The Deacon's Bench

Heard any good preaching lately?

Priests in Florida evidently did — and the Florida Catholic has a profile of the man responsible:

Talk about pressure. Imagine standing for an hour in front of more than 100 priests and talking about preaching a homily.

Luckily, Jesuit Father J-Glenn Murray knows how to captivate an audience. During various parts of his recent speech here, he had the priests laughing and nodding their heads — without anyone coughing or leaving early.

The scene occurred at the Convocation for Priestly Renewal in Tampa in early October, as Father Murray, a parochial vicar at a parish in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., who has lectured widely about the liturgy and culture, spoke about preaching the word of God.

Father Murray is tall, with a graying beard and hair and a deep, commanding voice. He has a background in theater, so he put some of that to work: acting out several parts of a story at one point and using his voice to rise and get lower at other points for emphasis, with many theatrical gestures thrown in for good measure.

“This is my experience: Roman Catholics say, if you ask them, what is it that they most long for?” he asked, rhetorically, at one point. “‘Good preaching,’ they would say, and we would say that (too). And I think, by and large, we all think we are good preachers. But if we were all good preachers, then people would not be asking for better preaching. So we are probably not the wonderful preachers that we think we are. So we always stand in need of reminding.”

And through vivid examples, he reminded his audience in ways that entertained, but also drove home the point.

Consider one point he made. Imitating the style of a Jesuit priest thundering in a loud and passionate voice from the pulpit, he said: “The Gospel calls us to justice! We’ve heard it proclaimed in our midst. And we think we are just and yet people are outside the doors of the church starving, and we sit here in our finery, we are a scandal, and we need to change! So let us commit ourselves to justice! To mercy! And to taking care of the poor! Let us get up off our seats and do something for them so that God won’t be angry … any more.”

Father Murray then — still in character of the preacher — sat down at a chair near the podium, piously bowed his head for several moments in prayer, then stood up and said, in a cheery voice, “Lift up your hearts …”

The priests roared with laughter at the juxtaposition, as Father Murray continued: “The Eucharist always leads to praise and thanksgiving. And if I simply browbeat people: ‘We’ve got to do this, we’ve got to do this, we’ve got to do this; the Gospel challenges us, and we are challenged,’ and on and on and on. There is no need to stand up and thank and praise God. It’s just go home.”

He also reminded the priests that the homily is addressed to believers.

“You’re not preaching to that one person you know in the parish who is struggling with atheism to the expense of all the others who are not struggling,” he said. “They come to have their faith strengthened, to be inspired. Those are the people we’ve come to preach (to).”

And it’s also important not to fall into the trap of preaching to one’s agenda, he said, noting that a priest once said that most priests have only seven different homilies that they recycle.

“Many times we preach ourselves and not the Gospel,” he said. “At the end of the homily, people should experience that they are in the presence of God, and they should be transformed.”

Photo: by Carlos Briceno, Florida Catholic

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