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They teach preaching, help priests discover meaning in liturgy

NCR Staff

When Bill Graham talks, priests listen; when priests preach, Bill Graham listens.

Graham, in his late 60s, is a big fellow with a grandfatherly potbelly, plenty of neatly parted gray-and-black hair and lightning-fast humor that blunts any of the sting in his rapid patter.

He's to one side of a mock altar now, and a priest is processing toward it, his arms untidily bouncing as he walks. "Why'd you do that?" quizzed Graham in a mild, Jonathan Winters sort of way.

"Do what?" asked the priest.

"You could have walked in with your hands behind your back, over your head, folded. Any number of ways. You made a decision not to. Why?"

Why, if his concern is preaching, is Graham worrying about how a priest holds his arms as he walks down the aisle?

Because, explained Graham, "the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy [Vatican II, 1962-65] refers to the liturgy as one single act in two identifiable parts: the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, flowing seamlessly from one into the other."

To Graham and his colleague, Dominican Fr. John Burke, founders of Word of God Institute, fully explaining the preacher's art -- which is what the institute is dedicated to -- involves questioning everything that goes on in the liturgy. Everything: music, nonverbal ritual, voice modulation, responses, the preparedness of the readers and petitioners, the manner of prayer -- everything as part of the preaching, with preaching a part of the whole of which the Eucharist is the center.

Graham is retired after 41 years on the faculty of the drama department of the Catholic University of America in Washington, the last 16 years as chairman. He also is chairman of the Olney Theater Center for the Arts in Olney, Md., and executive producer of the National Players Classical Touring Co., now entering its 49th year. Back in the 1960s, Graham and Burke started a preacher's institute at Catholic University and kept it going for nearly two decades.

As for the flapping clerical arms, there were a few tense exchanges until finally the priest said, "I'll show you."

He clasped his palms firmly together, held his arms straight up. Elongated spine, austere elongated head, he proceeded in tight military fashion up the aisle.

"I've seen guys do this. Not me, that's phony," said the priest.

So he was sloppy, commented Graham to NCR as he recalled the workshop, as a reaction against a rigid, formal rubric.

Burke and Graham have been teaching preaching, together and separately, for more than 30 years in a variety of venues, from university settings to seminaries to church halls. And the scenes described here could come from any of the hundreds of workshops and practicums they've given; the priests could be any of the thousands Burke and Graham have put on the spot. Over the years, NCR has sat in on more than a dozen sessions watching Burke and Graham going through their master's classes.

"Go on," said Graham.

The priest blessed himself.

"Why'd you do that?" demanded Graham.

"Do what?"

"Bless yourself."

"We begin a prayer this way."

"Why?" Graham further demanded.


"But why?"

Graham turned to a liturgist, also on the altar, and asked him, "Why is he starting with that?"

"Well," said the liturgist, "it began in the medieval period. Affirming faith in the Trinity."

"Okay," said Graham, turning to the priest, "can you affirm faith -- move your arms in the Sign of the Cross -- without thinking of these three persons, the person of the Father, the person of the Son, the person of the Holy Spirit? Think you're witnessing to anything there?"

"What am I to do?" asked the priest.

"I want you to name three people in your family and not see any one of them. You can't do it. Cannot. But you can say 'Father, Son and Holy Spirit' and not think a thing. Out of rote. Go on."

The priest put his arms out.

"Why'd you do that?" asked Graham, again.

"Rubric," said the priest.

"That's a lousy answer," replied Graham, who turned to the liturgist and asked, "Why'd he do that?"

"It comes out of an ancient Hebrew tradition of supplication," said the liturgist, and he held his arms up.

"My Heavens!" said Graham. "Look at the difference," he told the other 30 or so priests, watching. "One is heavy, limping, broken branches by hanging the arms away from the body in one way -- or, the other is the whole being reaching out toward a transcendental thing. That's what the shape says," Graham emphasizes, pointing to the liturgist. "That's what the gesture says. It can't just be arms extended. It's got to be in the mind, the heart, the gut -- extended into the arms that are reaching to God. To God."

The homily within the flow of the entire liturgy requires two things.

"The preacher must be speaking from faith rather than knowledge," he said. "There must be a sense of personal witness. Next, what he is saying has to touch my life and my experience in faith. John Burke's definition: 'Preaching is a personally experienced insight in the light of Divine Revelation.' "

Graham has a selection of preaching and liturgical practice peeves -- one is the priest who looks down at the book when he already knows what to say.

The priest looks down.


"Would you mind leaving the room, please?" Graham asks the priest.

The priest leaves.

Then Graham says to the remainder of the group, "Now look, we're going to do it again. And if he's not looking at you, don't answer him."

The priest comes back in.

"Will you do that again, please," says Graham.

Eyes down to the book, voice down, the priest says,


No one responds. The priest looks up, gestures with his hands to the others, come on, respond.

"What's up?" asks Graham.

"This thing's so artificial, it just doesn't make sense unless you guys cooperate."

"Why should we talk to you?" asks Graham, "You obviously don't need our response. And you don't anticipate getting a response by even addressing us. You're talking to the book."

Burke and Graham want the priest talking to the people. Especially during the homily.

Graham explains that "talking" is one of the reasons U.S. preaching is getting better.

Preaching is improving first, he says, because most priests want it to. "They are open to ideas instead of arguing theological distinctions. And they listen to what they think will help them in their ministry, given their knowledge, their talent, their experience and the community they serve.

"Then the second reason," Graham continues, "is there is a greater awareness for the need for talk. Are you giving atalk when you preach or are you making a speech? More and more priests are aware of the need to be talking -- personal and direct."

And yet, what is preaching?

Coming up in Cincinnati on Sept. 21-24 is the annual Catholic Coalition on Preaching conference. The coalition is a group of 17 organizations and institutions. The gathering will also mark the 25th anniversary of the National Institute for the Word of God, established at the Dominican House of Studies by Burke and Graham and others as a center for promoting and teaching improved preaching.

With those events in mind, NCR invited Burke and Graham to sit in on some Washington area Sunday Masses to assess the current quality of preaching -- a sort of episcopal Siskel and Ebert routine, although they attended the Masses individually, not as a twosome.

Burke attended two Masses, as did Graham, in churches selected at random. In subsequent issues, they will comment on the quality, or lack thereof, of four homilies. NCR will not identify the parishes or the preachers. Their commentary is meant to explain what a preacher ought to be doing, what the Catholic in the pew ought to expect to receive and why.

Burke opens the series at a Mass in a Northern Virginia parish.

National Catholic Reporter, August 1, 1997