Pope Francis gives the homily as he celebrates Mass at the Parish of St. Crispin in a suburb on the outskirts of Rome March 3, 2019.(CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Intense and Happy Experience

Homilies should allow listeners to experience the divine

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When I first read Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), I laughed aloud when I came upon this sentence: “We know that the faithful attach great importance to [the homily], and that both they and their ordained ministers suffer because of homilies: the laity from having to listen to them and the clergy from having to preach them!” (No. 135). The “pope of joy” was, of course, being tongue-in-cheek. Behind this good-humored line I could hear the voice of an experienced, seasoned pastor trying to get our collective attention for a badly needed renewal of the ministry of preaching.

Francis’ more serious and more hopeful appraisal of the importance of preaching came in a remarkable subsequent line: “The homily can actually be an intense and happy experience of the Spirit, a consoling encounter with God’s word, a constant source of renewal and growth.” On this basis, the pope then pleaded for us to “renew our confidence in preaching, based on the conviction that it is God who seeks to reach out to others through the preacher, and that he displays his power through human words.” Can preaching be this life-giving?

We live and minister in a wounded and badly divided Church. Collectively we’ve been depressed by clergy sexual abuse scandals and splintered by ideological strife. But everywhere I go, one thing pretty much everyone agrees on is that Catholic preaching needs help.

Why is it that homilies in general tend to get such tepid reviews from the pews? And why is it that we who preach typically feel that it is such a chore, a heavy burden we carry? How can we — clergy and laity alike — arrive at a renewed practice of preaching as “an intense and happy experience of the Spirit, a consoling encounter with God’s Word, a constant source of renewal and growth”?

I think this question has an answer. I want to suggest a few simple but fundamental things that can help us. Let’s take another look at why we preach in the first place, and then at a few basic, practical strategies.

The Purpose of Preaching

The years since the Second Vatican Council have seen an amazing restoration of importance attached to the word of God and to preaching. The Church has reiterated this importance a number of times in various documents. Sacrosanctum Concilium, the sacred council’s document on the renewal of the liturgy, provided the foundation when it claimed that Christ is experienced in the Mass in four interlocking ways: in the assembly of the Church, in the Word, in the Church’s minister (the priest) and in the sacred species (Sacrosanctum Concilium, No. 7). Highlighting the Word as one of the ways in which Christ comes to us then led the council fathers to say that the homily “should not be omitted except for a serious reason” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, No. 52).

In “Fulfilled in Your Hearing” (1982), the U.S. bishops described the preacher’s task this way: “to speak from the Scriptures … to a gathered congregation in such a way that those assembled will be able to worship God in spirit and truth, and then go forth to love and serve the Lord.” They continued by defining the homily as “a scriptural interpretation of human existence which enables a community to recognize God’s active presence, to respond to that presence in faith through liturgical word and gesture, and beyond the liturgical assembly, through a life lived in conformity with the Gospel.”

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In my view, one of the big reasons that preaching is felt to be dry or burdensome is that its main purpose is overlooked, neglected or misconstrued. Preaching is about encountering the Risen Christ! What are we trying to do when we preach? We are, above all, trying to lead people to a real encounter with the divine.

Is preaching about instruction? Yes, but only secondarily, and in service to encounter. Is it about warming the heart? Pleasing the ear? Goading to action? Again, yes, all good, but only in service to the experience of meeting Jesus Christ.

And wasn’t it exactly that which got most of us into this business in the first place? We wanted to help people to meet God and live for God. The most gratifying feedback any of us can receive on one of our homilies is for someone to say, “Father, you helped me find God.” Authentic encounter with God will then be confirmed by comments such as, “You know, Father, I heard your homily last Sunday, and I went home and made up with my wife,” or, “I came to the decision that God wants me to help with our soup kitchen.”

Meeting the living God is the sweetest experience one can ever have. Such an experience changes people, the way they see the world and make decisions. To this transformation of consciousness, which is the sheer gift of God, we respond with devotion and commitment, affecting the way we live our lives, our values, priorities, goals and daily actions.

To sum up: We preach for encounter; we preach to bring people closer to God, to guide, to facilitate or make more possible the encounter of our hearers with a living God. Meeting the living God changes us. We call this metanoia (“conversion” or “transformation”), and on the basis of that transformation, which is an ongoing, lifelong process, we become disciples who live differently.

A corollary of this understanding of preaching’s goal is that preaching is a ministry of discernment. We are trying to listen for the voice of God speaking to a concrete community, in a specific context, at a particular moment. Our homiletic preparation has to go beyond abstract principles and historical, critical exegesis.

The Lectionary selections for any given Sunday could probably yield half a dozen or more messages, any of which could be the central axis of a homily. But the homilist’s task is to prayerfully discern just one of those for this Sunday and present it in a way that will appeal maximally to the sensibilities of the listeners.

