Preaching and Feedback

"Because I’m tired of being made to feel like an idiot" was the reason a woman friend of Tablet correspondent Clifford Longley gave for no longer attending Mass. One hears variations on this sentiment with such regularity among thoughtful Catholics that the temptation is to coin a further beatitude: Blessed are those who persevere (in the face of homiletical humiliation). Or perhaps it should be: Blessed are those courageous enough to give frank feedback. I can think of no greater service to the Church on the part of laypeople than some fairly full-blooded criticism of preaching. If such a movement were to take hold among the People of God, there would be nowhere to hide for the unprepared, the hollow and the offensive. And those who talked down to the congregation might suffer the fate of a Jesuit (a true story apparently) who took it upon himself to give a scathing critique of a play that was running in the local theatre. This was a one-man performance, a monologue by a religious brother reminiscing rather bitterly on the vicissitudes of his life in his teaching order. Our homilist was just getting into his critical stride when a man in the congregation put up his hand and announced to ’Father’ and the congregation, that he was in fact the actor who took the role of the said brother. He then asked the priest, very politely, whether Father had actually seen the play. To which the shamefaced but at least honest reply was that he had only read the reviews! The anecdote is a homilist’s nightmare, or at least it should be, and it illustrates the importance of homework, professionalism and respect for the intelligence of the congregation. It is difficult to imagine this preacher ever criticising a play or film again without first having seen it. It also illustrates the effectiveness of straightforward and trenchant feedback, as opposed to the conventional and meaningless ’Nice homily Father’. Instant feedback is a cultural feature of African public speaking, including preaching. I like the one about the African American pastor on a bad day. His sermon was limping along when someone shouted, ’Help him Lord! Help him!’ Here in South Africa, if someone gets up after Mass to make a parish announcement and goes on for too long, someone might well break into song to signal that it is now time to shut up and sit down. Unfortunately this does not happen to the clergy during their homilies, but people must sometimes be sorely tempted. The fact is that in most Catholic contexts, the homily is one of the last forms of discourse in which there is no feedback. Chris Chatteris, S.J.

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