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One of the things I learned as an altar boy back at St. Al’s in Southeastern Pennsylvania was that one of the priests, when he was just out of seminary, had written outlines for several years of sermons and kept them in a three-ring binder. That was it for the rest of his life. He was proud of his efficiency.

Efficiency, I can tell you, does not necessarily make for good sermons.

I tried to remember, from those early years, what might have been considered good preaching. All I came up with was the order priest from nearby Reading, Pa., who would regularly give missions at my church.

This guy was as big as Friar Tuck, with a booming voice. He used dynamics with great prowess, getting us all to hunch closer to hear the low, nearly whispered parts, before blasting us against our seatbacks with the next explosion of fire and brimstone. He wore glasses that had heavy black frames at the top so it looked as if he had two sets of eyebrows. He scared the bejeebers out of all of the kids who got dragged to church those evenings, and he packed the house every time he preached.

There’s a lot more to choose from these days between scary and boring. As Arthur Jones’ cover story makes clear, the shortage of priests is, by necessity, creating new opportunities for lay people.

Most good preaching, of course, grows out of the experience of a community and the preacher’s life. Some who preach are simply very gifted at weaving the threads of experience, of the gospel and the issues of the day into a message that can engage, inspire and challenge.

Others just aren’t gifted at it. I’ve come to feel sorry for those priests who, for lack of talent, preparation or both, always seem terribly uncomfortable in the pulpit. They may be spectacular counselors, wonderfully comforting prayers, ministers to the sick or imprisoned. But lousy preachers.

The problem is they are expected to be everything, including celibate and able to sing parts of the liturgy, by virtue of ordination. Some may be trying to do the impossible.

So, as much as the priest shortage threatens the very heart of our religious practice -- the eucharistic community -- it also is expanding in real ways our ideas about what that community, the entire community, can do.

The numbers don’t tell the whole story, but when 2,300 parishes in this country don’t have a resident priest and when priests now average 61 years old, something’s got to give. The examples of some bishops already commissioning lay preachers and the recently approved norms for lay preaching (see Page 7) are hopeful signs that, however tentatively, new life keeps popping through the hardpan of this old church.

-- Tom Roberts

My e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, November 23, 2001