Here is a sad story. One of my daughters arrived at my house on Christmas Day with her non-Catholic husband and three (young adult) children. She was exasperated by the Mass she had attended. “There I was, at a Christmas Mass, where you would expect that a number of occasional Catholics would make the effort to turn up, and none of us could make out the sermon. It was virtually inaudible. What a missed opportunity!”
I had to agree. I have heard countless sermons from countless priests, in countless places, and I doubt if more than one sermon out of five could be regarded as approaching competence. Naturally, I am not talking about the theology or doubting anyone’s good intentions, I am talking about competent presentation. And that is important because it is a key occasion of contact between the teaching Church and the listening Church. I accept, of course, that not everyone is a natural public speaker but everyone can improve their skills. We are not inclined to excuse a doctor of medicine who does not care to improve his medical skills. Why should we not expect as much from a doctor of souls?
Having spent much of my life as a speaker, I think I know where the problem lies. In order to maintain an acceptable standard I need to expose myself regularly to direct criticism. That is, I charge one or two trustworthy people in my audience to give me constructive feedback. It can be tough to hear, but like any professional I need a coach. If I cannot set that up, I use my pocket recorder so that I can play my presentation straight back. It is painful to recognise my imperfections. Will I one day be so experienced that I no longer need the help? I have been training for 70 years. I’ll let you know when I’m good enough.
So I would advise anyone whose function it is to preach, priest or deacon, that he has a duty to sustain and develop his professional skill. And he will only do this by constant practice and with constant feedback. Without this, it’s a pound to a penny that he is at best mediocre and at worst causes scandal. I had the motivation of surprisingly generous fees: he has the motivation of the greater glory of God.
Some may be fortunate enough to have neighbour priests for joint in-service training. Others would do well to join an active secular organisation like Toastmasters. I can promise that your fellow members will be eager to help.
Since I cannot turn this column into a mini public speaking course, I will confine myself to one piece of advice. It has the advantage that anyone who takes it will never go far wrong and anyone who neglects it can spend the rest of his life studying public speaking and never succeed.
The most important stage in preparing an address is setting out objectives. And the process starts with asking the question: “What do I want to have happened to my congregation/audience between the time I stand up and the time I sit down?”
It’s as simple as that, but note the distinction: the objectives are not about what I do. They are about what should happen in the listener’s mind as a result of what I do. And every objective must pass the CROW test. That is, a satisfactory objective must be Concrete, Realistic, Observable and Worthwhile. It’s a high standard. “I am going to tell the congregation how the story in the Gospel today can affect them in their everyday lives” differs importantly from “My congregation should recognise how the story in the Gospel is relevant in their everyday lives, and they should already be thinking of an instance or two in which they could apply it.” It is the second which focuses the preacher’s mind on the ways he might achieve this change in the congregation. From then onwards every aspect of preparation should be measured against its effectiveness in achieving the objectives.
This will cover a number of issues. Will there be a clear structure so that the audience can follow what they are hearing? Does that structure reflect that attention and recall are best achieved at the opening and the closing? Are the illustrations likely to have impact on that particular congregation? How many points are to be made, given that one memorable point is better than three which are forgotten? How long should it be, accepting that at the average Sunday Mass every minute beyond seven detracts from rather than adds to the message? It’s hard work: at least a couple of hours will be needed to distil the preparation into a five-minute message in which every word counts. A 10-minute message takes rather less time.
Some may argue that this world of techniques and tricks and tropes is unworthy of the sacred duty of preaching. Surely the plain word, straight from the heart, is enough. No doubt there are some whose deep holiness combines with native ability, who need no further skills. And who would deny that the spirit bloweth where it listeth? But I think these to be rather few.
We might take some comfort from the thought that rhetoric is a high art, not easily acquired. Even today, following the custom of classical education, the final year in a Jesuit school is called Rhetoric. Only then is the scholar fit to take his place in the world, or in the pulpit.