Let’s Get Honest About Poor Preaching
You’ve got to love Pope Francis. The man isn’t afraid to speak his mind when he thinks it’s necessary. He doesn’t mince words when he wants something to change. Recently the Pope chided a group of priests from Sicily visiting the Vatican about the poor state of their preaching, He pointedly asked, do they preach in a ways that are relevant to people’s lives or “in such a way that people go out for a cigarette and then come back.”
Unfortunately, many people are so underwhelmed by the Sunday homilies they hear each week that they don’t come back.
The Pope’s message is a valid one for all Catholic preachers. I don’t believe too much secularism or a lack of genuine spirituality are emptying the pews of Catholic parishes. This is the relevant problem: people come expecting spiritual nourishment. Too often they go away empty.
I sometimes tune out the homily if it is poorly put together and irrelevant to my daily life. Often I sit there, composing a homily in my head based on the day’s gospel. Many celebrants start out talking about what the words meant in Jesus’ time. Context and history are important, but what I most want to know is what the gospel means for those of us alive today, in the 21st century.
To be sure, with the priest shortage our clergy is spread thin with a multitude of duties. It must be hard to find a stretch of time to focus solely on the Sunday homily. Having to compose something noteworthy every week is surely a grind. Still, I’m often impressed when I attend services at friends’ Protestant churches about the caliber of the preaching compared to what I experience in my own church.
What probably helps Protestant ministers is that many have families of their own and know firsthand the daily struggles families face. Protestant denominations have the benefit of women clergy. Women bring their own unique perspective to the table.
One thing that might help is for priests to get out more. Visit with their parishioners at home, and not just those who are big donors to the parish or in leadership roles. Read more widely than spiritual texts. It wouldn’t hurt to read more novels, more poetry.
A priest who previously had been an English teacher gave one of the most memorable homilies I’ve heard about confronting our tendency to be judgmental and self-righteous by drawing from Flannery O’Connor’s unforgettable short story, Revelation. I listened to that homily spellbound.
It’s not a bad idea to bring up what is happening in the news. There was a wonderful interview last week on the PBS NewsHour with Michelle Singletary, The Washington Post’s personal finance columnist. Singletary spoke of those families who have to choose in this inflationary cycle between buying a gallon of gas or a gallon of milk. Instead of grousing about prices and ascribing blame, Singletary suggests those of us who can bear the higher costs step up and help those who are struggling. Donate funds to food banks, she said, offer to pay a month’s rent for a struggling family.
“You can do something,” Singletary said. Sounding more like a preacher than a columnist, she added: “To whom much is given much is required. That is how we will get through this — together.”
Singletary’s commentary was a clarion call to all people of faith to indeed be our brothers’ and our sisters’ keepers.
Certainly bringing up gun reform in the wake of nearly weekly mass shootings, and the terrible tragedy in Uvalde, should be part of the church’s pro-life message.
Perhaps our priests can sit down with a group of trusted lay advisors and discuss the Sunday gospel beforehand to hear what it might mean to the people in the pews. This isn’t homily-writing by committee, but rather taking the pulse of the parish, checking on what’s important to people.
This is not to say there are no good Catholic preachers. I encountered insightful homilists when I lived in the Chicago archdiocese and at the Jesuit-run parishes I attended when I lived in Dallas and Washington, D.C. Sadly, they too often are the exception.
“The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed,” John Milton wrote in his poem, “Lycidas” of the church in the 17th century. It is time that changed.