PhD at pulpit treasures the Word

  • August 25, 2009
{mosimage}MARKHAM, Ont. - Probably every Catholic knows what bad preaching feels like — all the perplexing, irrelevant, boringness that comprises the whole tortuous experience.

Deacon Peter Lovrick encountered what might be the deep mystery of bad preaching when he met a priest finishing his third year of priesthood in Taiwan years ago.

“He told me, ‘Oh thank goodness! Now I don’t have to write any more homilies,’ ” recalls Lovrick, who serves at St. Patrick's parish in Markham. “He had simply stored all of them on a computer and he planned to reuse them. The one-size-fits-all homily which is completely independent of space and time and groups of people and what is happening in the world — if I were to go out on a limb and talk about good preaching and bad preaching — I would say that’s not good preaching.”

Lovrick isn’t out on a limb when he talks about what’s good and bad in Catholic preaching. He’s spent the last five years thinking about preaching, and this spring he became the first Canadian awarded a Doctor of Ministry (equivalent of a PhD) in preaching from the Aquinas Institute of Theology, a Dominican school associated with the Jesuit-run St. Louis University. The second ever will be Fr. Allan Money of London, Ont., currently in his second year of studies. The Canadian pioneer at Aquinas was Deacon Bernard Chalmers, who died of cancer in 2005 before he could complete the course.

Lovrick has spent more of the last five years thinking about what makes for good preaching than he has spent worrying over bad preaching.

What's a good sermon?

By Catholic Register Staff

In five years of study with the Aquinas Institute in St. Louis, Deacon Peter Lovrick learned a thing or two about what goes into a good homily. His advice:

  • “Preaching is lectionary driven.” That is, it’s not just about the Gospel, or about the Old Testament reading, or even all four readings (don’t forget the Psalm) together. It’s about all the prayers, the feast days, the antiphons and even the eucharistic prayer. The homily should focus the whole Mass on an encounter with Christ.
  • It’s not apologetics, and it’s not an academic lecture summing up the opinions of Scripture scholars. “There’s certainly nothing wrong with scholarship and using all kinds of hermeneutics. In fact it’s a good thing,” he said. But will people in the pews relate to some abstract, moralistic hectoring? Or a treatise on the cultures of the ancient Near East?
  • Don’t just tell people what they want to hear, or what they already know. “What does it mean to be good? Does it mean that the people like you?” Lovrick asks. “They crucified Jesus for some of the things He said.”
  • It starts with prayer. Lovrick recommends a couple of hours of lectio divina before getting anywhere near a homiletics web site or The Jerome Bible Commentary.
  • Connect with the people. A good homily creates a communion between the congregation and the Jesus revealed in Scripture. The key question: “How do people in my congregation hear this reading?”
Like many bishops, popes and saints through the long history of preaching in the Catholic Church, Lovrick is convinced that people need good preaching.

“Food for the journey comes in communion, and in prayerful listening to the readings — and it can come to us in wonderful preaching. That can be life changing,” he said.

At the World Synod of Bishops on “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church” last October, Quebec’s Cardinal Marc Ouellet was at pains to point out the dangers of bad preaching.

“We still feel great lack of satisfaction on the part of many faithful with regard to the ministry of preaching,” Ouellet told his fellow bishops. “Lack of satisfaction explains why many Catholics turned toward other groups and religions.”

Research among Hispanic Catholics in the United States has uncovered the phenomenon of a sort of dual citizenship — immigrant families who attend the Protestant church for the preaching then swing by their Catholic parish for Eucharist.

“They want the Eucharist, but they also want preaching — but they’re not getting it,” points out Basilian Father Maurice Restivo.

Restivo has trained preachers in Houston and at the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto. The homiletics professor believes priests recently ordained and seminarians looking forward to ordination are raising the bar for Catholic preaching. But for most Catholics, excellent preaching is still a rare experience.

“It takes a while,” said Restivo. “Because it wasn’t a strong part of our tradition, we just don’t have the tools yet. But they’re developing.”

Restivo finds it “sad” that the only Catholic institution in North America that offers a PhD in preaching is the Aquinas Institute.

When Restivo visits his own cousins he finds he is the only member of his generation who still goes to church on Sundays.

“I ask them why don’t you go to church. (They say) It’s because it doesn’t touch our lives. There’s nothing that the priest says that touches our daily lives — literally nothing,” he said. “A couple of the Masses I attended, especially as a seminarian when I would just go and sit in the pews, I could see what they meant. If that had been my experience of the church I would probably have left it.”

Consistently good preaching could do a lot for the church, said Restivo.

 “I am honestly convinced that the most important thing a priest does is preach," he said.

Good homilies don’t descend like manna from heaven, said Lovrick. It takes hours of committed work to craft a good one — and that’s not easy for priests facing a ton of parish administration, hospital visits, school visits, home visits, daily Mass and preaching, counselling, marriage preparation and more.

“To put in the kind of hours that a lot of people would suggest you put into preaching seems to a lot of them as not doable,” said Lovrick. "There are some prominent preachers in the United States who talk about for every minute of preaching you should be putting in an hour or more of preparation. It’s very dramatic and it scares some people.”

Preachers could get help from their parishioners in one preaching method that Lovrick claims is growing in popularity.

Some American priests Lovrick has met have a small group of parishioners who meet on Monday evenings for lectio divina, prayer and reflection on the coming week’s readings. The priest listens carefully to how lay people in the group relate the readings to their own lives. While those Monday night reflections may not actually add up to a Sunday homily, they do provide the preacher with clues about how the Gospel and the other readings might matter to the Sunday faithful.

In the end the preacher should end up with a homily “relating that word to the life of the people and relating the life of the people to the words,” said Lovrick.

The 56-year-old Lovrick wrote his thesis on “How Homiletics Should Be Taught at St. Augustine’s Seminary” and he has been putting his words into practice, leading a practicum on preaching for seminarians just before ordination.

“What I’ve seen in the young guys coming out here is I’ve seen some wonderful examples, some wonderful preaching,” he said.

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