Page 4, 21st May 1976

21st May 1976
Page 4
Page 6
Page 4, 21st May 1976 — Sermon to priests on how they should preach

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People: Frank Sheed, Christ, Paul


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Sermon to priests on how they should preach

By J. B. O'Keeffe

THERE is a crisis in the Church. It is long-standing and chronic. So chronic, in fact, that its existence is at one and the same time unnoticed and taken for granted. The crisis concerns the over-used word "communication," and it is centred around that Cinderella of Catholic worship, the weekly sermon.

For better or worse, the mass media have made giant strides in communicating their message. By contrast. preaching techniques have remained by and large static, if not stagnant, in many cases. The one dubious concession to modernity has heen the blossoming of microphones in even modestsized churches which had done without them perhaps for centuries. However. the microphone, used badly, merely magnifies bad vocal technique. The large churches and cathedrals excepted. anyone who has undergone competent voice production training (and surely all priests should do so at the seminary stage) should be able to reach every member of the congregation with normal hearing without the aid of electricity. Many traps await the public speaker, and there is one to which preachers are particularly prone. This is the illusion that they have a captive audience. Not so.


A rambling introduction, sporific delivery, a re-hash of stale platitudes, even high-decibel ranting, and the bulk of the congregation have switched off within the minute. From the eminence of his pulpit the preacher may be looking down on a multitude present in hody but absent in mind and spirit. Those who underwent training with that once flourishing organisation, the Catholic Evidence Guild, were taught two things first, knowledge of their Faith and, secondly, the need to get and hold their audience.

Without interest as a channel of communication to their listeners not even an Aquinas or an Einstein would succeed with a message. You had a pretty good barometer of interest — listeners sore walked away if bored, and yCiu spoke to the air.

For those good priests who have never been in the exhilarating and frustrating hurly-burly of streetcorner speaking may a layman offer a few thoughts? Unlike the media, you have your audience once a week — surely an opportunity to be exploited with the maximum dedication. For the rest of the week your flock will be bombarded, either knowingly or subliminally, with very different values to that of the Gospel. Please prepare your sermon with care. it shows if you don't. Few things are more deadening than the warmed-up sermon we heard last year and the year before that. Don't go on for more than 15 minutes. If your point has not been made by then, most of us will have our minds focused on anything but the sermon in hand. Even if you haven't lost your way by that time we will have forgotten most of the sermon by the time we reach the church porch.


Jargon learned in the seminary should be left there, if anywhere. Verbal monstrosities such as "adop tive justification" or "eschatological implications" merely befuddle, saving both preacher and worshipper the trouble of thinking — a counter productive result. Christ spoke to his hearers of the world they knew, of fishing, farming, reaping and sowing, Can you not speak to us in the language of supermarkets, factories, suburbia or even soccer? Latin is a wonderfully expressive tongue and Greek even more so, but don't forget they are beyond the understanding of most of us, Christ taught the general by using the particular. The Parable of the Good Samaritan says far more about our duty to our neighbour than any string of platitudes about openness or commitment to the world.

Don't be excruciatingly modern. Few things are more distasteful than the swinging cleric. The preacher who decides the Gospel needs "oomph" or "pep" by implication lacks faith in it.

His ham-listed attempts at modernity will make the young cynical and upset the older members of the congregation. exposition, yes, but not the "hard sell." Humour, ye's, but don't try to outdo the professionei comedians,

Sentimentality and ranting are markedly inferior to concise statement in the cgrrent idiom. Forced emotion in the pulpit makes many of us uneasy in that it may be hollow. There is nothing wrong with honest, spontaneous emotion. Then it becomes memorable.


Please don't talk to, or at, us as if you have reached the fullness of holiness. Someone who admits occasionally that he is trying, stumbling. falling and trying again like the rest of us is so much more credible.

Christianity is not easy. Let us know.that you are least aware of the everyday hardships of the layman. Don't succumb to arrogance: you will drive people away. The priest who left behind study

of the Scriptures with and last seminary examination and only opens the Gospels on Sunday because orders are orders is — to say the least — an enigma. Pope Pius XI reminded us: "Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ."

The preacher who does not know, at very least, the Gospels inside out will not be able to relate the Sunday readings either to his life of that of his people.

"The joys and . the hopes. the griefs and the anxieties or the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these too are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ" — so the Vatican Council tells us in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. Is bis the picture reflected fully from the pulpit? I think not.

In light of the above declaration it is iroic that the two areas affecting the bulk of our lives— sex, and the social implications of the Gospel receive either scant attention or none at all, Sunday after Sunday. Yet the Church has a challenging and positive teaching on both.


By all means condemn the misuse of and isolation of sex from its Godgiven family purpose. But let us hear less of "thou shalt not" and more of the challengingly positive teaching of Christianity on this topic.

The unspoken assumption that sexuality is in itself sordid, or almost and durable heresy that confliCts' a mistake of the Creator, is an old with the mind of the Church if not with the mind of some Catholics.

"Chastity without charity shall be chained in Hell," wrote the medieval poet. The Gospels showed Christ condemning. the sexual sin and forgiving the sinner: "Go, and now sin no more." Christ was so touch harder on hypocrisy, pride and, avarice. It ill behoves any preacher to be personally stricter on any sin than is the mind of the Church.

For the average British Catholic the Church has, for all practical purposes, no social teachirov The unsung scandal of Catholicism in this country is the apparently systematic ignoring by the clergy of Papal social teaching. From Leo )(Ill's Rerum Novarstm to Pope Paul's Populormm Progressio there has been the Papal practice of reminding Catholics, employers or employed, that their Faith should have a bearing on their economic and social life. In over 30 years of Mass-going I have yet to hear a parish sermon devoted to Catholic socciaatlhtoelaic mcheingp.

loyers who pay as little as possible for as much as possible, and Catholic employees who do as little for as much money as possible would, have a less comfortable time of it if some of the dust were blown off the Papal social encyclicals from time to time and their content made part of the churchgoers' consciousness. The time for the abandonment of the sacerdotal sin of silence on these issues is long overdue.

Living Give us an ample exposition of the mysteries of the Faith. Avoid the cut-and-dried manner whereby theological formulae fall from the mouth of the preacher into the ear

of the listener without entering the mind of either.

Anyone who has heard Frank Sheed expounding on the Trinity from the Catholic Evidence Guild platform at Speakers' Corner on a damp Sunday afternoon and holding his crowd, can see what really can be done once the articles of raith cease to be mere propositions but living truths which take over the intellect.

Take as little for granted as possible. We are at varying levels of knowledge and understanding, as well as disposition and fervour: Assume too much and you lose us.

By all means rebuke and blame us when we are blameworthy. Be outspoken, but don't recite a continual catalogue of woe. Gospel does mean "good news."

Money has to be mentioned from time to time, but don't go on and on about it in season and out of season. Give us the right formation for our stewardship in the first place: Catholic generosity (and Catholics are on the generous side) will do the rest.

The call to the priesthood and the religious life can be wonderful vocations, but please remember that they are two among many. All of us, rich or poor, high or tow, clever or ignorant, old or young, p!!ve. a vocation. Remind us of tins.

Stress the universality of the Church and our dignity as baptised members of it. In the nitty-gritty of parish lire give us the wider vision we tend to overlook.

Don't criticise us and the world all the time — or even the world which God created, come to that. Give us courage and hope. Get to know your people, The priest who stays in the presbytery or just the parish club cannot know his people, and least of all reach the lost sheep.

Ask yourselves arid us whether you can improve sermon technique and content. After all, should the Devil, the world and the flesh always have the best propagandists or the best market research?

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