Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Gerard O’ConnellNovember 23, 2016
Pope Francis greets the crowd after celebrating the closing Mass of the jubilee Year of Mercy in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Nov. 20. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis responded to several questions in the fascinating conversation with Antonio Spadaro, S.J., that introduces the new 1,000-page book Nei Tuoi Occhi È La Mia Parola, comprising his principal homilies and talks as archbishop of Buenos Aires. Two relate to the liturgy: how he prepares his homily, and why he says it is “an error” to speak of “the reform of the reform” of the liturgy. I will focus on the first here and the second next week.

In his programmatic document “The Joy of the Gospel,” Francis devotes several pages to the homily. Describing it as an “important ministry,” he labels it as “the touchstone for judging a pastor’s closeness and ability to communicate to his people.” The faithful “attach great importance to it,” he writes, but “both they and their ordained ministers suffer because of homilies: the laity from having to listen to them and the clergy from having to preach them!” (No. 135).

Referring to this “sad” situation and speaking from decades of experience, Francis affirms that “the homily can actually be an intense and happy experience of the Spirit, a consoling encounter with God’s word, a constant source of renewal and growth.” It can “set hearts on fire,” as Jesus did when he spoke with the disheartened disciples who were leaving Jerusalem for Emmaus after the events of Good Friday and Easter morning.

As pope, Francis has shown how this can happen with his morning homilies, which he delivers without reading from a prepared text. And for the first time in history, all these closely watched homilies are recorded by Vatican Radio, frequently reported by the media and now made available in book form.

“What is the secret?” Father Spadaro asked the pope. Francis revealed his method: “I begin at midday, the day before. I read the Scripture texts of the following day, and I choose one of the two. I then read aloud the text I have chosen. I need to hear the sound, to listen to the words. And then I underline, in the notebook that I use, the words that struck me most. I circle the words that hit me. During the rest of the day, as I do what I have to do, the words and thoughts come and go. I meditate, reflect, savor the things….”

He admitted that “there are days when I reach the evening and nothing has come to mind, and I have no idea what I will say the following day.” On such occasions, he said, “I do what St. Ignatius said: I sleep on it. And then, suddenly, when I wake up, the inspiration comes. The right things come, sometimes strong, other times weaker. But it is this way, and I feel ready.”

Francis emphasized, however, that besides creativity there are two other essential elements that help a priest prepare his homily. First, “listen to the lives of people. If you do not listen to people, how can you preach?” he asked. “The closer you are to people, the better you will preach or bring the word of God nearer their lives. In this way, you link the word of God to a human experience that has need of this word.” But, he remarked, ”The more distant you are from people and their problems, the more you will take refuge in a theology that is framed as ‘You must,’ and ‘You must not,’ which communicates nothing, which is empty, abstract, lost in nothing, in thoughts. At such times we respond with our words to questions that nobody is asking.”

He recalled that Jesus was “in contact with people” when he spoke; his homilies “are direct, concrete: he spoke of things that the farmers and the shepherds knew well from experience. He did not use abstract concepts.”

Francis identified a second essential element: “To preach to people it is necessary to look at them, to know how to look and how to listen, to enter into the ebb and flow of their lives, to immerse oneself in them,” to be “in contact with them, touch them, caress them” or “in silence look into their eyes.”

He is against reading the homily from a prepared text “because if you are reading, you are not looking into the eyes of people.” He considers it important “to look into the eyes” of the people to whom one is preaching, or at least into the eyes of one person.

