Homily Advice from the Pews

Flannery O’Connor (1925-64), the great American Catholic novelist and short-story writer, wrote a review of a biography of Cardinal Francis Spellman (1889-1967), archbishop of New York at the time. O’Connor remarked wryly that as a homilist Cardinal Spellman had a gift for “the somnolent familiar phrase of slowly deadening effect.” Be this as it may, certainly no priest wants such a gift. Rather, most priests want to give homilies that wake people up and inspire them to be more faithful and effective Catholics in everyday life.

“When I talk with Catholics who have left the Church,” wrote blogger Msgr. Charles Pope, “the number one reason I get that they left was poor preaching. This is especially true of those who left for the evangelical churches. Catholic priests as a group have the reputation of being poor preachers.”

As a Catholic layman, I’ve been on the receiving end of homilies for more than 60 years. I’ve heard excellent homilies and homilies that nearly put me to sleep. Unlike the average layperson, however, I also earned academic degrees in theology. Putting my experience and education together, here are some ways I think any priest can be a more effective homilist.

First, I believe there are two general ways to improve the quality of your preaching. I call these two categories “Remote” and “Proximate” preparation. The first includes various ways to become the kind of person who has the personal resources needed to put together and deliver an effective homily. The second category offers suggestions on to what to do when you actually sit down to write a particular homily.

Remote Preparation

Live your faith. This point may seem obvious in the extreme, but these three words deserve serious consideration. How do you, personally, understand the meaning of “faith”? Faith has several valid and important meanings, but prerequisite to them all is the concept of faith as a personal relationship — namely, a personal relationship with the triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This meaning of faith as personal intimacy — friendship and more — with God is foundational to all other meanings. So, how goes your intimacy with the triune God? Are you a prayerful person, even as busy as you are? Do you talk to the Lord Jesus regularly throughout your day? Do you set aside at least a few minutes each day to listen to him, to rest contemplatively in your loving Father and to invite the Holy Spirit to nourish your whole being and guide all that you do? Do you have a lively and warm devotion to the Blessed Mother; do you pray the Rosary regularly?

Make room for continuing education. Sure, you may understand your religion well. But there is always room to grow. Attend continuing education opportunities for clergy that your diocese offers. Even when you think you understand a particular topic well enough already, chances are you’ll pick up a new idea or two if you attend, anyway.

Hang with the folks. Some priests seem to think that being celibate means they need to distance themselves from regular folks — in a word, the laity, the people in the pews. Au contraire, mon ami! Nothing could be further from the truth. A genuinely Christian celibacy is a way of being in relationship to others, a way of being an active, committed, caring member of the community of the Church, most immediately one’s parish. A parish priest who doesn’t find ways to socialize within the community regularly isn’t much of a parish priest. Most laity want to support priests, especially pastors. Respond readily and positively to invitations to dinners or picnics with families, participate in parish men’s groups’ activities, even travel or vacation with parishioners. And don’t let your times together remain superficial. Encourage openness and honesty by being open and honest yourself.

Stick around, don’t make a habit of rushing off. When you visit a family, make sure the next morning isn’t a workday for either parent. Then, after the dishes are cleared away, and the kids are put to bed, open that bottle of wine you brought, kick back and let husband and wife give you an honest earful. Ask questions, then listen. Listen more than you talk, and take to heart what you hear.

Don’t be anxious to judge, condemn or correct if you hear something you don’t care for. Think seriously about what Jesus would do. You can’t address the real lives and real issues of those who listen to your homilies unless you spend time with them and listen to them, whenever opportunities arise.

Read. We live in a multimedia era, it’s true. But there is no way to get around the fact that, as a general rule, you can gain more from reading than any other information medium. Read nonfiction — theology, spirituality, the social sciences, documents from the pope, of course. Without quoting directly — not usually a good idea — all these can become a rich source of insights and inspiration for homilies. Read secular newspapers and news magazines, as well as Catholic periodicals. But read fiction, too. Nothing enriches a homily like a good story, but few are gifted storytellers. Again, while rarely quoting directly, you may be surprised at what you can gain from Catholic novelists who write for the secular market. Not infrequently, you will read through most of a novel before — wham! — you’ll be hit by a great insight that you’ll want to use in a homily as soon as possible. There also are some non-Catholic writers, such as Anne Lamott, whose insights may frequently come in handy at homily-writing time. Lamott, for example, suggested that “a great name for God is ‘Not Me.’” From such you can collect anecdotes, quotations and stories you can summarize in a homily. The same is true of some classic authors, such as Charles Dickens. His characters frequently are wonderfully entertaining examples of both desirable and undesirable forms of human behavior.

