Most Catholics love to argue. Once you get past the Apostles’ Creed, there are very few things all will agree on. One is that they want to hear good homilies. Unfortunately, Catholics are often disappointed. Here, then, are a few suggestions for preachers, to help them feed the flock of Christ without leaving the people hungry or suffering from religious indigestion.
Don’t try to say too much. There are cultures and places in the world where congregations love long sermons, but in the United States our Catholic culture is not one of them. Don’t be rambling or repetitive. Rather, be economical. Use phrases and sentences not to fill up space but to make your point. Of course, such economy of language calls for a certain discipline. Composing short, effective homilies requires much more focused preparation than diffuse discourse. When you take your place in the pulpit, keep in mind what people hope for: that you will say something helpful, and that you will do it in a manner that is brief, clear and to the point. They don’t want you to say a lot. They do hope that what you say matters, that it touches them and their concerns.
Don’t be predictable. Some preachers fall into certain patterns. When Father Smith is on, they know they’re going to be cheered up. When Father Jones appears, they expect to be scolded. Father Mulcahy sounds pretty much the same every week, no matter what the subject.
Jesus of Nazareth, however, was far from predictable. Sometimes he comforted his hearers and gave them encouragement. Another day he took time to explain things about God and what God expected of them. There were times when he criticized, and times when he inspired. He lashed out at hypocrisy and called it by name. He made people think about problems they would rather ignore, like what we’re going to do about the poor and abandoned. Jesus was anything but conventional. His hearers never knew what was coming. After a while they expected to be surprised, which may be part of the reason they turned up in such large numbers, and why they stuck around.
It’s not so hard to be unpredictable. If your homily is based on the readings of the day—if you try to get across what Jesus is driving at—you won’t come across as a broken record. The Gospel is full of surprises, if you pay attention and tease out the implications of what Jesus is saying for all of us here and now. His message is not a list of boring, pious bromides. It exposes hypocrisy, opens up horizons and challenges the harmless platitudes that go into the making of pedestrian, conventional religiosity. You can do the same if you connect the dots between what Jesus is saying and what is going on in today’s world and in the lives of those who are watching and listening.
Don’t bore. As far as we know, Jesus’ listeners were never bored. Why? Not just because Jesus was a great speaker and an unparalleled storyteller. He also had a feel for what was going on around him and in his hearers’ hearts and minds, and he used his skills to reach his listeners. We can never expect to equal Jesus’ eloquence, but there is no excuse for our being boring.
Why are so many of the faithful, no matter how attentive or receptive they are in church, bored out of their skulls? Some people just have uninteresting personalities, including some preachers. Sometimes preachers don’t have much to say. Others, however, do have something important to offer, but don’t know how to do it.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that any minister of the Gospel who brings conviction, zeal and energy to the pulpit can positively affect those who are listening. But certain skills are necessary, skills that can be developed.
We may not be able to tell stories as well as Jesus did, but we can avoid stringing abstract ideas together, and we can try to be as concrete as possible. A good story well told goes a long way. And stories don’t have to be fictitious. Real-life occurrences can bring a message to life, especially experiences of your own. Tell the congregation things that have happened to you, events that have changed your life, things you’re glad you did or wish that you had done differently.
Don’t be afraid to shake up your congregation once in a while. If you are really preaching the Gospel, controversy is inevitable. Years ago a nationally famous, controversial priest said that if no one walked out on him he felt that his sermon had been a failure. Allowing for the hyperbole, you must admit that he was making a good point. I’m not advocating controversy for its own sake or being deliberately divisive. But from time to time we preachers should make some of our hearers sit up straight and wonder, Hey, did you hear that? Or at least, Gosh, I never thought of it that way.
Don’t try to do all of this by yourself. Even if you are experienced and well informed about Scripture and theology, you can’t go from week to week and month to month without enlisting the help of others to expand your insight and grasp of the material at hand. Consult books that offer commentary on the more difficult biblical passage and periodicals with suggestions to help preachers. The best ones don’t try to write your sermon for you, but tell you things about the passages that stimulate your own creative development. Use the ones that you find personally helpful. Or you might try something I learned from a parish priest in Belgium many years ago. He and priests from three other parishes set aside two hours every Monday morning to discuss the readings in the next Sunday’s liturgy. They shared questions and insights. Each came away with ideas worth developing and expressing in his own way. They found that four heads were better than one.
Be very brief on weekdays. Weekend liturgies are not the only times that priests are expected to offer prayerful reflection and commentary. What about Masses on weekday mornings and during lunch hour? In the pews sit hardworking people who devote a precious portion of their crowded day to prayer and spiritual sustenance. Celebrating the Eucharist for them presents a challenge for the priest who wants to proclaim the word. They expect and hope to hear a helpful commentary on the readings, but their time is limited and they must get off to work. Any minister who takes preaching seriously knows how difficult it can be to say something meaningful in a few words. It takes prayerful thought and preparation to do justice to the readings in two or three sentences that are not just brief but right on target. I’m not referring here to throwaway lines but rather to compressed wisdom.
This plea for a one-minute commentary requires applying the same principle that works for weekend homilies. We are a busy people with never quite enough time to do all the things we must, so we would like our priests to say something worth hearing and to say it clearly, distinctly, and with reverent dispatch. Such seed is much less likely to fall on stony ground.
This kind of preaching, especially at the weekday Masses, demands not only religious insight and rhetorical skill but also self-discipline. When we ministers reflect on readings that are rich in inspiration, we find ourselves wanting to offer more than one good thought. That’s the time to remind ourselves that the liturgy is not about us but about the people we serve. A morning or lunchtime Mass is for busy people who don’t have time to listen to stories or drawn-out anecdotes or theological elaboration. Say one thing, say it briefly, and move on. Leave the rest to the Holy Spirit.
Shakespeare was right: brevity is the soul of wit. The homilist who is still not convinced labors under the misapprehension that richness of content and brevity of expression are somehow incompatible. Not only are they not opposed; they actually reinforce each other. Abraham Lincoln found that out when he delivered the Gettysburg Address. Some of Jesus’ best parables are his shortest. On a more prosaic level, so are those catchy commercials that grab your attention in the blink of an eye and stay with you until you flash your credit card. And on a more elevated level, we are reminded of what Jesus told the apostles at the Last Supper in a slightly different context: “I have many things to tell you, but you cannot bear them now.”
Thanks Be to God
Preaching in many Catholic churches these days leaves much to be desired. If a preacher finds these suggestions helpful and puts one or two into practice, the result would be taking a step toward meeting a real need. Let’s give our people something to take home, preferably in a small package. Then at the end of Mass, when the priest or deacon says, “The Mass is ended, go in peace,” and the people say “Thanks be to God,” they will be expressing gratitude, not “Thank God it’s over!”