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Friday, 13 March 2009

Tips for Better Preaching for Catholics

Amended 4/5/09 - I should have given credit to Inside Catholic where this piece first appeared.
And the advice is the result of astute observation on the part of Mr Miller.

Hmmm.... don't necessarily endorse all the details, but a thoughtful list by a layman, David Mills (much of it garnered from priests.)
(None of the rules are inviolable, but they are not a bad start)

1) Stay in the pulpit. Not only because it is the Place for Preaching, a sign of the authority with which you speak, but because staying there may also help you remember that you are a servant of the Word and of the Church. Standing in the aisle with a microphone can tempt the humblest man to think he's the star, and will tempt almost anyone to play to the crowd (Did they get the joke? Are they smiling? Do they look bored? How can I get them back?). Plus you can keep your manuscript or outline there.

2) Preach from a complete outline or a manuscript. A few people can offer complex, developed ideas from memory, but you are probably not one of them. ...

3) Speak in a personal voice, using "I" and "you." I mean the kind of voice you hear in G. K. Chesterton's or C. S. Lewis's writing, not the kind of self-display you get from a guest on Oprah. Your hearer should think you are trying to show him something you see, not trying to make you look at him.

4) Speak from your own experience and your own knowledge. If you have a story from your own life that illustrates the lesson, tell it -- but only if it works as a story. A good rule is not to tell a story about yourself you would not tell if it were about someone else, and don't tell any story that does not have a direct relation to your theme.

5) Never use a cultural reference, especially a pop cultural reference, to look knowledgeable or hip or to "connect" with your people. It's annoying, like a 50-year-old wearing his baseball cap backward ...

6) Exposit the Scriptures. Tell the congregation something about the lessons they will not see on their own, especially about their background and context, the connections between the texts, and the way the great theologians have expounded them. This means reading the texts for themselves, not beginning with your ideas and finding some of them illustrated in the text --
close study of the day's lessons should give you new insights and save you from repeating your favorite themes....

7) Do not inveigh against "Fundamentalism." Even conservative priests do this from time to time. You probably don't know what you're talking about, and in any case the effect will be to tell the congregation that Catholics don't believe Scripture says anything directly. Of all the groups to criticize by name, the Fundamentalists are about the last you should pick on. If you're going to criticize someone who is a real danger to the Faith, criticize dissenting Catholics....

8) Always remind people that they are sinners and give them examples in which they can see themselves. It will not be news to them: Almost everyone knows he's a sinner, even if he doesn't like the term. Your people are not who they want to be. A sermon proclaims some part of the Good News, and you will waste your listeners' time if you don't deliver the bad news that makes the Good News good. Too many priests offer All Good News All the Time, which isn't helpful or compelling.

9) Make sure your points connect and form a single argument. Have a theme or thesis, and cut ruthlessly anything that doesn't advance it. I don't know how often I've heard a preacher build an argument, promising a moving or enlightening conclusion, and then switch to another subject entirely. (The odds of this happening rise if he's preaching from the aisle.) It's like listening to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, and a few minutes into the last movement hearing the orchestra switch to Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Even the Mozart fanatic will feel the letdown.

To put it a different way: Before you begin composing the sermon, decide on the single point you want the congregation to remember, then do everything you can to implant that point deep in their minds. Remember that the point will rarely make your listeners smack their foreheads and say, "Wow!" (the kind of effect we all hope for), but may only encourage or challenge them in a small, but nevertheless important, way. Don’t swing for the fences and risk striking out, but aim for the single that, added to a single the next week and those in the weeks after that, will over time score a lot more runs.

10) Do not use any favorite metaphor that you think profound. Words like "journey" and "pilgrimage," and phrases like "living the song," and anything else that makes you feel as if you’d just seen a basket of kittens. (Readers are encouraged to help fill out the list.) They will drive your thinking away from the realities you should be proclaiming into comforting and useless abstractions.

Since no one who uses such words recognizes them as clichés, you'd best avoid them and find a parishioner alert to such things to warn you when you start using one. Metaphors should be considered guilty until proven innocent. For that matter, you would do well to have a sharp-witted parishioner critique your sermons in advance.

11) Speak of "the Catholic Faith" and "the Catholic Church" and offer stories of the saints and insights from the writers of the past as often as you can do so naturally. You are not just teaching and exhorting your people, but encouraging their sense of belonging to a real thing, an historical community with a history, with heroes, sages, and officers, with duties, rewards, and privileges. It's unnatural for a Catholic priest not to use the word "Catholic" a lot and speak often of the Blessed Virgin and the saints. Someone who only heard the sermon should know without a doubt that it was given by a Catholic priest.

12) When appropriate, and it quite often is, preach dogmatically, with explicit references to Catholic teaching. I'm told that liturgical "experts" dislike this. Ignore them. Your people need all the help you can give them in understanding the thing to which they've committed themselves, and your sermon is probably the only instruction they will get all week. Help them to see how the Scriptures lead to the doctrines of the Faith and how the doctrines help us understand the Scriptures, and how the two together contribute to human happiness.

13) Once in a while, clarify the differences between what Catholics believe and what our Protestant brethren believe. Include an apologetic explanation for the Catholic belief. Your listeners may well hear Catholicism criticized by Protestants they know (I've been surprised at how gratuitously even learned Protestant friends will slap at the Church), and they need to be encouraged in their Faith and given help in responding. You will usually have to respond to some dim, if not doltish, anti-Catholic claim, but when possible, respond to Protestantism's best representatives, so your people know what are the real differences.

14) Connect the truths you are drawing from the Scriptures to the Mass, the Church year, and the sacramental life. This lets you present the congregation with a tangible experience of the gospel you've just proclaimed. I have heard too many sermons that led naturally to the confessional as a comfort and a liberation, but ended instead with declarations of God's general interest in us and the exhortation to just keep on trying. This doesn't satisfy our need for action, nor does it tell us anything we couldn't have gotten from the Episcopalian down the street. God gave us the Church and the sacraments for a reason.

15) Preach for transformation, even though the transformation will be incremental. Expect your parishioners to change. Point them to Jesus: to meeting Him, to knowing Him, to growing more and more like Him....

Don't talk about "living in community" but about living in the Body of Christ. Don't talk about healing, but about Christ's healing. Don't talk about doing good works, but about Christian charity,


David Mills said...

Thank you for drawing attention to this and your kind introduction, though, um, credit should have been given to the Inside Catholic website on which it appeared.

And, for the record, very little of it was garnered from priests. In fact, I don't think any of it was. It reflects my own long observation of preaching and preachers.

Scelata said...

Thank you very much for stopping by, and my apologies.
I think I misunderstood that the tips were an amalgam of your thoughts and combox suggestions from the likes of Fr Kimel, for an earlier piece (which I didn't read, mea culpa.)
I'll amend the post.

(Save the Liturgy, Save the World)