Archbishop Coleridge of Canberra has proposed that the Church should prepare a General Homiletic Directory to guide preachers of the Word of God.

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Address to Twelfth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in Rome

The Second Vatican Council called for a renewal of Catholic preaching of the kind that has usually accompanied and inspired times of genuine renewal in the Church. The Council’s call implied a shift from the sermon understood as an exposition of Catholic doctrine, devotion and discipline to the homily understood as an exposition of Scripture. As Dei Verbum says: “…all the preaching of the Church must be nourished and regulated by Sacred Scripture” (21).

Has this shift been accomplished in the meantime? Not completely if the Instrumentum Laboris is right. There we read: “The faithful’s hunger for the Word of God is not always receiving an adequate response in the preaching of the Church’s pastors” (21); or again and more bluntly: “Homilies could clearly stand improvement” (33). I ask then: Why does Catholic preaching often fail to evoke the faith that saves, which is surely the goal of any proclamation of the Word of God? One reason, I think, is that we take the kerygma for granted at a time when that is precisely what we cannot do. We have reached a point – at least in cultures like Australia – where the kerygma in its conventional formulations remains puzzling to many people, even the devout. To say that human beings are saved from sin (whatever that may be) by the death of a man two thousand years ago is baffling to many; to speak of resurrection seems fantasy.

Pope Benedict has made the challenge clear in words he spoke to the US Bishops: “It is becoming more and more difficult in our Western societies to speak in a meaningful way of salvation’. Yet salvation – deliverance from the reality of evil and the gift of new life and freedom in Christ – is at the heart of the Gospel. We need to discover…new and engaging ways of proclaiming this message and awakening a thirst for the fulfilment which only Christ can bring” (Question and Answer, 16 April 2008).

If we take the kerygma for granted, then inevitably our preaching will be moralising. It may evoke interest or admiration, but it will not evoke the faith that saves. It will not lead to that encounter with the Lord crucified and risen which is the Christian life. It will imply instead that the Christian life is a matter of strenuous moral effort to improve ourselves, even to make ourselves worthy of eternal life. On this account, Christianity is a moralism, not an event; and at that point we may have the wisdom of this world, but we do not have the wisdom of God which is in Christ crucified (cf 1 Cor 1:18-25).

Central to the task of the new evangelisation is a new formulation and proclamation of the kerygma, without which the call for a new evangelisation runs the risk of becoming a vapid mantra. At a time when the whole Church is called to become more missionary, we need a more missionary preaching.

What therefore might be done to promote a contemporary, kerygmatic and missionary proclamation of the Word of God which evokes the faith that saves? One practical thing I would suggest is the preparation of a General Homiletic Directory, along the lines of the General Catechetical Directory and the General Instruction of the Roman Missal.

Such a Directory would take stock of Catholic preaching as it now is and would do so with an eye to the history of Catholic preaching. It would draw upon the experience and wisdom of the universal Church without stifling the genius of local churches or individual preachers. Its purpose would be to focus on the core of preaching, by which I mean the kerygma, and thus ward off a moralistic reduction of preaching. It would draw upon the theology and hermeneutics of Catholic preaching, indicating among other things how the Bible and the Catechism can and must work together. It could also deal with the practicalities of preaching in a variety of contexts.

The Directory could be produced collaboratively by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Congregation for Divine Worship, the Congregation for Clergy and the Congregation for Catholic Education. The hard-pressed dicasteries would not be expected to do all the work themselves; they would draw upon and coordinate the personnel and resources of the universal Church.
The Instrumentum Laboris says that “a well planned approach needs to be taken to the forming of preachers of the Word” (45). I think we need to be significantly more systematic in teaching the ars predicandi at this time, and a General Directory could be a substantial help in this regard, especially in seminaries and houses of formation.

All agree that preaching is vital since, as the Instrumentum Laboris notes, “for a majority of Christians the world over, the celebration of the Eucharist on Sundays is the sole encounter with the Word of God” (33). That is why the stakes are high and why we need at this time a comprehensive account of the state of Catholic preaching and concrete strategies to ensure that we move more purposefully towards the renewed preaching proposed by the Second Vatican Council.