Synodality? How about Better Preaching

The whole business of the “synod on synodality” is above my head.  So I’m not sure how a synod on synodality, which one would have thought was about creating synods, ended up dominated by questions about women’s ordination, gay marriage, and clericalism. When you’re organizing a planning session to create structures to deal with various problems, you don’t start by trying to resolve all those problems.  If the representatives at the U.S. Constitutional Convention had spent all their time discussing the problems of the country rather than setting up a sensible system to deal with them, not only would they not have solved the problems, we also wouldn’t have a country.

I’ve also been subjected to too many “planning sessions” to have much faith in what is always called “the process” – as in, “trust the process.”  In my experience, never once has “the process” resulted in what was promised.

The usual bureaucratic “process” is like taking a hundred types of food and feeding them all into a blender which then spits out a tube of unpleasant grey paste.  “What happened to all that wonderful food?” you ask. “It’s all in there,” comes the reply.  “In there? But that’s just grey mush.” “No, no,” the dedicated functionary assures you.  “That is the superb result of the process by which we took a hundred different items, all valuable in their own way, and boiled them down into a colorless, tasteless gruel. It represents the best of everything offered to us, and it will feed us for generations.”

More likely, I fear, it will poison us.

But amidst the verbiage of the latest synodality report, I happened upon this rather pointed paragraph.  It starts out:

The reports do not fail to point out the main shortcomings of the actual celebratory praxis, which obscure its synodal effectiveness. In particular, the following are emphasized: the liturgical protagonism of the priest and the risk of the passivity of the wider liturgical community; poor preaching, including the distance between the content of the sermon, the beauty of faith and the concreteness of life; and the separation between the liturgical life of the assembly and the family network of the community.

I have no idea what those sentences mean, but I perked up at the mention of “poor preaching.”  The text continues:

The quality of homilies is almost unanimously reported as a problem: there is a call for “deeper homilies, centered on the Gospel and the readings of the day, and not on politics, making use of accessible and attractive language that refers to the lives of the faithful.”

Now they’re using language I understand.

Who is unaware that the preaching in many Catholic churches is terrible – other than the priests who think their preaching is great? To solve a problem, you first have to recognize you have a problem. And Catholics around the world “almost unanimously” think we have a problem.


I’m not sure what the Church can do to inculcate a “spirit of synodality” within the Church – frankly, I’m not sure I even know what that means – but there are concrete steps the Church can take to improve preaching. Perhaps a historical example will help.

In 1215 at the Fourth Lateran Council, the council fathers lamented that bishops, often due to a “lack of learning, which must be absolutely condemned in them and is not to be tolerated in the future, are unable to minister the word of God to the people.” Observing that “the food of the word of God is above all necessary, because as the body is nourished by material food, so is the soul nourished by spiritual food,” the council decreed that bishops should henceforth provide men “suitable for carrying out fruitfully the office of sacred preaching,” ensuring that they had the necessary resources and training to carry out this task: “If anyone neglect to comply with this, he shall be subject to severe punishment.”

It may seem odd to modern Catholics to imagine a time when preaching was not a regular occurrence at Mass. But such was often the case in the early Middle Ages. Sermons to the laity were not totally lacking, but the ordinary parish priest was not expected, and often not competent, to prepare and deliver regular sermons.

The Council’s goal, therefore, was to encourage not only more preaching to the laity, but also more learned preaching. The concern was not only that many of the faithful were not hearing the Word of God preached to them, but also that when they did hear preaching, it was too often from preachers incompetently prepared, lacking either the rhetorical training or the theological resources, or both, to preach the faith of the Church reliably. The Council’s goal, therefore, was to encourage the formation of a new generation of preachers trained with the rhetorical skill and theological grounding to preach to an emerging population of educated laypeople.

And the result? Two new religious orders sprang up, the Franciscans and Dominicans, who devoted themselves to preaching to the laity.  As I argue in Aquinas, Bonaventure and the Scholastic Culture of Medieval Paris, a course of studies was developed at the University of Paris devoted to bringing about the reform and rejuvenation of preaching envisioned by the Council.  The result, in short, was a tremendous flowering of theological learning and learned preaching.

The lesson for us?  Parishes with good preaching and devout liturgies thrive.  Parishes without them empty out.  An old saying defines insanity as doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results.  If you want to fill the churches, you can’t keep doing the same things and simply add more committee meetings.

Train priests to preach the word fully and faithfully.  If you don’t, all efforts at “reform” will be like re-doing the “organization chart” in a company gone bankrupt.  The words of Scripture have power to move people and change lives. Organizational schemes and bureaucratic verbiage have none.


*Image: A Dominican Preaching by Agnolo degli Erri, c. 1470 [National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.]

You may also enjoy:

Pope Benedict XVI’s  The duty of preaching

Fr. Paul D. Scalia’s Hearing like a Christian

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.