The National Catholic Review
Chris Chatteris
Why routine feedback on the Sunday homily is essential
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I'm tired of being made to feel like an idiot.” That is the reason a woman friend of Clifford Longley, a correspondent for The London Tablet, gave for no longer attending Mass. One hears variations of this sentiment with such regularity among thoughtful Catholics that one is tempted to coin a new beatitude: Blessed are those who persevere. Or perhaps it should be: Blessed are those courageous enough to give frank feedback on the preaching at Mass.

I can think of no greater service to the pastoral practice of the church than constructive 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. Preachers who "talk down” to the congregation might suffer the fate of a priest I heard of who gave a scathing critique of a play at a local theater that portrayed a religious brother reminiscing rather bitterly on the vicissitudes of his life in a teaching order. The homilist was just hitting his critical stride when a man in the congregation put up his hand and introduced himself as the actor who played the role of the said brother. He then asked the priest very politely whether he had actually seen the play. The shamefaced but honest reply was that he had only read the reviews.

The anecdote (a true story apparently) illustrates the importance of homework, professionalism and respect for the intelligence of the congregation. It also illustrates the effectiveness of straightforward and trenchant feedback, as opposed to the conventional and mostly meaningless, "Nice homily, Father.”

Forms of Feedback

Feedback can take as many forms as there are cultures in the church. In some parts of Africa, for example, instantaneous feedback is a cultural feature of public speaking, including preaching. I like the story about the pastor whose sermon was limping along on a bad day when someone shouted, "Help him, Lord! Help him!” Where I live in South Africa, if someone gets up after Mass to make an announcement and goes on for too long, perhaps commenting on the goings-on in the parish, someone might well break in by leading the congregation in song to signal that it is time to stop talking and sit down. This does not typically happen to the clergy during their homilies, but South Africans must sometimes be sorely tempted.

Of course, audience participation in South African culture is not simply about cutting speakers short much of it is about encouragement. Just as the parishioner who shouts "Help him, Lord!” is, barring the possibility of a heavy, undermining irony, genuinely trying to encourage the preacher with a reminder of the availability of divine assistance, so it is with another black South African custom. A congregation may sing something rousing as a speaker gets up to speak and composes himself or herself such singing indicates the basic encouraging stance of the community. Its warm assurance beats the glacial, analytical stillness that a speaker must brave when stepping up to podium or pulpit before many a Western audience or congregation.

Yet in most Catholic churches worldwide, the homily is one of the last forms of public discourse in which no feedback is expected. This is often true even in some African churches, which, despite allowing a degree of instant feedback, are far less responsive than are the communities of their non-Catholic neighbors. Catholic missionaries brought a Western style of pulpit communication and a theology of the priesthood that, even if it included some sense of the priesthood of the laity, did not countenance the people's interrupting or punctuating homilies.

I say no feedback is "expected,” because feedback does in fact always take place, even in many Western cultures. The question is whether or not the preacher picks it up, since the feedback tends to be subtle. Communication theory has made the point that listening is also a form of communication. When I listen intently to someone, I send important, positive signals to the speaker. On those occasions when a preacher can hear a pin drop during the pauses in a homily because attention is so rapt, the congregation is effectively communicating its considerable level of interest and approval of what is being said and how. This silence is different from what is called a "stony silence,” in which the message is being carefully listened to but with disapproval, perhaps even hostility.

Receiving the Message

Communication has been defined as "the accurate transmission and reception of a message.” Preachers sometimes forget that while they are putting a message out, the hearers are simultaneously transmitting a message, perhaps a multiplicity of messages, back. But if homiletical communication is thought to go in only one direction, Catholic preachers can easily forget the returning message or "tune out” what the congregation is saying to them.

There is also a congregational response that has been referred to as the "fidget level.” When it is high, no pin would be heard if it dropped during a pause in the discourse because of the shifting of feet, the rustling of clothes and so on. The fidget level can be seen and heard by the preacher. And it is a certain sign that, for whatever reason, one simply does not have the congregation's attention. Even in an age when people have a heightened awareness of the importance of body language, preachers sometimes show a surprising lack of interpretive ability in this respect.

