Greg Watts searches for a pulpit orator to match the late Mgr Knox but finds meditations on a pigeon
IS there a plot amongst the Catholic clergy to drive the faithful from the pews? I have been forced to ask this question as the result of having recently been subjected to preaching by numerous priests, who shall remain nameless, that would make the rambling vicar portrayed by Alan Bennet in Beyond the Fringe seem like Al Sharpton.
Although Fr John Owen, in his salvo from Wales in this paper the other week on the same theme, made a distinction between the homily and the sermon, I will stick to the term sermon, partly to maintain a clear focus and partly because the two are often interchangeable.
A classic example of what I would call the gospel of waffle was delivered a few weeks ago by a priest in south London. In a marshmallow voice that took me back to my childhood days of Listen With Mother. he recounted a walk he had taken along the banks of the Serpentine in Hyde Park.
There, he encountered a pigeon. The priest was so transfixed that he had to sit down on a nearby bench. The less than transfixed congregation (the shuffling, coughing and deep study of the newsletter was already underway by now) then heard him — and I jest not — expound the virtues of the pigeon and describe how it linked up with the gospel.
Unfortunately I don't remember the finer points of the sermon. But I do remember, as I left the church, making a mental note to join the World Wildlife Fund.
At least the priest in south London made an attempt to connect the gospel to the modern world and make Christ more than just a plaster statue. More often than not what passes between pulpit and pew is either a commentary on the readings in ecclesispeak or a paraphrased version of the gospel, or, if the particular member of the clergy fancies himself as a bit of a scholar, a lecture on the Greek and Latin roots of certain words.
Now. I have no objection to the clergy pursuing a hobby, be it semantic games or train spotting, but it might be better if they chose not to do it in the pulpit.
It is at times like these — and there have been many — that I have taken as my subject of meditation the Priests' Training Fund. Given that each year there are less and less priests, yet more and more sermons on pigeons (could there possibly be a connection?), I find myself wondering if the bishops, who often leave the clergy standing in the waffle stakes, have set up a college in some secret location, to train priests how not to preach. But perhaps I am pushing the conspiracy theory too far.
Now, all of this might sound somewhat harsh on our overworked and underappreciated priests and bishops. Of course, preachers like St John Chrysostom or, in recent times, Ronnie Knox, were the recipients of extraordinary charisms. It would be unreasonable to expect verbal firepower of that calibre from your local clergy.
But is it unreasonable to expect to hear a sermon that bridges the teaching of Christ with the concerns and questions of ordinary Catholics?
The introduction from the General Instruction on the Roman Missal says of the sermon that it should be "a source of nourishment of the Christian life". No mention here of pigeons.
It goes on "the homilist shall keep in mind the mystery that is being celebrated and the needs of the particular community". 1 don't recall seeing much evidence of the latter but of the former there is plenty — if you
asked most Catholics at the end of mass what the sermon was about, they would probably reply that it was a mystery.
I get the impression that many of the clergy regard preaching as an optional extra, a bit like flowers on the sanctuary. Stated another way, they have lost the sense of the sacramental nature of the sermon, and they have lost sight of their primary pastoral function.
The well-worn phrase "it's the mass that matters" points to a widely held view in the presbyteries and on the golf courses that the li!urgy is simply about, as a friend of mine put it, "getting the salvation tablets".
This preoccupation with the sacrament at the expense of the word has resulted in a fracture between priest and people, between church and society.
A priest in central London remarked to me that "politicians would give their right arm to have a captive audience week after week".
So what has brought about this malaise in the pulpit and boredom in the pew; these lost Opportunities for making Christ alive? There are a number of reasons, I think. A lack of adequate preparation and of awareness of both the importance of preaching and the techniques required to make it effective, the reliance on sermon manuals, poor seminary training, even poorer postordination training, and, perhaps, sometimes a lack of conviction in the message.
Also, a bizarre situation seems to have arisen whereby some clergy have got it into their heads that we lay people don't want a sermon.
Fr James McManus, provincial of the Redemptorists, who were founded with a special task of preaching, agreed that the general standard of sermons was poor, but added that it has
been this way for centuries. But
he came to the defence of the secular clergy: "there's a difference between preaching a mission and giving a Sunday homily. It's much easier to preach a mission." He said that the gospel was news but it was often preached about as though it belonged to yesterday.
One of the most memorable sermons that 1 heard was preached by an American Redemptorist, Fr Tom Forrest. He opened up John Wayne style with the words: "OK, men, let's move it".
He then moved into his theme, the need for a new spirit of evangelisation, in swashbuckling style ("for Catholics, Jesus is the big secret").
Fr Forrest is now based in Rome at the central office of Evangelisation 2000, set up to spearhead the decade of evangelisation. Mass communication has opened up possibilities for proclaiming Jesus Christ afresh that would have been unthinkable 100 years ago.
As Catholics inhabit the same world of 30 second disposable ideologies and 0898 salvation as everyone else, the need for mass communication has never been more important.
So, in this decade of evangelisation, let's hear it from the pulpit?