Personal view Kit Cunningham
THE PROSPECT of the millennium has produced yet another document from the Vatican, which is full of sound sense, but said at great length. This has always been a mark of Rome's documents, the product of unknown (to us) clerics, who produce what one can only describe as leisurely, erudite statements which bear all the signs of the original expansive mode of writing.
The title of this document from the Congregation for the Clergy, is The Priest and the Third Christian Millennium, Teacher of the Word, Minister of Sacraments and Leader of the Community 29 pages of closely typed script. Space only allows comment about the first section; Teacher of the Word .
There has always been good advice for the clergy over the years on how they should preach. Some of the laity can be very free with their advice, sometimes too free. For the sermon is an art form. It has an HCF (highest common factor) and also an LCM (lowest common multiple), so it is difficult to know how to aim the sermon.
My father gave me advice when I was ordained, to remember that most people are theologically peasants. He would also say, if you haven't struck oil in ten minutes, stop boring. The leisurely sermon of years ago, with well rounded phrases, is well nigh incomprehensible to modern churchgoers. Name-dropping among the saints is also very confusing, and when a sermon starts with Abraham and finishes with Madame de Stael, then the good burghers in the pews are left bewildered.
CONGREGATIONS have changed. Despite microphones and loudspeakers, the people do not hear. Their attention span has become limited, due in great part to the speed of modem communications, and television. Sound bites are the order of the day. How much better the Sicilian preacher on Our Lady, shouting three times, "Viva Maria", with the congregation replying likewise? There's involvement for you. But sadly, it wouldn't work in our northern climes.
The need then is for simple, straightforward language, but language that cannot just be directed at the intellect. There is need for language of the emotions as well, and one can hope for some spiritual response.
The vocabulary demanded of the preacher is not necessarily the vocabulary of the congregation. Spiritual words are not necessarily or easily understood. Terms such as original sin and its consequence, redemption, the Cross, need for prayer, humility and penance, can mean so little outside a strong Christian faith.
I suppose it can be said that most sermons are like the curate's egg, and in using this simile, there's a danger that I will not be understood. On the other hand, there is the danger of making things too topical, even to the point of incongruity: "As I opened the curtain of my shower, I remembered the words of St John of the Cross, how the curtain of life separates us from true reality."
Then there is the sermon preached haltingly, in a foreign language, like the young missionary preaching in Ki Swahili for ten minutes, to be followed at the end of the Mass by the catechist, telling the congregation to sit, and he would tell them what the Father really meant to say. And this he did for an hour and a half.
You can hope that your priest will be interesting and stimulating. As a student for the priesthood, he will be exhorted to become a good communicator. But above all he is a priest, and we can hope that the greatest sermon he will ever preach, is the example of his good and holy life. So it is not in words, but in actions, that the greatest lessons of life are to be learnt.
Great preachers are born, not made, and all the mechanical means available will not bring to life a message that is dead in a preacher.
So cheer up, for the preacher has taught you one important thing, that there should be some penance in your life. You were not born to be entertained. You have to suffer a little in this life. And what better place to do it than the 9.30 Mass on Sunday morning?
You can hope that you will be instructed, and why not pray to be instructed as well? Have you ever thought of that?