Book Launch Speaking from Within: Biblical Approaches for Effective Preaching by the Rev Dr Kieran Canon O’Mahony OSA (Veritas).
Speaking Notes of Fr Kieran McDermott
Episcopal Vicar for Evangelisation and Ecumenism
St Patrick’s Cathedral – December 2016
Your Grace, Dean Morton, members of the Cathedral Chapter, Canon O’Mahony, Augustinian Friars confreres of Fr O’Mahony, representatives of Veritas Publishing, distinguished guests.
For twelve years I had the privilege to serve as Chaplain to the Faculty of Medicine in UCD. Each year, in September, the Faculty Dean and I would give a welcome speech to the 1st Year medical students. The Dean would begin by giving a brief history of the faculty, one of the first established by Fr John Henry Newman, what was then the Catholic University. He would then outline in broad brush strokes the training they were about to embark on and the various degrees they would need to attain in order to qualify as a practioner of medicine. I was always struck by his comments on the Degree of Obstetrics (BAO) which stands for the ‘Bachelor in the Art of Obstetrics’. It was the phrase ‘the art of obstetrics’ that always struck me. It was not about performing a medical procedure competently, no, it was raised to higher plane, to an art form, the art of bringing forth life, the art of caring for mother and child in the birthing process and in the time that followed.
The art of anything suggests being attentive to something in a vocational sense. It is not just simply another task to be accomplished, it is very much about being present and attentive to and in the moment.
Down the centuries many, many volumes have been written about the task of preaching and homily preparation. They often focus on the skills to be acquired, two on my shelf are titled; The craft of Sermon Construction, and Better Preaching: 52 exercises to hone your skills when in fact a more appropriate, accurate description would be, and referred to in Chapter two of Speaking from Within, the Art of Preaching being attentive to the moment following a time of prayer, study and reflection. Great art is often born from a deep encounter with something- an experience of love, tragedy, personal pain or mystery. Whether in music or on canvass it emerges from a place deep within the mind and soul of the artist. It must be likewise for the preacher of the Word.
The poet, George Herbert, himself a preacher in the Anglican tradition, in his poem The Windows challenges and affirms the preaching ministry:
Doctrine and Life, colours and light, in one
When they combine and mingle, bring
A strong regard and awe: but speech alone
Doth vanishes like a flaring thing,
And in the ear, not conscience, ring.
Herbert challenges himself and us to have that integrity of “doctrine and life” that makes our preaching credible. Eloquence alone may impress but does not leave a lasting impression. In fact, according to Fr O’Mahony, ‘Fragile preaching in all its tentativeness can touch the hearers far more effectively’.
Dr O’Mahony makes a clear distinction between the sermon, that is, a talk on a given subject, and the homily, a reflection based closely on the Sacred Scriptures. This distinction would not have been made in the eighteenth century when Dean Johnathan Swift delivered his famous sermons here in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. Dean Swift spent every fifth Sunday preaching from the pulpit. The range of subjects treated included from the Martyrdom of King Charles I to the Wretched Condition of Ireland. Members of the St. Patrick’s Cathedral community would ask, “Pray, does the Doctor preach today?” Swift’s sermons had the reputation of being spoken “with an emphasis and fervor which everyone around him saw, and felt. In one sermon, Swift criticises a “decay” in preaching that has led to people falling asleep in church; a decay, I suspect, is not confined to the 18th Century! Swift wrote out his sermons before preaching, this is something Canon O’Mahony also advocates. It has the effect of stopping the preacher from wandering and brings clarity of thought….unlike the parish priest in Kerry who said of his preaching preparation that ‘I keep talking until I stumble on an idea’!!
Swift believed that a preacher had to be understood, and states, “For a divine hath nothing to say to the wisest congregation of any parish in this kingdom, which he may not express in a manner to be understood by the meanest among them.” He elaborates further when he says, “the two principal branches of preaching, are first to tell the people what is their duty; and then to convince them that it is so.”
