As I prepare for my eventual presbyteral ordination, one of the things that my province heavily emphasizes is that students practice preaching in front of people and receive appropriate criticism. It only seems natural: if you’re going to take a job doing something technical, you train to make sure you have the skills to complete said job. In my case, that means taking two preaching classes at the Catholic University of America, preaching in-house at the friary once a month, and getting as much experience speaking in front of people in all capacities during our summer internships.
Over the past two years going through this process, I have found out something rather encouraging: I love to preach. Getting in front of people to talk about faith is one of the most energizing, fulfilling things that I have ever done. For ten (or so…) minutes, I have a captive audience with which to share my faith, offer a witness, and encourage to know God in a new way. And even though I am an introvert, I seem to feed off of the energy around me, and have found the larger the congregation the more comfortable I feel.
But of course, the question is not whether I like to preach or if I feel comfortable talking to people about faith, it’s whether the congregation wants to listen to what I have to say. Am I a good preacher?
Given all that Pope Francis has said about preaching, notably the burden that bad preaching is on the laity, that is the million dollar question. Am I one of the preachers that Pope Francis is talking about, those who bore their congregations and kill their faith?
The first couple of times I preached, I certainly didn’t think so. People came up to me and told me how wonderfully I talked, how I was an incredible preacher, how I was going to make a great priest. You know, the sorts of things that we want to hear because it builds up our egos. I heard enough of it the first couple of times to feel pretty confident: “Wow… a lot of people complimented me. I must be a better preacher than Fr. X.”
And maybe I am. But it didn’t take long for a little perspective. I was at a parish shortly thereafter and I heard what was objectively a horrible homily. It had no strong beginning or end, it meandered through half a dozen topics, and the priest was completely unrelatable. Not a great homily. And do you know what I saw after mass? Everyone shook his hand with a smile, and quite a few people, not just one, said how much they loved his homilies. Whaaaa? Were they smoking something?
Another time, I was talking with someone from one of our parishes about one of our friars. This friar is not exactly known for his homilies, and that is putting it nicely. And do you know what she said? “Fr. X changed my life with a homily once.” Say what now? Are we talking about the same guy, the one who can’t string three words together coherently? Yup. That one. Changed her life.
It is because of these two experiences, early in my preaching, that I learned two invaluable lessons. The first is that some compliments are akin to a child being potty trained: “Ohhhh! Look who made a doo doo! You’re such a big boy!” People mean well, and I’m sure that they were honestly and completely delighted with every word of my homily, but for some it is not what I said that is impressive, but merely the fact that I am a nice young man who’s becoming a priest and people haven’t seen a priest with hair in a long time. What I say may have genuinely delighted them, and that’s great, but that doesn’t mean that it was actually a good homily. Having seen dreadful homilies receive compliments, I know that good preaching is not about hearing some nice words from people as they leave the church, nor is it appropriate to think that just because ten people said something nice that the other five hundred felt the same way. If all we hear are the good responses, or all we seek are compliments, our preaching will never grow and it will never challenge.
The second point, a much more difficult one to accept, is that we are only ever as good as the Holy Spirit allows us to be. While it may be our insights, nice words, and polished delivery, it is ultimately not in our control whether or not the message takes root or not. I’ve seen terrible homilies change lives and incredible ones forgotten. The Spirit can transform even the dullest words into the words of life, and be so disinterested in our waxing eloquent that our words never reach anyone’s soul. This, of course, does not mean that we just get up and say whatever we want without preparation because the Spirit can speak through us. But it does force us as preachers to approach the homily with humility and prayer, to ask God for the words to speak, and to focus on what’s really important. When we’re looking back and grading how successful a homily was, it doesn’t matter how good or bad we looked, felt, or spoke, it only matters how the hearts and lives of our listeners were changed.
And isn’t that what preaching is all about? It’s not about the preacher and how well liked s/he is, it’s about bringing people closer to God and building up the kingdom. Thus, the effect of good preaching is not found in the words that people say about it, it’s found in the vibrancy of faith and life in the community that hears it. Do these words make us feel good, or do they move us to conversion? That’s the question. And so, as I learn this craft and hopefully continue to grow in it, the image of being potty trained works well for me. On the one hand it keeps me humble: I am being complimented for doing something that is not all that impressive. On the other, it keeps me focused on what really matters. Because, really, the sign of someone who is truly potty trained is not the amount of compliments he gets for using the toilet, it’s how dry his pants stay on a regular basis.