“Be bright, be brief, and be gone. If you don’t strike oil in ten minutes stop boring.” That was the first advice I ever got on preaching. It came from a retired priest. I was a seminarian at the time, and I thought his advice was quaint. As the years have passed I have found that many people agree with him: Preaching should be well-prepared, engaging—and at all costs brief. While this view is somewhat helpful, it nevertheless falls far short of what the Church intends by the ministry of preaching at Sunday Mass.
For many adult Catholics today, the Sunday Mass is the only opportunity to receive substantial faith formation, to be inspired by the Word of God, and to be given the tools to live out the Gospels in daily life. It is therefore essential—especially given the challenges presented by our contemporary culture—that preaching be thoroughly researched, prepared, cogent, clear, practical, inspiring, and empowering of Catholic values.
It usually isn’t. In my experience, criticisms fall into four broad categories:
1. Length. One man said, “He takes off well, but he has trouble landing.” Or, even more memorably, the sweet grandmother who shouted “his homilies are too (expletive) long!”
2. Say what? “I am not sure what he said.” Or, “Very good homily, all six of them!”
3. Eulogies. The Order of Christian Funerals says that “there is never to be a eulogy.” Yet it happens in some parishes. Sometimes the eulogy is longer than the funeral Mass itself. In my own limited experience, some eulogies are unprepared, redundant, and offer theologies of death and eternal life that are incompatible with Catholic teaching. I’ve heard complaints of off-color stories and disrespectful comments about the deceased.
4. Content. Lastly—and I think most significantly—the theological content and application or scriptural exegesis is incongruent with Catholic Church teaching. On this point, St. Ignatius of Loyola writes “come out in support of all the precepts of the Church. Never attack them, but on the contrary, be quick to seek reasons for them and rebut those who do attack them” (The Spiritual Exercises).
Path to Improvement
The first thing I did to improve my homilies was to seek feedback. I tried various methods, ranging from weekly staff discussions to homily feedback forms and a suggestion box. None proved particularly helpful, as people tend either to be uncritically supportive or to offer subjective rather than objective and constructive criticism.
My next step was to begin to downloading homilies by other preachers. Some of the homilies were quite good: They gave a solid scriptural exegesis and then related it to current situations; they clearly delineated the implications for our faith; and they showed how to apply the teaching to everyday Catholic life. Many of the preachers were clearly on fire for the faith, and their homilies were engaging. But these were the exception. After reviewing more than 150 homilies, I began to recognize patterns that caused me some concern:
- Too general and abstract
- No concrete applications
- Repetition of the same few themes in every homily
- Too much storytelling, not enough content
- Too many themes in a single homily
- Exclusion of “controversial” topics
How Did We Get Here?
Why do so many homilies fall short—not just of parishioners’ expectations but of Church expectations? It might have something to do with the homiletic texts and resources available to seminarians. I researched the homiletic collections of 10 American seminaries and found catalogs that contained anywhere from four to 250 titles under the heading “homiletics.” At one institution, I found two books on “clowning” and the use of clowns in the liturgy. One work stated that “the chief task is to be childlike, to give of one’s self, to elevate other persons to positions of worth, and communicate clearly that they are loved . . . ” (Floyd Shaffer and Penne Sewall, Clown Ministry, 13). The authors did not explain to my satisfaction how dressing up as a clown while preaching accomplishes this. In another text, the author stated that “Jesus is a parable of God . . . we are affirming that Jesus is not God, for metaphors and parables point to similarities and dissimilarities, not to literal identification . . .” (Christine M. Smith, Weaving the Sermon: Preaching in a Feminist Perspective, 84). Two libraries carried a volume on “deconstructionist preaching.” Its author stated that “preaching is exiting through the deconstructions of the four overlapping authorities that have bequeathed preaching to us: the authority of the Bible, the authority of tradition, the authority of experience, and the authority of reason . . . ” (John McClure, Other-wise Preaching: A Postmodern Ethic for Homiletics, 2).
These kinds of texts do not bespeak the importance of formation in homiletics.
The Most Important Duty
The Second Vatican Council states that the “proclamation of the Word through preaching is the most important duty of a priest . . .” (Presbyterorum Ordinis 4). The homily is not merely a message about faith but rather, as Pope Paul VI wrote, “the occasion for an actual salvific meeting between God and man . . . ” (Acta Apostolicae Sedis 763).
To capture the deep significance of preaching, one must trace its history. We start with ancient Judaism and the commentary given on the sacred text during the synagogue service. Jesus built on that tradition, and from that time the Church has given the art of preaching a primary place in the ministry of evangelization. Our long and beautiful tradition of homiletics clearly emphasizes the role and significance of preaching in the economy of salvation and the sanctification of the world. Therefore, the form and content of the homily must be treated with great seriousness because of the impact it has on the spiritual welfare of the hearers.
