THE CRISIS OF BAD PREACHING: REDEEMING THE HEART AND WAY OF THE CATHOLIC PREACHER by Joshua J. Whitfield (Ave Maria Press 2019) A review by Fr. R. B. Williams, O.P.
It is somewhat daunting to attempt a review of a book that comes with laudatory comments printed at the beginning from the former Master of the Dominican Order (the Order of Preachers), Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, O.P, and Ann Garrido, Associate Professor of Homiletics at the Dominican sponsored Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis, both of whom I have met and respect. Fr. Radcliffe, no less, was one of the two leaders of the pre-synodal retreat at the recent Synod on Synodality (part one) this past October. I learned of the book almost by accident in reading a column by Fr. Whitfield in a diocesan newspaper in which, at the end, he was identified as the author of the book, the title of which touched a raw nerve in me because of my many years as an itinerant preacher and campus minister. The title of the book: THE CRISIS OF BAD PREACHING is, sadly, almost a truism. Fr. Whitfield’s effort to address it has much in it to say “AMEN!” to. The goal of REDEEMING THE HEART AND WAY OF THE CATHOLIC PREACHER is truly noble!! But one wonders if he will have any more success than the many authors he refers to time and again throughout the book. The bishops of the United States made an effort to address the problem in 2012 with PREACHING THE MYSTERY OF FAITH: THE SUNDAY HOMILY. The Vatican followed in short order IN 2014 with THE HOMILETIC DIRECTORY from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments. Even Pope Francis in his inaugural document, Evangelii gaudium, has some words about preaching and preparation. There’s no lack of resources. I have reviewed and recommended PREACHING MATTERS: A PRAXIS FOR PREACHERS by Bp. Sylvester Ryan and Deborah L. Wilhelm. Fr. Whitfield’s footnotes provide a lot of helpful resources. But the fact of the matter is that unless a preacher reads the book, admits he or she has a problem and the will power to do something about it, the general state of pulpit preaching in Catholic pulpits will continue to be in crisis.
What DOES Fr. Whitfield offer? In the preface, he clearly identifies the problem, and in the first three chapters tries to address the “heart of the preacher” and appeal to the preacher to be aware of their role in the church and be a part of a “communion of preachers.” He summons a crowd of witnesses to support this, many of whom are well-known Protestant preaching authorities like Fred Craddock, Philips Brooks, etc. Catholic authors include Bishop Kenneth Untener, formerly from Saginaw MI diocese and Thomas Long. (Fr. Whitfield is, himself, a convert to Catholic faith and a married former Anglican clergyman.) In general, the first three chapters are an appeal to stand tall and be motivated as a preacher.
Chapters 4 through 8 attempt to provide some nuts-and-bolts advice in homily preparation. He emphasizes prayer, offers advice on preparation and ways of speaking and the importance of having constructive criticism from qualified listeners. In chapter 8, he urges the preacher to see preaching as the work of the Holy Spirit who inspires and sets the heart on fire. He appeals to a sense of oneself and one’s vocation as a motivating force. There is a final section entitled: EPILOGUE - THE WAY OF THE LISTENER, which is an appeal to any interested hearer of preaching on a regular basis.
There is much that is rich in Fr. Whitfield’s book and in all the authorities he calls to support and bear witness to his efforts. And for those who have not consulted a book of this nature before, he would be a great introduction. However, having preached retreats for Catholic priests and deacons around this country for many years, I fear that those who might be motivated to at least read the book may say, “This is all good, but I just don’t have the time to do all that he recommends!” Many will simply get something from one of the many homiletic services online. The rise of artificial intelligence may be a source to others. I have had friends tell me they heard one of my online reflections read to them from the pulpit!!!
It may be too much to ask that the Church completely rethink how preaching should be integrated in a different way in sacramental events, especially the Eucharist. For instance, labeling the first part as liturgy of the word in contrast to liturgy of the Eucharist continues the old Catholic notion that one just needs to get to Mass by the time of the offertory. The clergy haven’t helped with this because of the poor preaching. The Vatican II document Presbyterorum ordinis says: “The People of God is formed into one in the first place by the Word of the living God, which is quite rightly sought from the mouth of priests. For since nobody can be saved who has not first believed, it is the first task of priests as co-workers of the bishops to preach the Gospel of God to all men….” (para. 4). It seems to me that from the outset seminaries should challenge seminarians to think of themselves as preachers and not regard preaching as a task or chore that a priest DOES. It should be a matter of WHO THE PRIEST IS.
I think Fr. Yves Congar, O.P., one of the greatest of Dominican theologians and an influential voice at the Second Vatican Council (he was made a cardinal near the end of his life by St. John Paul II) put it well in an article entitled SACRAMENTAL WORSHIP AND PREACHING in Volume 33 of the CONCILIUM SERIES (title: THE RENEWAL OF PREACHING - THEORY AND PRACTICE, Paulist Press, 1968). He wrote: "I could quote a whole series of ancient texts, all saying more or less that if in one country Mass was celebrated for thirty years without preaching and in another there was preaching for thirty years without the Mass, people would be more Christian in the country where there was preaching.” (p. 62) If that is true, there needs to be some creative and radical new ways of preparing preachers. Fr. Whitfield’s book can help motivate this.
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