Catholics deserve better homilies. Here are my top 5 tips for fellow preachers.
Earlier this week Vincent Mary Carrasco, O.F.M.Cap., tweeted out a question that lit up Catholic Twitter about something that thankfully had nothing to do with religious exemptions from Covid vaccines or the Latin Mass:
This semester I'm taking a class on preaching.— Br Vince Mary OFM 🧢 (@BrVinMary) August 23, 2021
Out of curiosity, what are some of your pet peeves when hearing someone preach?
He got a ton of insightful responses. There were some hilarious ones, too. “Don’t use balloons, helium or otherwise,” wrote one respondent. “No balloons please.”
Said another: “Don’t tell me to turn to the person next to me and say something. Ever.”
I have my own pet peeves, like children used as props in homilies (especially babies at the Midnight Mass—I get the instinct, but that’s somebody’s baby); sermons that don’t take into account their audience (the family Mass doesn’t need a homily about natural family planning, nor do the elderly who come each morning); preachers who talk to people like they are hopeless sinners or like they are children.
With all the humility you might expect of a Jesuit, here is my own list of top five suggestions for Catholic preachers today.
The fact is, Catholics have lots of great advice for their priests. Here, with all the humility you might expect of a Jesuit, is my own list of top five suggestions for Catholic preachers today, as collated from the online responses to Brother Vince Mary’s tweet and my own life.
1. Be Brief, Be Bold, Be Gone.
If the gameshow “Family Feud” ever offered the subject “Things Catholics Want from Preaching,” there is no doubt that “Make it shorter” would be the number one answer. Far too often, homilists talk too long—and often then complain about others doing the same. (Not me of course; those other guys, they do that.)
Personally, I think 10 minutes on a Sunday is long enough. You want to push that to twelve, fine, but much more than that and you are really pushing your luck. As one Twitter respondent noted: “You need to consider people’s attention span. The homily is not meant to be an endurance contest (or a hostage situation).”
If “Family Feud” ever offered the subject “Things Catholics Want from Preaching,” there is no doubt that “Make it shorter” would be the number one answer.
Some might argue that in certain cultural communities or parishes people are open to longer homilies, and that’s fine...if it is true. I have presided at a lot of Masses, including in some traditionally Black parishes where I was told by other priests that longer is better. But I have never once heard anyone complain about a homily being too short.
In screenwriting, we talk about entering a scene as late as you can and exiting as early as possible. In other words: Don’t overstay your welcome.
Or as one tweeter put it, “Lay your egg and get off the nest.”
2. Jesuits: Put away your three points.
At some point, we Jesuits are all taught that your homily should have three points. Some holy rollers might opine that this draws its origins from the Trinity. Honestly, I think it is more likely to find its roots in the fact that our training is so heavily academic. Standard essay structure asks for three points to support your idea.
I have certainly heard some tremendous homilies that were formulated in one way or another like an essay. But a homily is fundamentally not an argument. It is not there to offer proofs or to convince people of something. We are not at City Hall or a symposium. We are at church. (As one tweeter put it, “Start a class if you want to teach.”)
I have never once heard anyone complain about a homily being too short.
As Catholics, we believe that Christ is to be found in four places in the liturgy—the Word, the Eucharist, the presider and the community. A homily should be trying to help people into that meeting with Jesus, just like the way they are greeted as they arrive, the proclamation of the readings or the way we pray through the eucharistic prayer should be done in such a way as to invite people into an encounter with God. (You guys that blow through the Gospel or the prayers: May I ask, what are you doing? What do you hope for the congregation to get out of that?)
What we are doing in liturgy is not performance, but it is meant to be evocative in ways similar to theater. It is word and gesture (and sight and sound and scent) that sets people on a journey and ideally gives them some opportunity to connect with God, both in the moment and in the week to come. You don’t need three points, supporting evidence or a thesis statement to do that. In fact, that approach can very easily get in the way.