Proximate Preparation

When you sit down to prepare a specific homily, keep these suggestions in mind:

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Put homily preparation time on your calendar — same day, same time — each week. Yes, emergencies arise, and you’ll need to reschedule. But as a general rule, know that you’ll be working on your weekly homily on the same day, at the same time, in the same place each week. It’s best, too, if this happens early in the week, then again later in the week. Professional writers will tell you that they always need to set aside what they’ve written and return to it a few days later. Invariably, the end result is much better.

Make it shorter. St. Augustine of Hippo, it is said, preached for as long as three hours, and the assembly hung on his every word. I guess people had a longer span of attention in the fourth century, because there is no way this would fly in our time and culture. An Irish priest, Father Paddy O’Kane, promised his parishioners that he would limit his homilies to five minutes. He wrote that many priests, “including myself, are under the illusion that our homilies are more interesting than they really are. ... A wise old priest once told me, ‘If you cannot strike oil in the first five minutes, better stop drilling.’” No homily should last longer than 10 minutes. Don’t think this makes it easier to prepare a homily, however. For years, I wrote short little reflections for “Living Faith: Daily Catholic Devotions,” and the limit was about 80 words. It’s not easy to say something substantial in few words! It requires you to zero in on the heart of the matter, the essence of what’s to be learned from that day’s readings. But you can do it! Indeed, short homilies may lead to more families attending Mass. Father O’Kane recalled that a parent asked him why they should take their children to Mass “when all they do is yawn [or fuss and cry] throughout a long sermon in a language they don’t understand.”

Focus on the readings. The liturgical and theological purpose of the homily is to “break open” and shed light upon the word of God proclaimed, particularly in the first and Gospel readings, which, to one extent or another, share a common theme. Too often I hear homilies that seem to ignore the readings, and this is a shame. If the readings don’t inspire you, chances are that’s your problem. Pray with the readings, ask the Holy Spirit to enlighten your mind. If, for example, St. Paul says something that you don’t understand, chances are it’s an opportunity to learn and to help your hearers grow in their faith.

If the Gospel reading is one that you (and the assembly) have heard countless times, be assured that there are meanings in it frequently overlooked. Dive deeper into the parable of the prodigal son; read through the parable of the good Samaritan very, very slowly. You’ll be surprised at the questions that will occur to you and the insights you will discover. At this point, the next suggestion here may be especially appropriate:

Consult resources. Many laity today are educated at least as well as you are. Respect that, and don’t talk down to the assembly. Crack open a couple of good Bible commentaries, in particular “The New Jerome Biblical Commentary” (Pearson, $98.20). Never let your homily become a scholarly lecture, but learn what the scholars have to say. Unless you have advanced degrees in Scripture studies yourself, chances are you’ll pick up some handy insights by doing this.

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Invite a few people from your parishes to act as homily consultants. Seek the input of a small committee to provide input on the readings from the perspectives of the laity. No need to gather people physically. Organize a Skype group or simply ask people to send you their thoughts by email. This could be helpful!

Listen to other homilists. You can learn even from those who are less gifted, even if you learn what not to do. When you hear that Father A or Deacon B gives really good homilies, take notes. The idea is not to plagiarize, of course, but to learn from other homilists’ techniques. How long is his homily? Does he share his personal faith experience? Does he let the assembly know that he, too, struggles to live his faith? Does he let his homily become a quasi-academic lecture?

Talk about your own faith experience. This one is crucial! When you compose a homily, think of your own personal history with the lesson(s) to be learned from the readings. When the readings lend themselves to talking about faith, talk about your own relationship with the risen Lord. When talking about prayer is appropriate, be honest about your own attempts to be a prayerful person. When the Gospel of John talks about love, give the assembly an earful of your own experiences striving to be a loving person. And so on, and so forth.

Don’t be afraid to say something solid and challenging. Remember the old adage that a homily “should afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” Take this seriously and speak the truth with love. Challenge your listeners with the solid meat of the Gospel, and always remind them that our God defines himself as a loving Father.

Finally, try to have fun! Yes! If you enjoy preparing a homily, the folks in the pews will enjoy hearing it.

MITCH FINLEY is the author of more than 30 books on Catholic topics. To learn more, visit mitchandkathyfinley.com.

Pope Francis: 'May your homilies not be boring'
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"Impart to everyone the word of God which you have received with joy. Diligently read and meditate on the word of the Lord, that you may believe what you read, teach what you have learned in faith and practice what you teach.