The National Catholic Review

The Vatican has recently become a fount of advice on how to preach. Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel” gives tips on the Sunday sermon, and the Congregation for Divine Worship’s new Directory on Preaching analyzes the nature of the liturgical homily. As a veteran of 60 years in the pews and 30 years in the pulpit, I would like to offer my own advice on how not to preach.

1. It’s all about you. Keep the sermon strictly autobiographical. Your congregation is dying to know all about your last vacation. There’s no need to discuss that pesky reading about Abraham and Isaac and the knife.

I recently heard a sermon about a priest’s socks. Father explained how difficult it is to keep pairs of socks together. He noted his preferred detergent for washing socks and the advantages of using a clothesline over a dryer. He said there was a controversy over whether priests should wear all-black socks or whether they could add stripes. (News to me.) We kept waiting for the spiritual punchline. Was the lost sock like the lost sheep in the parable of the Good Shepherd? It remained a mystery. The sermon concluded with the revelation that he found doing the laundry difficult at times.

On a darker note, I once heard a sermon in which the preacher discussed the problem of resentment. The theme matched the Gospel, which featured the apostles’ jealous squabbling among themselves. Warming to his subject, the preacher described his own resentment against his brother (the prize-winning athlete), his sixth-grade teacher (too critical) and then his dear mother (too distant). As we cringed into our missalettes, I wondered if Doctor Phil would rush from the sacristy to take over the bathos in the sanctuary.

You were not ordained to tell your own story. You were ordained to proclaim someone else’s.

2. Rely on the Holy Spirit alone. There’s no need to prepare.

One of the popular homiletic genres these days is the Magellan sermon. In the space of 20 minutes, the congregation is treated to a tour of the world as the preacher unloads a catalogue of random, unrelated thoughts. In one recent Magellan improvisation, we learned that Samuel heard a noise like a whisper, that we should be patient with the hearing-impaired, that the turnout for the Christmas bazaar was just great (applause), that recent events in the Middle East are disturbing and that we should be careful about what we post on Facebook. And, oh, there’s a mistake in the bulletin. The second collection will be taken up for our music ministry, not for scholarships to the grade school.

Yes, you are overworked. Still, your parishioners have a right to a beginning, middle and end in your sermon. They hunger for one, clear, sustained insight into Scripture, the fruit of your prayer and study on the biblical lessons.

3. Keep it light. Always prefer the sentimental to the doctrinal. Don’t bother the congregation with such complications as the Atonement. Keep it beige and soothing.

It was Easter Sunday in a packed church. The preacher began by telling us that Christian hope means “Tomorrow will always be more beautiful than today.” We waited for the theological development. The resurrection of the body? Immortality? The last judgment? We received only more of the same magical thinking, closer to Hallmark Cards than to the Gospel according to St. Luke we had just heard.

Now permit me to offer two positive counsels to preachers.

First, fall in love with God’s word in Scripture. Let the great hymn of creation, fall and redemption become your personal theme song. Walk around in the Bible. Pitch your tent in it. If possible, learn biblical Hebrew and Greek. You are giving your congregation a word of hope that no government and no psychological technique can provide, because it is a hope rooted in Christ’s conquest of sin and death itself.

Second, love the people addressed by your sermon. A distinguished Protestant preacher once remarked that he began each week with an hour in his church. He walked up and down the aisle, imagining the various parishioners he would see on a typical Sunday. He asked God to show him how the sermon he was preparing could actually meet their particular needs and questions. It is in the persevering study of God’s word and in this loving intercession for one’s listeners that the Holy Spirit really begins to teach us how to preach.

John J. Conley, S.J., holds the Knott Chair in Philosophy and Theology at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore, Md.

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Paul Ferris | 2/20/2015 - 3:11pm

Fr Conley's advice is very well taken but to me he is referring to the matter of the homily and not the form (using an scholastic construct) The form of the homily is in the holiness, the love of the Word, the spirituality of the speaker.
Even if one follows all of Fr. Conley's advice but is not back by a sanctified life, the homily won't "work". I would add to that the listeners also must work at living the Word or they will not appreciate what is being said. I think if one really relies on the Holy Spirit then both speaker and listener will benefit and God will be glorified.

