The Necessity of Ongoing Formation in Preaching
One of our most important tasks is to fine-tune our preaching
Deacon Steve Kramer Comments Off on The Necessity of Ongoing Formation in Preaching
On Jan. 24, 2023, I sat down at my computer to begin writing this article concerning the necessity for ongoing formation in preaching. Within an hour, three people emailed me a copy of the Jan. 20, 2023, address of Pope Francis to participants in the course “Living Liturgical Action Fully.” Pope Francis emphasizes a very specific point to priests, but it is quite valuable for deacons as well.
Toward the end of his address, the pope says: “Please, the homilies: They are a disaster. At times I hear someone: ‘Yes, I went to Mass in that parish … yes, a good lesson of philosophy, 40, 45 minutes.’ Eight, 10, no more! And always a thought, a sentiment and an image. Let people take something home with them. In Evangelii Gaudium I wanted to emphasize this. And I said it many times, because it is something that we do not end up understanding: The homily is not a conference, it is a sacramental.”
Preaching is a sacred responsibility entrusted to bishops, priests and deacons. It is an essential moment of the minister’s proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, especially at the celebration of the Eucharist. Yet, in service to that Word of God, how many ordained clergy have taken the time to seek out further opportunities to fine-tune their own homiletical skills? If our first responsibility is proclaiming the word, have priests and deacons prayerfully considered continuing education and ongoing formation in homiletics as one of their most important tasks?
Continuing education consists by and large of condensed or part-time courses. In the trades, a person moves through apprenticeship, to journeyman and finally may earn the title of master. It is a process that takes years of on-the-job training, continuing education and mentoring/formation by someone who is an expert in their field.
Defining Ongoing Formation
According to Father Hugh O’Donnell, CM, in his article “What is Ongoing Formation?” in the March-April 2005 issue of Vincentiana (the magazine of the Congregation of the Mission), a good definition of ongoing formation is “a process for keeping up with the times in one’s chosen profession. Initial formation and professional training are only the foundations of a lifelong process of being current and up-to-date. It is consequently a professional responsibility to be committed to ongoing formation.” Many professions (medicine, chaplaincy, law enforcement, military, teaching, etc.) require ongoing formation in order to maintain a current license or certificate in that field. If you needed a knee or hip replacement, you would want someone who, in addition to years of experience, also has recent knowledge and training in new procedures.
My daughter is a Certified Hospice and Palliative Nurse. In order for her to be competent in her profession, it is imperative for her to keep current with the latest techniques and innovations in her field. She must undergo recertification regularly. Is it any less important for clergy to be prepared and up to date in order to serve our people so that souls may be saved?
I have been teaching homiletics in permanent diaconate programs for almost 20 years. Additionally, for the past nine years, I have had the honor of teaching seminarians from around the country the ars praedicandi (“the art of preaching”). Early on, it became apparent to me that I, too, needed to continue to learn new techniques, additional Scripture knowledge, appreciation of the Church Fathers, as well as advanced contemporary verbal and nonverbal skills. It has been 17 years since I was awarded a doctorate in preaching and communication. What was learned in the early 2000s was important, but there is an obligation to be up to date in any field.
Father O’Donnell notes, “Being professional means we have to take responsibility for the public role we profess in the service of others.” And he further says: “This is the other and more obvious dimension of ongoing formation and one we share with many others in the Church. The times have changed and the rate of change has been extraordinary.”
Father O’Donnell makes the point: “Continuing education and ongoing formation are not the same thing, but they are often used interchangeably. Without trying to sort out these terms, I believe formation points to and anticipates transformation in a way education usually does not. I think of education, also training, in terms of information, insight and skills, whereas formation implies changes that are more personal, changes in attitude, outlook, understanding and eventual decision.”
In the new Program of Priestly Formation in the United States of America, sixth edition, homiletics has a very prominent place in the curriculum for seminarians. The program focuses heavily on the formational dimension of the seminary. In addition to my work as director/professor of homiletics at Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology, I also teach in the deacon formation program for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
Although No. 343 in the Intellectual Dimension section of the Program of Priestly Formation is written for seminarians, it is quite applicable for deacon candidates and their preparation and continuing formation as preachers. It states, “In addition to the principles of biblical interpretation, catechesis, and communications theory, seminarians should also learn the practical skills needed to communicate the Gospel as proclaimed by the Church in an effective and appropriate manner.”
