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Preaching Essay
The Author


By Bishop Sylvester Ryan and Deborah L. Wilhelm

Chicago: Catholic Theological Union, 2015


Review by Fr. R. B. Williams, O.P.


    "And how can they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone to preach?" (Romans 10:14).   The last five years have seen what amounts to an awakening at the highest levels of leadership in the church to what folks in the pews have known for years: that the quality of liturgical preaching - particularly on Sundays - leaves much to be desired.  This is all the more regrettable since the Second Vatican Council on December 7, 1965, published Presbyterorum Ordinis (Decree On the Life and Ministry of Priests) which states in paragraph four:


     "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 with the bishops to preach the Gospel of God to all men." (PO#4)


     Five years ago, Pope Benedict published his post-synodal exhortation, Verbum Domini, which showed a new concern about the importance of preaching in the liturgical celebrations, especially on Sunday.  In response to this, the American Bishops published in 2012, Preaching the Mystery of Faith: the Sunday Homily.  Then Pope Francis, shortly after his election in 2013 weighed in with some very eloquent and pointed comments and direction on preaching in his "The Joy of the Gospel," ##135-159.  These latter three documents are quoted liberally in the very fine effort by Bishop Sylvester Ryan and Dr. Deborah L. Wilhelm entitled PREACHING MATTERS: A PRAXIS FOR PREACHERS.  They are responding to the challenge contained in the American Bishops' document to develop practical resources to help in the improvement and development of liturgical preaching in the U.S.A.  It is to be hoped that their book will receive wide circulation.


First, it is based on years of collaboration between Bishop Ryan (Emeritus Bishop of Monterey, CA) and Dr. Wilhelm (who has a D.Min in Preaching from Aquinas Institute in St. Louis and has taught preaching to deacon candidates with Bishop Ryan and serves as a qualified lay preacher in addition to teaching writing on the university level).  The two of them have taught preaching to deacon candidates for some years.  They have managed to bring their efforts to paper in a highly readable and practical way.


The book has a kind of workshop tone to it, very encouraging and aware of the practical difficulties facing all Catholic liturgical preachers. (The word "gently" appears often!) Their examples are frequently amusing and reflect years of preaching experience.  They offer a very detailed program of preaching preparation fully aware of the time limits faced by pastors and other preachers who have more than Sunday (or daily) preaching to worry about.  The format of the book itself reflects this in the brevity of the chapters!  (But I mention the time worry below as well.)


The book is divided into two sections.  The first section is a overall view of the importance of preaching and its context, the lectionary, the Roman Missal and the "Art of Interpretation."  The second section contains their recommended process of preparation.  Since they recommend preaching without notes and in a "conversational" style, their approach surprised me by its writing and editing process prior to delivery.  Separate (again very brief and practical) chapters are given to each step of the process.  At the end of the book, they offer homiletic examples of the points they make earlier. I definitely applaud their recommendation that a Sunday homily be highly focused and no more than 8-10 minutes in length.  (Chapters 10 and 15 alone are worth the price of the book.)


The sheer length of the documents by Popes Benedict and Francis and the American Bishops (as well as the "Homiletic Directory published in February 2015 by the Congregation for Sacraments and Divine Worship, published after this book) virtually guarantees that they will not be widely read.  The authors of PREACHING MATTERS quote them often, which may or may not tempt others to read them.  I would simply recommend that anyone charged with liturgical preaching read Ryan and Wilhelm's PREACHING MATTERS: A PRAXIS FOR PREACHERS. 


One of the limitations that this book faces is the almost exclusive focus on Sunday preaching.  This is also the focus of the official documents that the authors often quote.  While the authors acknowledge the considerable limitations on time of the busy pastor (deacon, lay preacher), they still propose a process of preparation that does take a lot of time and attention. This can be frustrating to the pastor or deacon or lay preacher who may be called upon to preside and hopefully preach at very different services during the week.  In the mission diocese where I live, the same presider may be at a funeral, wedding, anointing, baptism and daily Eucharist all in the same day.  How does this preparation process address this very real challenge in many dioceses?


In addition to that concern,  if I had suggestions to make for future editions, I would like to see some material on cross-cultural preaching.  Many pastors in the U.S.A. find themselves preaching in a language that is not their first language.  This would be true of Anglo pastors in parishes rapidly becoming Hispanic.  It would also be true of the many "international" priests who are now pastoring parishes.  What could the authors offer to the Filipino, African, Indian and Latino priests who are coming to serve in dioceses that lack the priests to provide the preaching that is so important?  Itinerant preachers like myself also preach retreats and parish missions.  The preaching challenge is quite different in terms of preparation, length, etc.   Last but not least, the internet offers tremendous opportunities to any preacher.  Can a resource be developed to assist those who might try that form of preaching?


None of these questions is meant to take away from the value of PREACHING MATTERS: A PRAXIS FOR PREACHERS but rather to challenge them and others interested to develop these resources.   I hope dioceses will buy a copy of this book for all the priests, deacons and lay preachers of their territory.  Bishop Ryan and Dr. Wilhelm have done a great service in providing this resource.  I just hope it will have a large audience.


Fr. R. B. Williams, O.P., Itinerant and Internet Preacher. 


Book Review Archive

Just click on a book title below to read the review.
(The latest submissions are listed first.)


• Mark's Passion Narrative •
• Jesus: A Gospel Portrait •
• How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row •
• Christ and the Spirit: Catholic Perspectives Through the Ages •
• The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church •
• A Joint Review •
• St. Dominic: A Story of a Preaching Friar •
• Moses in Pharaoh's House •
• ...and the Mountains Echoed •
• Behind the Beautiful Forevers •
• Preaching the Mystery of Faith: The Sunday Homily •
• The Rhythm of Being... •
• Remi De Roo - Chronicles of a Vatican II Bishop •
• Redeeming the Past •
• Abraham Joshua Heschel: Essential Writings •
• This Is Our Exile •
• Compassion: Loving Our Neighbor in and Age of Globalization •
• True and False Reform In the Church •
• Adult Faith •
• The Mystical Way In Everyday Life •
• Racial Justice and the Catholic Church •
• Let the Great World Spin •
• The Priesthood Of the Faithful •
• Living With Wisdom •
• Where the Pure Water Flows •
• Best Advice For Preaching •
• We Speak the Word Of the Lord •
• Great World Religions: Islam •
• Of Books and Preparation •
• After Sunday: A Theology of Work •
• A Captive Voice: The Liberation of Preaching •
• Written Text Becomes Living Word... •
• Voicing the Vision: Imagination & Prophetic Preaching •
• The Death of Innocents •

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