What makes for effective preaching?

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By Father Stephen Battey

Recently we received a heartfelt letter that spoke about the fiery preaching that was commonplace in some parishes decades ago. I always think of the scene from the movie Pollyanna, when the town minister delivers his sermon with such force that the chandeliers almost come crashing down. Our writer laments that while this style of homiletics can be abrasive and off-putting, people seemed to be more in touch with what the faith requires us to do.

A common suggestion is that if we could bring back a style of preaching like the days of old, then more people would begin to uphold the commandments and to take their faith more seriously. The problem is that we live in a social culture that encourages a rejection of authority and holds self-autonomy as the highest ideal. Even a casual perusal of the latest social media outlets that people are using today attests to this reality.

For a priest to attempt to preach in this way inevitably leads to his parishioners getting up and walking out the door in the middle of Mass. Put simply, the priest throws the virtue of prudence to the wind, and ultimately fails in his duty as a pastor of souls.

Instead, the task of homilists in the church today involves discovering a way to present the truth of the Catholic faith in a way that draws people to it. To remind people of their sinfulness not in a condemnatory way, but in a way that helps them to discover that living apart from the commandments falls short of who we were created to be. To be sure, this style of preaching requires a great deal of prayer and imagination. But we must be willing to put in this effort. Preaching fire and brimstone is easy, but preaching in a way that truly attracts people to the faith? That’s something that is worth our attention and consideration.

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