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A good preacher reaches out, fills a need

NCR Staff

This is the third article in a four-part series. Each opens with a description of a liturgy and a summary of the homily. A preaching expert's critique follows. The critics, Dominican Fr. John Burke and drama professor William Graham, teachers of preaching, are cofounders of the National Institute of the Word of God in Washington, which will mark its 25th anniversary at the National Conference on Preaching Sept. 21-24 in Cincinnati. The first article appeared in the Aug. 1 issue.

The poorer the parish the more welcoming the Catholics? The more diverse the parish the greater the sense of community?

Parishioners were saying hello, some mentioning their names. Africans, African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics. The pastor, wandering the parking lot, was quick to spot strangers and introduce himself.

With a laugh, he said his name was Boutros Boutros-Ghali and that there were 65 different nationalities on the parish register.

This Washington archdiocesan parish seemed to be on the borderline between poor and middle class. The church was just over half full. It was a young crowd -- 85 percent appeared under 50 and half of those probably under 35.

The young choir, though there were two or three identifiable good voices, had no leader and wandered off into musical disarray. The pianist could not hold them together and play.

The priest celebrant, not the pastor, was kindly though restrained, a little academic but with a pleasant enough voice. The presentation of the readings was adequate though uninspiring.

The homily was on the mistake of thinking that Christianity is about "doing." Doing "actually is the secondary part," said the celebrant. "The precedence is being. We are called to be a certain kind of person before we do anything."

" 'Live in me,' God commands. What does he mean?" asked the homilist. "How does one live in another being? We get some idea at times from our human experiences. A couple just married, forced to separate -- the husband must work abroad, forced to go to another country for a job because he cannot find work at home.

"When he is asked, 'Where do you live?' he replies, 'My body is in this place, but my real life is someplace else. Where I live is not where I reside.' He lives vitally, profoundly, truly -- but not physically -- with his wife. We live more truly where we love than where we are."

This is also about communicating in a particular way, he said, about communing -- not talking, but giving oneself to the person in a wordless way.

He continued, "When Jesus said, 'Live in me,' it meant, Give yourself to me, wordlessly, by being present to me. The doing is in what follows, as in the expression 'if you love me.' 'Apart from me you can do nothing.' Doing has a certain quality, an effect beyond your own power. In Jesus, your range is more powerful.

"And, 'Live in me as I live in you.' In other words, there is something going on in us all the time. Jesus is living in us -- a love relationship; he is communing with us at levels we are unconscious of, all the time Jesus is giving himself in a wordless communing. All the time. Being a Christian means tying into this communing. Doing what we do out of love."

Dominican Fr. John Burke heard the same homily. Here is his response.

"One of the things that distinguishes Catholic preaching from Protestant preaching is that on Sunday the preaching is situated in the liturgy. It is part of the liturgical setting," Burke said, "Vatican II [the council held from 1962-65] said it is an integral part of the liturgy, not added on to it." Therefore, he said, "when one looks on the homily, one has to look at it in the context of the whole liturgy.

"The liturgy we just attended was poor," he said. "The music was poor. The way the prayers were said, the way the celebrant said them, was rushed -- there was no experience of prayerfulness or praise and thanksgiving. It was all quite mechanical."

This was a mixed congregation with not so many in attendance, and one had to ask, he said, "is the lack of attendance reflecting their reaction to the liturgy?"

Stepping back from this particular Mass, Burke wanted to point out that he understood the problem many priests face -- that some are not good preachers. Though this man was to a point, at no time was there the feeling that he had actually made contact with the congregation.

There are two formats to a homily, Burke said. First is the "one point" speech. "You see the importance of that when the guy rambles on and on and you still don't know what the point is. The worst I remember was when a priest who'd rambled for 20 minutes finally said, 'I think there's a point in all that.' And he was wrong."

This homilist could make his point well, Burke said.

Burke, who preached parish missions from 1972 until 1990, said, "I tell priests to start out by making a basic statement. Ten words or less. A simple, declarative sentence. Not a question. Not a single word. But a statement in which a predicate is affirmed of a subject. Then the whole burden of the homily is to support, to prove the truth or judgment expressed in that basic statement -- to prove by scriptures and the teaching of the church, by personal witness, by examples, by analogies.

"There was no personal witness here. Some examples. Then," said Burke, "there are a number of ways to prove it -- the weakest of which is to define terms and explain it. The second preaching format is built on the first -- the motivated sequence. What it consists of is that the speaker -- I apply it to preaching -- identify a need or a lack in the audience that needs filling up. And it's called the felt need because it has to be something the listener knows he or she needs or feels as distinct from the preacher saying, 'I know you need instruction about this' when the point is that you don't know you need it.

"Unless you are talking to where people are hurting," he said, "it doesn't do any good. That's what the guy did in this sermon. He found his point and illustrated it. I don't believe every homily has to be only one basic statement, and in this one he had two, but I felt he did not get his points to the people on their terms by projecting himself. He was too remote."

The homily steps should lead to the solution presented -- "a call for action or to contemplation or something like that. This homily just stopped."

NCR asked Burke about homily services -- the printed homily prep sheets offered by many publishers.

At one level, said Burke, he was opposed to them because then the preacher himself does not go deeply enough into the subject or into the scriptures to be a real witness to it. "If you were writing a brief for the Supreme Court," said Burke, "you wouldn't hire someone else to do it. You'd do it yourself.

"I know someone who writes these homily outlines," he said, "a young woman 22 years old and working on a master's in theology. Well, I like to think priests can do better. On the other hand, and there is another hand, the way parish life is set up and given the demands, including frequency of preaching, some guys find they do not have the creative juices, energies, insights all the time and they use the homily outline as an aid to get thinking about things. Used in that way, that way's all right."

And finally, the question of sermon length?

"When I preach on Sundays, between 10 and 15 minutes. I don't want it to be too brief," said Burke. "My experience has been that if someone has something important to say and says it well, people will not be conscious of the time. They think a sermon is too long when in fact it's not very good."

National Catholic Reporter, August 29, 1997