When Father Bryan Thompson stands in the pulpit as a newly ordained priest, he knows what a tough task lies before him.
The 31-year-old was ordained for the Diocese of Lake Charles, La., on May 26. Beginning June 25, Father Thompson will serve as parochial vicar at St. Henry Parish in Lake Charles.
“As I take up the office of preaching, I will be speaking to a world that believes it has already heard the message of Christ,” Father Thompson told Our Sunday Visitor. “In truth it has not; at least in all of its depth and beauty.”
Father Thompson noted that American culture is saturated with messages.
“The men and women of our American culture hear many, many words,” he said. “Will the message of Christ be heard amongst the noise?”
It is the same question Father Richard Simon, pastor of St. Lambert’s Church in Skokie, Ill., has been trying to answer for close to 40 years.
“Good preaching instructs and illuminates,” he said. “In other words, it teaches you facts about Scripture and the Church. Then it illuminates; it brings those things to life in a way that is life-changing.”
“Preaching is a conversation,” he said. “You talk to the congregation; they talk to you. For every person who gets up to go to the bathroom, there are 20 more who want to do so. The best thing I can get in a congregation is people staring at me with furrowed brows wondering what the heck I am saying.”
His advice to this year’s newly ordained: “No one gives what they do not have. If your preaching is not the result of your ongoing conversion, then it will be stale, dull and just something that they will endure.”
Keeping the spark
Deacon Peter Wigton has high hopes his homilies will never lose their spark.
“I plan to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ with joy and passion,” he said. “I hope that I never allow the Word of God to become routine.”
The 30-year-old, who was scheduled to be ordained to the priesthood in the Diocese of Gaylord, Mich., on June 9, said he is grateful for the opportunities he has had over the last year to give homilies in parishes.
“As a deacon, I have already had many opportunities to preach in parishes, all of which have been wonderful experiences,” he said. “I feel pretty comfortable preaching once I get going. I still get a little nervous before I start.”
For Deacon Wigton’s homily during his first Mass of Thanksgiving, he plans to head down memory lane. Many family members and friends who have played a significant role in his life will be in the congregation that day.
“I hope to tie this into the biblical sense of memory and what implications that has on what we celebrate at the Mass.”
Learning from the classics
Dominican Father Andrew Hofer, a teacher of patristics and homiletics at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., said some nervousness is to be expected. Ordained in 2002, he said he was attracted to the Dominicans because of their call to preach the Gospel for the salvation of souls, pointing out the official name of the congregation is the Order of Preachers.
When it comes to his seminarians, Father Hofer introduces them to what the Church teaches about preaching in documents such as the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests (Presbyterorum Ordinis) and Blessed Pope John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis (“I Will Give You Shepherds”).
“I also expose my students to principles of rhetoric and classic works on speech,” he said. “They read the treatment on preaching in St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica.”
In addition, his students must give 11 presentations: some three to five minutes, others seven to 10. All of the presentations are videotaped.
“Then they must listen to the critique of their classmates and their instructor without commenting on the feedback they hear,” he said. “It is an intensive process, but through it all I hope the seminarians develop a good habit of preaching.”
Father Hofer said he encourages his students to always preach on something they love, something the Church teaches and something that is helpful for the salvation of souls.
“The heart of a good homily is Christ himself. Out of love for his neighbor, the preacher shares the Good News of Jesus at a particular place and time.”
Finally, Father Hofer emphasized that preaching should always be put into the context of the Liturgy of the Word and the Sacrifice of the Mass.
“I ask my students to formulate a one-point sentence that responds from the Word of God to some need of the people which allows them to experience Christ at the Mass,” he said.
A call to respond
In the words of St. Ignatius of Loyola,“In your sermons, do not touch on subjects on which Catholics and Protestants are at variance, but simply exhort your hearers to virtue and devotion, devotions approved by the Church. Awaken in souls a thorough knowledge of themselves and a love of their Creator and Lord.”
Jesuit Father James Kubicki, who serves as the national director of the Apostleship of Prayer in Milwaukee, Wis., said this was an exhortation to two Jesuits who were papal theologians in the 16th century.
“The ministry of the Word was a focus for St. Ignatius,” Father Kubicki told OSV. “He wanted his Jesuits to be able to preach to everyone and required the first Jesuits to teach children. He felt that if you can communicate well to children, you will be able to preach well to everyone.”
In his opinion, a good homily uses the Word of God to help others better appreciate God’s love and then offers the congregation practical ways to respond.
“My advice to the Class of 2012 is to think about what you like in a homily and then try to do that yourself, all the while being yourself and trusting in the guidance of the Holy Spirit,” Father Kubicki said.
It is advice that Father Thompson plans to take to heart.
“I realize how important the moment can be for fostering true and deeper conversion,” he said. “It causes me to pause and to consider carefully the potential for good and the ease with which that potential could be lost by poor preparation, shallow content or weak delivery.”
Eddie O’Neill writes from Wisconsin