PREACHING Practice – the weekly highlight of our semesters here in St Dominic’s Priory in Melbourne – affords the student body the opportunity to hone much more than simply our skills in the art of rhetoric.
Our collective sense of humility and charity is also fostered by this salutary practice.
Being able to receive criticism and offer some healthy fraternal correction is as much a part of the exercise as learning to deliver an intelligible and (hopefully) engaging homily.
For example, one student friar – who will remain nameless – felt so deeply moved by the arguably lackadaisical efforts of one of the brethren that he was able to sum up his comments with a brevity worthy of Cicero: ‘Massive fail.’
There may have been some hand gestures as well.
We are often joined by some parishioners and the pastoral associate for these sessions, and they too supply us with their insight and words of wisdom.
‘You’ll scare the children’ is one of the more memorable phrases that they offered up over the course of the past few months.
The student friar who has been subjected to this treatment is, of course, called upon to respond once all members of the small but attentive congregation have had their say.
In keeping with a method of dialogue that I have now seen employed on more than one occasion during my brief time within the Order, the student friar in question invariably begins his response by thanking the participants for their comments.
He then launches into a lengthy disquisition as to why everybody else has misconstrued his ideas, misunderstood his style and missed the point.
That might be a slight exaggeration.
Yet in an Order famed for its history of disputatio, I am happy to report that the tradition lives on, even among the youngest professed members of the province.
On the whole, however, the greatest lesson learnt from our preaching practice sessions is that the transmission of the faith is ultimately a work of the Holy Spirit.
This is most clearly evidenced by the fact that, although each person sitting around the table and contributing to the discussion undoubtedly sat in the same church not five minutes beforehand, their comments often seem to indicate that they all heard rather different homilies.
The Lord does, indeed, work in mysterious ways.
When I first considered applying to the Order of Preachers, I noticed that much of the literature on the Order detailed its focus on ‘doctrinal’ preaching.
And I could not help but think at the time, ‘Oh, you mean it’s boring.’
I suspect that initial impression is the overwhelming response of most people to the suggestion that preaching ought to be ‘doctrinal’.
Doctrine and dogma have a bad name these days.
Yet the reason for this is difficult to fathom.
After all, in the words of the late Jesuit Father James Schall, “Dogma simply means an accurate statement of what is true.”
During our Postulancy we had a series of classes on the Constitutions of the Order given by a former provincial.
When we came to the sub-division that spoke of the doctrinal nature of our preaching, he explained that this made our task both simpler and more difficult.
It is simple because we do not have to make anything up – what we must preach is already given to us; the doctrine and dogma of the Church.
It is difficult because our explicit task is to take those teachings and render them comprehensible, compelling and contemporary.
Our vocation is to preach the eternal, unchanging truth into our own context in such a way that it resonates with our contemporaries.
I like to think that St Vincent of Lerins – who died in the middle of the fifth century – is an honorary Dominican by virtue of his most famous saying: ‘The truth you have learned, teach it also yourself; say things in a new way without saying anything new.’
Christianity is, after all, dogmatic by nature – more so than any other faith.
There is no other religion that has a creed, a series of language propositions that explicitly lay down what we believe.
Yet the creed, as a series of dogmatic statements, requires some explanation – and, unfortunately, this is seldom given.
In the 1950s the Cistercian Eugene Boylan wrote: ‘There are a considerable number of Catholics who, if not starving, are at least under-nourished for want of a proper diet of Catholic doctrine.’
Not much has changed since.
This is all the more distressing because, in my experience, if the beautiful doctrines of the Church are not explained, people seldom investigate the issue for themselves – they usually just throw up their hands and throw in the towel.
Like the mock answers composed by Dorothy L. Sayers to a hypothetical examination paper on Christian religion, many people might be tempted to respond to the question ‘What is the doctrine of the Trinity?’ by saying:
‘The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the whole thing incomprehensible. Something put in by theologians to make it more difficult – nothing to do with daily life or ethics.’
Not that the Trinity is easy to explain – far from it.
As St Augustine once wrote, ‘If you can comprehend it, it’s not God.’
But that does not mean we should not still strive to articulate, in however limited and analogous a manner, the doctrines and dogmas of the faith.
The most useful thing that I have ever heard a friar mention during our preaching practice sessions on Friday afternoons was this:
‘There are three things essential to every homily – First, have something to say; Second, have something to say; Third, have something to say.’
Fortunately, the ‘something’ has already been given to us – the doctrine and dogma of the Church.
Our task is to ‘say’ it in such a way that we are not simply talking to ourselves but actually engaging the hearts and minds of the faithful.
The Dominican biblical scholar Jerome Murphy-O’Connor put it best when he said, ‘The word of God is not a cry launched out into the void, but an invitation directed to individuals. Consequently, it is incumbent on the preacher to ensure that his message is always actual, that it is so integrated with the needs and capacities of his audience as to be a really vital appeal.’
In that way, not only will we be fulfilling our doctrinal preaching mission, we will also avoid developing the reputation that was apparently earned by St Caesarius of Arles in the sixth century.
I once read that when he ascended the stairs to the pulpit, the doors of the church had to be locked to prevent people from fleeing the tedium.
Doctrine and dogma are not inherently boring, nor are they inherently interesting – they are simply statements of truth, of reality.
Our preaching task is to make that truth actual, striking, appealing.
And if that does occur, then it is clearly the work of the Holy Spirit more than ourselves.