Fall 2017 Newsletter
Speaking the Language of the Times
Michael Himes on Preaching to Today’s Congregations
The following is an excerpt from an interview recorded in Tucson, Arizona, January 2016, at a “Science in Seminaries” event we sponsored for rectors, deans, and authors of science course proposals. Rev. Michael Himes, Ph.D. (University of Chicago) is a Catholic priest, professor of theology (Boston College), an author (The Mystery of Faith), former seminary dean, and a most engaging interviewee.
I don’t think it’s any secret that for decades now, Catholic people have been complaining that homilies are really not very good, that the quality of preaching doesn’t really reach them. I think that’s not because we need to give people more opportunities to do public speaking courses, but … that the people in the pews are not speaking the same language as the people in the pulpit.
The people in the pulpit tend to talk as if people live in a world not very different from that of their grandparents, whereas in fact we live in a world that’s marked by all sorts of technological innovation, and all sorts of scientific revolution that seems to go unnoticed by the people in the pulpit. Therefore, they are in large part talking to a community that no longer exists.
Perhaps the thing that has changed most as a result of technological breakthroughs is that people now have a different standard for what is true and how you find out what is true. I think that most people in our world today assume that the source of truth, when you push it to the extreme, always turns out to be science. It’s not tradition that people turn to first any longer, it’s not Scripture that people turn to, it’s not a community like the Church that people turn to. It’s the scientific world which governs every aspect of their life in all sorts of ways … In our work, in our seeking entertainment, in our educating children, we look to the sciences.
… I’m not sure that we’re able to speak in that world terribly well from the pulpit at the moment. Things that other people have taken for granted, we have really assumed isn’t part of our work, not part of our need to understand, not necessary for us to evangelize anew. If Paul had never understood the world in which his pagan Greek and Roman hearers lived, he would have been a terrible failure as a preacher. And if we go on talking to people as if we lived in a world that is not marked by the sciences, we too will be terrible failures as preachers.
That’s why, all too often, our people are telling us in response to our best efforts, “you know, Father, I know you meant well, but it really didn’t come across from the pulpit.” It’s a lot more than “speak louder, speak more slowly, use examples, tell a story.” That’s all icing on the cake. We have to look at the cake itself.