The examples I have given so far are unofficial and anecdotal. By contrast, the late Bishop Kenneth Untener of Saginaw, Mich., used to carry a little notebook and solicit comments from the congregation. Although the bishop's personal style was informal, his status as bishop raised the procedure to a sort of quasi-official level, on which the people at Mass could express their assessments of the preaching of their bishop and priests. Unfortunately, such attempts to make feedback official and routine are the exception.

Another exception is the formation of a preaching committee&ampampampmdasha group of parishioners asked to assist the priest, deacon or lay preacher in the preparation, delivery and assessment of the homily. The U.S. Catholic bishops have wisely written: "Only when preachers know what their congregations want to hear will they be able to communicate what they need to hear” (Fulfilled in Your Hearing, 1982). A preaching committee can help a preacher to discern a congregation's needs and thus assist in finding helpful themes for homilies. Such a group can also break down the alienating sense of loneliness that can accompany the process of preparing homilies, an awful feeling of flying solo.

Some preachers routinely begin their homilies with a joke in order to wake up a supposedly sleepy congregation. By contrast, Bishop Untener suggested that the moment between the end of the Gospel proclamation and the preacher's first word is inherently a moment of profound attention. That moment speaks volumes about the congregation's hope, which springs eternal, for a decent homily this Sunday. It also silently articulates a general yearning that congregations have for good preaching. After all, for many people in the pews, the Sunday homily is their primary nourishment in the faith.

We live in a world in which feedback is routine and is built into most forms of communication. Politicians, teachers, journalists and other communicators expect and welcome feedback. Modern church communicators should likewise expect assessors to make helpful comments on their skills. The maintenance and development of professional standards demands such feedback. And in a world of increasingly educated hearers brought up amid democratic discourse, the one-way street of the monologue homily risks becoming a cultural curiosity or an alien, authoritarian symbol. It also seems a far cry from the example of the Word made flesh, who was constantly being asked questions by his hearers and who responded with stories, parables and examples from life.

Today the "simple faithful” are no more I wonder whether they ever existed. My own experience working with people who have not had the good fortune to obtain an academic degree has helped me realize that lack of book learning does not mean lack of intelligence or wisdom. When we get up to preach, we sometimes experience an almost terrifying sense that the people in the congregation know us they can tell very quickly whether we are prepared or not and whether we are genuine or not. The sensus fidelium homes in, not just on the manner and matter of the preacher's message, but more unnervingly on the preacher's character, prayerfulness and holiness (or lack thereof). These a congregation intuits very quickly. And the people's appreciation of these traits (or their unhappiness with what they see) becomes part of the feedback they quietly transmit. That is true whether the preachers are receiving the messages or not.

Chris Chatteris, S.J., is the deputy director and media liaison officer of the Jesuit Institute in Johannesburg, South Africa. Fulfilled in Your Hearingsensus fidelium

