Preaching in a New Key

This journey of mine is an effort to listen to the preaching voices of priests, deacons, lay-woman, and religious, and youth ministers. It’s my way of opening our churches’ sometimes closed doors to greater transparency by carefully listening to the “preached word.” I’m especially interested in the people who preach week-by-week, day-by-day, the communities they touch, and how they help transform people’s lives.

Last Supper

This past year, while on sabbatical, I began my preaching journey in New York City, and at the locked doors of the Catholic Center at NYU. In early spring, and on an unusually bright March evening, my niece Leah and I had completed a day of sightseeing. At just about six, we crossed the street from Washington Square Park to the tiny church, a boxy reminder of 60’s architecture, to check the Mass schedule. It appeared to me that there might be a six o’clock Mass; however, the doors were locked.

As we examined the signposted at the entrance, a woman approached us. She asked about the location of Saint Joseph’s Church in Greenwich Village. She understood that the evening Mass was to be said there. I replied that Saint Joseph’s was over on Sixth Avenue, just two blocks west. Then she prompted me with another question, “Would you know if the liturgy there was updated and engaging enough for liberal Catholics?” She added that since she and her husband were visiting from Rochester, they did not want to attend a “mindless Sunday Mass” and wondered if it would be worth attending. I knew exactly how she felt. And I told her that the distance to the church was not very far, and it was one of the oldest Catholic Churches in New York City; Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement once worshiped there. But frankly, I had no way of knowing the quality of the religious service. Otherwise, she might wish to walk down one block to Our Lady of Pompeii, the Italian-American parish on Carmine Street.

From what I can tell, this woman is not alone, and she is one of the very many asking similar questions. If Catholics are obligated to attend Mass each Sunday, perhaps there is a corollary rule that might assure the congregation of a good standard of celebration in music, preaching, and prayerful fellowship. However, in a city that rates everything from restaurants to baseball teams, there is no Zagat Guide that seriously evaluates houses of worship.

New York Times writer Peter Steinfels states that the Roman Catholic Church is “on the verge of either an irreversible decline or a thoroughgoing transformation.” I have seen my church in both guises: the decline in church attendance as a result of the priest sex abuse scandal and the vibrancy of the Catholic Hispanic and Latino communities around the country when demonstrating for immigration reform. Side-by-side, decline, and transformation have the potential to inspire strong words and meaningful preaching.

The Second Vatican Council taught that Christ’s presence is three-fold: in the liturgical assembly, in the Eucharist, and the “preached Word.” So the homily at Mass — in words, in stories, and the unique message of the preacher — may be the opportunity to encounter Christ. And this is worth serious study.

For the past several years, I have worked as a “priest-in-residence” at Saint Monica Church in Moraga, California, nearby San Francisco. I have witnessed both good preaching and an active congregation, and in this environment, I have improved the style and content. For example, I have developed several rules that appear to be effective – namely, going to scripture soon into the presentation and making points, moves, or transitions clear. Be organized and brief, and never go over seven minutes or so in length. After all, it was Saint Francis who said that sermons “ought to be brief because the Lord kept his words brief when he was on earth.”

A friend of mine and a very accomplished preacher, Donal Godfrey, the campus minister at the Loyola University of Chicago, told me about how he sees his task, “A sermon is the one place where scripture should be made relevant. Your task is to break open the word for the community that is here, so it speaks a language that people can understand and hear. They should say, ‘Oh, I can apply that.’ ‘Or that makes sense to me.’ ‘Or that says something I have to think about and struggle with.'” In effect, Godfrey says the preacher has a privileged position, not telling people how to live their lives, and always inviting people to rethink their own lives. “This is a deep challenge,” he says, “and one that cannot be done by rote.”

An excellent liturgical homily, to my ear, sounds more like poetry; it is spare and deeply felt. The homily or sermon is an event; it never happens the same way twice. Listening to the stories, the questions, and the faith of those to whom we preach can be a powerful way of reflecting what God is already doing in peoples’ lives. Thus, faith speaking to faith, a form of “collaborative preaching.” Over time good preaching and pastoral ministry, one that listens to and reflects the faith-life of people, has the long-term capacity to build strong, enduring relationships and a compelling message.

In a recent informal survey in “U.S. Catholic,” readers were asked to rank the most important qualities of a parish priest. Respondents selected: spiritual depth, kindness and sensitivity, communication skills, collaborative management style, and excellent preaching. To my mind, effective preaching is an essential leadership skill for pastoral ministry. Today only one Roman Catholic institution in the United States grants a doctoral degree in homiletics, the formal study of pastoral preaching. Any comparison of serious scholarship among Roman Catholics in the area of preaching reveals a lack of effort compared to the work of Protestants. In making his point about Catholics and preaching, John Melloh, professor of homiletics at Notre Dame University, writes, “If liturgical studies are the stepchild of theology, preaching is indeed the Cinderella.”

My own seminary experience illustrates Melloh’s concerns. Typical of my generation, formal training in preaching came after our theological education. The preaching course was a mere application of systematic and moral theology. In effect, preaching and communication studies generally were considered as an additive, and not central to the core of theological and biblical studies.

However, informally we were exposed to high-quality preaching from the priest faculty of my seminary who preached at daily Mass. Many of my classmates modeled their preaching on what they had observed then. But the overall lack of emphasis on preaching is reflected in the experience of most Catholic congregations, whereby expectations about the homily at Mass are meager. From my observation, when a preacher demonstrates careful preparation, insight into the scripture, and possesses an inspiring and welcoming personality, congregations listen. High quality of preaching, John Melloh would describe as “soul-revealing,” and a theological art-form.

