Review of A Handbook for Catholic Preaching

HCP LitPressFoley, Edward, gen. ed., with Catherine Vincie and Richard Fragomeni, ass. eds. A Handbook for Catholic Preaching. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2016.

Cosponsored by The Catholic Association of Teachers of Homiletics and The Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions, A Handbook for Catholic Preaching is an extraordinary resource. It provides in concise yet comprehensive format an overview of theoretical reflection on and pastoral practice of preaching in the contemporary Roman Catholic communion, primarily in North America. (It should be noted that Jewish, Episcopalian and Lutheran authors enrich the “catholic” focus of the anthology.)

The general editor, Ed Foley, admirably summarizes the intended audience for this collection of essays:

“While this resource is intended to aid those who teach or direct the preaching arts, professors and bishops, working preachers, and pastoral supervisors, the design and writing style were particularly calibrated to graduate students in ministerial studies. Every article – each of approximately four thousand words – was meant to be a self-contained overview of a particular historical period, genre of preaching, homiletic theory, or contemporary issue. This more encyclopedic approach – largely devoid of footnotes yet supported by pertinent bibliography – is intended to provide a sufficiently rich yet thoroughly accessible to major facets of the preaching arts at this stage of the twenty-first century.” (x).

Following an introduction to the entire project by Timothy Radcliffe, reflecting on the experience of the disciples on the road to Emmaus (and back), the first section of the book consists of three introductory essays: 1) Robert Morneau’s ruminations on preaching as a spiritual exercise, exploring preaching and prayer, study, creativity and language enriched with passages from classic poets and Morneau’s own verse; 2) Richard Fragomeni and James Wallace’s guidelines for teaching preaching as cultivating appropriate attitudes, preparing for and “performing” preaching, and writing and re-writing the preaching text for oral/aural appropriation rather than visual; and 3) Con Foley and Richard Fragomeni’s helpful and detailed chronological survey of Roman Catholic official teaching on preaching (of varying degrees of authority) from 1963-2015. This final essay should be read as an extension of Guerric DeBona’s article on preaching after Vatican II in the second section of the book.

Attention then turns to a series of essays surveying the types of preaching typical of particular epochs in the Church’s life: 1) vanThanh Nguyen’s overview of preaching in the New Testament, focusing especially on Jesus as parabolic preacher and Paul as missionary preacher; 2) Alden Bass’ summary of types of preaching in the early Christian church, noting the shifts from prophecy to preaching in the 2nd and 3rd C, the “golden age” of preaching in the 4th C with gradual differentiation of liturgical (Sunday, weekly, festal, and panegyric sermons), kerygmatic, catechetical, mystagogical and thematic sermons, recognizing that “nearly all preaching was exegetical at some level” with the exception of thematic preaching, and the development of a homiletic tradition in the 5th and 6th C during which collections of sermons (“homiliaries”) appeared and theological reflection on the act of preaching arose, especially Augustine’s De Doctina Christiana; 3) Carolyn Muessig’s digest of medieval preaching, highlighting who, how, where, what, when and why medieval people preached; 4) Robert Bireley’s synopsis of preaching from Trent to the Enlightenment, discussing developments in Italy stemming from updated Artes Praedicandi and the influence of the Jesuits, through the postils (“homily helps”) appearing in the German-speaking world, through elaborate French pulpit oratory as manifested in Bossuet and Bourdaloue, and mission preaching with Alphonsus Liguori and the Redemptorists (I wish that the essayist had been authorized to go beyond the 4000-word limit to explore Spanish and Portuguese preaching in the Americas, both to the “conquerors” and to the native peoples); 5) Guerric DeBona’s two-article sketch of preaching before and after Vatican II, primarily concentrating on the United States. These articles provide a welcome supplement to such monuments of historical study of preaching as Hughes Oliphant Olds’ 5-volume The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Church.

