Sunday, July 16, 2017


Some seed fell on rich soil and produced fruit.
Matthew 13:1-23

In light of this parable, I thought I would say a few words about Catholic preaching. Hold on to your chair!

You might not know it, but according to Church teaching, preaching is the primary duty of priests!  I know this to be true - Catholics have been disappointed with Catholic Church preaching for so long, they are afraid to expect it any more. When Catholics do find a priest who can preach, or will spend some quality time preparing to preach, they tend to follow him from church to church like hungry puppies. Others learn to live without it. Some give up and join one of the Protestant denominations.

In the pre-Vatican II Mass, preaching was so undervalued in the Catholic Church that coming in late and missing that part of Mass did not even start counting as a serious sin until the priest uncovered the chalice and started the Liturgy of the Eucharist! The priest coming down off the altar to do readings in English and give a sermon was even called “an interruption” of the Liturgy.

Part of our problem, I believe, can be traced back to the Reformation, four hundred years ago. In that painful “divorce,” it was almost like there was a property settlement where Catholics took the altar and Protestants took the pulpit. That’s why most Protestant churches seem to have tiny little communion tables and huge pulpits, while most Catholic churches tend to have tiny little pulpits and huge altars. (I actually designed this pulpit and I deliberately wanted it to be wide enough to hold a big book and a homily. I wanted it to have some stature.)

Catholics who leave us for a Protestant pulpit sometimes don’t realize that, when they do, they are also going off and leaving the table of the Eucharist. What we Catholics need to do, what we have been working on over the last several years, is to have both: a powerful celebration of the Liturgy of the Word followed by a powerful celebration of the Liturgy of the Eucharist. We need to know how to value and use both pulpit and altar.

Preaching is being taken more serious than ever in our seminaries. I am no professional homiletics professor, but I taught homiletics (preaching) at St. Meinrad Seminary for a few years. The downfall of most preaching courses is that they focus way too much on public speaking techniques and not enough on the faith of the preacher. My belief is in line with William Faulkner’s who said, “If a story is in you, it has to come out.”  I always reminded my students that if the love of God was burning in their hearts, they would find an effective way to communicate it. If not, their preaching would probably just be another speech about God. A homily is not a speech. The insight of a homily is meant to turn on a light bulb, to help the listener make a connection with God, to help the hearer have an “ahaha” moment.  “Nemo dat quod non habet.” If you ain’t got it, you ain’t give it.

Both homilists and lectors must be the first to ‘humbly welcome the word” and “be doers of the word,” as the Letter of James puts it.  Preaching, especially, is an awesome responsibility.  The “well,” from which it comes, must be constantly fed!  The preacher must know himself, know the people he preaches to and know God - and be able to talk about it all three in a convincing way. Lectors, too, don’t just “read to people,” they “proclaim the good news” as well.

Some seed fell of the path, some on rocky ground,
some among the thorns, but some fell on rich
soil and produced abundant fruit.

The Letter of James is famous for its insistence that faith is lived, not just claimed and talked about. The writer says, “Be doers of the word and not hearers only.” The writer asks, “What good is it to profess faith without practicing it? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and no food for the day, and you say to them, “Good-bye and good luck! Keep warm and well fed,” but do not meet their bodily needs, what good is that? So it is with faith that does nothing in practice. It is thoroughly lifeless.”

My fellow Catholics, we cannot be ignorant of scripture and, at the same time, carry out what God has asked us. As the Letter to the Romans puts it, “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved. But how can they call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how can they believe unless they have heard of him? And how can they hear unless there is someone to preach? Faith, then, comes through hearing, and what is heard is the word of Christ.” 

It would be wonderful if every one of us took the opportunity to study Scripture in a formal way. Scripture classes are offered in almost every parish these days. The diocese has many continuing education classes available on scripture. There are free Catholic online websites with commentaries. The simplest ways to study scripture, however, is to take advantage of our Liturgy of the Word each week. To get the most out of the Liturgy of the Word each week, if the seed is to fall on the rich soil of our hearts and produce abundant fruit in our lives, three things must happen. (1) Readers must read well. (2) Preachers must preach well. (3) People must listen well.  You have good lectors here, the Cathedral has been known for good preaching for the last several years and I know you to be an attentive congregation who appreciates, and expects, good preaching.  

(1) One of the hardest things to get across to lectors is that they are not just “reading to people,” but “proclaiming the word of God.”   That means they must, not just be able to read the words on the page, but to be the medium through which people hear God speaking to them. That means the reader must be familiar enough with the text to convey its meaning. If the reader does not know what the words mean, how can he or she read it with meaning? Lectors are not just readers. They proclaim the word of God behind the words of the text. The role of the lector, standing in the pulpit, should be taken as seriously as the priest standing behind the altar. Incompetence, sloppiness or carelessness in the pulpit or at the altar should never become acceptable in our churches. Good liturgy strengthens the faith of the people. Bad liturgy weakens the faith of the people.     

(2) As a priest, my primary role is to preach. I have a long way to go, myself, but of all the things I do, I take preaching most seriously.  I typically work a minimum of 10-12 hours a week preparing these homilies. As you know, not all priests do that. When I was the Vocation Director, for instance, I remember reading an evaluation one of our pastors wrote about one of our soon-to-be-ordained seminarians. He criticized the seminarian for “working too much on his homilies.” He went on to say that he “knew of no other priest, except for maybe the Vocation Director (that was me), who spent that much time on writing homilies.” This time the seminarian was right and the pastor was wrong! Preaching is not just one of many things a priest does, it is the single most important thing a priest does! 

(3) People must learn to listen well. The word “liturgy” means “the work of the people.” In reality, many Catholics still don’t get it. They come to liturgy and put the whole burden of a meaningful liturgy on the backs of the priest, the musicians and the liturgical ministers. Many Catholics sit with their arms folded, never singing or answering the responses or even mouthing the creed, with an attitude of “OK, now entertain me, impress me and inspire me and, if you fail, I’ll blame you and leave here to tell the world that “I don’t get anything out of Mass because of the boring priest and the lousy music.”

If the word, “liturgy” means “the work of the people,” we preachers, presiders, lectors and musicians are here to “help you pray,” not to “do your praying for you.” It is your job to pray over the readings before you get here, or at least sit up and pay close attention when God’s word is proclaimed, and respond appropriately in word and song.

“Humbly welcome the word that has been planted in you.” Like the parable of the Sower and the Seed, it is now enough just to have good seed to sow (the word of God), not enough for the sowers to sow well (the lector and the preacher’s job), but the ground on which the word is sown must be fertile and receptive. That job, my friends, belongs to all of us - to be good at hearing the Word and to be good at putting it into practice after we leave here.    


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