Lee Gilbert | 2/8/2015 - 1:33am

Well, it's been a while but it would be nice to hear a hellfire and brimstone sermon now and then, just to see if anyone knows how to do it anymore. A few years ago the rector at the cathedral here did allow from the pulpit that although it may seem indelicate to say so, we still do believe in hell. Not all the time, maybe once every two years, it would be nice if someone would supply the context for the concept of salvation- with a little verve.

If we were trying to catch flies, honey would help, but when our pulpits were fountains of vinegar the churches were full. Our Lord seemed to think the way to catch men was to speak of a place where the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched, where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth, where it would have been better not to have been born than to go there, of millstones and a gulf that cannot be crossed. So by all means learn Hebrew, especially gehenna. Immerse yourself in Greek, walk around in the ἄβυσσος. Say something that might put the fear of God into your people and bring them to confession. Servile fear. Of course, you don't want to end there, but servile fear is a great place to begin. As I say, bring it up now and then- surely not as often as Our Lord or Sts Peter or Paul, Vincent Ferrer, Bernardine of Siena, or John Vianney, or but should it not be at least a small part of your armamentarium? "Save yourselves from this perverse generation, " said Peter and five thousand men were added that day. That such an approach would be so jarring to our current ecclesial ethos is all the more reason to make some small experiments with salt and fire.

Bruce Snowden | 2/26/2015 - 1:12pm

Mr. Gilbert, I just read your post and cannot accept your premise that spiritual terrorism is the road away from Hell to Heaven! I find it much more "like God" to hang my hat on the "hat-rack" of St. Faustina Kowalska's Divine Mercy Revelations, like these words from Jesus to us, "Tell aching humanity to snuggle close to my Merciful Heart!" Two kinds of people "snuggle" - LOVERS quite legitimately and LITTLE CHILDREN to parents for comfort when scared or as a sign of affection. So, Jesus is telling us to be like "Lovers" and "Little Children" relating to him, That's the Godly way! By the way, Jesus also admits that humanity is "aching" in some way hurting or in pain. How wonderful to hear that Divine admission, by our God who said "You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free" - yes FREE not tethered by FEAR!

John Farrell | 2/1/2015 - 7:17am

Well-written and better said, Father. French philosophy won out over preaching in your case, and thus the Church lost an outstanding professor of homiletics. You article was as a good sermon might be -- clear, concise, comprehensible, organized, and faith based.

As someone on the Anglican side of the Tiber, I can assure that your list of "don't's" apply equally to us. In fact I sent its link to the listserve for the clergy of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, encouraging my colleagues to "read, inwardly digest, learn, and laugh a bit." Only the most exemplary will not recognize themselves on a bad day. Only the most obtuse will not recognize themselves at all.

Thank you again. You're worth my yearly subscription.

David Pasinski | 1/28/2015 - 10:04am

The pithiest advice received... "Be clear, be colorful, be seated."The most often deadly boring advice... "Tell them what you're going to tell'em, tell'em, tell 'em what you told 'em."
I don't disagree with Fr. Conley, but homey illustrations well done can make it real.
The advice about women's input and opportunity to preach is the best. My parish has men and women "reflectors."
And my wonderful mother usually advised me "Write it and cut it." I never followed her advice rigorously, but it is still helpful...!

JOE BLISS | 1/27/2015 - 5:05pm

Preaching at mass should not be a difficult subject. Why are we present at mass.? Why are we here? What is the priest going to say? What do we want to hear? Entering a church needs to be transformation for each one of us, from a place of many distraction to one of concentration on the presence of God, the love exhibited by our Father
in the death, suffering,and resurrection of His Son. We come to try to focus our attention on this great and awesome mystery. And we do this in communion with our community of friends and neighbors. It is not about how creative our celebrant may be but how but how he can help us to arrive at this special place .We need to be instructed, need to feel the presence of God, and be encouraged and challenged ,and give thanks for the many blessings we have received. as we leave this special place and return to a place of distraction.

Anne Chapman | 1/26/2015 - 2:36pm

I forgot to add something in the other comment.

I just want to say that I very much appreciate your columns, Fr. Conley - they are among the very best that appear in America. I wish they were highlighted on the "front page" more frequently than they are, as many readers never get beyond the homepage to discover them - ignoring the menu items that appear at the top of the page.

