Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
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Preaching in the Sunday assembly
by Father Jan Larson
(From the Sept. 30, 2010 edition of the Inland Register)
Sunday preaching has likely always been the target of humor or criticism. The preaching may be perceived as too long, too rambling, or too full of fluff. Sermons (or what we call homilies in our Catholic tradition) are occasionally praised for their intelligence, their ability to get to the point, or to tackle an issue that may be politically sensitive yet clearly at the heart of the worshiping community’s concerns.
But praise of preaching is too uncommon, and books and periodicals related to liturgy and to the ministry of priests have repeated, over the recent three decades, that the quality of preaching in our assemblies is a fundamental value that must be addressed. It seems that the homily is the place in the liturgy when the priest is most human, and therefore most watched and most vulnerable. People, perhaps unfortunately, will forgive the presiding priest for making ritual mistakes, or for poor proclamation of a Eucharistic Prayer, or for carelessly selected music, but all of us are particularly alert to the preaching and are hopeful that it will somehow touch our hearts.
In 1982 the United States bishops published an excellent reflection on the Sunday homily titled “Fulfilled in Your Hearing.” The bishops’ reflection was prepared in part as a response to the need to address the quality of liturgical preaching. It is interesting to note that the document begins, not with the definition of a homily or the various steps required in homily preparation, but with the assembly and its needs and concerns. The bishops make two points.
The first is that the preacher must accurately understand the audience if communication is to be effective: “Unless a preacher knows what a congregation needs, wants, or is able to hear, there is every possibility that the message offered in the homily will not meet the needs of the people who hear it.”
This does not mean that preaching must always supply what people want, but “only when preachers know what their congregations want to hear will they be able to communicate what a congregation needs to hear.” Preaching today is frequently criticized as being “too churchy,” too focused on doctrines and dogmas, none of which may have any connection with the Scriptures of the day, and even less to do with the needs and yearnings of the people in the assembly who rely on the preaching to touch their hearts.
The second point the bishops make is that the assembly is a covenanted people, in whom Christ dwells. Thus people today are called, not just to full and active participation in the liturgy, but to participation in so many other areas of church life. The church is no longer to be narrowly identified with the Vatican or with any other number of hierarchical persons, but with the people – the whole people of God. Therefore, “to preach in a way that sounds as if the preacher alone has access to the truth and knows what is best for everyone else, or that gives the impression that there are no unresolved problems or possibility for dialogue, is to preach in a way that may have been acceptable to those who viewed the church primarily in clerical terms. In a church that thinks and speaks of itself as a pilgrim people, gathered together for worship, witness, and work, such preaching will be heard only with great difficulty, if at all.”
(Father Larson is a priest of and liturgical consultant for the Archdiocese of Seattle.)