Comments

Andrew Di Liddo | 7/30/2009 - 5:13pm
I recently attended a Mass for a fellow Knight in the Knights of Columbus.  His wife had passed away and it was a memoriam Mass for his wife who had been cremated after her body was used for scientific study and education.  A very old retired priest was one of the priests in attendance and since retired, I had never heard him preach before.  I was enthralled by his homily.  The primary benefit to me of his homily was that he took the thread through the Old Testament and connected it with the New Testament.  Homilists very frequently overlook making the connection of the OT to the NT for the congregation.  I felt that this retired priest did it masterfully and after the Mass, I introduced myself, told him I was new to the parish, and this was the first time for me that I heard him preach.  I said something to the effect that "you covered the entire Bible"....which wasn't exactly what I intended.  What I meant to say was that he took several points in the OT and connected them to the NT.  We all then walked across the street to the Knights of Columbus hall for a supper and fellowship.  To my chagrin, the priest stood up for grace, and introduced grace with a joke that I had told him that he covered the entire Bible in his homily.  He joked, I didnt think my Homily was THAT LONG!  ughhhhhhhhhhh, how embarrasing.  I will be more careful with feedback in the future.
Luis Celaya | 5/25/2009 - 5:05pm
Bravo for this article; it addresses an issue with me and many folks my age who still persever with mass attendance on most Suday mornings or Saturday evenings. This is the one time that I can listen quietly and learn something from a man; it is always a man, yes. He is on the mark about half the time. The jokes are not really funny or are they to the point; I feel like groaning. He is required, I think, to also preach in Spanish at one of the three weeknd masses at our small, rural parish. These homilies are not successful but we are grateful that he attempts to preach in Spanish. The jokes do not tranlate well and I see the blank looks from my fellow parishioners who speak only Spanish wondering or thinking What!. I would prefer that he just read a prepared text from a book of homlies in Spanish than try to preach extemporaneously. It is painful for most of us who are comfortable in both languages but there is something wonderful about a mass celebrated in our first language. I lived in a rural area in Texas where, sadly, the priest only visited. As a child in very,rural Mexico there were no priests and a woman, yes, always a woman would read the mass from the missal. A nun would preach from the pulpit when there was no priest at the Texas venue; there was no "church" an auditorium was the gathering place and they were a blessing when it came to share the gospel of Jesus. I thought about the many times I wished for a woman-nun to preach the gospel.
Patrick Murtha | 5/25/2009 - 12:06pm
Perhaps, Fr. Chatteris, the woman in question would not feel like an idiot if priests started talking about things that matter - such as Heaven and Hell and the need for Catholics to act as Catholics, such as St. Ignatius of Loyola who preached against the vices of his world. Too often the attitude of the clergy is that religion is simply a sentimental thing, a matter of the heart and not the head. A hippy religion, if you get the drift. Are not the clergy supposed to be comparable to medical doctors - only doctors of the soul? Imagine a patient telling a doctor what they want to hear. Give me another cigarette, please. In fact, the clergy need to start throwing some fast balls with a real zing to them. Enough of the goody-goody, sentimentalism. Let us lay people have sermons that sound like Pius X's Pascendi or Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum or those of the Cure of Ars. Priests would do well to follow the example of the hardhitting popes of the past and stop trying to be entertainers. They need to be Apostles like St. Paul and speak with vigor and without fear. People mention passivity in the congregation. Whose fault is that? The Church is for the Sacrifice of the Mass, which is about Christ. Let the laity be quiet and listen to his words and say with Samuel, "Speak Lord, thy servant listens." Catholic Action is what a Catholic does when he gets out into the world to restore all things in Christ, or as the Jesuit motto is Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam, "To the greater glory of God."
Fr. Dennis Brown, OMV | 5/22/2009 - 10:10am
