8 January 2010

Priests and Study

This post from Father S, over on the blog Clerical Reform, deserves to be replicated entire and whole, so here it is. Even though I have only been ordained a few short months it resonated well for me and encouraged me to get the books out. Thanks, Fr S, you are engaged in great service for your brother priests.

(Read below and you will understand why this is here. It is an orrery.)

"Study. Study in earnest. If you are to be salt and light, you need knowledge, ability.

Or do you imagine that an idle and lazy life will entitle you to receive infused knowledge?"
-St. Josemaria (The Way, 340)

If you have not noticed, I really find the writings of St. Josemaria to be helpful. I appreciate them for their directness and clarity. I especially like his injunctions to study. The reason for this is pretty simple. As priests, we share in the teaching office of the Church primarily by preaching. Quote St. Francis about preaching without speaking as much as you like, but our primary method of preaching is verbal. Most Catholics today have little contact with the Church outside of Sunday Mass. We can lament this all we like, but it is the reality. Most Catholics have very little interaction with priests outside of Holy Mass to see their comportment. This is not license to comport one's self however one may please. It is stated simply to show that how we offer Holy Mass and how we preach are important. Liturgy may well be the subject of another post, but our brief focus here will be preaching and how it relates to study. Brothers, we have seven minutes a week to combat hours of television, radio, gossip, etc. Again, we may bemoan this, but it does not change the reality.

So, how does study help? Study helps in a variety of ways. First, though, we must consider the type of study. For example, I love history. I am currently reading "Empires of the Sea," a book on naval battles during the 16th Century. It primarily discusses the fighting between the Christian west and the Islamic east. I am really enjoying the text and am learning--I hope--quite a bit from it. It has nothing to do with preaching. I am also rereading F. Suarez's text "About Being a Priest." It is great spiritual reading, but it is only obliquely related to preaching. So, it is necessary for us to study what we are preaching about, namely, the Sacred Scripture and Church doctrine. Yet you may say, "But I went to the seminary; I already know this stuff." Think back for a moment to the seminary. Have you read the Fathers on the Scriptures? Do you know which passages of the Scriptures have been definitively interpreted? Were you trained before the Catechism was published? Is it possible that in the years or even decades since the seminary, the sharpness of theological distinctions has become dulled a bit here and there? This happens to all of us. It is why we study.

Second, we need to consider how we study. We can read commentaries on the Scripture all day long. We can get out our New Jerome Biblical Commentary and other such books and read until our eyes glaze over. But we need to remember that our preaching ought to be directed to our audience, i.e., average Americans who cannot even tell you the original language of the Scripture. Here is a little tip: absolutely no parish in the world needs to know whether the first reading was more influenced by the Yahwist or Elohist redactor--absolutely no parish. When we study, we always need to be asking the question, "How can I use this in preaching?" Sometimes the answer is just that it makes our presentation more crisp. Most often, being refreshed intellectually gives us more things to preach on. Every once in a while you hear priests complain about preaching about the Bread of Life Discourse when we have it for what seems like an entire summer. They will say things like, "I already explained that the first week. Now I am out of material." If you are out of material about the Eucharist after one week, pick up the Catechism and get to work! Gear your study to its proper practical application. Think of the scientist. When the astrophysicist visits his child's classroom on "Bring Dad to School Day," he does not try to explain how parallax works or how time bends. He brings in a telescope or an orrery. When we preach, we need to make what we preach accessible.

Third, we need to study the art of speaking. Because we have so few minutes each week, each one is precious. Our thoughts need to be outlined and clear in our minds. We need to speak logically and persuasively. So often, we feel like we can just shoot from the hip. On Saturday morning or afternoon, we look for two minutes at the readings, spend another ten thinking of what we want to say, and then go and wing it. That formula is a formula for failure. Do not think that people do not notice when we are not prepared. If you are prepared, you will be able to hear a pin drop when you are preaching. Persuasive preaching draws attention. If it has been a while since you have received any real analysis of your reaching, record your sermon. Then, follow along and see if you can detect an outline. If not, then work on it. These are the seven most important minutes of your week, Father. Do not rely on the handshake after Holy Mass to tell you how you did. Evaluate yourself honestly and critically and try to do better. This is a craft and it needs honing. At the same time, do not go overboard. In the seminary we had a priest who was insistent on teaching us his method for preaching. He tried to clone himself in each of us. Since different priests have different styles, this did not work. It is just fine to have your own style. Just be aware that "long, rambling and irrelevant" is not the style that the Church is asking of you.

Finally, we need to be aware of how important this is. Next to the Sacraments and the Divine Office, this is right up there. Again, just as with prayer, if you are watching television each day without study, you need to turn off the box and open the books. If you have not read much since your seminary days, you will find that it is actually rewarding and entertaining to read about a subject you love without having to take exams. Plus, even if you only spend fifteen or so minutes a day doing it, that is enough time to get at least something done. I find it helpful to put this on my calendar. I do it early in the morning when my mind is fresh and when the phone is least likely to ring. Find out when works for you and get to it. When your preaching gets better--since we can all improve--your parish will thank you.


  1. Plenty of wisdom here.

    Time was when a priest had time to visit his parishioners at home, schools and hospitals and knew most of them by first name. It is different now, and the few minutes on Sundays are the most contact we have with our priests. We're all busy now ... doing what I may ask?

    Yes, the sermon is important. What is said and how it's delivered.

    Keep it fresh. Make it relevant. To the point and short.

    We had a visiting priest lately who rambled on for so long that by the time he finished the young couple up front were playing with their grand-children.

    Bless you Father Paul.

  2. fr Timothy Radcliffe makes the same point at various times in his books; study and preparation are crucial to a Priest's ability to communicate the Word . . . but he also points out that so is contemplation.

    The Dominican motto is a valuable reminder, and ought to be the motto of all priests who preach - Contemplata aliis tradere.

    One must study, and one must pray, and then one must prepare . . . and only then can one preach as God wants.

    Father : you are in my prayers.

  3. Further to the above, Father -




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