With these hints, Francis has shared his secret to good preaching.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Henry George
7 years 6 months ago
When I listen to Protestant Ministers, they constantly speak about concerns their congregants have expressed. Stories that tie in with the Biblical Readings they are preaching upon. These Ministers know their Bible inside and out. Unfortunately, Catholic Seminarians are not given sufficient courses on the Bible nor are they shown how to weave Biblical passages into their homilies. [ A recently ordained Priest told me he took: Intro to Old Testament, Intro to New Testament, Pentateuch, Psalms, Wisdom, Synoptic. John and Letters of Paul. 8 Courses of of a total of 40 courses he studied at the Seminary.] Guided practices on how to write/give Homilies during all four years of the Seminary would be very beneficial.
Jim MacGregor
7 years 5 months ago
RE: “These [Protestant] Ministers know their Bible inside and out.” My personal experience is that some do and some do not. Some are better at explaining what we learn from Scripture and how it applies in our lives. Some are not. Many rely on their well-read (sometimes better -read) laity to pick up the slack by leading Bible study for adults. My “long explanation” reads like this: A 2013 Pew survey revealed a basic ignorance of Christian belief. (Gary Bates and Lita Cosner, “Pew survey reveals basic ignorance of Christian belief”, Creation.com, Accessed December 10, 2016, http://creation.com/religion-survey-reveals-ignorance-of-bible.) The threat of ignorance is great from within the Church. Perhaps the greatest threat against the Christian faith is not atheism or science but willful ignorance of our own Faith - ignorance of what Scripture tells us about God, Jesus, the Gospel, and the basic tenets of Christianity. When Christians fail to take faith seriously and neglect to engage their faith mindfully, they can easily fall into indifference or unbelief. If we take a kindergarten faith into life, then sentimental, shallow and hostile distortions of Christianity by nonbelievers can tear away at our confidence until we have nothing left in which to believe. Faith is like a garden - neglected it withers, but tended to it grows. Christian ministers and laity have a rich, beautiful, and engaging intellectual tradition rises above those of naysayers. “The best defense of Christianity is its explanation. In other words, if you want to defend or commend Christianity, it is best to begin by telling people what it is really all about.” (Alister McGrath) But for many, the treasure lies buried and undiscovered. There is the beauty of the Gospels themselves, read, loved and valued for 2,000 years. There is more than a lifetime of Christian reading to engage the mind, heart and imagination. We need never shy away from our Lord’s command to love God with our mind. Also, Christians have a wealth of writers to appreciate. There are the works of the Church Fathers and other early churchmen, Medieval and reform era Christian theologians and philosophers, later Christian theologians and scholars (i.e., seventeenth to twentieth century). Among the latter are former atheist C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton. Back to the 2013 Pew survey: It revealed that only 45% of the participants in the Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey could name the four Gospels in order. They surveyed Christians, non-Christians, atheists, and agnostics to measure rudimentary religious knowledge among those groups using basic questions about their faiths (or non-faiths). The average Christian respondent to the survey answered six out of twelve questions pertaining to Christianity. Evangelicals suveyed were the most knowledgeable group, answering 7.3 questions correctly, but they did not measure up to the Mormons, who could answer 7.9 questions. For example, only ¼ of surveyed Evangelicals knew that Protestants uniquely teach that salvation is by faith alone (somewhat of a mistake - the actual teaching is by grace through faith - Ephesians 2:8-9). The survey showed the following. Religious knowledge in general, including knowledge of one’s own religion, is very poor. This includes ignorance of some very basic teachings. We have to ask whether or not we as a church and as individuals are addressing the questions that the culture is asking. Most people do not believe the Bible to be authoritative. Rather, they believe that it contains errors. Evolution causes most of them to reject the Bible’s account of origins. The church is not teaching its members basic knowledge about the Bible and Christian doctrine. Put aside for the moment complicated topics such as the Trinity. Many Christians cannot even articulate very basic, different views of communion and may be completely ignorant of people like Job, Abraham, and Moses - persons who we should learn about in Sunday school. The Great Commission commands us to - the individual believers - to make disciples of others, who then go out and spread their faith to others. Equipping believers to go out to spread the Word is the function of the church. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20/ESV) All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17/ESV) The entertainment-driven programs of many churches are not producing people who can articulate even the most basic tenets of their faith, or who know the Bible. Churches often try to fill pews with people who are simply seeking a “spiritual” experience to fill the void in their lives. For many, church becomes a social club or something that someone does on the weekend to make one feel good about oneself. People cannot share their faith when they do not know about it, and they are lack the confidence to defend it. People are likely to compromise if they are ignorant of important information about their faith. When they are confident about what they believe, then they can be motivated to share it with others. Christians are generally ignorant of the beliefs of other faiths, and consequently are less effective when trying to evangelize those people. Someone who is conversant with the basic beliefs of other faiths will be able to interact with people of those faiths more effectively. Even worse: when Christians are ignorant of both their beliefs and the beliefs of other faiths, it becomes much harder for them to differentiate what is unique about Christianity, and what makes it different from the rest of the world’s religions and cults. Let’s use the analogy of a battle or a war - as the Bible often does. One would not just engage the opposition without first gaining some idea of what they were up against. To enter into such a battle without that important information would be suicidal.
Chris Miller
7 years 4 months ago
Is there no basic homiletics course at a Catholic Seminary? We had a years worth of such courses; one every year in a three year program. One of the things they did at my seminary, is issue us all a VCR tape (this was the OLDEN times!) and we taped all sermons/homilies preached in class or at chapel. At the end, we had to watch them ALL over again. It could be disheartening when the end homily was no better than the first.... Pr Chris
Chris Miller
7 years 4 months ago
For anyone interested there is an email that comes out regarding the Gospel for the day for the Revised Common Lectionary. Because the exegete is Lutheran, there are a few Sundays when the gospel diverges, but the days when they match are an excellent resource for preachers. It provides a preaching oriented exegesis of the gospel, and links to the other lessons of the day. If you send Brian an email, he'll add you to his list; you get an email on the week before the Sunday it applies to, I have found he is insightful and it is worth reading...(http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/ ) Pr Chris
Lisa Weber
7 years 5 months ago
What brought me back to the Catholic Church was the fortunate accident of wandering into a church where the preaching was outstanding. I realize now that excellence in preaching is uncommon, though many priests give "good enough" homilies.

The latest from america

An important international conference in Rome on May 21 marks the 100th anniversary of the first Plenary Council of the Catholic Church in China. Here’s what you need to know.
Gerard O’ConnellMay 20, 2024
During an audience with a delegation from Loyola University Chicago at the Vatican on May 20, Pope Francis said, “Education happens on three levels: the head, the heart and the hands.”
Pope FrancisMay 20, 2024
The proclamation comes just two weeks after the Jesuit priest who founded Homeboy Industries received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Joe Biden.
People pick through discarded produce at the central market for fruit and vegetables in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Friday, May 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
Argentina has been in a state of economic upheaval for years with two constants—a continuous increase in poverty and corresponding efforts by the Catholic Church to respond to that need.
Lucien ChauvinMay 20, 2024