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Archbishop leads effort to improve Catholic preaching

By Tim Townsend

St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MCT)

Published: Saturday, Dec. 8 2012 5:00 a.m. MST

According to the bishops' new document, and using the Catholic term, "catechize," for teaching the faith, today's preacher "must realize that he is addressing a congregation that is more culturally diverse than previously, one that is profoundly affected by the surrounding secular agenda and, in many instances, inadequately catechized."

Wester said he believes the document does a good job suggesting a balance. On one side is the responsibility of the priest to use his time in front of a captive audience each Sunday to teach, and on the other is the duty to foster a mystical connection between God and his flock.

"If we want people to understand their faith, catechesis has to make sense for them in their own life," Wester said. "Sometimes I want you to know I'm your pastor, an authority. Jesus was not afraid to speak the truth, and then love people."

Carlson said another feature of the new document is the bishops' encouragement of preachers to examine their own faith.

"In this document we ask preachers to also grow themselves spiritually so that what they're communicating has powerful meaning in witness of their own life," he said.

At Kenrick on a recent afternoon, Wester had his students spend the first half-hour of class contemplating verses from St. Paul's letter to the Philippians.

One of them read the verses aloud to the rest, and then the 10 young men — dressed in black with short hair and clean-shaven faces — sat in silence, some reading the text, others with their eyes closed in prayer or thought.

The students repeated the process two more times, and at the end of the half hour, shared with each other how the Scripture had moved them.

Wester told the seminarians that after a while in the real world, the temptation to skip the meditation on Scripture and move directly on to writing the homily would grow. He urged them to stave off pragmatism for prayer.

His advice drew from Benedict's 2010 statement on preaching, which called for preachers to "prepare for the homily by meditation and prayer, so as to preach with conviction and passion."

In an interview, Wester said the meditative practice is "an invitation to be present with the word of God in a meditative state. It's the possibility of God working with us before we take control of it all."

That's advice that Burkemper, the seminarian in Wester's class, took to heart as he prepared his faux homily for the marriage between a Catholic man and a Jewish woman.

He wrote and rewrote a script, then let it sit for a few days, allowing it to percolate in his brain. He prayed with the Scripture, eventually deciding that his theme would lean hard on the common ground between Catholicism and Judaism.

And more practically, he researched Jewish marriage and interfaith ceremonies. He spoke to a Kenrick theology professor as well as a Catholic convert from Judaism, and a canon lawyer about what a typical Catholic-Jewish marriage ceremony might look like.

Burkemper's classmates were impressed. They thought he did "a great job discussing the covenant relationship in both faiths." They also liked that it was "short, sweet and to the point," and Wester chimed in that it clocked in at five minutes and seven seconds.

"At first you have to get them up there, and let them know they're not going to have a heart attack," Wester said in an interview. "But after they get over the initial fear, it's so neat watching these guys get their legs."