The third section of the Handbook deals with genres of preaching: 1) Frank DeSiano highlights the importance of personal encounter as he surveys post- Vatican II Roman Catholic teaching on evangelization and how it relates to parish mission, retreat, and homiletic preaching; 2) Diane Bergant’s essay on biblical preaching is one of the gems of the collection, as she outlines hermeneutical theory distinguishing between the worlds of, behind and in front of the biblical text and how they provide opportunities for biblical preaching in the celebration of sacraments, prayer services, retreats and mission, and devotional practices; 3) Michael E. Connors and Ann M. Garrido take on the sometimes contentious relation between doctrinal/catechetical preaching and biblical/liturgical preaching, noting that doctrinal formulations assist forms of preaching, (negatively) by a “delimiting” function (“like foul lines on a baseball field” that keep the game in play) and (positively) by an “exhortatory” function (unearthing contemporary meanings from the treasury of the Church’s reflections on revelation over time); 4) In a magnificently dense article, Catherine Vincie defines and surveys mystagogical preaching (with a special concentration on the patristic era) through Christian history and poses three questions or movements that a contemporary mystagogical preacher might pursue: “What did you experience in the liturgy? What did your experience mean? What difference does this make in your life at this time and place?” (142-144 passim); 5) John F. Baldovin’s reflections on liturgical and sacramental preaching presume that “preaching on sacramental or liturgical occasions calls for a very different strategy from preaching a Sunday homily” (146) and then discusses salient factors for the preacher to consider in preaching at baptism, confirmation, penance, the anointing of the sick, conferral of holy orders and ministries, religious profession and consecration to virginity, weddings and funerals and vigil services; 6) Ed Foley’s summary essay on the homily ends this section on a high note: it is amazing to me how much helpful information Foley packs into this 10-page contribution, offering a historical review of understandings of “homily,” defining the contemporary homily in the light of magisterial and scholarly documents, and concluding with four characteristics of a homily: it is a liturgical act, it is rooted in the lectionary, it is a rhetorical event, and it is an act of public theology.

Emerging genres of preaching comprise the fourth section of the Handbook: 1) Herbert Anderson grapples with narrative preaching and narrative reciprocity in his essay. While I appreciated the author’s description of narrative preaching as being “drawn into the tension created by the ambiguity of a major life crisis, some discrepancy in the biblical narrative itself, the tension between a biblical text and a human dilemma, or some human conflict in which survival depends on God’s vision for living. The hearer is invited to participate in the preacher’s effort to resolve the disequilibrium or ambiguity that is articulated in the homiletical plot” (169-170), I found it hard to identify examples of such preaching in my experience and would have enjoyed some concrete examples. Nonetheless this essay powerfully spurred my interest in exploring this new (to me) genre of preaching; 2) William T. Ditewig’s “Preaching as Public Theology” first acknowledges that “public theology” is a relatively new term and surveys its use in thinkers such as Martin Marty, Bernard Lonergan, and Scott Paeth (I found Paeth’s pithy remark that “public theology strives to uncover the theological issues that underlie human culture” (181) to be very helpful), then surveys this genre of preaching through Christian tradition, and adumbrates three characteristics of this genre of preaching: acting in imitation of Christ, preaching the tradition, and carving out a place for the community of faith in the work and development of the “earthly city”; 3) David J. Lose tackles the immense topic of imagination and preaching by highlighting “three distinct ways in which preaching have viewed and employed imagination”: as device (and faculty), lauded for its ability to mediate logical thought and action, but also mistrusted when it devolves into “fancy,” as practice, manifested in conventional or sacramental imagining, prophetic or visionary imagining, and empathetic imagining; and as competency, moving from the preacher’s use of imagination as device or practice to developing the hearers’ ability “to imagine and act within the cultural-linguistic world projected by the biblical narrative” (197); 4) Describing rhetoric as “the planned and strategic use of symbols, language and discourse – both spoken and written – to influence and persuade” (200), Lucy Lind Hogan explores rhetorical approaches to preaching, acknowledging its roots in Aristotle and Cicero, its Christian adaptation in Augustine, its fierce critique in Karl Barth, and its reappropriation for Christian use in the thought of post-classical rhetoricians and the four aspects of preaching sketched in Fulfilled in Your Hearing (the assembly, the preacher, the homily, and homiletic method); 5) Jorge Presmanes powerfully outlines Latin American liberationist, African-American, feminist, womanist, mujerista, and Latinoa prophetic preaching as a dialogue between God and people “based on divine anger at the injustice that perpetuates human and environmental suffering of the oppressed” (210); Mary Margaret Pazdan concludes this section on another high note, concisely but brilliantly exploring the “new hermeneutics” in the contributions of Schleirmacher, Dilthey, Bultmann, Fuchs, and Ebeling, with a special focus on Paul Ricoeur’s philosophy of language and interpretation theory as a resource for preachers.