Jesus Is the Preacher Par Excellence
Jesus is the preacher par excellence and the exemplar for the homilist. In his preaching we find the perfect balance of clarity and charity. Motivated by perfect love and compassion, Jesus preaches directly and specifically to the deepest needs of his hearers. He draws them into deeper understanding of the kingdom of God and their salvation by using examples firmly rooted in the cultural and religious experience of his audience. He gives clear and tangible examples and concrete tools. He used preaching as his primary medium for imparting truth that was both informational and transformational.
Drawing upon the direct experience of the preaching of Jesus, the apostles took up the ministry of preaching. Through the preaching of the apostles, the Catholic faith was transmitted not only through time but also into many diverse languages, geographies, and cultures. Most notable are the seven discourses of Peter and the six discourses of Paul, including the address on the Areopagus referred to in Acts 17:22-33. This speaks powerfully—not only of the universal appeal of the Gospels—but of the universal nature and organic necessity of preaching as the medium for transmitting them.
The oldest extant sermon in Catholic history comes from the “Second Sermon of Clement to the Corinthians” (ca. 150). Already in the second century, the Sunday homily was an integral part of the Mass. As St. Justin wrote “After the reading of the Scriptures the president of the brethren exhorts us to the imitation of these good examples in a speech” (1 Apology 67).
Bad preaching, it seems, is as old as good preaching. As early as the third century, Eusebius criticizes Paul of Samosata, bishop of Antioch, for doctrinal errors and for what he calls “the quackery in church assemblies that he devises courting popularity and posing for appearance sake . . . and those who do not applaud or wave their handkerchiefs as in a theater . . . he rebukes and insults . . . He brags about himself as though he were not a bishop but a sophist and a charlatan” (Ecclesiastical History by the Venerable Bede, 7.30).
In the fourth century the Cappodocians made great contributions to the exegetic homily by incorporating the elements of Greek rhetoric, appealing not only the heart but the mind of the hearer.
The fifth century was heralded by the preaching of the great doctor and homilist St. Augustine of Hippo, who preached as often as twice a day. For more than 30 years, he preached with great skill on the mysteries of salvation, often focusing on moral formation. Augustine was keen to adapt his homily to the precise needs of the congregation, whether preaching to scholars and priests, those lacking formal education, or the newly converted. He gave homilies that were strong in doctrine and accessible to listeners, as he wrote in his De Doctrina Christiana. Augustine was arguably the greatest preacher of his time. Drawing on the works of Cicero, he concluded that preaching has three purposes: to explain, to make holy, and to convert.
He typically sat down while preaching and used the form of a dialogue, often questioning an “invisible person” about unorthodox beliefs. Clarity was his primary concern. He preached from the heart, and most of his homilies were brief. He believed that the focus of the preaching must always be on the topic and not on the preacher. He said “the preacher prepares the soil and awakens the seed to inquiry so that Christ can enter and bring forth the harvest” (De Doctrina Christiana 4.2).
The Scholastic period (toward the end of the 12th century) was a golden age for preaching. Canon 17 of the Council of Tours decreed the sermon should be in the vernacular, which opened the door for a new era in homiletics. The quality of preaching in Europe had been low, but the founding of the Franciscans and the Dominicans effectively addressed this situation. Drawing from the pedagogical style of the scholastic schools of theology, logic and dialectic were applied to the homily. The method was for the preacher to announce his topic and then to offer questions followed by defenses. He used scriptural citation and the writings of the Church Fathers to prove his point. The homily typically ended with the promise of future happiness in the glory of heaven.
The great Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas, devoted much of his life to studying and writing on theology. Two of his greatest works were originally intended for the formation of preachers. For example, the Summa contra Gentiles was intended to be used by preachers to refute the philosophers of the Near East. Perhaps the technique from this period best preserved in preaching today is the emphasis on “concrete” themes and practical application to the Christian life.
The Council of Trent (1545-1563) put a renewed emphasis on preaching. Trent mandated that all prelates were to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and that pastors should preach at the very least on all Sundays and solemn feast days. St. Charles Borromeo—a highly skilled and zealous preacher—reformed priestly formation to ensure proper education in homiletics. Formal seminary preparation for priests was put in place to eliminate the ignorance of theology among priests and the impoverished preaching of the time. These serious defects were also extensively addressed at the Fifth Lateran Council (1512-1517).
In our own time, Vatican II took up the issue of preaching. Whereas previously Sunday preaching was understood to consist in the form of a “sermon,” the Second Vatican Council spoke specifically of the “homily” in terms of its grounding being in the Sacred Scripture. It went on to identify the homily as the climax of the liturgy of the Word. The Council went further in situating the homily not only within the Mass, but also within the celebration of the other sacraments. This makes the proclamation of Sacred Scripture followed by the homily an integral part of the entire sacramental ritual. The intention was to enable those present to understand and internalize the sacrament.
The documents of the Council were intended by the Council Fathers to shape and form the role of preaching in the Church today. The documents reaffirm the primacy of the ministry of preaching in the mission of Jesus Christ and his followers (Sacrosanctum Concilium 6). And they reaffirm preaching as the unique instrument of faith and conversion; most especially evangelical preaching (SC 9). Finally, they designate the privileged place for preaching within the sacred liturgy itself in which the homily is the means by which “the mysteries of the faith and the guiding principles of Christian life are expounded” (SC 52).
