From the day that Our Blessed Lord gave His last command to His Apostles, "Go ye into the whole world and preach the gospel to every creature" (Mark, xvi. 15), the Gospel has been preached.
The missionary history of the Catholic Church is a magnificent record of achievement. Every age and generation is represented. From almost every country on the face of this earth men have gone forth and in the face of great hardship, bitter trials and fierce opposition preached the word of God. Such preaching might be described as extraordinary. Less colorful, but no less important, is the ordinary preaching of the Gospel in any parish church. At this moment countless priests leave the altar, ascend their pulpits, make their announcements, read the Gospel and preach. Preaching, therefore, is with us not an exceptional thing; we can never allow it to be that, for it is through preaching the word of God that the faith is not only propagated, but also by it faith is strengthened and sustained.
Long before paper was discovered and printing became an established thing, the only means of communicating the "good news" of the Gospel was by preaching. In the tenth chapter of his Epistle to the Romans St. Paul makes that clear: "How shall they call on Him whom they have not believed? Or how shall they believe Him whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? Faith then cometh by hearing." So, if there be anyone of the opinion that preaching is of slight consequence, something that can be nicely sidetracked or rejected, such a one might prudently look into the matter.
Changed Public Attitude Towards the Sermon
We shall all look into the matter this morning, for it is most evident that in our changing times the sermon has lost its appeal for many people. There are a large number who never hear a sermon. Another group frankly tell you they do not want to hear a sermon. Still another do everything they can within reason to avoid hearing a sermon, and finally there is a class who, when forced to sit and listen, do what they can to discourage the preacher. Now how can one explain this attitude?
If stopped a few minutes ago on your way to church and asked the simple question, "Where are you going?," you would probably have said: "I am going to Mass." It is the Mass that matters; it is the Mass that acts as the great magnet drawing our people to worship on Sunday morning. Now, with the Mass in such clear focus, the sermon is apt to be regarded as of secondary importance. Therefore, when the priest leaves the altar and takes over the pulpit, there are many who have formed the mental habit of taking time out. They do this as a matter of course, with little thought of disrespect or obligation in the premises. They have never examined their consciences on this matter and never made it a matter of confession. In the Parable of the Sower, Our Lord describes four types of soil. He finds fault with three. His complaint is based on the fact that in these three cases the good seed will be wasted and bear no fruit. I wonder if only one person out of every four present at Mass stands a chance of getting anything out of the sermon. In the Parable of the Sower Our Lord finds no fault with the Sower or with the seed.
Alibis for Avoiding Sermons
By way of alibi, many excuse themselves from the sermon because in their judgment the priest in the pulpit is a poor or ordinary speaker. The number of great preachers-like the number of great artists, musicians, scientists and statesmen is small. It has always been small, and doubtless it always will be. For your information, the training in our seminaries as regards preaching is quite up to the mark, and every effort is made to develop talent. However, let us face facts, and admit the number of outstanding preachers is limited. The average priest has something to say but he has a very limited time in which to say it; therefore, if he is to get his message across, he must have the undivided attention of his listeners. "He who has ears to hear, let him hear," cries Our Lord, aiming to get better attention from a listless audience. "Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears," is Marc Antony's opening sentence in his great oration. Unless the speaker, no matter who he is, captures and holds the attention of his audience, little good will come from what he has to say.
The Lost Art of Listening
There is such a thing as the art of listening. In successful preaching it is almost as important a factor as the art of public speaking. If the speaker finds a receptive audience, naturally it brings out the best that is in him. If, on the other hand, he has to fight from start to finish to capture and hold attention, if handicaps and obstacles are placed in his way, is it any wonder that so many sermons fail?
We are living in what has been called eye-minded generation. Most people in our mechanized world take much of all the information they get through the eye. Witness the picture magazines, the pictorial supplements to our newspapers, the movies, television and most of our advertising-how they feed the eye from early morn to late at night! As a result, multitudes become so accustomed to seeing that they become very poor listeners. It began about the time of the silent movies. We then had complaints that "Father So-and-so could not be heard." Now the reason is clear it was just an excuse to cover a sense of hearing that was growing atrophied. We wonder at times what our parents and grandparents did before the loud speakers were installed in the church. The answer is: they made a reasonable effort to receive with reverence the spoken word. Remember, it was prior to the appearance of the amplifiers that the pulpit received its very best response. People came then to hear a sermon, and gladly lent their ears with respectful and reverent attention. The radio and the talkies have helped, to some extent, to rescue our declining sense of hearing, but in the final analysis ours is still largely an eye-minded world, and no one who seeks to arouse conviction by means of words can ever forget it. Furthermore, it is well to understand that it is not only preaching that has been affected; the hard fact is that anything which depends entirely or largely on the ear for its acceptance is having a hard time. This growing atrophy of the public's sense of hearing is affecting the lecture platform, the stage, the political speech (without benefit of radio), and even the radio, which nowadays is rapidly converting to television.
Catholic Literature Also Neglected
It is worth noting that the average Catholic does little in the way of reading to sustain his faith. Catholic books, magazines, newspapers, and pamphlets pour off our presses. They are good, and contrasted with much of the trash and truck that comes from the secular press, I pronounce our press as "very good." But most of our Catholic publishers have a hard time of it due to the large percentage of our people who never read anything Catholic. How is the faith of this large number to be kept alive?
If they will not read, then they owe it to themselves to lend their ears to the preacher of a Sunday morning, for "not on bread alone doth man live but every word that proceedeth from the mouth of God" (Matt., iv. 4). Our souls are nourished with the bread of the Word; if that morsel, as it is handed out, is refused, little wonder that so many become anemic in their faith and eventually are lost to the Church.
It is unfortunately true that many are lamentably ignorant of their religion. This is due perhaps to the fact that they were unable to attend a parochial school or perhaps to the fact that they have allowed themselves to become utterly indifferent to religion. Many grown-ups in the pews, if called upon to take a simple oral or written examination on the fundamentals of Catholic teaching, would not get a passing mark. Such wide- spread ignorance demands better attention to sermons. Many have a lot to learn. What the priest has to say is relatively new to them. They can afford to listen.
Some Find Sermons Disturbing
Then, there is a certain percentage in every congregation who are cold to the sermon for the reason they are afraid that something might be said that will disturb them. Catholic preaching, as a rule, is positive. Priests have been instructed "to preach the word; be instant in season and out of season; reprove, entreat, rebuke in all patience and doctrine" (II Timothy, iv. 2-3). So, whatever is said, may not be said perfectly, but as a general rule you may be sure that something important will be said. If we preachers were to allow ourselves to be influenced by a small minority, our pulpits would quickly degenerate into pious babble. If you wish to get an idea of what lay influence can do to the pulpit, consult your newspaper some Saturday evening and glance over the sermon topics to be preached on the following morning in many Protestant churches. Catholics do not come to church to be entertained. This holds good, not only for the Mass, but for the sermon as well. As the sermon is the word of God being spoken, the hearer does not come to enjoy it as a spectacle nor to yield to its influence as they would to an emotion-producing drama. No, they come, not to enjoy it, but to receive it with reverence.
In the few minutes allowed the priest in the pulpit of a Sunday morning, give him your full attention. There is no more gratifying tribute one can give to another than absolute, undivided and sympathetic attention. If the sermon fails, let it be through no fault of your own. Remind yourself over and over that "faith comes through hearing," and in the midst of our burdened and bewildered lives how pathetically we all need the word of God to sustain and support us. "He who hears you hears Me," Christ said to His chosen ones. The man in the pulpit represents Christ. Strive then to let the voice of the speaker be for you the Voice of God.