There is not much convergence in the approaches of Dean Swift and Canon O’Mahony and the reason for this lies in the clear distinction between sermon and homily.
Fr O’Mahony is clearly an admirer of Pope Francis, there are no less than ten references to various written works from this Bishop of Rome most notably ‘Evangelii Gaudium: The Joy of the Gospel’, five of the seven chapters are prefaced with appropriate quotations. Pope Francis is also quoted in the Introduction and I will read now a short extract: ‘A preacher who does not prepare is not ‘spiritual’ he is dishonest and irresponsible with the gifts he has received’, no punches pulled here by this Argentinian Jesuit….
The central argument advanced in Speaking from Within and which echoes strongly Herbert’s sentiment is that the task of the preacher is to demonstrate an integration of faith and life starting with the preacher. From the foreword: ‘A good homily is grounded in the faith, rooted in scripture, reflects on life in general, and address contemporary thought and experience in particular’. He goes on to make a bold claim, ‘the single greatest weakness of traditional Irish Christianity has been the lack of a critical understanding of faith’. In evidence he sites ‘the way people walk away from the faith, apparently with ease, with no awareness or regret that they abandon something rich, engaging, exciting and deep.’ For Fr O’Mahony the preacher must present the reasonableness of faith, what he means here is to demonstrate that faith and reason do not fundamentally contradict each other.
Speaking from Within is divided into two sections Chapters one to four look at the preparation of the homily, in the first instance, through an encounter with the Word through prayer. Only then can you begin to treat the more practical aspects such as writing the text which is addressed in Chapter two. The following Chapter explores the structure of the lectionary within the context of the liturgical assembly noting that the reformed Churches and Roman Catholic Church read the same Scripture passages each Sunday opening up ecumenical horizons. Chapter four encourages us to ‘go out into the deep’ in creating a personal biblical culture only then can the preacher begin to speak from within.
It is at this juncture that the book, to use a musical metaphor, shifts key and time signature. Chapters 5, 6 and 7 go deeper into the Word of God by way of illustration leading us ‘within’ the richness of biblical study by presenting three scenes from St Luke’s Gospel. The book concludes with some pointers for reflection and prayer.
This is not a textbook or preaching manual, it is primarily but not exclusively aimed at preachers and teachers. Anyone who reads it will profit from the discussions about the priority of scripture, the importance of proper interpretation, and the primacy of prayerful reflection.
Whether you are a rookie preacher or a seasoned minster, there are many practical nuggets in this book from which you can start to strengthen your preaching. I hope you will buy a copy of Speaking from Within. If you are not a preacher, consider making it a gift for your pastor or one you know.
To anybody who is interested or indeed tasked with passing on faith – read it. It is a pretty easy read you can get through quickly. Or do as I did, read each chapter slowly and find something of interest in each. It will also serve as a help in entering spiritually in to the Season of Advent just begun.
In the end, Canon O’Mahony reminds us that, ‘all preaching should bring the hearer to a deeper or profound encounter with the risen Lord. The homily is one dimension of the larger project – evangelisation’.
For just over five years I have worked with Kieran and when time allows we have been known to attend the odd concert or recital together. I can tell you he relishes engagement with other minds. So, please tell him what you think about it once you read it, in charity of course, you can do this thorough his website tarsus.ie He would never boast that he has all the answers. I suspect he is a bit like myself, a fellow-struggler, who lives in the bondage of weekly preparation
I don’t expect you to agree with him on everything. But I do hope that this book will start you thinking and reflecting on the task of evangelisation, a task entrusted to every Christian, not just preachers of the Word in new and fresh ways.
I would like to express appreciation to Veritas for publishing this book. There are many books on the Scriptures and the Liturgical Year on your book shelfs but not too many on the art of preaching, Speaking from Within represents a welcome addition in this regard.
Now, I suppose I should formally do what I have been tasked to do and that is to declare this book, Speaking from Within: Biblical Approaches for Effective Preaching, authored by Fr Kieran O’Mahony OSA and published by Veritas, formally launched.