Richard Ling, a Catholic priest in active ministry for 35 years, doesn't preach to the choir — he preaches to the preachers in the Denver Archdiocese.
Ling finds most priests and deacons aren't competent preachers, and he says it's not just his opinion. They aren't following the church's own carefully spelled-out standards, he says.
Most homilies — the priest's message delivered after the reading of the Gospel during Mass — are "rambling, disjointed and boring," Ling said.
For Lent last year, he began a self-funded crusade to help them improve. He has had no response from them and says he has seen little in terms of results. He doesn't even have the blessing of the archdiocese — he was always a maverick priest, he said, and he left active priesthood 15 years ago to marry. He was stripped of clerical faculties.
Yet Ling might be on to something. Even U.S. bishops have been trying to make changes — offering up new guidelines to homilists at the end of 2012.
Priests aren't even delivering real homilies, Ling said. They give sermons. There's a difference.
Sermons are exhortations to do more of this and less of that, he said. A homily should praise God, expound on the Gospel message and affirm how people can use or respond to the Gospels they just heard.
The simple dictionary definition calls a homily religious discourse intended primarily for spiritual edification rather than doctrinal instruction — and even offers sermon as a synonym.
Definitions aside, Ling said, the messages aren't effective in either category.
"No one is preaching homilies, and the sermons they are preaching are awful," Ling said. "Priests sometimes try to popularize themselves. They try to get down to what they think the level of the laity is."
But they often don't know their own people. And anecdotes about a priest's upbringing, if irrelevant to the Gospel, Ling said, aren't feeding the flock what it's hungry for.
U.S. bishops had evidence of this as far back as 1979, when extensive surveying of Catholics in the pews indicated "a questionable quality of preaching."
They produced a 50-page booklet in 1982 to address the problem, called " Fulfilled in Your Hearing: The Homily in the Sunday Assembly."
Ling condensed the booklet to 28 pages and sent it to 400 homilists — 280 priests and 120 deacons — in the archdiocese. Using his own money, Ling sent out out sample homilies and tips. He circulates a newsletter called HYPHEN (Here's Your Personal Homily Evaluation Newsletter).
So far, he has listened to 20 homilies (he says 19 were sermons) and sent evaluations to the preachers. He hasn't heard back from any of them.
"This is a tough sell," Ling said as his project enters its second year. "I'm not making myself popular. Everybody gets evaluated, except in the church. I've had to screw up my courage."
While Ling was still an active-ministry priest, Archbishop James Casey released him from weekday duties to work on "liturgical renewal" by writing homilies.
"I wrote homilies for seven years," he said. He even started a publishing concern, Worship Resources Inc. Yet, he admitted, his first 17 volumes were sermons rather than proper homilies.
He hadn't received instruction on writing homilies in the seminary, he said, so he can sympathize with priests and deacons. He's not the only one.
"I feel sorry for priests," wrote Sister Bernadette Reis in a January blog for Busted Halo. "Every Sunday they are required to get up in front of a crowd and preach, whether they're good at it or not. This leaves them wide open for criticism — and, believe me, I've not only heard plenty of it, I've, unfortunately, done my fair share as well."
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in December addressed the topic of how to prepare a good homily and recently published "Preaching the Mystery of Faith."
The bishops are asking priests to add teaching elements.
"Many Catholics have drifted away from active participation in the Church and are in need themselves of hearing again the Gospel of Jesus Christ and of recommitting themselves to discipleship," the book says. "At its heart, the New Evangelization is the re-proposing of the encounter with the Risen Lord, his Gospel, and his Church to those who no longer find the Church's message engaging. In order to awaken this hunger and thirst for the word of God in our time, we need to renew our preaching with lively faith, firm conviction and joyful witness."
Ling said there are some priests and deacons who are right on target.
"Some guys really put their hearts into it," Ling said.
And Reis said she believes that "many of us may not be satisfied if Jesus himself were the one delivering the homily — after all, John's Gospel tells us that many of his followers stopped following him after hearing him speak."
Electa Draper: 303-954-1276, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/electadraper