Good article. The need for proximate and lengthy preparation cannot be overemphasized (along with prayerfulness and holiness, of course) Here's a follow up related to feedback The Imperative of Fraternal Correction By George Weigel Posted: Tuesday, May 19, 2009 THE CATHOLIC DIFFERENCE Publication Date: May 6, 2009 Every September, the Congregation for Bishops in Rome hosts a seminar for newly-ordained bishops from around the world; the seminar is widely known, at least sotto voce, as "Baby Bishops' School." I have a modest suggestion for the curriculum: everyone attending the seminar should be given a copy of the classic World War II novel, Twelve O'Clock High!, which is far less a story of B-17s over Europe than a lesson in paternal, masculine leadership. About halfway through the book, when General Frank Savage has dramatically reversed the disastrous morale of the 918th Heavy Bombardment Group by ignoring an order and hitting a difficult target, a once-skeptical lieutenant (and Medal of Honor winner), Jesse Bishop, admits that he's misread the fiery commander and asks Savage if he'd "mind very much kicking me in the tail?" Bishop bends over, Savage obliges - and then asks the youngster to do him a favor: "All right, Jesse...I want you to be the one guy in the group that doesn't believe I'm a general. That door is always open. Any time you think I'm not doing so hot, come in and tell me. Let me know what the boys are thinking. I need you plenty, and I'll count on you to keep me straightened out." I hope it's not considered impious if I suggest that every bishop needs a Bishop. Or several Bishops. Catholic bishops don't have wives. But like every other high-achievement male in the world, Catholic bishops need someone to keep them "straightened out," as Savage put it - especially when they're "not doing so hot." A bishops with a particularly close and open relationship with his presbyterate might find a Bishop or two among his priests, but the dynamics of contemporary clerical culture mitigate against that kind of frankness. No, bishops need to find Bishops among their brother bishops. Father Thomas Reese, SJ, would appear to disagree. Several weeks ago, Archbishop Raymond Burke of the Apostolic Signatura gave an interview in which he suggested that some bishops in the United States were not doing all they might do to protect the integrity of the Eucharist, and the souls of those in their care, by not making it clear to pro-abortion Catholic politicians that they should refrain from receiving holy communion. At a subsequent Washington press conference, Archbishop Burke's remarks were unfairly used by a pro-life activist to try and settle some scores with bishops of whom the activist disapproved. During the ensuing media fuss, Father Reese, who would not object to being described as on the far side of the communion-for-pro-abortion-politicians debate from Archbishop Burke, saw his chance and took it. According to the Jesuit master of the Catholic sound-bite, Archbishop Burke "really violated... episcopal etiquette. You don't criticize other bishops in public and you don't tell other bishops how to run their diocese." One wonders precisely what "episcopal etiquette" is being evoked here. The "etiquette" of a Cyril of Alexandria, who wrote the Patriarch Nestorius and informed him that his sermons questioning Mary's title, "Mother of God," were dubiously orthodox? The "etiquette" of a Cyprian, who engaged in what the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church calls a "violent correspondence" with Pope Stephen I over the validity of baptism administered by heretics and schismatics? Or the "etiquette" of a men's club in which it's considered bad form to confront a fellow member of the club, even if he's embarrassing himself and the club? With an eye to the Frank Savage Rule of Fraternal Correction, I'll take the hard-knuckled but canonized Fathers of the Church - Cyril, who was right on the issues, and Cyprian, who in this instance was wrong - over Father Reese's genteel men's club. Catholic bishops need someone like Savage's Jesse Bishop to tell them when they're "not doing so hot." The likeliest candidates for administering such fraternal correction are a man's brother bishops. The privilege of fraternal correction, which is really an exercise of fraternal charity, should not be abused, and it's usually best done outside the media circus. But can anyone seriously doubt, after the debacles revealed in the Long Lent of 2002, that it's absolutely imperative?
Mary Pope-Handy | 5/21/2009 - 11:06am
This article hits a nerve: bad preaching is perhaps the main reason why many Catholics are loathe to find their way to Sunday Mass. In the Diocese of San Jose there are about 600,000 registered Catholics, but on any given Sunday, only about 100,000 can be found in a Catholic Church. People are voting with their feet. It's not just a matter of stylistics, of "uhms" or meandering aimlessly around a topic. The basic ideas the priest tries to convey and overall thrust is often very poor. Apparently some priests simply do not make the time to mull over the Scriptures, pray about them, and put pen to paper with a good deal of thought. Sometimes it's poor training, but sometimes the priest has a poor theology himself. In my parish, we had a young, well intentioned priest who would grab his guitar and sing his reflection of "Jesus loves you" over and over. (This was not in the 60s but rather within the last decade.) We had an associate who declared to a packed church that when his cat died recently, he realized he'd never see her again because pets don't have souls so cannot go to heaven. (The church does not have a stance on animals in heaven, as far as I know.) How heartless to say such a thing, which the church does not assert, to a community full of children and their bewildered parents! Once I heard a Holy Ghost father preach that "unless you are Catholic and go to communion