Anne Chapman | 1/26/2015 - 2:21pm

As a woman who, in recent years, has discovered the joys of participating in the Sunday eucharist at an Episcopal church, I would like to comment, as I am not totally clear on what you are supporting.

Obviously, random talks about fishing or the choice of socks are not appropriate. In general, I have found the homilies given by the two priests at the Episcopal church I attend (as well as at other Episcopal churches I have attended while traveling) to be far, far superior than most I heard for the first almost-60 years of my life in the Catholic church. I have especially appreciated the homilies of our woman priest.

In spite of the sad examples described here, I have found that most Catholic priests are either overly academic or, more often, overly simplistic and predictable, when they aren't discussing their recent vacation. Or, in the case of one pastor, complaining about how hard his life has been that week because his housekeeper was on vacation and he was forced to go out to eat for every meal, and do his own laundry. God forbid. Apparently the man was incapable of pouring cereal into a bowl or making a sandwich or microwaving dinner.

Women tend to intertwine more first person understandings, at least the women priests I have heard. They are excellent from the academic side as well, at least in the Episcopal church, because all Episcopal priests (like Catholic priests) have excellent advanced theological and scriptural educations. Episcopal priests in general, and especially the women priests, are highly skilled at making the readings real in our own time, and our own daily lives, drawing out the "eternal" truths from the bible readings. Perhaps because they share many of the experiences of the laity, as married people, as parents, as grandparents.

But women approach scripture a bit differently than the men do, even in the Epsicopal church - they see the feminine that men don't see, the feminine that is God, who made them male and female in God's image, and the feminine understanding is reflected in their homilies. It is not just a matter of giving condescending and empty lip service to the concept of "feminine genius" - it actually incorporates "feminine genius".

I wanted to stand up and cheer the first time I heard a homily given by a woman priest - I was so happy to hear scripture interpreted through the feminine mind. When our woman priest gave a homily on Mary's visit to Elizabeth, her understanding as a woman, as a mother, came through loud and clear, with insights no male celibate could ever begin to grasp.

The Catholic church denies the feminine in its priesthood and teachings. It leaves the church operating, literally, with half a brain. It not only bans women from the priesthood, it bans women (and all laity) from giving homilies. At the very least, this shoot-yourself-in-the-foot "law" should be changed as there are many, many lay people, both men and women, who have better educations in formal theology and biblical scholarship than the average parish priest, AND who have lived experience in the world that they lack. This would allow for far better homilies, and enrich the understanding of those in the pews, instead of putting them to sleep.

I would suggest that Catholic priests seek out a neighboring Episcopal parish with both male and female priests who give good homilies. Approached with humility, this could give Catholic priests a few insights as to what factors make a good homily, even if they are handicapped in a sense by their lack of shared lived experience with the laity. As with all churches, they may have to visit a few parishes to find the "right" fit, but I can assure you, Episcopal priests who give top-notch homilies are out there in greater numbers than I experienced in the Catholic church.

Paul Ferris | 1/27/2015 - 10:37am

Thank you for your comments. Most of Conley's article are just common sense which years in the seminary should
be enough to make his points for all priests. Your comment are much more instructive and I would love to hear Fr.Conley's reply. Of course we know that will never happen. What is the sound of one hand clapping ?

Henry George | 1/26/2015 - 3:18pm


Is it the case that no man can understand women ?

Is that what you are saying in part of your comments ?

What would happen if the Church allowed "Lay People" to give a homily every other Sunday ?

Anne Chapman | 1/29/2015 - 7:56am

Women have understandings and insights that derive from being female - what Francis keeps calling "feminine genius". Yet he and other clerics seem to want to limit the exercise of "feminine genius" to the home rather than allowing women to share it with the church. It's not that men can't "understand" women in everything, but men view through the lens of being male while women have a different experience and persepctive. Men and women are different, we are told, by the men of the church. True. We are different - and we should be tapping into both male and female understandings and perspectives, not just masculine.

That's what true complementarity is all about, but the Catholic church has cut off the chance to have true complementarity in its governance and teachings, as well as in its teaching - homilies. I certainly don't understand many things the same way my husband does - I'm not a man. He doesn't see everything the same way I do - he's not a woman. But we can educate one another through our loving, intimate relationship as husband and wife.

