My first professor for preaching sermons told us he would teach us strictly according to official Church theology as taught in the great Council of Vatican II from the 1960’s, but he said he would use a “baseball analogy”.
He told us to imagine the preacher like a pitcher in baseball. The big game is coming when the pitcher will pitch the game. Like a pitcher, the preacher also prepares. He should pray. He should read the scriptures and study them carefully; and then, pray some more. Good preaching comes out of scripture and prayer and reflection.
Imagine a pitcher working on his fastball. Throughout the week he prepares, and throws a lot of practice pitches. He works on delivery, speed and accuracy. Gradually his fastball gets faster and straighter and more consistently in the “strike zone”. On game day he pitches his best; and when it leaves his hand he knows it was a fastball, the way he had practiced it.
The preacher prepares in a similar way, as he works out the message he will deliver at Mass. It usually takes me hours of study, prayer, reflection and practice to prepare a Sunday homily. That is the only way to make certain I am a branch connected to the True Vine.
Prior to the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), most Catholic theologians and seminary professors accepted and taught that the Holy Spirit inspires and works on the preacher. In the preacher’s prayer and meditation, and in his study of Scripture, the Word and the Holy Spirit are working in and through him. That was always the teaching. And it is generally true.
However, leading up to and during Vatican II, there was a renewed awareness throughout the Church that the Holy Spirit didn’t just work on the pitcher. The pitcher isn’t alone!
There is also a “catcher”. The catcher is the Lay people, the congregation, the people of God attending Mass. Throughout the Church there was a renewed awareness that the Holy Spirit was also loving, inspiring and working on the catcher, and in equal measure. We have always known this, but sometimes the Church needs to be reminded that the Holy Spirit is always at work building up the Church. In the first reading we hear that the Church,
… was being built up and walked in the fear of the Lord,
and with the consolation of the Holy Spirit it grew in numbers.
We also know that the Holy Spirit works personally on each of us, according to our need. Each “catcher” is unique, and in a different place in our spiritual journey and maturity and needs. The Holy Spirit knows each of us intimately. There cannot be a “one-size-fits-all” sermon. Each catcher receives the pitch they need to receive.
“And that is why”, our professor taught us, “that as a preacher, after you have pitched your ‘message’ to the people of God, you must shut up and listen. You don’t have the right, when you are greeting people at the door of the Church after Mass,… you do not have the right to respond to someone who just told you, ‘Preacher, that was a wonderful “Curve ball” or “Slider” you delivered today’…, you do not have the right to say to them that you only pitched a ‘fastball’”.
He continued, “You have finished preaching! The ball has left your hand. So shut up, and listen to them and find out what the Holy Spirit pitched to each of them who care to share.”
“Chances are,” he said, “the Holy Spirit was pitching to them exactly the pitch they needed to hear. There is a pitcher, but there is also a catcher. And the Holy Spirit loves and works on and through both.”
Over the years, I have found that lesson to be profoundly true. I know that I struggle with it, primarily because of my ego and pride. The Holy Spirit is working on you, just as He is on me, or any other Church member. And often the responses astound me and enrich my spiritual life. I love to hear from my people after I have preached.
That doesn’t mean we don’t need good preaching, or good preparation. We do. Sometimes there are bad preachers. Too often there is bad preaching, probably because the preacher got lazy or didn’t spend enough time in preparation for one reason or another.
But preaching is not meant to happen in an empty Church, or to empty, distracted heads. Preaching is not mind control, or intended to be entertainment. Preaching is intended to help us to open ourselves to the Holy Spirit, to understand the Word of God for our own spiritual benefit here, and for our eternal life. Preaching is intended to keep us connected to the vine.
It is also important for the “catcher” to know his or her job, and to be open to the Word of God and the work of the Holy Spirit. All too often there is also “poor catching”, lazy catching. Good “catching” takes effort, too, and good catching habits, like reading the scriptures and praying before coming to Mass. We can all recognize when a Lector has not prayed with the Scripture he or she reads at Mass. It is obvious. Preachers can see when the catcher has not prepared to participate in the Mass or receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and it makes us sad.
The words, “I didn’t get anything out of it,” that people often say about a sermon or Mass may indicate their level of effort, that they weren’t engaged. Attending Mass is spiritual effort. Mass is a team sport; it is not theater. You are not watching the game. You are in it! You are the game!
Jesus said to his disciples:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower.
He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit,
and every one that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit.
Come to Mass ready to be “pruned”, to be challenged in ways that you may not be able to imagine beforehand.
You are already pruned because of the word that I spoke to you. Remain in me, as I remain in you.
The Mass is actually a dialog with God, from the beginning to the end. It is a dialog between the vine and the branches. That dialog “prunes” us. There is no dialog unless we enter in and remain connected. For example,
P: “The Lord be with you.”
And you respond, “And with your spirit.”
P: “Lift up your hearts.”
“Let us lift them up to the Lord.”
P: “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.”
“It is right and just.”
The Mass is a dialog. The Holy Spirit is working in and through each of us at every Mass. Be prepared for the game. Allow yourselves to be “pruned”. And, come share with me the pitch that you caught from today’s experience at Mass.