each week, you won't go to heaven". That's not bad preaching, that's heresy. Who are we to limit God? (I did give him some feedback, but it wasn't a conversation that went well.) As for good preaching, I have heard that too and it is always appreciated. For awhile we had Fr. John Murphy, SJ, visit our parish on some Sundays. One woman used to tape his homilies so she could hear them again. I heard a couple behind me comment in amazement during one of his homilies, "wow he's good!" and was there when the congregation erupted into applause after he preached movingly about the breaking pedophile scandal a few years ago. Our pastor, soon to retire, gave a number of very fine homilies as well and seems in tune both with the people and a healthy theology. He will be sorely missed. Priests and deacons who preach well, and become known for it, can and do "pack the house". We are fortunate to have alternatives to the parish experience available here in Silicon Valley and most of the time now attend Mass at the Mission Church at Santa Clara University, where we are spoiled with great preaching every Sunday. Our teens were on the brink of dropping out (the cat not going to heaven was pretty much the last straw for our parish being our norm for Mass) but they are very happy to go to the Mission. What about everyone else, where there's no alternative? Our formation of priests, training in homiletics as well as in spirituality and theology need to be brought up a few notches. Let's aim not for "OK" preaching, but the kind that can help to revitalize the community. We'll know we've succeeded when the parishes are all full again. Mary Pope-Handy Los Gatos, CA
Kathy Pesta | 5/20/2009 - 6:24pm
I have often wondered what kind of training young men receive in homiletics. My suspicion is that most of them don't get much or that sometimes it's not very creative or deeply spiritual. As a teacher, I am required to state my objective/goal for each lesson I teach. What idea, understanding, insight, clarification do I want my students to glean from each day's lecture/activity? from each assignment? I think it would help homilists if they asked themselves similiar questions. "What do I want that seventeen year old boy who slouches in the third row to know, understand, feel,think about as a result of my homily? How about that seventy-five year old in the front seat or the young mother with two little tykes squirming in her lap? What would Jesus want her to take home to her busy and tiring life from this homily? Which leads to the second point. Please, please, please relate the scripture to the REAL LIVES and vocations of the congregatiion. I remember being appalled at a homily one Sunday that happened to fall on the day U.S. taxes were due. The homilist began with something like "Once there was an old man who had a dog..." and I thought, "Wow, are you missing a great opportunity." How about, "Well, here you all are. Did you survive the fights? the searching for receipts? Are you tired? Kids, was it a little tense in your house this weekend?" And then get on with the message. I remember another homily given by a deacon who was married and had a large family. He had experienced a lot of sickness and even death in his own family and yet he always began and stuck to the bullet points given to him in the homily starters from the diocese. It amazes me that the life pulsating so beautifully in the congregation-sometimes joyfully, sometimes tragically-is not the obvious and most effective fodder for making whatever case the readings make. Lastly, it is my firm belief that any homily which contains the word "church" more often than it contains the words "Jesus," "God," or "Spirit" gets the response it deserves!
Kuusoru Methodius, Brothers FIC | 5/20/2009 - 6:36am
Dear Rev. Fr.Chris, I am an African presently working as a team member of the General Council of my Religious Congregation in The Netherlands. At the moment I am on visit to Indonesia one of our provinces. I am a subscriber to "America" and I just want to say that your article caught attention because it touched me considerably. I once gave a candid advice to a priest after his homily because I felt embarrassed about what he said in the homily concernimg another ethnic group that was present during the mass. I had told him my appreeciation of the homily but pointed politely that his point about the other ethnc group was of sour taste. He did not take it kindly and so everytime he had the opportunity to preach when I was present I felt he indirectly attacked me for the feedback I once gave him on his preaching. He would say things about people who think highly of themselves because they have studied some theology, and that those kinds of stuff.Since then i have kept a distance from giving a feedback to priests. I am sorry to say that there are some priests in my part of the world who think that they know everything and the congregation is not intelligent enough to criticise their homilies. This is an arrogant attitude, you would agree with me. I hope your message could reach as many priests in Africa as possible. Thank you. Methodius, FIC
Kuusoru Methodus | 5/20/2009 - 5:14am
