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Thursday, November 06, 2003
PREACHING ON PREACHING

Thanks to all of you who have kindly swamped me with names of priests from L.A. (and as far away as Australia!) whom we could invite to our entertainment industry retreat.

Without seeming ungrateful, I have been somewhat astounded by some of the referrals, because I have heard many of the men being recommended and they, in no way, fit the definition of "really good preacher."

A lot of people recommended preachers with phrases like "he is a very orthodox priest." Well, being a "really good preacher" has little to do with a person's personal orthodoxy. The only relationship I can see is that cleaving to the truth (as opposed to a lie) will bestow a bit more power to move the human heart...but not enough to redeem a bad sermon. (After all, Lenin and Hitler were powerfully compelling speakers. They used to whip their audiences up into frenzies. )

I think the notion of really "cleaving to" something is what conveys power. As one comment-poster noted, if it seems like most priests are lukewarm in their preaching, it is because they are lukewarm in their believing. Their faith is not Jeremiah's "roaring fire that will consume me if I do not speak."

On the progressive/left/liberal side, bad preachers are afflicted with the fact that they believe being Christian is nice but not necessary, and that piety is akin to a kind of fanaticism.

Case in point. On All Souls's Day, the priest informed us that the Church was moving to merging All Saints and All Souls because the emphasis of All Souls on purgatory and death was a thing of the past in reflecting the notion of a "punishing God." He noted that, "I, only a man, am big enough to not exact punishment. Why do we make God less than me?" (I sat there grumbling to myself, "I want to talk to whomever says you don't exact punishment, Father.")

I'm not even going to go in to the bad theology about sin and the effects of sin that seems to have taken hold in this cleric's brain. I just found it emblematic of so many preachers that he just doesn't seem to believe any more, but he doesn't have the courage or wisdom (both gifts of the Holy Spirit that come to those who ask in prayer) to think it through, so it makes him vague and what seems to me to be exhausted/sad/depressed.

Being orthodox too often doesn't make for great preachers because there is just too much fear present. I have heard just as many bad sermons from men who see themselves as soldiers of John Paul II. The desire to appear reverent and serious make them weirdly wooden and completely uncharismatic. And too often, they aren't "cleaving to " something as much as fighting other things off. This is the kind of preaching that reminds me of the basketball coach the nuns hired to teach algebra when I was in the 9th grade. The guy knew his math, but he used to stand at the board and repeat, "SEE?! A + B = C." When we would ask questions, he would keep repeating in a louder and louder voice, "AAAAA plus BBBBBB ==========CCCCCCCCCCCCCC!"

Anyway, several of the men recommended to me in the spate of emails from priests are known to me as really just mediocre preachers. I think that is interesting....and depressing. NOT ALL. Many of them are unknown to me, and we will check them out for our retreat. But several fellows seem to see good preaching where I encounter ennui and irritation, or just damn nothingness.

In response to the emailer who chided me for confusing entertainment with homiletics.... preaching is not oratory, it needs to be more. It needs to be AT LEAST oratory. Oratory is an art form. Art requires talent. Not all of my students who want to be wonderful writers can be. God has not gifted them for the art form. HOWEVER, there is a competency in the arts that can be acquired by many people who have a passion for it. Competency involves mastery of the craft. I am not asking for genius in preachers. I would be happy with competence.