Catholic Bishops Want Better Preaching

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has approved a document calling priests to step up the quality of their preaching at Sunday services. The document, entitled “Preaching the Mystery of Faith: The Sunday Homily,” positions the call for better preaching as part of Rome’s recent push for a “New Evangelization.”

In our day many Catholics have drifted away from active participation in the Church and are in need themselves of hearing again the Gospel of Jesus Christ and of recommitting themselves to discipleship.

The bishops note that the Catholic faithful have been calling for better preaching for years now.

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.

The new emphasis on preaching among Catholics is a good sign. Amid all the issues that led the reformers to break with Rome, as I argued in a recent post, the lack of gospel preaching was first and foremost. Calvin was willing to acknowledge the existence of true churches under the Roman hierarchy, but only where the gospel was faithfully preached. My own Catholic friends tell me that, unfortunately in their view, things have not changed much in the Church since Calvin’s day. Clear, biblical, gospel-oriented preaching is still quite rare.

But the recent push for better preaching comes all the way from the top. Following a 2008 assembly of bishops on the Word of God in the life of the church, Pope Benedict XVI declared that since the word is at the heart of every ecclesial activity, the church’s homilies must be improved. In 2010 he declared that the church’s preaching needs to be direct and focused on the gospel:

Generic and abstract homilies which obscure the directness of God’s word should be avoided, as well as useless digressions which risk drawing greater attention to the preacher than to the heart of the Gospel message.

The document approved by the U.S. bishops likewise declares,

The message of the Gospel is truly a matter of “life and death” for us; there is nothing routine or trivial about it. If a homilist conveys merely some example of proverbial wisdom or good manners, or only some insight gained from his personal experience, he may have spoken accurately and even helpfully, but he has not yet spoken the Gospel, which ultimately must focus on the person of Jesus and the dynamic power of his mission to the world….

The ultimate goal of proclaiming the Gospel is to lead people into a loving and intimate relationship with the Lord, a relationship that forms the character of their persons and guides them in living out their faith.

Of course, many Evangelicals and Reformed believers will find this to be but a small step. Luther and Calvin were adamant that the faithful preaching of the gospel is the mark of a true church, such that where there is no such preaching there is no true church. From this perspective the document’s opening assertion of the importance of preaching is still quite weak:

One of the most significant ways in which the Church as the Body of Christ proclaims the dynamic Word of God is through the preaching of her ordained ministers, particularly in the context of the Sunday Eucharist. (emphasis added)

As long as many Catholic priests continue to accept cultural allegiance to Rome, implicit faith, and participation in the sacraments as equally sufficient conditions of a healthy church, the emphasis of Rome and the Catholic bishops on better homilies probably won’t bring about the sort of preaching for which they hope. There is something crucial in the Protestant emphasis on the preaching of the gospel as fundamental – and on the need for Christians to have an active, informed faith – that even this new document fails to capture.

Nevertheless, the efforts of Rome and the bishops should be lauded. The closer priests and the faithful get to the text of Scripture and its presentation of the gospel the healthier (or “truer”) their churches will be. I wish them success in this endeavor.

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About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on November 28, 2012, in Calvin, Preaching, Roman Catholic Church and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Catholic Bishops Want Better Preaching.

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