Dear Rev. Fr. I am an African presently working as a team member of the General Council of my Religious Congregation in The Netherlands. At the moment I am on visit to Indonesia one of our provinces. I am a subscriber to "America" and I just want to say that your article caught attention because it touched me considerably. I once gave a candid advice to a priest after his homily because I felt embarrassed about what he said in the homily concern another ethnic group that was present during the mass. He did not take it kindly and so everytime he had the opportunity to preach when I am present I felt he indirectly attacked me for the feedback I once gave him on his preaching. Since then i have kept my distance from giving a feedback to priests. I am sorry to say that there some priests in my part of Africa who think that they know everything and the congregation is not intelligent enough to criticise their homilies. This is an arrogant attitude, you would agree with me. I hope your message could reach as many priests in Africa as possible. Thank you. Methodius, FIC
Fernán Jaramillo | 5/19/2009 - 12:32pm
I prefer not to give my name, out of a desire not to inadvertently offend my priest, who is a kind and gentle pastor. But I've never heard a decent homily from him. It is mostly cliches, bad jokes, family stories (what is it with family stories?), long winded explanations (including, let's say, the Geography of the holy land), etc. No food for the soul! With his preaching and the Marty Haugen music I have stopped going to mass...
Richard Stern | 5/19/2009 - 10:43am
It takes two parties to ensure good preaching: a good homilist and good hearers. Both have to take preaching seriously. (I am intentionally setting aside for this discussion the third vital factor, the Word.)Chris Chatteris, SJ, raises an important issue for both preachers and those in the assembly who listen to preaching. Chatteris is right on target. Preachers need feedback. How else can they measure how they are doing? Chatteris refers to the late Kenneth Untener, the late bishop of Saginaw, Michigan, who not only took notes about what hearers were looking for in preaching and wrote a book based on his findings, he implemented a process whereby preachers in his diocese would get feedback from peers and others skilled in communication techniques. While Fulfilled in Your Hearing (FIYH), the 1982 U.S. bishops’ statement on preaching, does not specify precise means of feedback, feedback is surely consistent with the tone of that important document in defining good preaching. As Chatteris recognizes as a media liaison officer, raising the issue is a worthy goal. But it is only the first step. Chatteris offers helpful suggestions about providing that feedback. I would like to offer a few more. The issue may be more completely parsed by subdividing the situation into its component parts: the preacher and the hearers. It takes the effort and commitment of both parties to ensure good preaching. Further, I am convinced that good preaching pays off, no matter how that payoff might be defined. Preachers must want to receive feedback, must want to improve their preaching before intentional and steady improvement can really happen. When I ask seminary students how many wanted to study for priesthood because they want to be preachers, few raise their hands. Preaching comes with the turf, but it is not necessarily high on their agenda of skills to be developed, much less a priority, less yet a joy and specialty. This notion can be re-directed at the seminary level by making preaching an important part of the curriculum. The seminary is one location where preachers should develop the inclination or habitus as well as the skills for both giving and getting feedback about their preaching. Further, and consistent with Pastores Dabo Vobis and the United States bishops’ Program for Priestly Formation, 5th Edition, an understanding of the need for ongoing education and formation should be embedded in the seminary curriculum. I have discovered, however, that continuing education for preaching is a hard sell. Saint Meinrad School of Theology has a program for certifying supervisors of practitioners in the areas of homiletics and pastoral care. Again, the idea of ongoing formation is a tough sell. Frankly, I do not know why this is. Is it because it takes work? I know that priests often complain that the first two things to disappear after ordination are time to prepare to preach and time for regular prayer. I also know that preachers need to want to be better before they will be in a position to fully employ any feedback they might receive. Help is available but preachers have to make it a priority to avail themselves of that help. The National Organization for Continuing Education of Roman Catholic Clergy (NOCERCC) and the Catholic Coalition on Preaching (CCOP) are two organizations that have been offering programs for Catholic preachers, but they continuously struggle for enrollment. In addition to a cultivating a willingness to receive feedback, preachers can create opportunities or channels for that feedback. I know one priest who circulated feedback forms among his several Sunday assemblies in order to gauge his preaching efforts. Fr. James Bacik and Kevin Anderson have written A Light unto My Path, a helpful book on preaching. In