Catholic priests don't even have wives at home to counter their exclusively male perspective, to offer insights - they are cut off from intimate relationships with women, except maybe their mothers, but few priests live with their moms (at least I hope they don't). They have literally never been in enviornments where women are their equals - they live with all celibate men while training for the priesthood, as well as after becoming priests. The women in the parish are all their subsevients - they tell the women what they may teach, and what they may do to serve the parish. Some priests are now denying girls the chance to be altar servers, reinforcing their second-class female status, and some even are turning women away from other "jobs" in the church - as lectors or ministers of the eucharist. These priests, incubated in all-male seminaries, don't ever have women who are equal colleagues, much less a woman "boss". So Catholic priests are far more isolated from exposure to the feminine than are non-Catholic male ministers, priests (Anglican Communion and Orthodox), and rabbis.

I think having well-qualified lay people who can give good homily would be wonderful - every other week or as often as possible. It might inspire some priests decide to work a little harder too. And given the dramatic shortage of Roman Catholic priests these days, it might also lighten their loads a bit, to have lay people to take on some of the homilies. I think it must be very difficult to write a "good" homily every week, for years and years, with the readings repeating every three years also. How does a priest stay fresh? Bring in new insights and understandings? Remain enthusiastic and work to find something new to say about a scripture passage that the priest and every adult in the pews has heard dozens of times in their lives?

I don't "blame" priests for their mostly awful homilies. They are overwhelmed with having too much to do - combined parishes, "mega-parishes", etc. They can hire people to do some of the administrative work, but maybe a few lay homilists would also be a big assist to them, and improve the overall quality of homilies at mass every Sunday.

Martin Eble | 3/5/2015 - 7:11pm

It is sexist in the extreme to suggest that Catholic priests possess an exclusively male perspective and are cut off from intimate relationships with women. You don’t have to be in bed with someone every night to have intimate relationships with people of either sex.

G Miller | 3/13/2015 - 2:11pm

Mr Eble, I will go one step further. I would suggest that Anne is correct. That a lack of constant relationship between priests and women AS EQUALS has lead for some priests to actually be misogynist. I have talked to priests at Catholic universities and they have drawn the same conclusion.

The current arrangement estranges one gender from the other in our Church. It has lead to the ridiculous actions of Archbishop Cordileone to remove girls from roles in the church liturgy. I find those actions in direct contradiction to scripture which speaks of "each according to their gifts" not each according to their gender.

Martin Eble | 3/13/2015 - 6:13pm

The current arrangement corresponds to the institution of Holy Orders by Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We assume He knew a bit more about proper roles between men and women than you and Anne do, as did His Father when He made them "man and woman".

If you're catechized in the Church of Gloria Steinem or whatever particular older sexist female of the '60s you happen to adhere to, all of this grates on you like chalk on a chalkboard.

If you become God you can do it your way.

Anne Chapman | 3/6/2015 - 2:17pm

There is nothing sexist about this observation at all. After all, it is the "church" that keeps hammering away at the natural differences between men and women.

The typical priest is cut off from intimate relationships with women beyond immediate family members and perhaps a truly intimate friendship or two that are not sexual. Those are rare, even among non-celibates.

Priests are educated exclusively among other celibate males, mostly educated by other celibate males, live in parishes where no woman is their equal, but are either paid or unpaid staff who may do and teach only what the priests - the male celibates - allow them to do. They never work with women as equal colleagues, nor do they ever have a woman boss. There is no interaction or discussion with women as equals in the classroom, in the rectories, in the chanceries, and most certainly not in the Vatican. At every single level, even women who are Diocesan Administrators dare not speak their minds publicly if that mind differs from the bishops.

I have been fascinated by Sr. Walsh's columns since she joined America. She was always the spokesperson for the bishops and never publicly gave her own opinions until America. It seems she does not always agree with her former bosses, but until now, she did not speak out. Perhaps she, like many women employed by the "church" fear saying what they think. Many who have were fired for doing so.

I have been married more than 40 years and am the mother of three adult sons. There are some things I understand about the male perspective through this 24/7 family immersion, but I can never "see" the same way my husband and sons see.