The final section of the Handbook turns from engaging emerging genres of preaching to addressing some contemporary issues in preaching: 1) Stephen Bevans and Ricky Manalo tackle contextual preaching as a manifestation of contextual theology, noting four major aspects of context (individual and social experience, the complexity of culture, the various “social locations” of the men and women gathered for worship, movements of social change) and offering six models for contextual preaching (translation, anthropological, praxis, synthetic, transcendental, countercultural); 2) Barbara K. Lundblad and Margaret Moers Wenig set the context for two sermons embodying ecumenical and interfaith preaching, highlighting three points of advice from Krister Stendahl manifested in such preaching (“let the other define herself: don’t think you know the other without listening; compare equal to equal – not my positive qualities to the negative ones of the other; find beauty in the other so as to develop ‘holy envy’” (251); 3) Anthony Collamati, Richard Vosco and Alex Zenthoefer explore preaching in a digital age by surveying the influential theories of Bernard Steigler, Marshall McLuhan, Harold Innis, and Eileen Crowley, then focusing on using (social) media in evangelization (preparing for preaching, publishing homilies, getting feedback, and connecting with people) and employing various media during preaching; 4) Especially adverting to contemporary Roman Catholicism, Patricia Parachini and Patrick Lagges struggle with questions such as “Why is preaching limited to ordained men?”, “What is lost when women and non-ordained men do not preach at worship?”, and “What is the basis for the mandate to preach?” by exploring preaching as a charism and its interface with canon law; 5) After adverting to the 2005 “holy card” version of Catholic Social Teaching found in the USCCB’s Seven Themes of Catholic Social Teaching [CST], John Carr offers wise counsel summarized in twelve items proposing directions and warning of dangers when preaching CST; 6) Craig Alan Sattelee and Gregory Heille sketch Roman Catholic preaching’s ecumenical contributions over the last half century in expanding Scripture’s context (not so much canon or book as the liturgy), envisioning Scripture as interpreter of life, not just something to be interpreted, and enlivening Scripture study, all for the sake of “full, conscious and active discipleship”: “When discipleship is at its best, the worshiping assembly rehearses the reign of God in preaching and sacramental action; the community passes on the tradition through catechesis and initiation; the institutional church is inculturated through evangelization and mission; and persons and communities engage in transforming encounter through testimony and accompaniment.” (295)

As I hope has come clear in my listing of the various authors and topics making up A Handbook for Catholic Preaching, I think this extraordinary resource belongs in the library of every institution preparing preachers for ministry, as well as the reading lists of bishops, priests, deacons and lay preachers. It effectively reviews what might be considered the status quo of Roman Catholic reflection on preaching in its introduction and first two sections, and introduces in summary fashion new developments in its final two sections. The select bibliographies appended to each essay provide a rich set of resources for those who would want to pursue a particular topic in more depth. The sponsoring organizations should be well pleased with this volume and the editors and contributors are to be commended for how well they have fulfilled their individual commissions. As one who attempts to preach as part of my priestly ministry, I found the mixture of theoretical reflection and practical advice found in these pages to be a support to my present preaching and a challenge to develop it even more in the years ahead.

Fr. Jan Michael Joncas
University of St. Thomas
January 2017


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