May 16, 2016
It is that important. Times have changed. Growing up (I’m 61) I didn’t expect an engaging homily. I don’t think anyone did. Homilies didn’t seem that important. In the summer we didn’t even have one. Not today. Today parishioners expect a good homily if not demand it. They will choose a church based on the priest’s homiletic skill. We can’t get by offering mediocre at best homilies. It is perhaps our most important task we do during the week. It’s the weekend that makes the parish go. Nothing during the week can compare to our Sunday liturgy, no bible study, no personal appointment or hospital visitation. Even the most successful parish mission pales in comparison to our Sunday gathering. Sunday is where we meet our people. They form their opinion of us on how we preach. Our homily may be the only spiritual nourishment they will receive that week. We have to make preaching our priority.
It takes work. It takes preparation. Unfortunately homily prep may not feel or appear that we are really working. Sometime it feels that we just wasting time. We want to do something other than sitting on our desk reading commentaries. We want something tangible to show for our effort. We can spend hours on homily prep and have nothing to show for it. I have had staff knock on my office door and ask if I am busy. I inform him that I am working on my homily to which they respond with “oh good you are not busy.” Many Protestant pastors spend thirty hours a week on homily prep. We may not have that luxury, the time or the inclination to devote oneself to that task but it does highlight how important the homily is. Homily prep takes dedication and effort. Preparation needs to begin at least a week out rather than the night before. Pressure strangles the brain’s creativity. Plus by starting at least a week ahead allows you to be alert to whatever may happen during the week and how it would be applicable to your message. I suggest using the Sunday readings as your fodder for your prayer time. What God speaks to you is often what God wishes communicated to your congregation. Lectio Divina is a great way to digest the scripture.
The homily needs to be engaging. We have to hold our listener’s attention which is no easy task in this ADD world. We live in the TV clicker era. If something doesn’t hold your interest you switch to something else and that is exactly what takes place in our church pews. If we don’t grab them they are on to something else. Movie directors know this. They know that the first few minutes of the film determine whether the viewers will tune in or tune out. It is no different with our homily. We have to grab our listener’s attention. The opening can’t be bland or predictable. Please no more “In today’s readings we hear…” Catch their attention with some unusual quip or engaging story. If we lose them in the beginning it is doubtful that we can reel them back in. I am not suggesting that you have to be a standup comedian or a Saturday Night Live host but it does require that you be a bit creative and not settle for the routine.
Keep the homily simple. Keep it to one point and drive that point home. It takes editing and it may mean cutting that great story or illustration. Summarize on an index card the main point of your homily and evaluate if your homily supports that central point. These three points may prove quite helpful in this process—the what, the so what and the now what. In long form it is what do you want them to know, why do you want them to know it and what do you want them to do. Make the homily practical. How is what you are preaching helpful to your listeners? It is not enough to give information. We preach to change lives. Give them something to do. Keep it simple and manageable for their life is busy enough.
I love stories. Who doesn’t? Jesus told stories and he did it quite well. Stories hold our interest and they can drive home our message. Our listeners may not remember our point but they will remember our story. I collect stories. It is the one and only hobby that I have. Some people collect stamps or coins I collect stories. Years ago I began by photocopying them and attaching them to index cards. Now I store them on my computer. I have thousands. I get elated when I find a good story. I am always on the hunt for a good illustration. I see the world with that lens. Whatever I read, watch, or hear I ask the question how can I use this in a homily. I waste no experience. I believe all speakers need to have their personal collection of stories. Sure personal experience is best but we have only so many. Our lives are not typically that exciting.
We live in a great time with so much available to us online. We can listen and learn from so many preachers famous or unknown. Listening to their homilies is a great way to learn and improve. We can learn something from everyone. Bookmark their websites, subscribe to podcasts and check out YouTube. I dare say use their material. If it blesses others use it but acknowledge the source. Creativity is building on what someone else has already done.
Preaching is our vocation. It demands work and study. It takes discipline and dedication but it is worth the effort. To grow your church and grow your people nothing compares to the Sunday homily. It is not just one of our tasks, it is the main task. Give it your best and trust the Holy Spirit.
By: Father Tom Connery, Pastor, St. Peter, DeLand, Florida