As one tweeter put it, “My wife and I feel the best homilies we’ve heard have a central core message that sticks with you that week & could be summed up in the length of a single tweet.” That is all you need: one simple thing to say. If you really love the rules of threes, maybe you find three ways of approaching that idea, three ways “in” for your congregation—a meaningful story; some exploration of the Scripture, which is of course where the idea of your homily emerges from; a quote, poem or something else.
At the end of the sermon you want people to have one clear thing that they can take home, one thing to chew on or a new doorway into their own spiritual lives to try.
But at the end of the sermon you want people to have one clear thing that they can take home, one thing to chew on or a new doorway into their own spiritual lives to try.
3. Don’t be afraid to be funny.
At this very moment one of my favorite liturgy professors is shrieking and writing “NO” on his computer screen, and I’m sure others are as well. We’ve all had that pastor who felt like he had to start each homily with a joke about fishing or “Family Circle.” Some weeks it is sweet. Some pastors can actually pull it off week after week. But a lot of the time when you are listening to one of those homilies, you can almost feel the church slowly disintegrating into dust around you.
The problem with starting a homily with a joke, if the joke has nothing to do with the actual point you are trying to make or invitation you are trying to offer, is that it is a terrible strategy. The start of a homily is the one point where you can count on the congregation at least trying to pay attention. It is basically the Park Avenue of your real estate as a preacher. You waste that on a burping baby joke, and you may hear lots of people at the end of Mass saying: “Great one, Father. That baby, hilarious.” But that may very well be all that they got out of your sermon. It is hardly what one would call “Breaking Open the Word.”
Tonally, starting with a joke can also signal to people that you’ve got nothing of substance to say, or that you’re not taking this very seriously. And it can seem narcissistic. It is important to remember that the homily is not about you. As one person online wrote: “It’s the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Not open mic night at the funny bone.”
As one person online wrote: “It’s the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Not open mic night at the funny bone.”
But having said all that, over the years, I have found humor of many different kinds—from jokes to self-deprecating stories to reframing Scripture in a funny way—to be a tremendous tool.
In many ways, it comes down to understanding and undermining people’s expectations. The fact is, most of us have had so many bad experiences with preaching that we often go in expecting to be bored—or worse, offended. Our default is consequently to be checked out, at least a little bit. When a homilist finds a way to surprise the congregation, it defies those expectations. It makes people perk up.
Also, in my experience, so much of breaking open the Word involves finding a way to make the familiar strange again. Scripture is filled with crazy stories of men swallowed by whales, women cutting off the heads of kings and God literally drowning the whole world in a temper tantrum. And yet we have heard them all so many times, they barely register any more. Oh he died, came back from the dead, and then he could walk through walls, but he still had wounds in his hands? Cool cool cool. Now, what am I going to have for brunch?
I have found humor of many different kinds—from jokes to self-deprecating stories to reframing Scripture in a funny way—to be a tremendous tool.
When you take the time to “prosecute the Scripture,” if you will, to highlight its weirdness or absurdities or to roll around and wrestle with its hard sayings and contradictions like Jacob with the Angel, you get the congregation thinking, too. And if you seem to have fun doing it, you may very well help others feel more comfortable interacting with Scripture on their own.
My very first Easter Sunday as a priest, I presided at the 11:30 Mass at Gesu Parish in Milwaukee, Wisc. The place was packed. After the homily, I had to baptize three children. Gesu had this little ritual where, after each baptism, the congregation sang a song while the priest held the baby up. And yes, it was very much like “The Circle of Life” scene in “The Lion King.”
As I lifted the first little boy, he peed all over me. I do not know what he’d had to drink that morning, but it came in gallon jugs. And it brought the house down.
There’s a very old tradition in the church that on Easter the homilist should make the congregation laugh so hard it echoes through the church. It is meant to be an expression of the truth that we have learned, that death is not the end, that Christ has saved us even from that and our own sin.
