The Deacon's Bench

The sage Msgr. Charles Pope has a few thoughts about what goes on (and doesn’t) up in the pulpit:

pulpit-large.jpgWhen I talk with Catholics who have left the Church, the number one reason I get that they left was poor preaching.This is especially true of those who left for the Evangelical Churches. Catholic priests as a group have the reputation of being poor preachers. I think there are several reasons for this.

1. The expected length of a Catholic sermon is 7-10 minutes. This is far too brief a time to really develop well a biblical or doctrinal theme. It results in a slogan based and brief exhortation. In this matter the people of God have to work with us. Most Catholics are upset if the liturgy goes more than 50 minutes. We all need to agree to take more time to be with the Lord. Longer sermons are necessary to really develop and break open most passages. Most Protestant sermons are about a half and hour. True, I don’t want a preacher to go longer unless he really has something to say but it is also true that most priests have to wrap up when they’ve barely gotten started. It’s not a good context for preaching. The old “say it in seven” rule needs to be re-evaluated.

2. I think many confuse exhortation for preaching. Most of the sermons I grew up with could be summarized in two sentences: “1. Jesus is challenging us to do better today.” And 2. “Let us try to do better” (Now please stand for the creed).” This is exhortation but true preaching takes the Word of God and does four things: Analyzes, organizes, illustrates, and applies it. It doesn’t just exhort us to do better it shows how, and sets for the why and wisdom of God’s Word. This as you might guess takes a little more than 7 minutes.

3. Teaching is often lacking. When I ask Catholics who have gone on to the “Word churches” why they like the preaching there more they usually say it is because the minister teaches the Word of God. Perhaps he shows the stages of the faith journey of a biblical character, or Five aspects of a healthy marriage from Ephesians 5. Maybe he expounds on the Four Disciplines of Devoted Discipleship in Matthew and so forth. But the Word of God is both taught, and applied to life in memorable ways.

There are some other reasons at his link. Take a look.

My two cents: I’ve never had a Catholic tell me they left the church because the preaching was bad. It’s usually something else: a problem over contraception, or divorce, or a wedding, or a callous remark by a priest at a wake. (You want to know what a lot of people dislike about preaching? Constant and insistent pleas for money.)

And there is this: just because someone is ordained to preach doesn’t mean that they should. This goes for deacons, bishops and priests. Some just don’t do it very well. Others dislike doing it. A sizable number of clergy just don’t have the time to pray over scripture and prepare properly.   (Someone in the sacristy once asked me how long it takes me to prepare a homily and I said, “I dunno.  Four or five hours a week.  Sometimes more, sometimes less.  Sometimes it’s easier, sometimes it’s not.”   A priest who heard that laughed.  “Good grief.  I could never imagine doing that,” he said.)     

I’m increasingly coming to favor the idea of qualified lay people being given the opportunity to preach.  Being able to preach effectively is both a gift and a skill — and not all the ordained have it.  A ministry of preaching would attract people who have those talents, and also give the people in the pews a fresh perspective on the scripture. 
Who knows?  It might also keep people coming back.   
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