Archbishop leads effort to improve Catholic preaching
Gregorio Borgia, ASSOCIATED PRESS
ST. LOUIS — As Drew Burkemper got up to preach, the weight of his task was evident.
His classmate at Kenrick-Glennon seminary in St. Louis, Adam Maus, had just pretty much killed it. Like Burkemper, Maus was to prepare and deliver to his class a homily for an imaginary event.
Maus' scenario had been a wedding between a 42-year-old bride with four children and her groom, who had recently returned to the Catholic church after years of spiritual exile. The nine other seminarians in the room loved his approach, showering him in glowing feedback.
Burkemper was up next, faced with preaching a scenario that would challenge any 23-year-old priest-to-be. His homily was for a marriage between a Catholic man and a Jewish woman.
As he began, he worked hard on his delivery, as his professor had taught him.
"Father Wester is big on delivering the homily," Burkemper said later. "Not just reading it."
The Rev. Don Wester, pastor of All Saints Parish in St. Peters, Mo., is Kenrick's professor of homiletics — the art of preaching.
He believes homilies should be practical and direct — that they should draw a connection between the everyday struggles of parishioners and biblical truths.
And it's exactly the kind of preaching that Catholic bishops across America are hoping for as part of a new national effort — led by St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson.
At their annual fall meeting this month, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted overwhelmingly to accept the new preaching document — their first since 1982.
The document is an admonishment of poor preaching, saying the bishops are "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."
Carlson had been working on the document for nearly two years, with Wester among his advisers. In an interview, the archbishop said his own father had strong feelings about preaching.
"It's not enough to tell me what the Bible says," Carlson recalled his father saying. "I need to know how to apply what the Bible says about my role as a father, a spouse and a businessman."
The bishops had actually been discussing the possibility of a document on preaching as long ago as 2006. But Pope Benedict XVI inspired them to act, issuing two "apostolic exhortations" — nondoctrinal statements of papal encouragement — in the past five years.
In the first of those statements, Benedict wrote in 2007 that "given the importance of the word of God, the quality of homilies needs to be improved."
Then, in a 2010 statement, the pope offered more specifics.
"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," he wrote.
Carlson is the head of the bishops' Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations, and it was that group that worked on the new document, called "Preaching the Mystery of Faith."
Carlson said that the bishops expected the new preaching document would be used not only by seminarians, but also by bishops, priests and deacons.
"You can't sit down Saturday evening, type out a homily and expect to move people's minds and hearts," Carlson said.
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