Perhaps the most extensive analysis of Cardinal, now Saint, John Henry Newman’s thought was compiled not by a fellow English writer but rather by a Polish Jesuit, Erich Przywara. Cambridge University Professor Eamon Duffy cites this synthesis, published in 1930, as a “hugely influential anthology of Newman’s writings,” making Newman available to the wider European world. The Cambridge don notes significantly that Przywara drew by far the largest single block of his material from the ten volumes of Newman’s sermons delivered while he was an active Anglican parish priest. Then Duffy adds wryly, “It is hard to imagine a major corpus of Christian thought being derived nowadays from the parish sermons of any contemporary preacher.”
The state of contemporary Catholic preaching is quite difficult for any priest to assess since most priests are busy at their own liturgies while their fellows are occupied at theirs. Funerals sadly do provide an occasion when clergy might measure the eloquence of their fellow clergymen. The funeral homily preached locally by Father Nicholas Smith at the burial Mass for Father Daniel Trainor was an admirable balance of lively faith and endearing anecdote. Again, homilies preached by Deacon John Needham from St. Margaret Church, Rumford, as our LaSalle classmates and other contemporaries are successively interred are always personally thoughtful and religiously instructive. The homily at the final Mass at the now dormant St. Charles Borromeo Church in Woonsocket preached by Father Joseph Upton was perhaps the finest sermon I have ever heard preached in my entire lifetime. The sadness of the occasion was eased by Father’s tailored management of personal experience, local history, church architecture and pertinent Scripture.
In the first reading from Acts this coming Sunday, St. Luke describes the result of St. Peter’s preaching on Pentecost Sunday. The Evangelist writes, “Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and they cried out, ‘What must we do, brothers?’” The key word here is “heard.” No hearts are cut by words that cannot be heard. Next to suitable bread and wine, the most important item used during Mass is a good microphone. Older churches might boast of their stone and marble but they also must lament the echoes that bounce from pillar to pillar on Sunday morning. When older churches were full, the hefty congregation absorbed much of this sound. Now they are just cavernous echo chambers. And a shrill microphone in a chapel is certainly no better. The wise investment in a good audio system is integral to modern day evangelism.
Fulton Sheen and Martin Luther King and Billy Graham all had their audiences. Homiletic style will justifiably vary from preacher to preacher. Some homilists adeptly read typed out sermons. Others adroitly employ written outlines or notes. Others may store key words in their head that guide them through a successful discourse. Some congregations have witnessed the homilist leaving the pulpit to pace the middle aisle offering sublime wisdom on an intimate level. For most preachers (and for most congregations) the pulpit is the better vehicle for maintaining and projecting the dignity and decorum that the Word of God deserves. And besides dignity and decorum, dispatch is a necessary element in every effective sermon. Monsignor Barry Connerton and his staff at St. Augustine Church, Providence, successfully edified crowds for decades with sermons never in excess of three minutes. President Woodrow Wilson once reflected, “If I am to speak for ten minutes, I need a week to prepare; if I am to speak for an hour, I am ready now.” Rambling plainly indicates lack of homework. The more time spent in preparation, the less time needed for delivery. Be prepared. Be brief. Be gone.
Years ago “America Magazine” featured an article entitled, “Let’s hear it for lousy sermons.” The point of the article, of course, is the pre-eminence of the Eucharist over the homily. Catholics go to Mass chiefly to encounter Jesus through Holy Communion, not to be overwhelmed with eloquence (even if they had the chance). Yet one of the great gifts of Vatican II was the restoration of the Service of the Word to its rightful place in Catholic liturgy and Catholic piety. St. John writes in this Sunday’s Gospel, “The sheep follow him, because they recognize his voice…they do not recognize the voice of strangers.” The authentic voice of Christ should truly ring out from Catholic pulpits Sunday after Sunday, frankly day after day, reminding the faithful of the fullness of revelation to be found in God’s Word, in Church teaching, and in Christian activities.