The Art of Preaching Better

Written for an edition of ‘The Preacher’ when an Auxiliary Bishop in the Archdiocese of Westminster

In his Apostolic Exhortation called the Joy of the Gospel – Evangelii Gaudium (EG) in LatinPope Francis offers insights into preaching that are well worth reading. He writes that preaching within the liturgy ‘calls for serious consideration by pastors.’ In fact, the homily is the ‘touchstone’ for determining the closeness between a pastor and a congregation, as well as indicating the pastor’s skills as a communicator.

Popes rarely joke in their official writings, but Francis, noting that homilies are important to clergy and their people alike, also says they cause suffering: to the laity who have to listen to them and to the clergy who have to preach them!

More seriously, Pope Francis recalls that ‘the homily can actually be an intense and happy experience of the Spirit, a consoling encounter with God’s word, a constant source of renewal and growth.’ Therefore he encourages us to ‘renew our confidence in preaching, based on the conviction that it is God who seeks to reach out to others through the preacher, and that he displays his power through human words.’ (EG 135-136)

I believe that preaching is vocational, something vitally important within the Church’s life and mission. And any preacher worth their salt will always aspire to preach better. Whether we think we are the golden-mouthed orator of our day, or the most hapless speaker ever to stand at the lectern, we can all improve our preaching. This requires a dependence on the Holy Spirit and a commitment to deepen our appreciation and practice of this sacred art form.

Helpful here, both in a Catholic and wider context, is the Homiletic Directory (HD) published by the Vatican in 2014. The introduction quotes Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy: the sermon ‘should draw its content mainly from scriptural and liturgical sources, and its character should be that of a proclamation of God’s wonderful works in the history of salvation, the mystery of Christ, ever made present and active within us, especially in the celebration of the liturgy.” (HD 1)

Note the key phrases and emphasis: the sermon is sourced from the Scriptures and the liturgy; its character is that of a proclamation of God’s marvels, God’s wonderful works, throughout the history of salvation and especially in and through the mystery of Christ, to be proclaimed as both always present and always active within us, particularly through the liturgical celebration. This is significant, I think, for the shape, focus and purpose of our preaching.

The HD makes an interesting observation: ‘For many centuries the sermon was often a moral or doctrinal instruction delivered at Mass on Sundays and holy days, but it was not necessarily integrated into the celebration itself.’ (HD 1) Gradually, however, there was a movement to ‘deepen the integral bond between the Scriptures and worship.’ (HD 1)

Again, note the key phrases and emphasis. The homily is not dislocated from the Scriptures, from the liturgy or from worship. It is not purely a moral or doctrinal instruction (although homilies may well contain elements of moral and doctrinal teaching.) Rather, the homily is to be an integrated reality, relating to the whole history of salvation and the mystery of Christ, to the whole of the Scriptures and to the whole of the liturgical celebration and the act of worship. Furthermore, as an integrated reality, we can also add that the homily should relate to the whole life of faith of those who hear it: of their journey of conversion, of their pathway of discipleship, of their experiences, not least of joy and suffering, of their commitment to mission and to apostolic service.

Allow me to offer a particular thought about the sense in which this idea of homiletic integration might be approached. Consider the relationship between what might be called the indicative and the imperative in the Christian life. The indicative has the sense of a statement of fact, a statement of reality, of what something or someone is. The imperative has the sense of a command, of what should be or what should be done.

We have all probably heard sermons, or heard of them, where the emphasis has been on what we ought to do, should do or must do. The approach is heavily imperative, and moralistic or moralising. There can, of course, be moral content in a sermon. But it always needs to be integrated within, and flow from, the primary preaching of the indicative truths of faith.

This dynamic is illustrated in the Catholic postbaptismal prayers for the anointing with Chrism and the clothing with the white garment, and the words which accompany the giving of the lighted candle. Taking just the first as an example, it begins:

The God of power and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ

has freed you from sin

and brought you to new life

through water and the Holy Spirit.

He now anoints you with the chrism of salvation

This is the indicative. This is the statement of fact, of the reality of who we are in Christ. Through baptism, all this has happened and remains eternally true. We have been freed from sin. We have been brought to new life. We have died and risen with Christ.  The prayer continues:

so that, united with his people,

you may remain for ever a member of Christ

who is Priest, Prophet and King.

This is the imperative that follows on. This is what we should be and what should be done. Namely, that uniting ourselves with Christ’s people, with the Church, we are to remain as a member of Christ who is priest, prophet and king. What has happened to us in Christ is foundational. How we are to live follows on from this.

This illustrates the point the HD is making. The art of preaching is first and foremost a proclamation of the wonders of God throughout salvation history and through the mystery of Christ, present with us and alive within us. Our first responsibility as preachers is to reveal, to unfold, to unpack, to explain the truths of faith – to call people to new life in the Lord Jesus.

The heart of the art of preaching, say Pope Francis, ‘…will always be the same: the God who revealed his immense love in the crucified and risen Christ.’ (EG 11) From this reality flow the implications and responsibilities for how we are to behave as disciples. But everything begins with, and is integrated within, our life of faith in Christ.

We cannot be complacent preachers, simply willing to make do and put up with the natural abilities we have, for better or worse, and plod on regardless. We take the privileged ministry of preaching seriously. We know its importance and we want to improve, to be the very best preacher that we can be. At some point, we have been impressed, moved, challenged, urged on the road of conversion, enlightened, helped or consoled by a sermon. Encouraged by this, we want to fulfil our vocation to be a preacher in the finest way possible, always believing that our own inner life of faith and the deepest reliance on the Holy Spirit are crucially determinative. We want to do all we can to speak in a way that draws people to the Lord Jesus and the mysteries of faith.

To dare to preach in the liturgical assembly is always an act of faith on our part:  faith that God will use us; faith that the Holy Spirit will work through us; faith that this is a powerful dialogical encounter between the Word of God, proclaimed and expounded, and the minds and hearts of the hearers, with the preacher as the human agent for this exchange.

All of us should be, at least, slightly daunted by the task of preaching set before us; but we should never feel paralysed. We rightly approach the pulpit with a degree of apprehension; but we should never feel intimidated. With the correct disposition of mind and heart, preaching is always a work of the Lord through us.

Whether we are the finest orator, the greatest theologian, or the most profound exegete, is all secondary to the extent to which we are first and fundamentally a disciple with a living faith, with a conscious and active loving relationship with the Lord Jesus in and through His Church. To preach we must believe. To preach we must pray. To preach we must seek conversion. To preach we must live and breathe the Scriptures. To preach we must be in touch with life. The integration of our own personal prayerfulness, our familiarity with the Scriptures, our celebration of the liturgy, and our living discipleship, in the Church and in the world, is the bedrock for our growth in the art of preaching better.