where a suitably qualified person would sit in the congregation and give the homily marks out of ten for the effectiveness of the PA system, content, clarity, delivery, and duration. This information could then used by the bishop or provincial to organise communication training sessions for clergy.
And why not film priests preaching and then let them watch it afterwards to see where they can improve? For most, I suspect, it would be a painful and embarrassing experience (as those who’ve live-streamed Masses through the Covid crisis may have discovered), but it might be the key to help them communicate better with their congregation.
Not every priest is a gifted communicator, like Bishop Barron, but every priest should try to be a good communicator.
Greg Watts is the author of some twenty books including a biography of Mother Teresa of Calcutta.