Preachers’ progress: America Media launches a new effort to deliver better homilies
“Please, the homilies…. They are a disaster.” Pope Francis recently made this dismal assessment when speaking to a group of students in Rome. They had gathered to study ways to improve the liturgy, and the pope, with his usual candor, put into words something that I and many Catholics have felt for years: Catholic preaching is often very poor.
It is not clear why this is the case. The Catholic Church has produced preachers like St. Ambrose and St. Bernard of Clairvaux, people whose inspiring words resulted in the immediate conversion of their hearers or in lifelong commitments to the works of mercy. Even today, there are many excellent Catholic preachers, but this does not seem to be the norm, as Francis’ remarks made clear.
The Catholic Church has produced preachers whose inspiring words resulted in immediate conversions. Even today, there are many excellent Catholic preachers, but this does not seem to be the norm
America Media has made a commitment to improving this situation. Lilly Endowment, which supports the development of religious communities in the United States, recently awarded America Media a $1 million grant as part of its Compelling Preaching Initiative to develop a mobile phone app that will pull together preaching resources and reflections on the weekly readings, a new weekly podcast on great homilies and how they are prepared, and improvements in production and distribution for the “One-Minute Homily” series already produced by The Jesuit Post. As a first step in this effort, America Media teamed with the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate to survey preachers in the United States to learn how they prepare homilies.
In October, CARA invited nearly 18,000 parishes across the United States to participate. Enough responded to provide a strong statistical sample. The largest group of responses came from the Midwest (39 percent), followed by the South (25 percent), the Northeast (23 percent) and the West (14 percent). These percentages closely match the actual distribution of parishes across the United States.
Of the respondents, 84 percent were priests and 14 percent were deacons. Two percent of the respondents were non-ordained religious or lay ministers, a sample size that was unfortunately too small to yield many insights.
There was broad agreement among respondents on the features that make an effective homily. Priests and deacons alike list “delivery style/rhetorical technique” as extremely or very important. In fact, priests list “delivery style/rhetorical technique” as the single most compelling aspect of a homily. And for a good homily, respondents agreed that time was of the essence; 97 percent of all respondents said that it was very important that a Sunday homily should be under 15 minutes. Fifty-three percent said it should be under 10 minutes.
The biggest divergence between priests and deacons also appears in this category. Many priests (63 percent) believe an “extremely” or “very” effective homily is one that relates to contemporary events or issues. Almost as many priests (56 percent), however, believe that a homily on spiritual traditions or prayer is compelling.
The renewal of the culture of preaching will take a long time, but one area where Catholics can help their preachers today is by offering feedback.
By contrast, a whopping 78 percent of deacons said that a homily that relates to contemporary events would be “extremely” or “very” effective, whereas many fewer (40 percent) believed that about a homily that connects with spiritual traditions or prayer. The survey does not suggest a reason for this divergence, but deacons are often engaged in secular occupations and perhaps may be more sensitive to the need for theological reflection on the events of the day. Priests, meanwhile, may be responding to needs they encounter as spiritual directors and confessors. Diversity of background perhaps allows preachers to meet a variety of needs.
The survey identified variations in the way preachers prepared their Sunday homilies. Preachers of every type in the West and South, as well as generally in rural areas, took the longest to prepare them, often spending more than four hours per week. Deacons, no matter their location, also spent more than four hours weekly to craft their homily. Nearly half of all priests, meanwhile, took fewer than two hours to prepare.
Preachers of all regions and statuses agreed that certain tools were especially useful. These included commentaries like the Sacra Pagina series and critical interpretations of Scripture like the Jerome Biblical Commentary.
Priests said they frequently supplement these tools with weekly homily helps, like America’s “Word” column. Deacons reported using weekly helps only infrequently. Relatively few preachers drew on patristic or other historical homilies, and it was very rare for any to go back to their notes from seminary. Few preachers reported it helpful to their own preparation to listen to other preachers.
Deacons were less likely than priests to tune in to other preachers—about one-third of deacons reported listening to other preachers regularly—but both groups said that was something they would prefer to do even less often. This is perhaps a tacit admission that even regular preachers recognize that “the homilies…. They are a disaster.”
The renewal of the culture of preaching will take a long time, but one area where Catholics can help their preachers today is by offering feedback. According to the CARA survey, few preachers receive any kind of feedback aside from comments in passing, usually after Mass.
There is good news here. This survey suggests that preachers recognize the preparation, delivery and content choices that result in effective homilies.
As someone who preaches regularly, I know how important feedback can be. I treasure emails and messages people send on my preaching. Even when these are challenging, they can contain something important to learn.
The most helpful notes balance compliments with invitations to further reflection. For example, one parishioner wrote, “You focused so much on Martha; I would have loved to have heard more about Mary, especially since Jesus thought she was doing the right thing.”
Another wrote, “You talked about the choosing of the 12 from their perspective. Did you ever understand the story from the point of view of the people who weren’t chosen? I think many people feel that way today.”
Feedback like this improves my preaching every time I receive it. Offering it regularly is one area where Catholics can have a significant and immediate effect.
There is good news here. This survey suggests that preachers recognize the preparation, delivery and content choices that result in effective homilies. The survey also subtly reveals preachers’ own frustration with the state of things now. Many of the problems, then, are not systemic but arise in execution. These are problems that can be solved.
With the right tools and good feedback, the culture of Catholic preaching can slowly improve, and perhaps a future pope will someday say, “Please, the homilies…. They are a wonder!”