Preach it!

I had a great conversation not long ago with a friend about what we think makes for a great homily. I’m sure everyone reading this would have their thoughts on the matter. I knew a priest in Washington, D.C. who, when people would tell him they liked his homily after Mass, asked them: “What did you like most about it?” “Usually,” he said, “they’d blanch as they struggled to think of something specific.” Over the years I’ve made it a regular practice to ask people (mostly adults, but my children too) after Mass what they thought of a homily. And, you may ask, what have I learned from my informal polling? Among the many points, here are 8 to prime the pump:

First, I learned that while some people have very strong opinions about particular ideas presented in a homily, most people simply take away from homilies a very basic “be a better person” message. In other words, homilies can be less about specific ideas and more about shaping one’s general sense of things. (Incidentally, this is why I usually bring notepaper to Mass so I can write down important insights for safe-keeping in my journal)

Second, I learned that people love, love, love stories used to illustrate ideas and link them to real life. Stories ground ideas in the imagination and give us tools for linking those ideas with other ideas that are part of our life story. Great preachers are great storytellers, though the kind of stories the preacher uses and how they use it to bring alive ideas are crucial to its success in shaping a Christian imagination.

Third, I learned that people want their preachers to know their audience and their real-life contexts. To crib from Gaudium et Spes, congregants want to know that the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of parishioners — especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted — are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the preacher. They want to feel that he “gets” their world, and cares enough to discover it by being an attentive listener. As Cardinal Ratziner wrote to the bishops of the world: “The Church, expert in humanity, has a perennial interest in whatever concerns men and women.” People want shepherds who, like Jesus, know their people “by name.”

Fourth, I learned that people want preachers to take them seriously by addressing them thoughtfully, by digging deep into the riches of “faith seeking understanding,” and by challenging them to think with the Gospel of the Lion of Judah. This means serious effort must be put into homily preparations. Especially, care needs to be put into translating unfamiliar religious ideas/terms into a familiar language hearers can access (with the assumption being that unfamilarity with religious terminology/ideas does not mean people are less intelligent).

Fifth, I learned that people need to be encouraged. The “hard sayings” of Jesus and his Church need to become calls to courage and hope, not condemnation and fear.

Sixth, I learned that people want a preacher who speaks with authenticity. Positive comments on homilies frequently contain the phrase, “He really speaks from the heart” or “I feel like he’s talking directly to me.” They want to hear in his tone that he believes what he preaches about, that he struggles like they do and that he tries hard to live what he preaches. But most of all, though this is rarely articulated explicitly, they long to hear that he loves the ones to whom he speaks and the One of whom he speaks.

Seventh, I learned that people want an implementation plan. After the first homily ever preached (Acts 2:14-36), the people asked Peter: “What are we to do?” Though a homily may present wonderful and challenging ideas, and inspire people to change, they need some idea of what that might mean. Nothing too complicated or extreme, just something to help them take “the next best step.”

Eighth, I learned that people want more than moralizing. They want grace, transformation, prayer, a living faith, a personal relationship with God and his saints. In a word, they want Jesus. The living Jesus.

I’m exceedingly grateful to the many priests over the years whose preaching has challenged and uplifted me, inspired and moved me. I often try to refer here in this blog to homilies I’ve heard precisely to demonstrate the power and gift so many of our priests possess. I’ve known many priests who incarnate these “best practices” and pour themselves into their preaching, even in the face of harried pastoral lives. Pray for your preachers. Beg the Spirit to inspire them. And thank them now and again with a very specific compliment. Then, after you’ve lived his words out during the week, come back now and again to tell him of the fruits born of his loving labors.

This entry was posted in Liturgy.

10 comments on “Preach it!

  1. Jennifer says:

    So grateful for powerful preaching too! My reversion to Catholicism largely hinged on an incredible homily I heard on the Eucharist when I was experiencing the first rumblings of doubt as to whether Protestantism was right. I had a Sunday off from volunteering at my Protestant church and felt mega-compelled to go to Mass instead that day. Unbeknownst to me it was the Feast of Corpus Christi.