Sometimes you can create that sense of hope in a homily through humor. Other times, it is not about trying to be funny as much as it is about accepting that life already is.
Sometimes you can create that sense of hope and possibility in a homily through humor. And other times, it is not about trying to be funny as much as it is about accepting that life already is.
4. Do not blame the Holy Spirit for your lack of preparation.
At one point in my training I knew a man who could go 15 to 20 minutes in a daily homily. It was a nightmare—although I must admit, usually he had at least one point that was kind of great.
Once he shared with us his belief that at this point in his life he no longer needed to prepare homilies: “I just trust the Spirit.”
To all presiders who feel this way, might I suggest you reconsider your discernment? Is that truly the Spirit talking, or is it the third scotch you had last night at dinner?
You can spend days and days working on a homily and still see it fall so flat that it’s hard to look people in the eye afterward.
One of the things that I learned after I got ordained is that preaching is much harder than it looks. You can spend days and days working on a homily and still see it fall so flat that it’s hard to look people in the eye afterward. Other times you just cannot figure out how to end the damn thing until you are actually up there preaching, and then somehow it just magically comes together.
But one thing that is pretty true for most of us is that if we do not prepare ahead of time, the homily is likely going to be long, meandering, repetitive or just plain empty. That is when you get, as various tweeters pointed out, seven minutes on “my last vacation” or a retelling of the Gospel we just heard or the last movie we saw (while we internally search for a point to make) or a repackaging of our favorite homiletic ideas. Our greatest hits are not so great when you heard them last week and the week before as well.
It may very well be that our lives are overloaded with responsibilities as the number of priests in the United States dwindles. How exactly do our leaders expect this leaky boat to stay afloat? I sometimes wonder.
One thing that is pretty true for most of us is that if we do not prepare ahead of time, the homily is likely going to be long, meandering, repetitive or just plain empty.
But even so, it is worth considering where the homily falls in our list of priorities for the week. I think many of us—myself included—eventually start to think that we have been around the block enough that we can put something meaningful together the night before. Sometimes, maybe that is all we think we can do. But it is not leaving a lot of room for the actual Holy Spirit to give us some fresh ideas.
5. Be a human being.
This is in some ways the most important point of all, and if this were not a family publication, I would put that heading in more colorful language to make that clear. The priesthood is not a cult of personality, and some of us certainly do get tempted in those directions. Put a theater kid near a stage, etc.
But presiding and preaching at Mass is also not a performance of “The Masked Singer.” When you stand before the congregation, it’s true, you probably should not be exposing the whole of your personal life. As one of my preaching teachers liked to tell us, “No one wants to hear about your prostate.” Or as one person on Twitter put it, “I’m sure your niece is lovely. I do not want her to be the subject of the homily.”
As one of my preaching teachers liked to tell us, “No one wants to hear about your prostate.”
But still, you are a human being up there, just like the people in the congregation. And the more you can be the person that you actually are—whether that means awkward, vulnerable, funny or even acerbic—it will resonate and be helpful to people. (As that same preaching teacher once told us very forcefully: “Never preach in the second person. You are part of the congregation, not separate from it. It is we, not you.”)
Put another way, the homily is not just what we say but what we convey in the way we are. When we shake our fingers at the congregation as we preach or hide behind the text and never look up, we are preaching volumes as great, if not greater, than our words themselves. In the words of one tweeter, “You are talking [to] lay people, not defending [a] doctoral thesis.”
To the extent that we are comfortable just being who we are, whether that is comic or thoughtful, a little bit cranky or legitimately pious, we make it O.K. for the congregation to be who they are, too.
So much of the spiritual life is about unlearning the bad lessons we picked up along the way. Foremost among them is the notion that God requires us to be some version of perfect in order for us to be together. In fact, the only true path to God is in being ourselves. To the extent that we can model that, we have given one of the most important homilies of all.