DETROIT — To be or not to be a good preacher: That is the question faced by seminaries that have rededicated themselves to forming priests who can awaken the Gospel in their congregation’s hearts — and not put them to sleep.

Catholic priests in the U.S. as a group do not have a reputation for strong preaching abilities. According to the U.S. Catholic bishops, survey after survey over the years have seen Catholics calling for better preaching, and others citing poor preaching as a reason they became discouraged and left the Church.  

 The Archdiocese of Detroit and a pair of trained professional theater actors have been working together to break that stereotype.

The heart of seminary preparation for future priests’ preaching is the homiletics program, which covers the theology, different components, and models of preaching homilies. However, Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit has made a “preaching boot camp” part of its preparation in regular homiletics classes.

Professor Francisco Gavrilides said the idea of the preaching boot camp — a preparatory three-week, intensive workshop that seminarians take before entering their first theology course — began 10 years ago, when then-vice rector Bishop Michael Byrnes realized that seminarians needed practical training in the nuts and bolts of public speaking.

Gavrilides said that while he was “a little bit dubious at first,” the fruits and feedback from the program has been overwhelmingly positive.

“I’m going into my fourth year, and I can say with confidence that you see a real transformation in these young men,” he said. “You see it in their confidence level, their ability to organize their ideas, their ability to communicate with clarity, to have good bodily presence, as well as their ability to grasp the significance of the word of God and its relevance to people today.”

 

Boot Camp for Preaching

“It’s a matter of being the person they decided to be when they became a priest, only being that person most convincingly and most attractively,” Andrew Beer, who helps teach the workshop with his wife Mary, said of the program. The Beers are professional theater actors in Detroit: Andrew is also a professor at University of Detroit Mercy, and Mary is an acting-teacher at Henry Ford College in Dearborn.

The workshop has two components: Gavrilides and priests introduce the seminarians to the vision and spirituality of preaching — particularly the “value and power of the Scriptures” — while the Beers teach them the elements of public speaking.

“We have a three-pronged approach,” Beer said: teaching voice delivery and how to craft and deliver a speech, plus an acting workshop.

The workshop teaches seminarians how to think about their audience.

“We try to teach them to be purer vehicles of the word: to stop thinking about themselves and think about the Gospel; to stop thinking about themselves and what their audience needs, not what they need,” Beer said.

 

‘Give People Jesus’

The Beers evaluate and critique the seminarians as they go through the course, which involves presenting dramatic works and then composing and delivering a five-minute homily to Massgoers as a capstone.

Perrin Atisha, 24, a seminarian for the Chaldean Eparchy of St. Thomas, said going through the boot camp was a humbling experience.

“Here I am … telling myself, ‘Oh, I’ll be good,’ but they just tore me apart,” he said with a laugh about the evaluation process. Smiling more and making better eye contact were some of the criticisms he received. But he worked hard to improve.

His hard work paid off when he delivered his first homily.

“I really wanted to do well and give people Jesus,” he said. “Then, after that first homily, to see a woman crying and people smiling, I thought, ‘Wow, Lord, you are really working in me.’”

Beer noted that the great majority of parishioners and priests who have heard the seminarians think “they are greatly improved.”

“The response that we got from a lot of the priests in the parishes where they served was: ‘I wish I could preach like that,’” he said. “So we know we’re on the right track.”

Beer said he and his wife would be happy to share the program with other seminaries: “We’d be glad to spread it further.”

 

Papal Passion

Pope Francis made a clarion call for better homilies in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel). And he asked newly ordained priests this year to “nourish the faithful” with their preaching and avoid “boring” homilies.

“May your homilies go right to people’s hearts, since they come from your heart,” he said. “For what you say to them is what you have in your heart.”

Pope Francis is building on the work of Benedict XVI, explained Father Shawn McKnight, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations.

He pointed to Sacramentum Caritatis (The Eucharist as the Source and Summit of the Church’s Life and Mission), where Benedict XVI stated, “The quality of homilies needs to be improved,” adding that preachers must avoid “abstract and generic homilies.”

Benedict renewed this call in Verbum Domini (The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church), stating, “The faithful should be able to perceive clearly that the preacher has a compelling desire to present Christ, who must stand at the center of every homily.” 

“We’ve really been responding to Pope Benedict’s push for better catechetical preaching,” Father McKnight said, pointing to the bishops’ 2012 document “Preaching the Mystery of Faith.” That document noted how the laity have “called for more powerful and inspiring preaching” and cited poorly prepared or “tepid” homilies as a reason for “discouragement” or for leaving the Church.

He added that the bishops’ conference will be commissioning studies in the near future to evaluate how seminaries have responded to this lay-led call to action.

 

Different Approaches

Other seminaries are teaching young men how to preach well, too.

St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, Calif., which serves the Los Angeles Archdiocese, and St. Charles Borromeo, which serves the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and other dioceses, use feedback from parish Massgoers to evaluate how well they are preparing men to preach.

Msgr. Marc Trudeau, rector of St. John’s, said practical aspects of public speaking are integrated into the program, and all courses dovetail into homiletics.

“Basically, everything we do is meant to help them be a better preacher,” he said,” because that’s where everything really hits the road,” so the future priest can communicate in a way that is accessible to the average Catholic in the pew.

“Take Christology for example,” he said. “We want men who are intelligent enough to be able to understand and teach Christology, which means taking these difficult things and putting it into language that people can understand, so they can put it into action in their lives.”

A study of recent graduates from the seminary has been completed, and the feedback from a survey of parishes has reported high marks for homiletics.

 

A Priest Must Preach

Every person has different gifts, but Msgr. Trudeau explained that neither gifts nor education by themselves make an excellent preacher.

“An excellent homilist believes what he’s preaching,” he said. “If you are just giving a lecture, people can pick [that] up.”

At St. Charles Borromeo, the rector, Bishop Timothy Senior, said the homiletics program stresses how to reach people in the pew.

“There’s an art and a science to preaching,” he said.

“If you can’t preach, you really shouldn’t be advanced to the priesthood.”

Bishop Senior said the seminary is focusing on new initiatives: A John Cardinal Foley Chair for Homiletics and Social Communication has been added, as has new technology in the classroom experience; and seminarians are encouraged to engage in social media, such as at SemCasual.org.

Also a possibility: incorporating certain approaches developed by Curtis Martin and Fellowship of Catholic University Students and author Matthew Kelly into the seminary’s curriculum.

“I think some of those skills and strategies need to be integrated into seminary formation,” Bishop Senior said. “It’s just an idea right now.”

Bolstered by his preaching training, seminarian Atisha’s goal is clear: “When I’m a priest, I just want people to thirst for Jesus.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register's Washington correspondent.