In Search of Better Homilies

Let us begin with two bits of wisdom:

Son: “All the men who were ordained with me seemed to think that the faculty of preaching will       come to them as a matter of course.”

Father: “Then I pity their congregations.”

– Canon Twells, Colloquies on Preaching

“I believe in the existence of the truly great preacher, as I believe in the existence of Halley’s Comet, which comes into sight of this earth once in about seventy-six years.”

– Phillip Brooks, Lectures on Preaching

I was listening to yet another in a long string of terrible homilies the other day, badly prepared, delivered ad lib, with the requisite homey story having nothing to do with the day’s readings. I couldn’t help thinking of my Calvinist friend who has throughout most of his life enjoyed the benefits of a serious preaching tradition. If he decided to enter the Catholic Church, as some of us hope he might, he would be sacrificing the homiletic equivalent of Bach sonatas – well constructed, beautiful, profound – for something more like bad hip-hop done by a nerdy white guy with no rhythm. It would be the liturgical equivalent in homiletics of giving up a Mozart Mass for a 1970s St. Louis Jesuit guitar Mass.

It’s painful. It’s embarrassing. But we’re not supposed to complain. So I won’t. I’m going to do something worse. I’m going to make a suggestion.

We should recognize, first and foremost, that preaching is hard. Public speaking is hard in itself, but doing it with the added complication of having to say something sensible about one of the most theologically complicated and spiritually profound books ever written is to assign a task which is simply beyond most people’s capacities. I know I couldn’t do it, day after day, week after week.

A friend once scolded me, saying: “Smith, you want every priest to be another Aquinas.”

“That’s a bit unfair,” I thought, “but not a bad idea. So remind me again: Why shouldn’t I want that?”

“Because think about how impossible that is,” he replied. “Your basic priest isn’t a philosophical and theological genius; he’s just a decent guy with some basic education trying to say something meaningful to a group of people who are not especially interested in hearing what he has to say.”

“Fair enough,” I thought. But you don’t need to be a philosophical genius to do better than lame attempts at humor and homey stories week after week about the strange habits your sister’s adorable children have, or the year you went to summer camp and walked in the dark alone, or the poor sick woman you visited as she lay dying one night that turned out to be God’s gift to your spiritual life – going on and on with all of these little personal anecdotes while the texts of the Gospel, epistle, Psalm, and Old Testament reading go largely unmentioned, sometimes wholly unnoticed.

"St. Augustine Preaching . . ." by Carle van Loo, c. 1755 [Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, Paris]
“St. Augustine Preaching . . .” by Carle van Loo, c. 1755 [Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, Paris]
What to do?

One answer is to follow the advice St. Augustine gives in Book 4 of his work On Christian Doctrine, the book that deals explicitly with the Christian preacher. Augustine himself was a superb orator, of course, and no one should be expected to meet his standards, any more than we expect every composer to meet the standards of Bach or Mozart. What Augustine recommends for those who are not especially good preachers is that they should at least seek to speak wisely rather than to be eloquent without wisdom. Good advice that.

But for those with trouble composing anything either wise or eloquent – a not insignificant number of preachers – he recommends that they read a sermon written by someone else: “Now, if such men take what has been written with wisdom and eloquence by others, and commit it to memory, and deliver it to the people, they cannot be blamed, supposing them to do it without deception For in this way many become preachers of the truth (which is certainly desirable).”

Thus, what someone should make available to priests, as soon as possible, is a preaching resource containing selections from the great homilies of history, edited and revised to make them fit the roughly twenty-minute time frame acceptable to modern Catholic congregations. A priest couldn’t read a whole homily by any of the great preachers such as St. Augustine, St. John Chrysostom, or Blessed John Henry Newman: they’re all too long. But a wise editor could make a judicious selection and provide a volume with a selection of four or five sermons for each Sunday along a spectrum of rhetorical formality: from the grandiloquent to the plain and simple.

An obvious objection to this proposal is that priests would never, then, learn to preach themselves. Not so. St. Augustine foresees this very objection and replies: “as infants cannot learn to speak except by learning words and phrases from those who do speak, why should not men become eloquent without being taught any art of speech, simply by reading and learning the speeches of eloquent men, and by imitating them as far as they can? . . .We know numbers who, without acquaintance with rhetorical rules, are more eloquent than many who have learnt these; but we know no one who is eloquent who has not read and listened to the speeches and debates of eloquent men.” After a few years of reading great sermons week after week, the preacher may learn to imitate the style of what he has read as he imbibes the wisdom they contain.

It could be a great rite of passage: a priest, after many years dutifully learning the art of peaching from the greatest masters of the art, is finally licensed by a jury of experts to take his place among his predecessors and preach his own sermons.

And in the meantime, his congregation won’t have to listen to week after week of meaningless drivel, and he can spend his time doing things he’s actually good at. Everyone wins.

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Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.