    I generally have a horrible (untrained) memory for the spoken word, but to this day I can hear that priest expounding in particular John 6:66 “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.” regarding accepting that the bread he gives is truly his flesh. He did not try to soften it up into how we can be the bread for each other when we do good with narry a word on Jesus’ ACTUAL BODY BEING OUR ACTUAL BREAD, or try to apologize for those who would take offense and try to massage some feel good message about what Jesus *really* meant – which would have been anything other than what he really meant. Instead the priest spoke with authority, he spoke the truth, he was filled with the Spirit.

    It just shook me to the core and as I sat in the pew while the rest of the community received His most Holy Body and Blood and I had to refrain and which in the first time in my life I finally appreciated for what it was and feeling anguish in my soul for being separated from Him, the priests incredible homily played over and over in my head as I repeated the words of Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go?” and for the next few months as I wrestled with and tried to fight with myself over leaving the congregation of the incredible, amazing people who were the community of my protestant church to be able to come home to His table.

    (Now I have to add that on a whim at around the same time I picked up a book by Pope Benedict-part of his Jesus of Nazareth series which you all must read immediately- at the library shortly before that day – just you know, as one does when browsing the stacks for light reading. Reading the chapter on the Eucharist and attending this homily are so fused in my mind as one single memory that I can not even remember which happened first as they are so intertwined in shaping my change in thinking because they were working synergistically to shout to me “THIS IS MY BODY!”)

    …and thank you for giving me the all clear for taking notes during Mass!


  2. number one sinner says:

    Beautiful ” small scale” . You have me ” raining from my eyes” next to follow suit is your mate, who after being sprayed for the umpteenth time by that spray bottle of Fabreeze.. Eee says to you ” hey ” J” I love that scent what is it . To which you reply ” why that’s fresh baked bread just now consecrated oops I mean just now baked , come to the table my love and have a slice, it’s oh so filling.”

    Thomas the next time I see you I’m giving you the biggest hug I can ruminate On these eight points for years so I’m signing off for now and I will check back by 2020 at least. P B.W Y. Neal family and all the obedient faithful.

  3. WoopieCushion says:

    For me it’s those Moses-like old priests standing in the pulpit with eyes undimmed and vigor unabated, grave-bound but consumed already with immaterial Fire that gives me something to aim at.

  4. Pat Beckett says:

    Wonderful message, Tom. We, too, have been blessed to know many faith-filled and loving preachers whose words have inspired us and let us know how much we are loved by them and by Jesus. We pray each day for all priests and especially for those with whom we have ministered over the years.

  5. Ona says:

    I have heard mostly forgettable homilies (even if they aren’t terribly they just aren’t very interesting), but the few excellent ones have been unforgettable. I’ve been a note taker for years because I’m usually hearing it in a foreign language and it helps me pay close attention. I rarely re-read the notes, unless the homily was really good. One was by a priest in Madrid at a random Church I dropped in to see. I even wrote up a blog post, I found that homily so moving:

    Father Bruce at my current Church is amazing. Practice-oriented, constantly offering specific suggestions for developing a deep prayer life, very frank about sin, and on occasion (rarely enough that it shocks) he just catches fire on a subject and his Italian right arm starts whirling and we get an earful. But it’s always pure genius. He challenges us to very specific things, such as trying to spend just one week of our lives not criticizing anything, as an exercise in humility.

    And then there are the subtle ones – the Dominican who was one of our professors at a recent seminar I participated in gave an academic lecture one afternoon that reduced several of us to tears. I have to type up my notes – that one will be a blog post, too.

  6. nos. says:

    Dearest Ona I can’t wait . I love a good cry.more priests need to be frank about sin in their homilies.
    P.S. I’m still working on the light bulbs.

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