Last Sunday I preached on love. It was the first time I have done Sunday preaching since I went under the knife (twice) last November. When you preach in our Limerick church on a weekend, you do so at all the Masses. So I performed four times.The response was positive. I love preaching. Actually, I love public speaking. I was no more than 10 or 11 years old when I began delivering passionate political addresses with a hairbrush as a microphone.
I will never forget the first time I got to use a real microphone. I was reading in church at Sunday Mass. I was about 14 years old, and I tried to imagine I was Lincoln, or Churchill, or JFK, but it’s hard to electrify a crowd when all you have to work with is a dull passage from the Old Testament. Still, the experience exhilarated me. I was buzzing afterwards. I knew that whatever career I would choose would have a public speaking element.
For a long time, I was determined to become a barrister. It would be exciting to stand before a jury like one of the TV lawyers and use my oratorical skills to brilliantly and forensically demolish my opponent’s argument.
I also dreamed of a career in politics. It wasn’t the humdrum constituency work I was interested in, or messy meetings in smoke-filled rooms, but the opportunity to make speeches, and argue points, and even, eventually, once I got to the top, to address the nation. I could recite large parts of JFK’s inaugural address and MLK’s ‘I have a dream’ speech. I could imagine delivering speeches like that, but, of course, it never came to be because I got derailed down the religion road.
I still often wonder ‘What if?’
At least being a clergyman offers the opportunity to speak in public, like I did on Sunday. And, occasionally, to debate in public also. I have taken part in a number of university debates against top quality opponents over the years and won them all on a show of hands. There are few bigger thrills than having a student audience declare you the victor.
Not all my preaching has been a success. I remember vividly the Christmas midnight Mass when I got it spectacularly wrong. The little church was packed, lots of young families were in attendance, and I spoke about how at Christmas many people can experience the absence of God rather than God’s presence. I used a story from Auschwitz to illustrate my point.
I knew half way through the homily that it wasn’t going down well, and after the Mass was over and I stood at the back to greet people as they left, several made sure to let me know what they thought of my performance.
“Disgraceful!” one man exclaimed. His wife tried to be more diplomatic. “It wasn’t that bad, Father, don’t listen to him,” she said. “No, he needs to hear the truth,” the husband retorted. “Someone needs to tell him.”
Another woman, two kids in tow, told me forcefully never to preach that sermon again. Others said the same thing.
I was distraught. I knew I had miscalculated badly. Christmas should be uplifting and cuddly and child-friendly. Mine was the opposite. I vowed never to make a mistake like that again. And I haven’t.
I think one of the great weaknesses of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland has been the quality of its preachers and preaching. Some preachers are always going to be better than others. They have an aptitude for it. They work at it. They enjoy it.
Some will never be brilliant but, with determination and effort, they can and do improve.
But a lot of clergy, it seems to me, do not try very hard. And maybe do not care a great deal any more. They are too tired or too busy to prepare adequately. They commit little or nothing to paper. They feel they have said it all before, or they have a few pet topics they keep returning to. The whole exercise is a chore for them as well as for the congregation. I sometimes wonder how so many people put up with it week after week.
And of course it is difficult for both priest and people when the priest has to face the same people every Sunday and the people have to face the same priest.
The preaching problem will become even more acute as the number of priests continues to fall. Importing clergy from overseas, who have no knowledge of our culture and for whom English is not their first language, will only exacerbate the problem.
Priests need more training. When the Redemptorists ran renewal courses for clergy and religious back in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, the preaching segment was the bit the participants disliked most. Each had to compose a homily and deliver it to camera as if in his own parish setting. And then the others were encouraged to critique his performance. He would naturally get defensive and his colleagues would always be reluctant to say something negative about his content or delivery.
Most of them found the whole ordeal excruciating, most made excuses about being in an unnatural environment that put them off their game. Many were in denial about how dreadful they actually were. I doubt that most took any lessons on board at all.
And yet priests need training and regular refresher days, because preaching is such a vital part of their ministry. Not all are going to be spellbinding orators or storytellers, but everyone can do better, if they try and if they prepare.
It is a shame and unjust that only priests and deacons are permitted to preach at the Eucharist. Women’s voices are never heard (unless occasionally one is invited to “say a few words” after communion). Married voices, unless the preacher is one of the few convert priests, are never heard either. So much wisdom is being lost. So much needs to change.
But change won’t come while we remain trapped in the current clerical model of church. Maybe the slow disappearance of priests in Ireland and the western world will bring about the change that is needed. Then good lay people will be required to preach and teach. For if they are not, the gospel will not be proclaimed and the church will become even more irrelevant.