The preacher of the 21st century faces many challenges not encountered by those who have gone before him: mass media, global communications, technology, the increasing presence of secular humanism, and philosophical relativism, to name a few. Although much has changed, the essential properties of preaching have not. Vatican II emphasizes the imperative to “preach the good news to all nations” and the serious responsibility that the bishops have in this regard (Christus Dominus 30). The ordained are reminded as always that “they are consecrated to preach the gospel . . . and announce the divine will to all” (CD 30). And finally, in any cultural background, time, place, people, language, or geography, the preacher is to “penetrate the world with a Christian spirit” and to “to be witnesses to Christ in all things in the midst of human society” (Gaudium et Spes 43).
The Sunday homily is today as it has been for centuries essential in the evangelization of the parish. Unlike in the past, the preacher is now generally given from seven to 12 minutes to deliver the homily. Prior to Vatican II, the Sunday sermon afforded the preacher the opportunity to preach at greater length on a specific topic over a series of weeks. This permitted the pastor ongoing assessment of the spiritual needs of the parish. The pastor could then address these needs in greater depth over a longer period of time. This was particularly helpful in the area of ongoing catechesis and moral formation.
For many adult Catholics, the Sunday Mass and its homily will encompass the entirety of the catechesis, spiritual inspiration, faith formation, scriptural study, and moral and conscience formation that they will receive all week. For this reason, the homily should provide not only solid faith formation but also the tools for evangelization. The homily cannot stop with instructing, but must answer the important existential questions: What exactly do we believe? Why do we believe it? How do we live this belief? What will happen if we do not?
This approach to homiletics must include an element whereby the hearers are made aware of their accountability for the choices they make. A homily is not effectively evangelical if it is abstract or vague. The homily must reflect the true meaning of the Gospels and Church teaching, lest the hearers not receive the fullness of revealed truth. The preacher must be a model for his listeners as Jesus was, deeply convicted of the truth and rightness of what he is preaching, and he must preach it with clarity and compassion. He must have a love for his listeners and must be earnest in his concern for their salvation and spiritual welfare. Finally, the preacher must be able to connect the message with his hearers and the baptismal imperative to evangelize. A the same time, he must be prepared to give them practical tools for applying what has been said to their lived experience.
Pope Paul’s Principles for Preaching
In conclusion, here are principles for preaching derived from Paul VI’s Evangelii Nuntiandi (On Evangelization in the Modern World) :
- Preaching must be christological after the manner of the preaching of Jesus. The Second Vatican Council teaches us that preaching is the most important duty of the priest. Because of this, the preacher must have zeal for preaching, for the salvation of souls, and the in-breaking of the kingdom of God. The preacher must impart the truth, and the truth of the message must be both informative and transformative.
- Preaching exists in order to evangelize and constitutes the essential mission of the Church. For this reason the preacher must make his preaching a top priority in his life. This means that every preacher is called to prepare and deliver the very best homily he is capable of each and every Sunday that he is preaching.
- Preaching is charismatic, because the Holy Spirit moves the preacher to preach efficaciously and the hearer to respond with living faith. Therefore, the preacher must cultivate a lifelong love of daily prayer and study, always imploring the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit to animate his preaching.
- The content of preaching is God-given and is meant to bring liberation from evils now and in eternity. For this reason, the preacher must continuously work to improve the quality of his preaching. He must be willing to address the evils of his time, irrespective of the popularity of those evils in the prevalent culture.
- Preaching pertains to the whole Church and to each of her parts. The preacher must believe that the Sunday homily profoundly affects the ability of the lay faithful to understand and live out their commitment to evangelization in the greater world.
- The ministry of preaching demands the cultivation of virtue and the witness of a holy life. To inspire a spirit of lifelong conversion in his hearers, the preacher must first embrace a life of conversion from sin to grace in Jesus Christ (nemo dat non quod habit [“one cannot give what one does not own”]). Furthermore, the preacher is accountable to God for the quality, form, and content of his preaching.
- Preaching must be faithful to revealed truth expressed by the magisterium and must speak to the life situation of the hearers. The preacher must understand the lived experience of his hearers in order to address effectively their needs and challenges. He must have the ability to transmit the immutable and universal truths of the faith in complete fidelity. And he must do so with zeal and love for each person, for the salvation of souls, and for the greater glory of God.
What Is Homiletics?
Homiletics is the theory of preaching and includes the body of principals that constitute effective preaching. Homiletics is a branch of pastoral theology. The study of homiletics can be further broken down into material homiletics, which is concerned with the actual substance of what is preached; and formal homiletics, which deals with the research, arrangement, and expression of the content. Traditionally, homiletics involves a system based upon a fivefold process:
Invention: the gathering of ideas, exegesis, and research
Arrangement: putting the ideas in an effective order
Style: the method of expressing the ideas in words and sentences
Memory: fixing the homily in the mind
Delivery: presenting the ideas with effective voice and gesture