As Drew Burkemper got up to preach, the weight of his task was evident. His classmate at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary, Adam Maus, had just pretty much killed it.
Maus’ scenario had been a wedding between a 42-year-old bride with four children and her groom, who had recently returned to the Catholic Church. The nine other seminarians in the room loved his approach, showering him in glowing feedback.
Burkemper was up next, faced with a preaching scenario that would challenge any 23-year-old priest-to-be. His homily was for a marriage between a Catholic man and a Jewish woman.
As he began, he worked hard on his delivery, as his professor had taught him. “Father Wester is big on delivering the homily,” Burkemper said later. “Not just reading it.”
The Rev. Don Wester, pastor of All Saints Catholic Church in St. Peters, Mo., is Kenrick’s lecturer of homiletics — the art of preaching.
He believes homilies should be practical and direct — that they should draw a connection between the everyday struggles of parishioners and biblical truths.
And it’s exactly the kind of preaching that U.S. Catholic bishops are hoping for as part of a new national effort to foster better Catholic homilies.
At their annual fall meeting this month, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted overwhelmingly to accept the new preaching document, their first since 1982.The document is an admonishment of poor preaching, saying the bishops are “aware that in survey after survey over the past years, the People of God have called for more powerful and inspiring preaching. A steady diet of tepid or poorly prepared homilies is often cited as a cause for discouragement on the part of laity and even leading some to turn away from the Church.”
St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson had been working on the document for nearly two years, with Wester among his advisers. In an interview, the archbishop said his own father had strong feelings about preaching.
“It’s not enough to tell me what the Bible says,” Carlson recalled his father saying. “I need to know how to apply what the Bible says about my role as a father, a spouse and a businessman.”
You can’t sit down Saturday evening, type out a homily and expect to move people’s minds and hearts,” Carlson said.
The Rev. David Meconi, a theology professor at St. Louis University and editor of the journal Homiletic & Pastoral Review, said the church needed “preachers willing to preach out of their own heart.”
“Too many priests read as if they’re giving a lecture, and others don’t do any preparation and just wing it,” Meconi said. “The heart of a good message is pathos, passion.”
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