Why Priests Can't Preach

By Burke, Dennis | Commonweal, April 7, 1995 | Go to article overview

Why Priests Can't Preach


Burke, Dennis, Commonweal


The rugged priest with the chiseled Bogart face stared down at a hundred seminarians in the lecture hall. "Going to bed with a woman is not the greatest sin a priest can commit," he declared. Pindrop silence. "The greatest sin a priest can commit is to get up in the pulpit on a Sunday unprepared to preach." The speaker was my brother, Eugene, preeminent preacher and Paulist theologian.

Some months ago, as I sat on the Archbishop's Pastoral Planning Commission in San Francisco, that scene from the 1950s came vividly to mind. A sociologist from the University of San Francisco was reporting that one of the lowest scores in a survey of 15,000 Catholics in San Francisco was in response to the statement: "[The priest] makes the gospel real through homilies that apply to our lives." I empathize with priests today. They are overworked and often demoralized, and the thinning of their ranks will not make things easier. By the year 2000, one-third of the priests in the Archdiocese of San Francisco will have retired or died. Only a handful of new priests will be ordained in the interim. One possible solution, importing priests from abroad, does not bode well for preaching, as many such priests speak with accents that are virtually incomprehensible from the pulpit. A recent survey of priests conducted by Dean Hoge of The Catholic University found that "self-esteem" was their number-one concern. Yet according to Father Frank McNulty of Newark, the self-esteem problem of priests is linked to good preaching: "It seems to me that better preachers get more affirmation," he told the National Catholic Reporter, "and that increases self-esteem."

They do and it does.

The archbishop of San Francisco, John Quinn, is an excellent, albeit formal, preacher. Five years ago he required priests in the archdiocese to take remedial courses in homiletics. Yet, as my wife and I found out by visiting various parishes in the inner city Sunday after Sunday, a lot remains to be done. Having listened to sermons in Buenos Aires, Caracas, Boston, Los Angeles, and San Francisco during the last year, I am convinced that the high percentage of mediocre homilies is not just a San Francisco problem. It is a worldwide Catholic problem, and - in an age of mushrooming disbelief - a serious one.

Why can't priests preach? Part of the problem is the Catholic notion of priesthood. Compare it to the Protestant concept of minister. A Catholic becomes a priest to say Mass; a Protestant becomes a minister to preach the gospel. A priest is ordained to provide the Eucharist for the faith community within certain territorial boundaries; a minister is sent to build a Christian community - often afresh - by witnessing to the Word. The result of this theological difference is that typically a priest sees preaching as a secondary aspect of his vocation.

But there is a deeper problem. The great preacher must have the heart of a missionary: the burning desire to ride the shoulders of grace as it spins and turns the souls of the hearers to Christ. Preaching is inseparable from the notion of conversion. Yet, as one older priest told me, in the seminary the primary emphasis was on pastoral ministry rather than conversion of the world: "We were taught to be maintenance men."

In the early stages of the Pastoral Planning Commission, it was the laity - not the priests - who felt the archdiocesan plan should emphasize the evangelization of San Francisco. The priests, though obviously zealous, seemed absorbed - overwhelmed even - with their other ministries within the church.

Still, why can't priests preach ? I believe that with evangelization playing second fiddle to other tasks, they simply don't prepare. They put a few thoughts on the back of an envelope and "wing it." A priest I know told me that a conscientious young priest confided in him that he worked really hard at preparing his sermons. The older priest, who had a reputation as a preacher, inquired: "How long do you spend preparing? …

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