I mentioned in my last post the subject of the Prone, a sort of practice-sermon given by a deacon to the whole College on a Sunday, and how I had been rocketed for drying up and therefore not being properly prepared. I began to think about my days in Ushaw and how we were prepared for public speaking.
Divines had the job of leading the Morning and Evening Prayers, taking turns for a week at a time. We would kneel at a prie-dieu on the sanctuary, facing the tabernacle and with the assembled College behind us. Sometimes it was almost impossible to hear the speaker because he mumbled the prayers. On one occasion I distinctly remember that dear old Barney Payne commented on my performance at the altar by saying that it was good to be able to hear every last syllable - and then I realised how loud I had been speaking!
Mr Bernard Payne (remember, we followed the old practice of calling all our professors/priests 'Mr' and 'Sir' rather than 'Father') was the prof whose job it was to help us with our public speaking. Mr Payne was tall, rather thin, gentle and benign; he was a fixture at Ushaw - we always thought that he would be unable to survive in the outside world. I can only once remember him stepping out of character and losing his temper, and that was a wonder to behold and the talk of the students! He would interview each of us individually, listen to our reading and offer hints on how to make the most of our voices. At one stage of our journey through College (probably when my year was in Third Year Divines - the year of the subdiaconate) he suggested that we formed little groups amongst ourselves to make Sermon Groups. I and two others formed such a group; the idea was that we would each write a sermon each week and then together go into the Hall and declaim our efforts and be critiqued by the others. I seem to remember that I did quite well for a time, better than the others; but the group did not survive for very long, and I don't think many other groups survived at all. In my final year in Divines (Fourth Year), the priest from a neighbouring parish invited the students of my year to come to his Church and lead the May Devotions (he was also responsible for giving us a weekly talk about life on the 'outside' - this was our only practical preparation for the work in a parish). We would lead the Rosary and then preach a five-minute sermon to the handful of people who came each evening to his small country parish and then assist with Benediction. I well remember that his toilet had a spectacular view of the countryside from a huge picture-window - everyone of us made sure that we a chance to see this view!
After ordination, I spent time each week writing out my sermons for Sunday Mass week by week, and on the Sunday I would read the sermon word for word just as written. Most difficult of all, for me, was then having to prepare a different sermon for Sunday evening Benediction - Rosary, sermon and Benediction was the order of the day at that time. After the passage of a few years I noticed that by the time I had read through my effort a few times, I was beginning to remember what I was talking about, and I stopped writing down every word and spent more time simply composing my talk in my mind. And that is how I prepare now. This of course also means that I do from time to time dry up as I did all those years ago at Ushaw, when the 'tape' in my mind snaps, but I can now pass it off with a joke, and if the 'tape' doesn't start up again, then I can tell the congregation how lucky they are to be going home sooner than they expected!