Catholic Priests and Preaching: Preaching Must Be Intrinsic to Who a Priest Is

BOOK PICK: ‘The Art of Preaching’

Addressing the question: What makes a good homily?
Addressing the question: What makes a good homily? (photo: The Catholic University of America Press)

The Art of Preaching

A Theological and Practical Primer

By Father Daniel Cardó

The Catholic University of America Press, 2021

224 pages, $34.95

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Perhaps the most constant complaint heard from Catholic pews is about the poor quality of the preaching. Although saddening, it might also be a small consolation to know that such seems always to have been the case. 

I’ve heard people express a longing for the days of such great preachers as St. Augustine and St. John Chrysostom. But those men stand out in history precisely because, sadly, they weren’t the norm. 

Along with this perennial cri de coeur have come the Church’s attempts to improve her clergy’s preaching. The great reformer St. John Fisher sought to improve the education and thus the preaching of his priests. The Catechism of the Council of Trent was meant to be a handbook for preaching, so that the parish priest would at least be communicating solid doctrine. Mother Church is well aware of her sons’ shortcomings.

A recent contribution to this ongoing effort is Father Daniel Cardó’s excellent book, The Art of Preaching. Father Cardó’s two hats make him well-suited to address the topic. He holds the Benedict XVI Chair of Liturgical Studies at St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver, so he has experience in training men for the priesthood, and he understands the liturgy as preaching’s privileged place. He is also pastor at a Denver parish, so he knows what preaching should be in real life, not just in the laboratory of the seminary. 

As such, The Art of Preaching addresses the topic not just from one perspective, but theologically, liturgically, pastorally, etc. Father Cardó guides the reader around the various pitfalls and potholes of preaching. 

At one point, he provides a helpful “Examination on Preaching” by which a cleric can assess whether he is falling into one of the various traps: moralism, niceness, self-centeredness, etc. In other chapters, he provides the theological wisdom from the Church’s history. He also employs the best practical advice of the ancient rhetoricians and modern speakers. 

The chapter “Advice From the Pews” provides a collection of reflections from faithful Catholics on what they want and need in a homily. It’s good for the preacher to know what the desire is in the pews. The scholastic maxim is in play here: Whatever is received is received according to the mode of the receiver. Knowing the mode of the receiver — what elicits a response in them … what prompts them to greater conversion … what pierces the heart — helps the preacher to know how to fashion his words and message in a way that finds a hearing in them. 

Father Cardó provides an excellent “how-to” section on writing and delivering a homily. And, since we learn by example as well as instruction, a large portion of the book is dedicated to a sampling of the Church’s best sermons from throughout the centuries: Ambrose, Chrysostom, Ronald Knox, the 20th-century Anglican convert, Benedict XVI and others. This excellent selection puts flesh on the good advice that precedes them.

Nevertheless, as helpful as the practicals are, they are not the book’s most important contribution. In fact, they’re not even the most practical. No, the most important and the most practical contribution is Father Cardó’s emphasis on what kind of priest a man must be in order to preach well. 

The priest must see preaching as more than just a function or duty. He must see himself as a preacher and preaching as intrinsic to who he is. This requires the integration of the various aspects of his priestly life with the proclamation of God’s word. More to the point, the priest’s attention to God’s word becomes the unifying factor in his life. 

The Sunday homily is suddenly no longer just an item on his “to-do” list, but the formative factor it should be. This really gets at what people want: not just a good speaker, but a man so deeply invested in God’s word that he can speak it clearly and credibly. 

Perhaps even bolder is Father Cardó’s assertion that the priest ought to be a theologian doing theology in the writing of his homilies. He knows that many priests would balk at this suggestion, as they’ve fallen into the error of confining theology to the seminary and seeing the parish as just administration. But the great preachers of the ancient world were men burdened by many pastoral and administrative obligations. 

Sts. Ambrose and Augustine had to guide their flocks through a still-mostly-pagan world and amid the Roman Empire’s decline. And yet they found time for homilies and made time to write theological homilies that guide us still. 

I would recommend The Art of Preaching as a Christmas gift for any deacon, priest or bishop, but that might be taken in the wrong way! Or … maybe it would be taken in the right way, as a lesson that those commissioned with the duty of proclaiming God’s word must always be developing the art of preaching.

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