Both seminarians and deacon candidates give reflections in class, at morning/evening prayer and at their teaching/home parishes. This enables them to receive much-needed feedback from parishioners who really appreciate the opportunity to help form good, effective preachers. The National Directory for the Formation, Ministry, and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States has an entire section on the Church’s ministry of the word. Paragraph 85 notes that “the deacon must always remain a student of the word.” Right there, we see the importance of the word as an integral part of the deacon’s life. Additionally, we can take this as stressing the importance of our need for continued formation in the art of preaching.
Once a man is ordained deacon/priest, he possesses the minimal training to begin his life of ministry. It is only with ongoing formation and continuing education that one can grow into an effective preacher. What are our options and opportunities for continuing formation? Each diocese should be encouraged to have an office of continuing education for clergy, which includes priests and deacons. Over the years, I have given half-day workshops to the clergy of Milwaukee on preaching through Advent and Lent, preaching on Catholic social teaching and preaching at wake services and funerals. There are several priests who have also given preaching workshops, sharing their expertise and years of parish experiences. This is some of the ongoing formation that is so desperately needed. We clergy learn from the experiences of one another.
Vicar generals, deacon directors and formation personnel should post educational opportunities and encourage priests and deacons to take advantage of experts in the field of homiletics that are brought in to share their knowledge with the local clergy. Additionally, there are a number of preaching conferences around the country whereby clergy can meet with and learn from one another.
The Marten Program at the University of Notre Dame has a marvelous conference normally held every other summer. There are usually three or four keynote speakers and at least a dozen breakout sessions one can attend. I have attended numerous times, and it is well worth the trip to connect with other preachers and share experiences.
At Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology in Milwaukee, we host an annual preaching conference that attracts 60-70 participants to the Midwest — in January, no less! Each year, there is a particular theme that is geared toward a specific need or situation in the world. Some of our topics have been: “Preaching the Good News in Times of Bad News and Fake News” (shortly after the contentious 2016 presidential election cycle); “Preaching Profound Possibilities in the Lukan Parables” (in Year C of the Lectionary); “Hearing the Hebrew Scriptures with a Heart for Homiletics,” which was a fantastic opportunity that brought Jewish and Catholic clergy together to reflect on the Hebrew Scriptures. As the COVID-19 epidemic began to wane, it became apparent that priests and deacons had buried quite a number of their parishioners, and so that year we focused on “The Power of Passionate Preaching While Presiding at the Funeral Rites.” In January 2023 the concentration was on how to engage one’s congregation. The theme was “The Alpha and the Omega, The Beginning and the End: How to Construct Effective Introductions and Conclusions for Homilies,” which brought us back to engaging our listeners right from the start.
Priests and deacons preach weekly, and often daily. If proclaiming the Gospel is the first duty of ordained ministry, it is imperative that our preaching on the Gospel be the best we are capable of giving. It is only through continued ongoing formation in studying God’s word and how best to deliver it to our congregations that we can truly evangelize our people. Let’s invest ourselves in this important endeavor of ongoing formation!
DEACON STEVE KRAMER, D.Min., is director of homiletics and associate professor of pastoral studies at Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology in Hales Corners, Wisconsin.
Simplicity of Language
In the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), Pope Francis writes: “Simplicity has to do with the language we use. It must be one that people understand, lest we risk speaking to a void. Preachers often use words learned during their studies and in specialized settings which are not part of the ordinary language of their hearers. These are words that are suitable in theology or catechesis, but whose meaning is incomprehensible to the majority of Christians. The greatest risk for a preacher is that he becomes so accustomed to his own language that he thinks that everyone else naturally understands and uses it. If we wish to adapt to people’s language and to reach them with God’s word, we need to share in their lives and pay loving attention to them. Simplicity and clarity are two different things. Our language may be simple but our preaching not very clear. It can end up being incomprehensible because it is disorganized, lacks logical progression or tries to deal with too many things at one time. We need to ensure, then, that the homily has thematic unity, clear order and correlation between sentences, so that people can follow the preacher easily and grasp his line of argument” (No.158).