A Catholic preacher is like a rock star. While he walks 30 feet or drives 60 miles to the church building for Mass, hundreds (sometimes thousands) of us, his listeners, are getting ready to hear him. After the fight with the ten-year-old to brush his teeth; after changing the diaper or the bandages; after putting on the knee brace or the hearing aids, we turn the handle to the door, file into the church and slide into the pew. Phew! Here we are. How much effort it takes for all of us to get to church! Hundreds… thousands… We are here!
How many people in modern American life have an opportunity like that to speak weekly to a live audience of hundreds or thousands of us?
We don’t just come to Mass for the preacher and the preaching. We come for the Eucharist. We come to see our friends. We come for a moment of prayer and reflection. We come because mom and dad said, “get in the car.” But in our depths, we are seeking to be touched by God. We may not know how to articulate that. But we want more of God. We are not so likely to find that at a coffee shop on Sunday morning. We may not get that at a Sunday afternoon football game. We are here. This is a unique and holy time and space.
Yet we don’t just find God; it is God who is first looking for us. God is the source of our longing. God is the fulfillment of our striving. The homily is intended to be a moment that opens our hearts and our minds so that we allow the living God to encounter us.
The opportunity of preaching is immense. God wants to speak.
THE CRY FOR BETTER PREACHING
A mom slides into the pew with her college-aged son, just home for the weekend. It has been a rough week for him. She wonders, could the homily touch him, pick him up, give him courage to keep going? A teenager struggles to know what is right and true. So many conflicting messages come her way. She wonders, will I hear something here at Mass to help me make sense of all this? A man watches his wife slump in the pew with pain. The diagnosis from the hospital was not positive. He wonders, will there be an image of hope for me? And for her?
And then… there is not. There’s the budget report. A retelling of the gospel story. The story of last week’s vacation. A rambling of words that are poorly prepared. Churchy words that are never explained.
The moment of the homily can also be an opportunity lost — never to be regained. Those who walk away don’t always come back.
The people who are still in the pews want homilies to improve. Why? For themselves and their own spiritual nourishment, yes. But also because of love. The greatest advocates for better preaching are parents and grandparents, relatives, and friends. They want a word from the Lord to help the people that they love.
And preaching is not always helping.
The cry from the pews goes up, “Better preaching!” Pope Benedict said it in Verbum Domini #59: “The quality of homilies needs to be improved.” Priests say, “We need a renewal.”
I know this ache for better preaching. I am also a person of the pew. These are my children, my friends, my colleagues, who hunger and long to be fed. I believe that the Lord wants to speak to them through the liturgical homily. I have studied how to help that to happen. It is complex. It is not easy. But it is possible.
“We just don’t know”
What I have learned from personally coaching a hundred Catholic preachers is that there is much that our preachers just don’t know. Many acknowledge that their formation in homiletics was weak. A monsignor said, “All these years and I didn’t know that I was supposed to pray about the homily.” A Filipino priest told me, “I have been preaching for thirty-eight years and no one has ever told me that the purpose of preaching is to help to bring people into an encounter with God.” A priest who was the director of ongoing formation in his archdiocese said, “I did not know that there was a ‘science of homiletics.’”
Lay people also are not educated in homiletics. (Even the word “homiletics” is unfamiliar.) What makes for effective preaching? Listeners just do not know. Thus, the (limited) feedback that clergy receive from their parishioners sometimes can lead them astray, sometimes away from effectiveness in preaching.
How do we open this conversation between pulpit and pew? How can we lay people help them (the preachers) to help us (and our children and friends) find God?
The first step in moving forward is a robust environment of prayer. Please pray. You and I, we care that the homily connects. The Holy Spirit is the Great Connector, the Tie that Binds. We plead with the Holy Spirit to come and renew our pulpits and our parishes. This entreaty has to rise from both the clergy and the laity. We cannot do this by ourselves. None of us walks this path alone.
Secondly, we are launching a two-year program for the renewal of preachers, the Preaching for Encounter program. This will involve the study of homiletics in large-group and small-group gatherings of preachers and personal coaching. Please pray for the flourishing of that program, especially for those who are thinking about participating.
Thirdly, for each priest, deacon, or bishop in that program, there will be a group of lay people who will support him and pray for him as he works to grow in his preaching. We have given these lay folks a name: St. Joseph’s Preachers.
What does the St. Joseph’s Preacher program look like?
Those who support their preachers will gather monthly to pray for him. In the first year, there will be a workbook with insights into what effective preaching looks like, how to give feedback to a preacher, and how to listen for the presence of God in the liturgy and in scripture. Learning, discussion and prayer will form this group into valuable conversation partners for their preacher.
In the first year, the group will meet independently of the preacher, studying many of the same things that their priest, deacon, or bishop is learning. In the sixth unit of the preacher’s first year, the discussion material begins to talk of how to connect with the congregation, how to get feedback from the laity, and how the ongoing formation of preachers is enriched by the interaction with the people to whom he preaches. This begins to open the conversation between pulpit and pew.
In the second year, the preacher will continue to meet with his peer learning group. But he will also begin to study and pray with his lay supporters, the St. Joseph’s Preachers. Most importantly, they will begin to share with him how they are encountering God in ordinary life. Thus, his preaching becomes locally informed, tailored to connect with the people right there with him. The preacher and his group will meet at an interval that they themselves decide upon. Some may want to meet weekly for an hour to study the scriptures for the upcoming Sunday. Others may choose to meet monthly for a morning or afternoon, working on the scriptures for an upcoming season. We ask the preachers to meet with their lay group at least six times in the second year.
The deepest desire of this endeavor is that by the third year (and beyond), this process of clergy and laity working together will become a “given” of parish life — clergy will learn from their lay people and the laity will sharing with their priest or deacon how the Lord is working in their lives.
We will have a day (or evening) of reflection for all of the St. Joseph’s Preachers in the diocese. Coming together will reinforce the passion and commitment among us all.
How can I get involved?
When a priest, deacon, or bishop agrees to enroll in the Preaching for Encounter program, he will be asked to select a coordinator for his lay group. That coordinator will then look for a diverse group of people of various ages, genders, and ethnicities. (The more varied the group, the more there is to learn from each other.) This is a once-a-month, two-year commitment.
How can I get involved if my preacher is not enrolled in the Preaching for Encounter program? Can I still help to improve Catholic preaching?
First, please pray for us and the renewal of Catholic preaching (prayer page – I would be willing to pray for you, here is my information, please keep me updated, etc.). Connecting the pulpit and pew is a culture change and culture change is hard. But we will keep praying for it to happen.
Secondly, contact your local bishop. In the Preaching for Encounter program, we do not take individual priests, but a peer-learning group from a diocese. That way, they can support each other in their preaching improvement efforts.
Third, we will have resources to create a listener study group of your own, whether or not your local preacher is involved. You can do more good as a group than you can all by yourself. The workbook, Encountering the Living God, Together, will soon be available on this website for your group’s use.
More than anything else, thank you for your interest in improving Catholic preaching. Whether you become involved in a group or you pray for this on your own, your help is most needed. There is much to be done. This is God’s work to do. Let’s do it!