To feed the great art of preaching we need to step outside our churches

Pope Francis and Cardinal Agostino Vallini, the papal vicar for Rome (Photo: CNS)

The Pope has had his annual Lenten meeting with the clergy of the Diocese of Rome in which he spoke of matters liturgical. But before the Pope appeared, the assembled clergy were addressed by the Cardinal Vicar, Agostino Vallini, who has care of the day-to-day running of the diocese. Among other things, the cardinal had this to say about the art of preaching:

‘A good homily leaves its mark,’ he said, while a homily ‘that is lacking does not bear fruit and, on the contrary, can even make people give up on Mass.’

‘We want our words to set people’s hearts on fire’ and want the faithful ‘to be enlightened and encouraged to live a new life and never be forced to suffer through our homilies,’ he said.

The cardinal’s words are refreshing in that they are realistic. He makes the very good point, which we all know to be true, that many people stop going to Mass because they find the sermons so boring; whereas, ironically, sermons are supposed to be a draw.

There once was a time when people used to go to Mass in certain churches to hear famous and fashionable preachers. This used to be the case at the Jesuit Church in Farm Street many years ago. More recently it was the case with the late Fr Jean-Marie Charles-Roux at Ely Place, who used to attract people from far and wide. If one goes back in the Church’s history, many of the saints were well known preachers, who used to draw immense crowds, often to sermons preached out of doors and outside Mass. This was equally true of some of the great Protestant divines of yesteryear, notably the itinerant Methodists, such as Charles Wesley. But all this seems to be in the past now. I cannot think of a single Catholic priest who is famous as a preacher these days. There does not seem to be anyone like Archbishop Fulton Sheen around, though there are one or two Anglicans who draw large congregations thanks to their clear and arresting preaching of the Gospel.

So what, then, is to be done? The usual answer is that seminaries must do more in the way they prepare men for ordination. This is quite true, but I am not sure that this is enough of itself. Recently I wrote that the sermon at Mass has become better in that it is based now (or should be) on the readings. But maybe we need to “feed” the art of preaching by going beyond the setting of the Mass.

The sermon at Mass is both restricted as regards time and subject matter. Moreover it is also only reaching an audience that is in one important sense already converted. Given that most Catholic evangelisation is directed to the end of getting people to approach the sacraments, those at Mass are already approaching the sacraments, and thus not the sort of people who need to be encouraged to go to Church in the first place.

Preaching outside Mass could do what the sermon is traditionally supposed to do – awake consciences, and stir up hearts – and get people into Church.

Recently David Gelernter wrote as follows in First Things:

The pope must go to his own backyard and preach: to Berlin and Paris and London; must walk out into the center of Trafalgar Square, or some such place, and preach for his life and the life of Europe and Christianity and, ultimately, mankind. I understand that popes are not roving preachers; are not Franciscans, evangelicals, or preening curates in Trollope novels. But they are bishops, shepherds of the whole Christian flock; and a shepherd who sees this sort of catastrophe approach must do something. Worrying about the nuances of doctrine on homosexuality while Europe’s churches are converted one by one into restaurants and health clubs and (who knows?) discount tire shops is a mistake.

The whole article is worth reading, but it is the point about Trafalgar Square that I like. The sermon needs to come out of the church building and into the public space. The only question is how?

The answer is, funnily enough, to “de-religionise” religion. This does not mean what you may think it means at first. Because religion is perceived as a massive turn off, the preaching of the Gospel needs to shed its off-putting cultural baggage which stops people listening, and present the core message of the Gospel in a fresh way. In other words, all you Seventies fossils out there, throw away your tambourines! Sticking to a strategy that simply does not work is not the way forward: we need a new strategy.

The question-and-answer session that the Pope did with his priests is a good example, one that was pioneered by Benedict XVI. Here is a suggestion: why doesn’t every bishop do that, and not just with his priests, but with the lay people of the diocese as well? It might start a real conversation, it might raise important questions, and it might get people to start the search for answers. True, a whole load of the “wrong sort” of people might turn up – but that would be an advantage.