What is the matter with us? Our grandparents, when they were children, on returning home on a Sunday morning might have been asked by their mothers, to check that they had been to Mass, what the sermon was about. Today, as soon as we have left the church porch, we’d hardly be able to answer that question.
I’ve heard of good Baptists who sit with lined paper, biros and highlighters, making notes during the sermon for future reference. But, since sermons are not lectures, I’m pretty sure that is not the solution.
Partly, to be sure, the trouble is that we don’t enjoy sermons, indeed the notion of doing so is laughable. “Preaching has become a by-word for long and dull conversation,” wrote the wit Sydney Smith two centuries ago, “and whoever wishes to imply, in any piece of writing, the absence of everything agreeable and inviting, calls it a sermon”.
Yet, at the back of our minds remains the objection that, if the sermon was better, we might remember it. A couple of weeks ago I heard a sermon in Bologna cathedral which was memorable because the preacher shouted quite a bit. I was vague about the details, because it was in Italian, but it certainly covered marriage, scandal, the teaching of the Church and politicians. Ah, I thought, Berlusconi (though the name was not mentioned). But priests can hardly shout all the time, and if they did, the effect would soon subside.
There are two obstacles to the Sunday sermon. One is that we are unused to listening to anything delivered at any length by a single voice. We are accustomed to television. Television is terrified of a talking head without a change of pictures. But the shifting pictures distract attention from what is being said. They suggest that the words alone are not worth listening to. The waves of speech that accompany the pictures lull the viewer into a state of mind like an inferior kind of sleep, a troubled doze.
Even when young people go to university, lectures might be designed to prevent the absorption of information. It is practically unknown for a lecture to lack a printed handout. Read the handout, and it is difficult to concentrate at the same time on the words trickling into the ears.
So that’s what the preacher at Mass is up against: a general incapacity to listen. It was quite different in the 1660s, when Samuel Pepys wrote down his impressions of Sunday sermons. He enjoyed hearing, reading and comparing them. “A good sermon, a fine church, and a great company of handsome women,” he noted in his Diary in 1661.
For all his sharpness of apprehension, Pepys is no model for imitation. We British Catholics today are fortunate that the standard of preaching is so low. Sermons are dreadful: embarrassing, accusatory, unstructured, unscriptural and meagre in doctrine. That does mean, though, that we are not tempted to compare the excellence of one sermon with another.
No, the second and biggest obstacle to the efficacy of the Sunday sermon is that the listener does not turn it into active worship. Active participation in the Mass does not stop when the congregation shuts up. That’s when it starts, because it is then that Mass-goers have to put in their own response.
Hearing a sermon is not a passive interlude. It is like receiving Communion. Of course, the fact itself of receiving God truly present in Communion is a transforming reality. But it is not one to which we respond with indifference. Adoration, thanks, contrition and petition are natural responses to Jesus Christ really with us.
God is also with us in the sermon because it is part of the Liturgy of the Word. This is rather more than a metaphor. The Word of God, the second person of the Holy Trinity, is present in the word of God that is Scripture. This is a presence of the Word which (as in the sacramental reception of Holy Communion) is not only an objective reality, but a personal approach by God which invites a response. God is saying something to me in the Scripture that is read out in church and in the sermon, the homily, which is somehow connected to the readings of the day.
If that merely makes us regret all the more thinking during the sermon about how to cook the lunch, then a consoling realisation is that the prime mover in our worship during the sermon is the Holy Spirit. “When the Holy Spirit awakens faith, he not only gives an understanding of the Word of God, but through the sacraments also makes present the ‘wonders’ of God which it proclaims,” says the Catechism. “The Spirit makes present and communicates the Father’s work, fulfilled by the beloved Son.”
It is possible to resist the Holy Spirit, by never reading the Gospel before or after Mass, by anaesthetising the dull horrors of the sermon by methodic daydreaming. But no Magic Marker or biro notes can bring home the work of the sermon. The letters of fire, with which the Holy Spirit brands the word of God on to our souls, make the difference. His work, even within us, is not always discernible. Why should it be – what colour or shape is faith? Yet just say Veni Sancte Spiritus at the beginning of the sermon, and you’ll be in danger of it changing your life.
Christopher Howse is an assistant editor of the Daily Telegraph