Preaching On Sundays

At their November 2012 semi-annual meeting in Baltimore, the U.S. Catholic bishops gave overwhelming approval to a document titled Preaching the Mystery of Faith: The Sunday Homily. It was the first time in 30 years that they addressed the issue of the quality of preaching in our nation’s Catholic parishes. 

They didn’t say so explicitly, but the bishops seem to think that we are losing the game in the pulpit and that the people (those who still show up!) are looking for and deserving of much better preaching. As a friend put it to me not long ago, “here in the U.S. we have ‘Saturday Night Live’ and Sunday morning dead.” 

We can do better. And the bishops are now saying we must. 

The document says, “the homily is intended to establish a ‘dialogue’ between the sacred biblical texts and the Christian life of the hearer.” I would make that same point in different words. I would say that the homily is intended to be an extension of the proclamation of the Scripture texts that are part of every Mass. That proclamation should be filtered through the faith experience of the homilist, and then matched up with the faith experience of the people in the pews. 

On the floor of the bishops’ meeting while the preaching document was being discussed, Bishop Ricardo Ramirez of Las Cruces, New Mexico, pleaded for an amendment that would urge Catholics to make an extra effort to listen to heavily-accented, foreign-born priests in order to grasp their message. He pointed out that “they have wisdom” and are “inspired by the Holy Spirit.” 

Far better, I think, if the preachers with heavy accents were encouraged to write their homilies out in English and have them reproduced and available in the pews so that willing worshippers could read along and understand their inspiring words. 

Similarly, pastors might be encouraged to have acoustical checks run on their sound systems and require auditions for all lectors in order to guarantee that the Scripture readings are proclaimed audibly and clearly so that all can hear. 

This is a critically important issue for the American Church today. That’s why the bishops addressed it. It remains to be seen what impact their document will have on parishes, seminaries and training programs for deacons and lectors. The prospects for improvement are not great. All you have to do to form an opinion on that point is to take another look at the document on preaching that the bishops produced 30 years ago, back in 1982, and see what a thoughtful statement it is. Why did it fail to produce the desired impact over the past three decades? 

The 1982 document bears the title Fulfilled in Your Hearing: The Homily in the Sunday Assembly. That title is from the message Jesus proclaimed in Nazareth at the beginning of His Galilean ministry when He, as Luke’s Gospel relates it, “came to Nazareth, where he had grown up, and went according to his custom into the synagogue on the Sabbath day. He stood up to read and was handed a scroll of the prophet Isaiah.” So Jesus unrolled the scroll and read these famous words: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.” And after reading those words, he said to all present, “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” 

In 1982, “Fulfilled in your hearing” was taken to be a goal worth setting, a project to be undertaken by all associated with the ministry of the Word. What did the document ask them to do? 

First, “We propose that this document be used as a basis of discussion among priests and bishops, and by priests with members of their congregations. In such sharing of personal experiences, of expectations and frustrations, and by mutual support, we find hope for a renewal of preaching in the Church today (Page 2).” 

Fair to say, that simply did not happen to any significant extent in dioceses or parishes. Why not? 

If anyone thought to put that question to Harvard Business School professor John Kotter, an expert on organizational change (and why not seek help from outside experts on this important issue?), he would surely point to the failure at both diocesan and parish levels to form a “guiding coalition.” This refers to a group with enough power to lead the necessary change. 

Kotter’s book, Leading Change (Harvard Business School Press, 1996), is organized around an eight-stage change process. Each stage involves a leadership responsibility. We have to get used to thinking of the people in the pews, as well as the clergy, as possessing a portion of that leadership responsibility.

Eight-Stage Process

The initial stage is establishing a sense of urgency. That’s what the bishops tried to do by issuing the document. Next comes the formation of the “guiding coalition” (more on that in a moment). Third, there must be the identification of a vision to propel the effort, accompanied by strategies for achieving the vision. Communication is the fourth stage. Here begins a seemingly endless repetition, by word and example, of the vision and strategies. Stage five involves getting rid of obstacles, eliminating whatever would undermine the change vision. The sixth stage calls for celebration of occasional “wins” along the way, not to declare victory or encourage complacency, just to give recognition where recognition might be due. The seventh stage can be a long process that consolidates the gains while avoiding triumphalism and facilitating even more progress. Finally, the new ways of doing things must be “anchored” in the culture (in this case the diocesan or parish culture). 

Key in applying all this to the challenge of improving preaching in the American Church will be the formation of a “guiding coalition” at both the diocesan and parish levels. For the diocese, the bishop has to take the lead. Key members of his coalition will be seminary rectors, professors of homiletics, members of parish councils, lay experts on speech and communications, some actors or academics from the fields of speech and drama. The pastor (who, sadly, might be a huge portion of the problem the coalition wants to solve) has to take the lead in forming the parochial coalition which, of necessity, will have to be made up of lay persons. Coalition membership does not necessarily involve expertise; it must, however, involve genuine interest. 

Laid out this way, it is not surprising to see why the Church in America has not yet gotten around to organizing itself to address the challenge of improving the quality of homilies in the Sunday assembly. This is not to say the challenge cannot be met. It is simply to suggest that we might encourage all concerned to “Google” the Fulfilled in Your Hearing document and read it again for the first time! 

There is a lot of theoretical material in both the 1982 and 2012 documents. The patient reader will be able to plough through it all and, in conversation with coalition members, figure out what is likely to work well and not so well for them. There is no escaping the fact that the people must be heard. Many have checked out of the Sunday assembly because their opinions are not sought and what they heard and observed in church before they left simply failed to touch them. 

The bishops saw this problem back in 1982. They were aware of “the great emphasis which communication theorists place on an accurate understanding of the audience if communication is to be effective. Unless a preacher knows what a congregation needs, wants or is able to hear, there is every possibility that the message offered in the homily will not meet the needs of the people who hear it” (Page 4). 

The bishops acknowledged that this is not to say that you simply tell the people what they want to hear, but it is to say that “only when preachers know what their congregations want to hear will they be able to communicate what a congregation needs to hear.” 

An even more fundamental reason for beginning with the assembly in addressing this problem, the bishops say, is the fact that “the Church is, first and foremost, a gathering of those whom the Lord has called into a covenant of peace with himself,” and as a consequence, “the Church is. . .consciously present in the words and actions of the Catholic people” (Page 4). In other words, if the Church is present in the people, it would be wise to listen to them before preaching to them. 

Listening could be one “strategy” that Kotter would recommend to those concerned about improving the quality of preaching. Mapping the diversity of the congregation is another. Still another is the task of relating what is said (the homily) to an understanding of what is done (the Eucharist) in the Sunday assembly. Additional strategies relate to the preacher, prayer, interpretation of Scripture, faith itself and all else that is necessary when we gather for Eucharist to receive “a word that will rekindle the spark of faith and enable us to recognize once again the presence of a loving God is our lives” (Page19). 

We can’t afford to wait another 30 years to take concrete steps that will enable this to happen. TP 

William J. Byron, S.J., is university professor of business and society at St. Joseph’s University, Philadelphia, Pa. His most recent book is The Word Received: A Homily for Every Sunday of the Year, Year C (Paulist Press).