02Nov Priests should try harder to connect with their people

In the days of the Latin Mass, we went to church and knelt in holy silence, praying quietly from our prayer books – The Treasury of the Sacred Heart, or, The Garden of the Soul – or we said our rosary, while up on the altar, the priest went through the sacred ritual of Mass. We were taking time out from the world and its weekly rush, to come into the presence of the Holy of Holies, to stand at the threshold of heaven, not venturing onto the sanctuary as that was sacred ground.

Half way through the mass, the priest would come down to us in the nave, ascending a pulpit to address us from on high, reading out the gospel once more, this time in our own language, and then proceeding to give us instruction in some element of the creed or doctrines of the church. Then back to the sacred ground and the mysteries. At communion time, in my day –the 1950s – we were encouraged to go up for communion, even though the message from the pulpit constantly impressed upon us that we were unworthy sinners. Knock them down and call them back.

The changes in the way we celebrate mass, which were ushered in with the Vatican Council, have been a very mixed blessing. We all know horrendous tales of trendy priests, guitars and noisy gatherings. The sacred ritual, performed at a distance from the congregation was replaced by a democratic come-all-ye that upset a great many people.

When done well, Mass is wonderful, powerful and inspiring. When done shoddily, it drives hungry people away. I wish to highlight one issue in particular. The way the priest speaks to the people.

In the old days it was hardly an issue. The mass was a closed shop, its ritual self-contained, its responses shared between priest and server. Only at sermon time did the priest talk to the people. Some good, some bad, some indifferent.

In the new mass, some priests did try to be trendy and with it, as if they were entertainers, on stage in front of people. Father Ted hit lots of nails on the head in that regard. People do not want smart alecs. We are not interested in being entertained.

Other priests, not knowing how to speak to people, simply adopt an objective mode of language, speaking like the speaking clock. This is the ultimate form of disconnection.

Priests need to learn how to speak in public to their gathered people. In particular, I think it vital, at weekday mass, to give a short and simple and personally thought out reflection on the readings of the day. If this connection is not made, people feel like robots attending an impersonal mumbo-jumbo.

Public speaking is a vitally important part of the church’s life. How important is it in the training of priests these days? Not just the mechanics of it, but the spiritual manner of it, the way of speaking that draws people in, that respects their hearts and minds, that inspires their prayer.

Our first connection with the church, our primary involvement is when we gather together for Mass. How well do we speak on these occasions?

I used to stand in the pulpit. I used to lead the people off God in prayer. Now I stand in the pew. The privilege of standing and leading Mass is great.  Speak up. Speak clearly. Speak well.

• Brian Fahey served as a Redemptorist in the English province

4 Responses

  1. Mary O Vallely

    Oh dear. I did smile when I read Brian’s description of some priests who “simply adopt an objective mode of language, speaking like the speaking clock.” We have all known and know such priests.
    Sadly, not every ordained man is blessed with the gift of oratory or of commanding attention from the ambo. There are many who must dread the Sunday homily but who are, wonderful, kindly and caring pastors apart from this. I agree that the training is hugely important but some will never be as good as perhaps the gifted layperson, female or male, who does have a talent for communicating and can inspire and set hearts “on fire” with love for God.
    What a pity that Brian himself can no longer perform this task nor those other priests who left the priesthood for one reason or another and who are wonderful communicators. We all know such men. Then there are the women but that’s for another day, I suppose. (century, probably.)
    The ability to communicate and to communicate effectively, of course, is not just a matter of words. A good, decent, compassionate priest will be forgiven poor speechifying (sometimes it can be this bad) if his parishoners see his life as one of integrity and of living out the Gospel values. The important task before us is to recognise and use each others’ talents for the good of the church, no matter what the label, priest, religious, mother, father, reformed laptop dancer or whatever. (now that would surely bring the crowds in!)

  2. Mary O Vallely

    Whoops! “Laptop” dancer?! You all know what I meant so apply that “breath of kindness” again and smile, please!

  3. Kevin

    I think some of the priests are trying. Not easy and don’t think I could even stand up there let alone speak to the sea of faces. One I admired very much a while back as it was more difficult for him. He got up and nothing stopped him.

    I do sometimes wonder if a word, phrase, idea from that days’s readings, gospel might be enough to give a few words on. What might it mean to be ‘holy’ ? Many assume always on the knees, praying and looking pensive, far away and/or glum. When Jesus commands each person to love her/himself. What is He commanding.

    Speaking from the heart is always powerful I think. Can people be taught to do that.

    Be nice if priests had help – the people could occasionally speak. Give the priest a rest too. If the people can’t give a sermon. Can they write for the priest, or is that anathema too ?

  4. Anne

    It is unfortunate that some Priests now do not give any homily even on a Sunday. I thought it was obligatory that a homily be given on a Sunday. How are people supposed to be guided in living out the Gospel when some Priests say nothing ? Jesus said ‘Go and Preach the Good News’…….There is nothing courageous or virtuous about remaining silent in this instance. We need to hear the Gospel, so many people are left feeling isolated, so many who suffer in their own homes, so many struggling with sin, and then go to Mass and hear nothing about the Gospel, the Word of God which is there to be lived out in our daily Christian life.


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