It is good news that the Vatican dicastery which has charge of liturgical matters has turned its attention to the matter of preaching. One can read about the launch of the new Homiletic Directory here and one can find the text of the entire directory here. I have had a quick read of it, and shall read it again: it makes sensible and cogent suggestions to guide preachers. If preachers put these directives into practice, then the standard of preaching in Catholic Churches will only improve.
It used to be said that Catholics could not sing, and that Catholic priests could not preach. I will not comment on the first, but on the second, it has to be said that preaching has improved of late. There are several reasons for this.
First of all, after forty years or so, the arrival of the Lectionary is at last bearing fruit. This has taken time, but that is no surprise. The three year cycle of readings for Sundays and the two year cycle for weekdays have penetrated our consciousness to such an extent that we are now much more aware of what year we are in – the year of Matthew, Mark or Luke – and we are much more aware of the differences in approach between these three gospels and the gospel of John.
Moreover the new lectionary has brought back the Old Testament to a more fitting position. The readings in the Missal of Saint John XXIII were pared down to a rare degree, and this had the unfortunate effect of impoverishing the preaching. Indeed the preaching sometimes had nothing to do with the Mass or the readings; and most people thought of “the gospel” as opposed to the Four Gospels. But nowadays we are in a better position. We understand the Scriptures better than we did, and we understand their context better than we did. Every reading is an extract, but now, one hopes (and this is certainly the hope of the new Directory) when the reading is read, the fact that it comes from a particular context helps us to understand its setting and importance in the history of salvation.
The other thing that has helped is that the preacher may well be more aware of his audience than was once the case. Back in the day, people were in Church, and kept coming to Church; nowadays they have to be kept in the Church through a concerted pastoral effort by the clergy and collaborators. I do not mean for a moment that they have to be encouraged to come to Church through entertaining sermons, as Archbishop Roche mentions. God forbid! I cannot imagine anything worse, and I speak from experience, having sat though many a cringeworthy effort. What I mean is that the homilist has to link the “now” of Jesus with the “now” of his congregation. In the immortal words of the poet, “It dates from the day of his going in Galilee.” The sermon takes the congregation to Galilee and shows them that Galilee is actual. The Holy Scriptures are not some historical text: they are forever up to date. The Gospels are good news, ever new.
Pope Benedict described the Church as “an expert in humanity” and it is at this point I diverge from the tenor of the Directory. Now it is true that the priest or deacon must know something about Holy Scripture; but the homily ought not, to my mind, be top-heavy with exegetical content. Rather it should be full of human wisdom, aimed at the lived situation of the hearers. This is the real challenge facing preachers – to get onto the wavelength of their congregations. The average congregation will not have heard of the Donatist controversy, but they will be worried about other things, many of which find resonance in the Scriptures. The homilist is attempting to make a bridge between their questions and the answers the Scriptures give. The preacher needs to ensure good teaching; but good teaching is no good without good learning too. The Church may have all the answers; but it needs to discover and recognise the questions people are asking themselves.
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