The discernment question we are trying to address is this: What does this text have to say to this group of people at this time and place? The further and almost equally important question then is: How can I present this message so that it gives my listeners the best chance to hear it deeply, be changed by it and act on it?

Preaching ought not to weigh any of us down. If it flows from a love relationship with Jesus, and toward Jesus’ love relationship with his people, it will both humble us and bring us life.

Some Simple Homiletic Rules

The inevitable question follows, “How can we do this?” Again, the most important thing is that the homily flows from the homilist’s own prayerful encounter with the Lord. There is no substitute for the genuineness of one’s own life before God, and God’s people have a keen sense for authenticity in their clergy. If we do nothing else, we have to be real in the pulpit.

I once knew a priest who did almost nothing by the book in his preaching. He was terribly disorganized, often seemed wholly disconnected from the scriptural texts and was not well-spoken. But everyone knew that, spiritually, he was the real deal: a humble, holy man who spoke from a depth of love for God and others that drew me in to listen to him and never failed to inspire me.

In terms of specific strategies, here are the three most important pieces of advice I give to my preaching students and to the priests in our Notre Dame Preaching Academy process.

1. Every homily must be Good News. And the Good News is not, in the first place, about anything we do. It is about what God has done, is doing here and now, and wants to do. God’s action with human beings is the ground of life and the source of hope and joy for us. Never tire of holding this up for people to see. And remember that the real Good News is not some fluffy, light, superficial, feel-good message. It comes to us as it came through Jesus, in the passion and the cross. It addresses all parts of us, and especially our depths, our fears, our lostness, our hungers. Preaching Good News does not mean preaching that is devoid of challenge. On the contrary, preach a robust enough Good News and you can excite your hearers to rise to some quite formidable challenges. Challenge without Good News is mere moralism, and it doesn’t work. Get your hearers to meet and fall in love with Christ, and that will supply more than ample energy for a life of generosity and sacrifice.

2. Make one point, and one point only. Resist the temptation to give your hearers all of the points that seem to cry out to you from the readings. Prayerfully discern and develop just the one that is timely for today. Much has been written recently about what makes preaching “sticky” or memorable. Do you want people to remember your homily as they head for the parking lot, discuss the homily in the family minivan on the way home and carry it into the new workweek? Then the most important thing you can do is to have an obvious, unmissable unity to your homily. Construct everything you say around that one point. It should be about God and God’s way with us. And remember that biblical truth tries to both say and do something in us.

3. Teach, delight and persuade or move to action. This advice comes straight from St. Augustine, whose “On Christian Doctrine” is the earliest homiletic manual in Western Christianity. It rests on an understanding of the human person as a composite of mind, heart and will. Each of these deserves a bit more explanation.

• Mind: Few things annoy the People of God more than a preacher who condescendingly treats them like children. Don’t underestimate the appetite for truth. Go deeper, and point the way into mystery. But remember, too, that the human intellect is made up of both right and left brains. Complement discursive language with the language of image, metaphor, story. A good adage: Don’t just tell me, show me. If you want to evoke encounter and conversion, people need to see it in their imagination first.

• Heart: Invite your hearers to fall in love. A fired-up heart has an almost endless reservoir of energy. A homily should never be merely or superficially emotive, but we should not be afraid of engaging the passions, which run like deep rivers through all of us.

• Will: You don’t really know a truth until you put your hands and feet into it and do it. Biblical truth, in particular, is cognitive, imaginative, affective and performative. Our God is a God of action. Similarly, our relationship with God (faith) is intrinsically active, flowing out in what we do. The Incarnation bids us take this world with utter seriousness.

One last piece of advice: Let the People of God help you. The ministry of preaching suffers from too much isolation. Preaching is a conversation between preacher and listeners, in service to that deeper dialogue of which Pope Francis speaks. Take up the suggestion in “Fulfilled in Your Hearing” of forming a homiletic preparation group with some of your parishioners. Their insights into the Scriptures will amaze you and assist your discernment. Ask them for feedback afterward. What did they find helpful and why? Did the homily help them experience God? How? What do they long to hear from the pulpit?

Preaching is a complicated task, and it does involve some hard work. But, when grounded in love, it can also be an intense and joy-filled encounter with a living God, for us and for our people. It is the most exciting adventure I know.

FATHER MICHAEL CONNORS, CSC, is a pastoral theologian and homiletician and director of the John S. Marten Program in Homiletics and Liturgics at the University of Notre Dame.

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Important Connections

“To be in touch with the cares and concerns, needs and good fortunes of the assembly does not mean that the preacher has to answer questions or solve problems in every homily. There will be occasions when nothing we can say will do anything to change a situation. We cannot raise a dead daughter to life; our words will not stop inflation or lower unemployment. What our words can do is help people make connections between the realities of their lives and the realities of the Gospel. We can help them see how God in Jesus Christ has entered and identified
himself with the human realities of pain and of happiness.”

— “Fulfilled in Your Hearing,” USCCB, 1982

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