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Seminarians Practice What They Preach


CAMARILLO — Father Dan Harris was like a nervous television news producer behind a two-way mirror that hid his video camera and monitors from the seminary students waiting in a studio designed to look like a Catholic chapel.

The large man's hands moved quickly in the control room to set the camera and lights for the next student, one of 85 men who must learn to preach convincingly at St. John's Seminary and Seminary College before they will be ordained and sent to a parish.

Seminarian Shawn Kiley, 36, stepped in front of the studio's altar, a position considered more relaxed and personable than preaching from behind a pulpit. He nervously adjusted his cordless microphone.

Meanwhile, inside the control booth, Harris checked his digital watch to time the five-minute sermon and then situated the camera on Kiley.

Harris chuckled to himself. "They won't stand in front of the lights," he said. "We paid $10,000 for those lights and they won't stand in front of them."

The school would have no lights, no camera and no studio if it weren't for a $1-million contribution made four years ago by Wilfred Von der Ahe, co-founder of the Vons grocery store chain, and his wife, Mary Jane, Msgr. Jeremiah McCarthy said.

The family's gift, part of endowment funds given to the Los Angeles Archdiocese's three seminaries, brought a show business sensibility to St. John's homiletics class, which teaches the art of preaching. St. John's is one of a handful of Catholic seminaries on the West Coast to use cameras as a teaching tool and among even fewer with a fully equipped studio.

Harris admitted the video camera makes his job of critiquing easier by showing a student's nervous ticks, poor eye contact or rambling delivery.

"I don't have to convince them they have public speaking faults," he said. "They can see it themselves."

Enrique de los Rios, 53, who left a job in Torrance as a Federal Express deliveryman to enter the priesthood, said he added more energy to his delivery after seeing himself on camera.

"You can see yourself as others see you," he said.

Kiley said the camera helped him eliminate his pauses and smooth his delivery. The studio helped crystallize, for him, the experience of preaching.

"Even though you're aware of the videotape rolling, the environment really helps you feel you're in a church speaking to parishioners," said the Granada Hills native.

After the students' sermons, classmates critique one another, then each student meets individually with his instructor for a more involved analysis of his performance.

The use of technology in St. John's homiletics department dates back 60 years, when Father Oscar Miller introduced the use of a tape recorder in his preaching classes. For years, the school used a video camera in the classroom. Two years ago, the studio was completed.

Father Thomas Rausch of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles called St. John's videotaped homiletics lesson a "laudable effort." He said priests with an easy manner are in high demand, considering the number of parishioners is rapidly outpacing the number of new priests.

"Catholic priests, in general, don't have a great reputation as preachers," Rausch said. "In the past, I don't think Catholic priests paid that much attention to [the quality of] their sermons."

Compared with their Protestant counterparts, Catholic ministers preach half as long, about 10 minutes on average, Harris said.

"Most Protestants build their worship service around the sermon while Catholics build it around the Eucharist," said Father Charles Miller, referring to the Communion ceremony in Catholic services.

Today's parishioners expect more from their priests, said Miller, 70, St. John's homiletics instructor. They want sermons even at daily Mass and they want those sermons to have a relevant message, he said.

St. John's, like most Catholic seminaries, began to place more emphasis on preaching after the mid-1960s when the Vatican Council II updated its practices worldwide and freed American priests from conducting Latin-only services.

Harris and Miller encourage their students to read the newspaper and watch television to have a better understanding of the life struggles of parishioners.

"Preachers have to be aware of what people are thinking, what their prejudices are," Miller said. "The medium has to be within the experience of the people, which was the way Jesus preached."

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