Martin Eble | 3/12/2015 - 8:28am

It is nothing but sexist. The Church teaches, as Jesus did, as St Paul did, that the roles of men and women are complementary as part of the natural order. Suggesting, then, that priests “lack” something essential to their ministry suggests that the revelation itself has defects.

The typical priest has intimate relationships with men and women. The odd focus on sexual relations is a 20th century gloss. Catholic priests are educated in many of the same environments as other Catholic men, which includes daily contact with women.

Within the parish life everyone contributes according to his or her talents and vocation. The only exception in a Catholic parish, which may have a woman as pastoral administrator, is that a woman cannot exercise a sacerdotal role. This has nothing at all to do with “equality” - it has to do with roles defined as part of the revelation itself.

Obviously if one’s script is modern “feminism”, the Catholic Church presents some difficulties in acceptance. But modern “feminism” is, at its root, sexist.

Bruce Snowden | 1/25/2015 - 8:51pm

I don’t remember ever having heard a totally secular or irrelevant homily. There’s always something that can be put to use spiritually if only through the exercise of patience, which will forever remain flabby unless like a muscle strengthened through exercise. The pulpit at times becomes like a “spiritual gym” where not only patience, but many other virtues get a “work-out” if only the listener is smart enough to recognize moments of Grace. Augustine was so right when he said, “Everything is Grace!”

I’ve also found it helpful when listening to homilies including those of high spiritual character delivered by homilists clearly in sync with Jesus, to close one’s eyes allowing the ears of the soul to capture a single word, for example, “mercy.” Then allow memory and imagination to take over and instruct. Within that frame I’ve found it useful to recall words that St. Faustina Kowalska heard Jesus say, “Tell aching humanity to snuggle close to My Merciful Heart!” Imagination takes over as one realizes that two types of people “snuggle” – lovers in legitimate embrace and little children to parents seeking comfort especially when scared. So then, Our Lord wants us to relate to him as in exactly the same way – as lover and little child. It's also good to know that Jesus acknowledges that humanity is "aching" in one way or the other "hurting." Jesus cares!

Let’s pray for all our homilists, priests and deacons that they try to proclaim the Word of God faithfully with joy. That’s what it’s all about, strengthening Faith, isn’t it? Isn't that what Fr. Conley said so well?

Fernán Jaramillo | 1/25/2015 - 2:12pm

Our priest today gave a lecture, rather than a sermon, on the history of fishing in first century Galilea. It included descriptions of fishing licenses, the tax structures, the archaeology of fishing boats, the number of crew members in an average boat, the routes that the fishermen followed to bring pickled fish to Spain, the competition for prestige between Herod and his brother, etc. A lenghty march just to say at the end that it was not easy for Peter to leave everything to follow Jesus. This is repeated every year. I'd expand father Conley's #1 to "It's all about you AND your interests".

Chris NUNEZ | 1/24/2015 - 11:08am

Know what the scriptures are actually saying! don't repeat any of the mistakes from somebody else's homiletic 'interpretations' from 50, 100 or 500 years ago! It's only been 50 years since the Catholic seminarians and the priesthood has actually had to study scriptures, so we've been fed some pretty bad non-sense... Read the darned book and think about what it's really saying! ... And listen to the 'silenced voices' in the scriptures, you're supposed to tell their side of the story! That's just for beginners....

Luigi Del Gaudio | 1/25/2015 - 2:36am

"Homiletic Interpretations" are marvelous, but it is all in their use. After 181/2 years of preaching I've learned to read and pray with the Gospel well in advance; look at a bevy of homiletic interpretations and write a homily of your own. Bring it to the ambo and never bother to look at it but speak what you've learned from your heart for five to seven minutes. Works every time.

Henry George | 1/24/2015 - 2:58am

A few more tips:

a) The shorter the better.

b) If you don't believe it, don't say it.

c) Be as clear as possible.

d) Challenge all of us to become ever more Christian.

Joseph Komadina | 1/23/2015 - 7:57pm

Well said and very timely. We have a new 'administrator' at our parish. He is not elderly but seems to have slept through homiletics. I might just e-mail him this.

amy born | 1/23/2015 - 4:34pm

Thank you, thank you Father! I'm not certain my parish priest reads this publication. I must buy them a copy! May God continue to bless you and guide you!
amy born

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