This preaching journey began while on sabbatical from my teaching journalism and media studies at Saint Mary’s College. Essentially this is an attempt to explore the communication competence of Roman Catholic liturgical preaching. This is the kind of preaching you hear at Mass on Sundays. Over this past year, I’ve been to religious services, Catholic, as well as Protestant, and even Russian Orthodox to steep myself in a variety of religious traditions, and just check out the venues the way people go to jazz or rock & roll clubs.

I mostly attended Roman Catholic services and listened to Catholic preachers – priests, deacons, bishops, laymen, and women. What I’ve discovered on this journey are the many committed preachers whose diverse styles of expression and often personal approaches define the form. Mine is the reporter and critic’s role, one who brings readers to the scenes of quality preaching to limit further “best practice.” My task is to tell why and how this preacher is useful in this particular congregation’s unique setting. Critics of film, art, food, sports, drama, etc. would rather say “yes,” but also must know something of the challenges inherent to the art form. So this is my stance, in a series of literary portraits of gifted preachers that give ample reasons why one should come to church, listen and witness a congregation served by the “preached word.”

To facilitate my analysis, I have developed four criteria that help me when carefully listening to preachers.

Voice – This is the deepest level of a preacher’s reflection, the “moral voice,” and from time to time, the “moral authority” on the scripture for this particular day. Robert Wasznak, in his excellent book “An Introduction to the Homily,” writes that the Vatican II liturgical reforms have given the homilist several identities: herald, teacher, interpreter, and witness. To achieve any one of these identities, the authentic preacher must draw deeply from a reservoir of spiritual reading, pastoral experience, and prayer.

Pull or Draw – This is the connection the preacher makes with the congregation. Good preachers can draw people into the church. Sometimes this phenomenon is the result of crucial ministerial groundwork, perhaps as a result of a Parish mission, or the Renew team’s productive work, or the event of a funeral Mass for a deceased parishioner. Preaching on the occasion of First Communion or Confirmation could inspire family members who might not fully participate in the parish to reconsider after listening to an inspired preacher.

Design or Armature – This is the device that holds the sermon together and ultimately gives shape to its very meaning for the listeners. Inside the core of an artwork, a piece of sculpture, for example, may require the inlay of metal meshing or brackets to hold the parts together for fear it falls apart. With a homily or sermon, scripture is the armature or element that contains the work. However, the homily is neither a lecture nor an exercise in scriptural exegesis; it is not a paraphrasing of the scriptural passage. Instead, skillful preaching is both an act of writing or authorship, and a performance art placed within a liturgical setting.

Media – Storytelling is a narrative medium as old as the Bible itself. Preachers should be comfortable in telling their congregation about their own story of faith or what writer John Shea calls one’s own “spiritual wisdom.” Here the modern preacher can draw upon a variety of personal stories, myths, and the broader culture of film, television, and books to endow the meaning of the sermon richly. Humor can also help but must forward the central and controlling themes. Consider the physical and technological arrangements of a particular church. The sanctuary area requires adequate lighting and microphones with audio systems that function to the benefit of the preacher and listeners. Lastly, for some parishes today, there is the need for experimentation with new forms of media such as large-screen televisions, digital cameras, and Internet websites that offer innovative ways to advance the preaching ministry for a parish community.

These are my initial ideas for this preaching journey of mine, but there is something more — good preaching also must be felt. An excellent homily can celebrate an occasion and has the power to heighten the experience and touch the congregation as well as the preacher. The phrase, “God uses good people to do great things,” comes to mind. Oprah Winfrey’s words were at the November 2005 memorial service for Rosa Parks, the civil rights activist. As I watched the religious ceremony on C-SPAN, I hung on almost every word of the many tributes by the assembled ministers, politicians, and speakers. Oprah Winfrey’s brief appearance added to the sense of occasion.

With brevity and very measured words, Winfrey spoke of growing up in the South, and how one woman confronted one white man, a bus driver, the law, and history. As a young girl, upon hearing of the news of Rosa Parks’ deed of not giving up her seat on the Montgomery bus, Oprah told her father that Rosa Parks had to be “big, really big…at least 100 feet tall!” When Oprah finally met her many years later, she was struck by how small, and petite Parks was in stature. “She was a hero to everyone who didn’t have heroes to celebrate,” said Oprah, and added, “God uses good people to do great things.” She concluded, “In this one act, you, Rosa, reclaimed your own humanity and gave us each a piece of our own.”

The following week I incorporated these remarks into my sermon. In previewing the feasts of All Saints and All Souls, my point was those excellent people doing great things is the very stuff of all saints and all souls. Reflecting on Luke’s gospel, I was curious about the passage in which the Pharisees asked Jesus, “When will the kingdom come?” Jesus replied, “You cannot say, look here it is, or there it is. For the Kingdom of God is among you.” (Luke 20). In a footnote in Oxford Study Bible, I discovered that the sentence “The Kingdom of God is among you” has multiple translations, including “The Kingdom of God is within you,” or, “The Kingdom of God is within your grasp.”

I especially like the “Kingdom of God is within you” — not out here or there. Instead, in your heart, and your actions and your words. In preaching, we carry within us the wonders we seek without us. For the preacher and the congregation, Christ is present in the preached word, which is an opportunity to encounter Christ.


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