Of all the things seven years at the Scots College in Rome taught me, it certainly taught me to think on my feet. In particular, the twin lion’s dens of oral exams and weekly sermon class forced me to express myself succinctly and, I think, to teach under pressure.
Many years later, undergoing studies as a beginning Education lecturer, I was challenged to ask myself: what have been my most formative experiences of teaching and being taught, and how am I incorporating them into my practice? The weekly oral proclamation of the homily in the parish came quickly to the fore. Yet had the Sunday homily been a truly educational endeavour? How do I know that my parishioners learned anything? Was it enough to try to be interesting, erudite, concise? Could I learn from the discipline of teaching? In return could I now allow the craft of preaching to inform and enrich my teaching?
What firstly, then, can the preacher learn from the teacher? The teacher has to know his or her pupils: know their names, what motivates them, how to be sensitive to their circumstances. So too the preacher; as Pope John XXIII reminded the Church as he opened the Second Vatican Council, “The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another.” Therefore, like the teacher, the preacher expresses a living, incarnated Word, shaped to hearers who are known, understood and cherished. This certainly involves pastoral concern – to get the mud of the streets on shoes and the smell of the sheep in nostrils; but also requires in a specific way the closing of the feedback loop, incorporating the principles of assessment to foster our reflective practice as educators. Who will tell me whether I hit the mark on a given Sunday, whether my words brought healing and enlightenment, whether I sounded harsh or tired? Over the years I have found small trusted groups such as the RCIA team, a faith sharing group or some critical friends essential to take the parish temperature in this way; regular surveys taken in the pews and via social media can also help.
The teacher also follows a curriculum, which has particular design principles – for example breadth, depth, progression, and coherence – which ensure that learners progress in a structured way. Although parishioners are at varying stages of the life of faith and of religious literacy, the liturgical calendar (the original spiral curriculum) and the three-year cycle of readings does point the preacher in this direction. As preachers we might emphasise how each passage fits onto the overall arc of the gospel narrative, emphasising the background and theological concerns of the featured evangelist. This could help overcome the temptation to view each gospel passage and associated readings in an atomised way. In addition, a structured syllabus of key themes might be adopted at certain times of the year, recognising that the sermon is the preeminent practical form of adult education in the parish setting.
In return, what can teachers learn from preachers? The preacher is under pressure to engage an audience, say something fresh and incisive, and break open the Word – culturally, theologically and spiritually – all in 5-7 minutes. Perhaps even the most competent teacher can learn from this artform, observed during a lifetime of worship at Sunday Mass, and now augmented by the wide online choice.
In the Religious Education sphere, a key principle from preaching is to allow the Word of God to speak directly and touch the heart. In its elucidation of the presences of Christ in the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium 7underlines that, “It is Christ Himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the Church.” The same is true mutatis mutandis of the classroom, especially when the Scriptures are proclaimed in a prayerful way. This might inspire teachers to allow God’s living Word to find a place in the hearts of the pupils, avoiding excessive paraphrasing and visual aids, which might instead scaffold rather than supplant the proclaimed Word.
This is the art of the preacher. There is great affinity and creative flow between evangelist, preacher and teacher, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who opens hearts to receive the Word shaped too by the Spirit in the apostolic era. Perhaps, then, the most crucial task of all is to place our endeavours in the Spirit’s hands, and pray the prayer which my mother, a primary school teacher, prayed before every lesson she taught:
“Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of the faithful, and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth.”