Dumbing Down and Deacons: A Catholic Alternative
Preaching can become difficult when pressures and schedules mount
One of the key concepts in society and the modern Church is accessibility. Given steadily declining attention spans and a societal compulsion for instant gratification, to be acceptable (and marketable) to the person on the street or in the pew a message must be immediately comprehensible with a minimum of time and effort expended. This unfortunate cultural development inevitably seeps into the Church as well.
Deacons encounter this conundrum, particularly with respect to homilies, which need to be comprehensible to congregants without a biblical and theological background. The great theologian and biblical expositor St. Augustine remarked that he would rather be criticized by the grammarians than misunderstood by the people.
Nonetheless, within both culture and the Church, insufficient attention is given to the temptations accompanying oversimplification and banality:
— Overdone efforts to be entertaining and make the congregation feel good about themselves and the message. Some homilists spend a considerable amount of time looking for and delivering an opening or closing joke instead of doing due diligence in exploring the literal meanings of the readings.
— An inordinate concern with keeping the message short. Sincere worshippers will sit still and listen to a compelling homily of modest or even considerable length.
— Focusing solely on the Gospel reading, usually the most accessible of the Scripture readings, to the exclusion of the other readings. Homiletic artistry entails tying together the Scripture readings, including the psalm and perhaps even the Gospel acclamation, in order to show the unity of the Scriptures and recurring themes. A good homilist will demonstrate that the Lectionary was put together with great care and acumen.
— Reducing the exposition of Scripture to moral abstractions or platitudes without plumbing the depths of either the literal or applied/Midrashic (literally, drawn-out)/homiletic meanings of the readings.
— Instead of preaching on the Scriptures, reverting to a catechetical, financial or pastoral care theme. At times these may need to be addressed by a deacon, but preferably in conjunction with at least a brief exposition of the readings.
Although these issues are addressed during homiletic formation, they require ongoing vigilance due to the grind of life and ministry. It is easy to pick up bad habits or to prioritize popularity and expediency over truth and discipline, especially as both the world and Church become more secularized. Sustaining quality preaching is difficult when pressures and expectations mount and schedules and circumstances become grueling.
Bishop Robert Barron, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, has been a vocal critic of the dumbing-down tendencies in contemporary culture and Church life, and has deftly revealed it as an impoverishing disservice. However, the pedagogical and pastoral considerations involved in a homily can vary greatly, and there is no substitute for experience, discernment and prudential risk-taking.
Skilled homilists with advanced theological or biblical training may have little difficulty crafting an insightful exposition of Scripture. They possess the commentaries and exegetical background conducive to an accurate exposition of the literal/historical meanings.
Conversely, deacons less adept at exegesis will have to make a concentrated effort to arrive at a proper literal interpretation, synthesis and application of the readings. Each deacon develops their own homiletic style and approach based on their gifts and limitations. Open-hearted congregants (cf. Lk 8:15) will recognize the sincere effort and caring and will receive the message meant for them.
We must never forget that biblical expertise or the lack thereof are not conclusive factors in homily composition. The best homilies are lived. Spiritual and moral integrity — that is, docility to the Spirit — is essential to a proper interpretation and exposition of Scripture. Prayer, humility, life witness and sincerity can mitigate deficiencies and limitations.
Many saints who illuminated Scripture lacked extensive theological training. The biblical expositions, applications and actualizations of St. Teresa of Calcutta are a modern example of what we might call an insider’s practitioner wisdom.
Diaconal formation and continuing education can be afflicted with dumbing-down tendencies as well. Sometimes, aspirants are not sufficiently exposed to cutting-edge biblical scholars and resources that would help them not only in homiletic preparation but in Bible study ministry as well.
Practical Diaconal Wisdom
The importance of this issue was brought home to me by a deacon attending a retreat on St. Joseph that I was presenting to senior citizens. Noting that I was not dumbing down the material to an audience without a substantial biblical or theological background, the deacon asked me during lunch what I thought of Raymond E. Brown. My first reaction was, “Uh oh, he might have a dislike for Father Brown based on reactionary opposition to him.”
When I told him that I had attended several of Father Brown’s talks and spoken with him on several occasions, as well as reading his books, he asked me if I would like audiocassettes of his talks. It turns out that this generous and studious deacon had assembled quite a collection of Father Brown’s lectures on his most notable areas of expertise: the Gospel of John; the passion and infancy narratives; the development of the Gospel tradition in the early Church. This deacon urged me not to compromise my material, but to keep challenging my audience, especially deacons and their wives, without digressing into technical ab/distractions and irrelevant hypotheses.
The middle path recommended by the deacon suffices for congregants even halfway serious about the subject. You will always find persons lacking interest and motivation who are simply passing time or seeking facile stimulation. They will get out of their efforts what they put into them. Engaged listeners, whatever their background, will be enriched and inspired by a passionate, insightful, probing and practical homily.
Of course, pertinent technical concepts need to be lucidly explained and contextualized. Why does the audience need to know this? How might it come into play for them? Many will follow through on the intellectual, emotional, spiritual and behavioral levels and thereby experience the metanoia called for by Jesus.