addition, they report on a survey that they have distributed among various groups to provide feedback for preachers. The survey consists of 36 questions, which admittedly may be too many for a casual Sunday morning pulse-taking. With the authors’ permission, I use a ion of the questions to measure how well our school is preparing homilists by gathering a panel of pastors and parishioners who view a random sampling of student preaching and then respond to the survey. John McClure in The Roundtable Pulpit has suggested using parish leadership as a means for developing rotating teams that would both study the lectionary texts with the preacher and have small group discussions following the homily about implications of the homily for the hearers. Along these same lines, I suggest establishing weekly or at least regular small group study sessions that look at the lectionary texts for the coming Sunday, discuss what they understand the texts to be saying and how that can be applied to the lives of the those in the assembly. In surveys I have conducted, that is a constant refrain, that preaching make some point of relevance or application to the daily lives of those in the pews. The preacher may be the designated study leader, but it is more a chance for the preacher to listen to how those in attendance understand the texts and how they might appropriate the text. Two things happen as a result of these studies. Preachers get a chance to listen to their parishioners. Good preaching is largely a listening activity. But for those in the study groups, there is an increased sense of ownership of what is said in the homily, even if nothing from the study makes it directly into the homily. The discussion has at least subtly shaped the homily, the homilist, and the hearers. On the other side of the equation is the hearer who would like to provide feedback. How does one go about that? I have heard plenty of grousing over the years about the poor quality of preaching that parishioners hear in their parishes. But how many of those grousing have ever approached their preachers with substantive comments, the feedback that Chatteris calls for? Before running up to the preacher to offer unsolicited feedback while filing out the door following Mass, hearers might take a moment to reflect on what they heard and why they liked or did not like the homily. What does “liking” a homily mean? What are the factors that make for a “good” homily? What did they hear the homily say? What did the homily move them to do? It would be helpful to read the lectionary texts either at home before Mass or reading through them in the pew before Mass begins. This minimal preparation could well alter how one engages the homily and how much one gets out of the homily. It is the hearer’s vocation to reflect on the homily, no matter how good or bad it might be. As noted in FIYH, “the proclamation of the Word of God is the responsibility of the entire Christian community by virtue of the sacrament of baptism.” This does not at all suggest that we all have license to become preachers, but it does mean that hearers are full participants in the preaching process. So how about specific feedback for the preacher? I have received some good feedback on my preaching over lunches or calmly delivered suggestions at (rare but) unhurried times during the week on topics, delivery tips, etc. I am grateful for the parishioner’s willingness to say something and say it in a gracious way. Preaching is a very vulnerable activity. It is different than any other speaking occasion. Preachers are, after all, proclaiming not just their own opinions but God’s Word. Tact and a positive approach will help. Instead of dwelling on what you do not like, at least mix the negative with some sincere positive observations. Start out with, “I really appreciate it when you….” Maybe next time offer some “constructive” observations. Much of this is probably obvious. But obvious does not always mean common practice.
BRUCE SNOWDEN | 5/19/2009 - 9:20am
Regarding "Preaching In A Vacuum" by Jesuit, Chris Chatteris, let me briefly say the following. I have never listened to a homily that I didn't benefit from. Instructive criticism of self, not constructive criticism of the preacher is needed. I mean, simply close your eyes and open your heart to what's being said and you won't "feel like an idiot, even if the preacher seems to have the gift of twisted tongues, not the Spirit's "Gift of Tongues." All that's needed is that the listener have the "Gift of Ears!" One must LISTEN not cranially, but cardially to the homilist. As always, including listening to a homily, one doesn't approach God with a critical mind - one approaches God with a humble heart. Don't attempt to impress God with the intellect, you'll be disappointed! Listen to God with an open, humble heart, and the word of God will fill it to the brim! Just LISTEN with the heart. Let the heart instruct the mind, not the other way around and every homily will be spiritually uplifting and the routine feedback to every homily will be, "Thank you Father/Deacon, your words were helpful!" This works for me and will also work for everyone who says with all his/her heartt, "Speak Lod, your servants is LISTENING!"
