ON THE SACRED LITURGY
SOLEMNLY PROMULGATED BY
POPE PAUL VI
ON DECEMBER 4, 1963
Paragraph 35 (2) Because the sermon is part of the liturgical service, the best place for it is to be indicated even in the rubrics, as far as the nature of the rite will allow; the ministry of preaching is to be fulfilled with exactitude and fidelity. The sermon, moreover, should draw its content mainly from scriptural and liturgical sources, and its character should be that of a proclamation of God's wonderful works in the history of salvation, the mystery of Christ, ever made present and active within us, especially in the celebration of the liturgy.
I will let the bishops of the United States, in their own words, describe the state of preaching in the United States in their document “Preaching the Mystery of Faith: The Sunday Homily.” (2012) “We are also aware that in survey after survey over the past years, the People of God have called for more powerful and inspiring preaching. A steady diet of tepid or poorly prepared homilies is often cited as a cause for discouragement on the part of laity and even leading some to turn away from the Church.” (Link to USCCB full document.)
There are few instructions from the Council that continue to languish over time as Paragraph 35. Para 35(2) is clear on several points, including the mandate that the place of the sermon be indicated in the ritual books—i.e., the reformed manual books as legal documents of the Church instruct that there must be a sermon, something that was not a given in 1963. Para 35(2) goes on to say that the ministry of preaching is to be “fulfilled with exactitude and fidelity.” The mention of fidelity is critical—everyone ordained to orders is expected to understand that preaching will be his life’s work, and no one can slough it off. Even after the Council I worked with many priests over the years who told me in so many words that preaching was a distant second to consecrating the host and the wine at Mass.
Para. 35(2) goes on to define what preaching is. Rather surprisingly, there was not a universal understanding of the term “preaching” in the Catholic Church, not in Vatican II’s day and for much of the Church’s history. In the decade before the Council, one of the most popular prime time television shows was “Life Is Worth Living,” featuring a weekly 30-minute sermon by Bishop Fulton J. Sheen of the Archdiocese of New York. It is hard to believe that a Catholic bishop and a blackboard posed a serious challenge in the national TV ratings to the king of television in the 1950’s, Milton Berle. “Uncle Miltie,” as Berle was called, used to joke that his time-slot opposition was “Uncle Fulty.” Sheen won an Emmy for his program, and in his acceptance speech he acknowledged his writers—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
I have a link here to one of Sheen’s programs [now owned by EWTN], and it is a mixture of devotion, instruction, anecdote, morality, humor, and personal charisma. His appeal went far beyond the Catholic audiences, and he converted many famous people through his private instructions. To be honest, no Catholic figure has used the medium of television more effectively than Bishop Sheen, some fifty-plus years ago, nor has anyone engaged the “world” more effectively and graciously than Uncle Fulty. If you were to ask a Catholic in 1954 for an example of preaching, Bishop Sheen would most likely be cited.
Catholics in their home parishes recognized that Sheen’s approach to preaching was of a different genre than home-cooked fare. As fellow blogger Monsignor Charles Pope (a fortuitous name for a cleric) put it, “Most of the sermons I grew up with could be summarized in two sentences: 1. “Jesus is challenging us to do better today.” 2. “Let us try to do better and now please stand for the creed.” Msgr. Pope was speaking of the Sheen era, but truth be told, much of 2017’s preaching sounds very similar.
In 2016 Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, in an excellent summary of the preaching dilemma in The Jurist, begins with a historical survey of the various understandings of the homily. Originally “a simple, extraneous address” to admonish worshippers to “imitate the good example” of the Scriptures just read, by the third century the homily became more expository or instructional in nature. St. Augustine in the fifth century combined exposition with pastoral sensitivity. He preached twice a day in his cathedral, believing his homilies should “explain, make holy, and convert.”
After five centuries of the Dark Ages, local bishops tended to pass the responsibility of preaching to the emerging religious orders, notably the Franciscans and the Dominicans, whose initials O.P. stand for Order of Preachers. With the rise of the universities and the writings of thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas, liturgical preaching became “rather mechanical and overly speculative.” The preaching orders took their mission outside the churches and into the streets. Gregory notes that Franciscan preaching, for example, tended to the moralistic and was somewhat disconnected from the Scripture.
Luther and those who followed him returned to the early expository method of preaching to explain the Bible. John Calvin, for example, “preached his way through all the books of the Bible in a most comprehensive way.” The Catholic response—the Council of Trent (1545-1563) --established seminaries and courses in preaching the Bible. With notable exceptions (St. Charles Borromeo, d. 1584), reform of priestly training and Biblical teaching was slow. It is interesting that the new Jesuit Order, which held that preaching needed to touch the emotions and effect conversions, was looked upon with suspicion from the generally staid Church establishment.
Gregory quotes today’s Café passage from Sacrosanctum Concilium. The Council document says of the homily that it need “draw its content mainly from scriptural and liturgical sources, and its character should be that of a proclamation of God's wonderful works in the history of salvation, the mystery of Christ, ever made present and active within us, especially in the celebration of the liturgy.” SC brings together several traditions of preaching: its Biblical source and its joyful announcement of Christ alive and among us.
I will pick up more of Archbishop Gregory’s themes next weekend, but it must be already clear that preachers fulfilling the mandate of Para. 35 must be extraordinarily gifted, internally holy, smart, artisan, and in Gregory’s words, “in touch with their congregations so that they know their needs and can thereby more effectively preach a word that a particular congregation needs to hear…”