Lately, there’s been much ado about preaching. In the past month, Pope Francis has broached the subject in public on five different occasions. The media have jumped on the bandwagon with headlines about the rights of the faithful, the necessary virtues of the preacher, and the papal plea for brevity (“no more than 10 minutes, please”).
It’s all true! Hymns and homilies remain the scourge of Mass-goers. The latter poses a continual challenge to priests and deacons.
But, as usual, there’s more to it. Preaching may be a one-way venue for religious messaging. But for Pope Francis, it’s more than a Sunday broadcast. Even if the masses remain silent (for the most part), he considers the homily a supernatural conversation along the path to personal transformation.
The pope says that “through the Gospel and the homily, God dialogues with his people, who listen to him with attention and veneration and, at the same time, recognize he is present and acting.” That dialogue becomes effective when the Lord’s Word, proclaimed and preached, “enters through the ears, goes to the heart and passes to the hands, to good deeds.”
To guide the faithful on this path, the preacher certainly must know, and care about, what he’s doing, namely, giving voice to God’s word and not simply sharing his own thoughts. Sacred eloquence is not a consequence of ordination.
The charism of clarity requires preparation, which necessitates devoting time to the task, in prayer and study. It also takes effort to organize one’s thoughts and words, so that what is preached teaches people about God’s Word, convinces them it is Good News, and motivates them to convert their life accordingly.
But for any of that to happen, people have to listen! As much as the pope exhorts preachers to do their job well, he also makes it quite clear that the congregation has its part to do. Paying “proper attention” takes effort. Hearing happens if the acoustics are good, but listening takes place only when one is intentional about it.
For the pope, this means not preemptively dismissing the preacher and not giving in to the boredom that comes with listening, even to a long and labored speech.
For a homily to produce its graced effects, both preacher and people need to converge on the transmission of God’s Word. Hopefully, the former will finish speaking and the latter finish listening at the same time!
But does it work? And does it matter? New research shows it can.
The Catholic Leadership Institute studies spiritual growth and parish engagement through the “Disciple Maker Index,” a 75-question survey completed by parishioners throughout the U.S. and Canada. To date, more than 330 parishes in 21 (arch)dioceses have participated in the survey, including 15 parishes here in Philadelphia. (An additional 27 parishes in this archdiocese are currently offering the initiative.)
Based on responses from more than 82,000 participants, the data confirm that parishes do help people to grow spiritually through preaching. But the spiritual lifeline still needs to reach many more.
In Philadelphia, an average of 47 percent of parishioners “strongly agree” that they have grown spiritually through “homilies that connect [my] faith with [my] everyday life.” Unfortunately, that’s fewer than half the listeners, and the range of those responses varies widely among parishes, from 18 percent to 97 percent. Still, the average ranks the Philadelphia Archdiocese at the top among those who surveyed multiple parishes, and well above the continental average of 37 percent.
This matters significantly because the research also demonstrates that quality of preaching is a key driver in terms of promoting parish life. On the whole, cross-tabulation indicates that nearly 92 percent of those who strongly agree with having heard homilies that connect faith to life also strongly agree that they would recommend their parish to a friend. Those who strongly agree about recommending their parish are the “promoters” who are most likely to bring others to church.
Considering the dearth of devotees actually attending church on a weekly basis — estimated in Philadelphia at about 20 percent — the importance of good preaching thus looms large.
Pope Francis concludes his catechesis with the hopeful proposition that “if we listen to the ‘Good News,’ we will be converted and transformed by it, and therefore capable of changing ourselves and the world.”
While the early research suggests this may be happening for some, a Lenten examination of conscience by all those in pulpits and pews would be an even better indicator, for the real proof resides in our own hearts and hands when we hear God’s Word and act on it (Luke 11:28).
Father Dailey is the John Cardinal Foley Chair of Homiletics and Social Communications at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Wynnewood, and a research fellow for the Catholic Leadership Institute in Wayne.
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