I recently attended a weekly Mass in my parish – to commemorate an important family occasion. My housekeeper came with me. Being a big parish, we often have a foreign priest – as we had on this occasion. When we left, my housekeeper asked me what the lengthy sermon was about. Given that she is Ukrainian, that was understandable. But I had to confess that I too didn’t understand a single word from beginning to end. I do not criticise the preacher; he had clearly spent a long time in preparation. No one, I presume, has pointed out to him that a much shorter sermon, but given more clearly, could have been effective.
Pope Francis has much to say on the sermon: “Everyone who goes to Mass has the right to hear the word of God in all its fullness, which means it must be read well and explained well with fervour.” I am told that his own sermons tend not to be longer than 10 minutes. And that, I think, is the maximum – even if you happen to be the Pope. Five or seven minutes is usually quite enough.
I assume that priests in training are coached in the skills of preaching, although I haven’t read the principles that are exercised. But were I asked what the principles should be, I would have a clear list of the important points. You may say that these have more to do with secular skills than religious ones. And that is so because speakers and audiences have the same characteristics whether the matter is secular or sacred. It lies not only in my having trained speakers but also in a lifetime of addressing audiences – from Speakers’ Corner in London to major business conferences.
The first is the most important: set out your objectives. These are not what you are going to do but what you want to change or develop in the congregation’s mind. For example, you might want the congregation to recognise the relevance of a passage such as “So it is when a man stores up pleasure for himself in place of making himself rich in the sight of God” (Luke 12). And you would hope that at least a few will set aside some time later in the day to think about themselves in this regard. Every aspect of planning must measure up against these objectives.
The second is to glance once or twice around the whole congregation, including the side aisles and people standing at the back. They now all know that you are speaking to them – person to person. And this will also trigger your volume and your speed so that you engage with everyone.
You will of course have checked the loudspeaker system, and you will know how to use the microphone without taking your eyes from the congregation. You will be aware of the different acoustics between a full and a thin congregation in this regard.
Yes, use the occasional story to illustrate the point. In this case the Gospel tells us of the man who stored all his crops rather than all his virtues. There are modern equivalents. Tell it well, and you will not need a second story. And avoid going round and round – giving the same message in different forms. If you can’t make it clear the first time, you cannot hope to achieve your objectives.
Use your own insights when appropriate. You are a priest with a long spiritual life. Understanding what you yourself have been through in coming to terms with the message reminds the congregation that, whether ordained or not, we all have similar struggles in imitating Christ.
How you start will be important. Audiences decide within a few seconds whether to listen to what you are about to say. You don’t get two shots at this. At least metaphorically, the congregation will either sit up and move forward in their seats or close their minds and sit back. Use pauses, but with discretion.
Information is taken first into the short-term memory but it disappears if there is no pause to move it into the long-term memory. Give your congregation that fraction of time, so that they can remember.
Few people will buttonhole you at the door and tell you what was wrong with your sermon. So, finally, pick a group of perhaps three sincere friends whose role it is to criticise each sermon. If I ever achieved a competence in public speaking it was because I relied on my wife to point out my various faults or potential improvements. And she didn’t hold back. I learnt a great deal.
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