Looking over Pope Francis’ pontificate so far, I think his greatest contribution may be his telling us how to spread the Gospel. He uses simple words and vibrant images. He stands as an example of how priests should give homilies and how all of us can evangelize, that is, spread the Gospel.
He follows the rules of good homilies and speechmaking, some listed below.
1. Keep it short. We know the mind can absorb only what the seat can endure. Brevity reminds me of a priest from the diocese of Albany, NY, Father Michael Hogan, who died recently. Here is one of his best homilies, in its entirety. “If today you hear God’s voice, harden not your hearts. And if today you don’t hear God’s voice, you’d better ask yourself, why not.” As with any proper homily, it was based on Scripture’s popular Responsorial Psalm 95. It also was short enough to be memorable and has the power to come to mind whenever one hears the line from the Psalms. It makes one think.
2. Be relevant. In their 2012 document on preaching, the U.S. bishops noted that relevance can be achieved by making reference to contemporary culture. This includes television, radio and music. It may be fashionable to say you never watch TV because there’s nothing on, but the fact is that tens of millions of people do watch it daily. Those who seek to relate to them need to watch TV too. A popular series now is the “Big Bang Theory” whose star is a comical, self-absorbed narcissist, an example of someone we shouldn’t be. He also is part of a nerdy community of young people, who struggle with him and themselves. It’s what we all face in the Christian community. I had a pastor who often referred to the comic strip “Calvin and Hobbs.” When the pastor entered the sanctuary, we’d wonder if we’d seen the strip to which he’d refer. It also meant that when we read the comics during the week we sought religious meaning because the pastor had alerted us to finding religious meaning in unlikely places.
3. Bring the Scriptures to life. I can recall two daily Mass homilies that stuck with me because of their simple expressions of a Bible story. One was about the loaves and fishes. Said the priest: Jesus could have made it come out right, without the leftovers so the meaning lies in the overabundance–a message that there will always be more than enough of God’s love for us. The other homily included an account of a priest losing his cat in the woods. He was at a country house where the cat was spooked by a visiting dog. The priest captured us with his tale of trying to lure back the cat. He finally brought an electric can opener to the porch and opened a container of cat food. The cat returned and we felt relieved. More important, however, the account explained the meaning of the story of the woman who lost a coin so precious to her that she swept the house clean in search of it. Others might not have cared, but that coin, perhaps just a trinket, meant so much to her that she went to extremes, a message that we need to bring the same energy to finding the gifts, or coins, Jesus has given us in our lives.
The Holy See has released a directory on preaching. The U.S. bishops are thinking of reproducing it English. It will be a good follow-up to the bishops’ own document on preaching approved in 2012.
How important are homilies? Research on parishes by the Georgetown University-based Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate has found that more than six out of ten people (63 percent) consider the quality of the preaching when they choose where to attend Mass. It’s more important to them than the quality of the parish music and only slightly less important than the sense of community and welcome they feel when they go to the church.
We can study Vatican directories and U.S. bishops’ papers on homiletics, but the CliffsNotes on good preaching and evangelization may also be accessible to us as we observe and listen to Pope Francis. Every day he shows us how to spread God’s Word.