In his book Dogma and Preaching, Pope-Emeritus Benedict declared preaching was in a state of crisis. Before noting precisely what Pope-Emeritus Benedict regards as the central problem, we can identify several causes of the crisis, such as the lack of homiletic preparation, poor speaking skills, impoverished education, superficiality, banality, pop psychology, the self-help paradigm, the tyranny of the Oprah style, and so on. In my estimation, however, the crisis boils down to two main components: a lack of substance and a lack of conviction in contemporary preaching.
We can take some direction from the scholastic aphorism, “action follows being,” in beginning to address the lack of substance and conviction often present in contemporary preaching. If there is going to be more convincing, more substantial preaching, surely it will begin with a sound grasp of what preaching is.
As Pope-Emeritus Benedict has noted:
“Preaching, as guiding all of life into the covenant and in terms of the covenant, is part of Divine Worship; it is Divine Worship. And conversely: divine worship takes place precisely in the act of bringing God’s will to bear upon man, in the word that becomes for man the way” (Preaching and Dogma, 16).
From this beautifully articulated essence of what preaching is, a few points of counsel become obvious.
The homily is not a cut out, a story time, a personal forum, or a speech, but an act of Divine Worship. Its content and preparation needs to reflect that understanding. Thus, a preacher’s preparation must be intellectually and spiritually serious as well as ecclesial. Because preaching is an act of Divine Worship meant to draw men into “the way,” a homily is not about the preacher, but about revealing God to man and drawing man into communion with God.
The preacher must give loving attention to the words, texts, and movements of the Sacred Liturgy, which is the context of vast majority of preaching. My personal gallery of exemplar preachers include, Pope Benedict, Archbishop Fulton Sheen, Blessed John Henry Newman, and Msgr. Ronald Knox, who imbued their preaching with the ideas, images, movements, and words of the Sacred Liturgy. The effective preaching of the Truth conveyed by these ideas, images, movements, and words requires more than a quick reading or simply a borrowed phrase. The preacher has to imbue all his faculties by prayer, reflection, and study so that he becomes the instrument of the communication of the covenantal communion with the Triune God.
Too many preachers are practical philistines, evincing not a shred of a literary education. This is a mistake, as pointed out by none other that Pope Benedict, who said,
“[A] preacher who does not love art, poetry, music, and nature can be dangerous. Blindness and deafness toward the beautiful are not incidental; they are necessarily reflected in his preaching.”
Since the way of beauty is path most people follow to God, a preacher must be sensitive to beauty. This can only occur through exposure to, and appreciation of, the arts, which have the salutary effect of aiding us in more effectively communicating, as Dostoevsky termed it, “the beauty of the Christian mysteries.”
The preacher also should practice humility before the subject of preaching and self-abandonment to “Jesus Christ and him crucified,” praying for the grace to overcome self, fear, the desire for approval, success, and worry. If a preacher cannot do this, he will never preach a message of substance, truth, and conviction.
By addressing the issue of substance, the issue of conviction will begin to resolve itself. We have every reason to be convicted of the message we preach because it is grounded in two thousand years of lived history, encompassing every aspect of human life, a rich intellectual and spiritual tradition, a cloud of Heavenly witnesses, all underwritten by the promise of the Holy Spirit. These things are the “stuff” of our substance and the “stiff” of our backbone and conviction in preaching Jesus Christ and Him Crucified.
“Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you now are. Believe what you read. Teach what you believe. Practice what you teach” (Rite of Diaconal Ordination).