BRUCE SNOWDEN | 5/19/2009 - 9:20am
Regarding "Preaching In A Vacuum" by Jesuit, Chris Chatteris, let me briefly say the following. I have never listened to a homily that I didn't benefit from. Instructive criticism of self, not constructive criticism of the preacher is needed. I mean, simply close your eyes and open your heart to what's being said and you won't "feel like an idiot, even if the preacher seems to have the gift of twisted tongues, not the Spirit's "Gift of Tongues." All that's needed is that the listener have the "Gift of Ears!" One must LISTEN not cranially, but cardially to the homilist. As always, including listening to a homily, one doesn't approach God with a critical mind - one approaches God with a humble heart. Don't attempt to impress God with the intellect, you'll be disappointed! Listen to God with an open, humble heart, and the word of God will fill it to the brim! Just LISTEN with the heart. Let the heart instruct the mind, not the other way around and every homily will be spiritually uplifting and the routine feedback to every homily will be, "Thank you Father/Deacon, your words were helpful!" This works for me and will also work for everyone who says with all his/her heartt, "Speak Lod, your servants is LISTENING!"
Deacon Mike Evans | 5/19/2009 - 12:22am
Once ordained, there is never any official oversight of one's preaching, whether a deacon or a priest. No one at the diocese, deanery or among one's peer group is given the task of officially feeding back to the preacher about his homiletic style, delivery, quirks, 'ums and ers', or content. As a result, bad habits creep in and congregations then suffer. The opportunity to preach is a sacred duty, demanding our best effort evry time.
NICHOLAS CLIFFORD | 5/18/2009 - 9:07pm
Presumably I'm not the only person who's noticed, finding myself occasionally at a children's mass, that the homilist occasionally interrupts himself to ask questions of the children. "In today's Gospel, we hear Jesus saying such and such, and what do you think he means?" - or some variant of that. The technique engages the children, and their answers can range from bad guesses to the humorous to occasionally astoundingly wise. It makes for a kind of feeback. But has any of us ever heard a homilist treat an adult congregation - even a small one - in this way? And if not, why not? (no prizes for the right answer, which I think I can guess for myself).
David Jackson | 5/18/2009 - 8:05pm
The Roman Catholic liturgy encourages passivity. The personality of many priests encourages passivity. Several times after homilies that I preached a person approached me and said, "I was tempted to applaud." Now wouldn't that be something. I've actually experienced it and it was wonderful. Of course this risks that some homilies might encourage booing. Not many priests could take that.
Bruce Byrolly | 5/18/2009 - 7:33pm
Thank you Father Chatteris for your excellent article. I am a retired pastor who preaches in Catholic churches where I do not have the opportunity to meet with a preaching committee. I must find a creative way to get people's honest response to my homilies and to find out what they want to hear about in a homily. Any suggestions anyone? When I sit in a pew and hear an inadequate homily, my interior response is to say silently to the preacher: "Preach Jesus! Preach Jesus!" Bruce Byrolly
Norberto Kieferle | 5/18/2009 - 4:27pm
Gentlemn, The article on Catholic clerics preaching, to which the minority of Catholics who still prticipate in word and sacrament each weekend are subjected, is a real contribution to reigniting the fire of the Holy Spirit in the consciences of my fellow Catholic clerics. We have an opportunity each weekend to fan the flame of faith or ignite the flame of faith in the hearts of the congregation gathered with us. On most of the occasions when I've been subjected to Catholic preaching in recent years I've felt saddened by how graced minutes were squandered by the preacher. We clerics have no right to tempt the Holy Spirit to do the praying and studying that we are obligated to do as we prepare to preach.
Joseph Komadina | 5/18/2009 - 3:33pm
I am forunate enough to have a pastor at St. James who does ask for feedback and gets it. He also gets enthusiatic feedback during the homily from time to time. He works with two scripture groups during the week which gives him input into how people are thinking. A point the writer doesn't treat is that the Roman Catholic preacher often has a more widely diverse group of people to address than one might ordinarily encounter in such a context. He's not just preaching to the choir.
Christopher Mulcahy | 5/18/2009 - 1:17pm
Would that bishops, and their priest/homilists, took advantage of an existing organization-Toastmasters International. As a member, I invited a local priest, and self-styled orator, as a guest. He was invited to speak, and did well, with the exception of uttering a dozen "ums", which netted him a record fine of $3.00 US (@.25). Toastmasters has perfected the art of creative, charitable critique of public speaking technique. (Key secret: the critiquers are also critiqued.) Were I a bishop, I would extend promotion only to those priests who attended Toastmasters or its equivalent.