Of the various senses of Scripture identified since the rabbinical and patristic period, the most important are the literal and the homiletic (for Jews, Midrashic). What did it mean then, and how does this apply now, both personally and communally? The first step is giving sufficient attention to the literal meaning, which is the foundation of all the other senses of Scripture.
Both the literal and homiletic sense can turn out to be elusive, whether due to insufficient background, ideological bias, personal agenda or lack of focus, or if the Scriptures have become an abstraction and an academic or clerical exercise. Self-knowledge, healthy relationships, vigilance and feedback can help us detect blind spots and acedia, and thus maintain the dynamism of our vocation.
The deacon must strive to sustain an ongoing commitment to lectio divina, Bible study and the ministry of preaching and biblical education, lest the word grow stale and the heart turns cold. Are there any steps I can take to deepen my assimilation and actualization of God’s word? Which of the senses of Scripture do I need to devote more attention to?
Finding a Balance
Keeping things simple for simple folks is not dumbing down. Not everyone is called to intellectual inquiry or background research. Knowing your audience is the first principle of teaching. A challenging or in-depth talk or homily on Scripture is not always appropriate. A funeral or wedding comes immediately to mind, or perhaps at a daily Mass where people are on time schedules and need to get to work, or the congregation is primarily adolescents or retired persons who would get lost in anything beyond a basic exposition.
The teacher or homilist must always keep in mind that sincere participants generally rise to the level of the challenge. If you don’t ask much, you’ll receive as much. If you invite participants to stretch themselves, many will, and usually they are delighted with what they learn about themselves as well as the topic.
However, such stretching must always be adapted and pliable, as we will frequently encounter people and circumstances not amenable to deep thought. Jesus accepted people as is and related in a simple but suitable manner. He is the catechetical, evangelical and pastoral model, not only for deacons and their wives, but all Christians.
The homilist and teacher must grapple with attaining a balance between challenge and customization, tailoring their message to the needs of the congregation. With prayer, trial and error and feedback deacons can develop an approach that works for them and their audiences, and yet faithful to the subject and the Church. Fortunately, there are many resources within the Church to help in this matter, and the deacon should be willing to seek these out.
As in the secular world, there are plenty of Catholic “popularizing” resources and approaches available to the deacon that are not too taxing and can evoke a gratifying and even seductive level of acceptance or popularity not conducive to metanoia and compliance with the mind of Christ and the Church. Several decades ago, leading biblical scholars were familiar with Catholics at the grassroots levels because they were frequent speakers at parishes and diocesan events, and their popular, but not oversimplified books were readily available.
Now, however, the proliferation of social and electronic media, celebrity hype, dramatic conversion stories and emotional appeals often overshadow substance, and thus the biblical expositors most Catholics are familiar with are generally not elite scholars.
The problem with this leveling effect is that people fail to maximize their encounters with the Word of God because they are not interacting with the finest authorities and resources. We settle for the good or average, which are easily obtainable, rather than pursue the “cut above” flowing from best efforts, bearing in mind that desired results may depend on factors beyond our control. By focusing on our conscientious efforts, as God does, we learn to do and accept our best and leave the rest to God.
With effort and support deacons can seek out the cream of the crop and expose their congregants to the same. When you read or listen to skilled and knowledgeable teachers, you can sense a deeper grasp of the material that you can absorb through ongoing reflection, study and application. Those who strive toward their potential inspire others to do the same. Enthusiasm and industry are contagious/osmotic.
This is why my biblical ministry emphasizes appropriating the wisdom and methods of the pros, not only elite scholars and authoritative teachers — for example, the pope and bishops — but effective practitioners as well. Through a gradual osmotic process, the learner adapts the message and examples of the teacher to their own capacities and circumstances. Few of us grasp substantive messages immediately. Assimilation and actualization take time and effort.
Biblical spirituality, study and ministry are work, but it need not be arduous or unpleasant. Each of us needs to find our own level and proceed from there. In the process, we will contribute both to our own and others’ growth, and thereby give glory to God.
Let us remember the words of Albert Einstein — “Everything must be made as simple as possible, but not simpler” — as we endeavor to bring the Scriptures to life as disciples and ministers of the Word.
KARL A. SCHULTZ is an international mission and retreat facilitator on the subjects of lectio divina, theology of the body, suffering and caregiving, men’s and marital spirituality, active collaboration, St. Joseph and the teachings and papacy of St. Paul VI.
More Resources from Karl A. Schultz
Karl A. Schultz has collaborated on DVD projects on lectio divina and marital spirituality with several bishops and theologians. His teaching series, “Lectio Divina: Sharing the Word with the Holy Family,” airs frequently on EWTN.
Karl’s diaconal retreats include “Reading, Teaching and Preaching the Bible Like the Pros,” “Personal, Professional and Pastoral Care for Deacons” and “Don’t Knock the Rock: In Solidarity with Pope Francis.”
He has published 17 books, including “How to Pray With the Bible: The Ancient Prayer Form of Lectio Divina Made Simple” and “The How-To Book of the Bible: Everything You Need to Know But No One Ever Taught You.”