Catholic Preaching: Powerful or Pitiful?

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt
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You’ve probably heard the story of the little boy who, with his family, was greeting the parish priest after Sunday Mass. “Father,” said the lad, “when I grow up I’m going to give you all the money I have!” “Well that’s very nice,” said the priest, “but why would you do a thing like that?” The boy responded, “Because my dad just said that you’re the poorest preacher we’ve ever had!”

I thought of that story recently when I saw a Catholic News Service article entitled, “Homilies: What makes for a good one?” The article reports the results of a survey in the Diocese of Wilmington, Delaware, that underlines the importance of homilies to the faith formation of Catholics. “Homilies are far and away the single most important source for 97 percent of our adults,” said the Director of Religious Education. Another person responded that a good homily is “something that resonates with my faith, something that makes me go a little deeper and connects to the faith with honesty.”

So that leads to the question of the day: What makes for a good homily?

Recognizing that some critics will respond, “Physician, heal thyself,” let me propose four qualities of good homilies.

First, a good homily must be firmly rooted in the Word of God and completely consistent with the teachings of the Church.

The recent Vatican Instruction, Redemptionis Sacramentum explains that homilies should “be based upon the mysteries of salvation, expounding the mysteries of the faith and norms for Christian life from the biblical readings and liturgical texts.”

Why is this principle an essential ingredient of a good homily? Well, because it ensures that the preaching of the Word will be an authentic act of the Church and not the personal whimsy of the individual preacher. No one goes to church to hear a barrage of personal opinions. The faithful who attend Mass need and deserve to hear the Word of God in all of its power and beauty, just as it’s been handed-down through the generations.

Secondly, a good homily must be relevant to the people who hear it.

While it has to be consistent with sound theological principles, a homily is not a theology lecture. A good homily attempts to make a clear connection – between God’s Word and the circumstances of everyday life.

The lack of relevance in Sunday homilies is a complaint I often receive from the pews. Catholics want their preachers to address issues they hear about every day, issues that touch their lives – war and peace, abortion, stem cell research, human sexuality, marriage and family, care of the poor, the challenges of the contemporary Church. The Word of God has something to say about all of these things and the faithful want to know what it is.

Thirdly, a good homily is passionate.

One of the best pieces of advice I received about preaching, from a student just ahead of me in the seminary, is as important as it is obvious: Never say anything you don’t really mean. But the corollary is also true – if you believe something, say it like you mean it!

So much of Catholic preaching today is, quite simply, bland and boring. Some of the homilies I hear on nationally televised Masses are so bad that the Weather Channel is inspiring by comparison. As Catholics we have a wonderful message to share, we possess truths that can change the world and save souls. But if we really believe the truth of our message why are we so boring? Where’s the fire, where’s the conviction, where’s the passion of our preaching?

Finally a good homily is memorable.

By this I mean that a homily will be illustrated in a way that helps listeners recall the message. Jesus used parables and illustrations from everyday life to explain the mysteries of the Kingdom of God. In today’s culture of round-the-clock entertainment and short attention spans, it’s important for preachers to use similar techniques – parables, real life incidents, references to current events and humor – to illustrate the message they’re trying to convey. In that way listeners will have something tangible to store in their memories and recall during the week. (Admittedly there’s a danger in overdoing it. Who hasn’t been turned off a preacher who thinks he’s a stand-up comedian and sadly, loses the message in the medium?)

So . . . next time you’re with a group of Catholics and the conversation starts to lag, just ask the question, “How’s the preaching in your parish: powerful or pitiful?” Without a doubt, you’ll get an earful!

(This column originally appeared in The Catholic Exponent and The Providence Visitor)