Believe, Teach and Practice
How to make a homily real for the faithful
Father Richard DeLillio Comments Off on Believe, Teach and Practice
“Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you preach.”
These few words used by the bishop at ordination offer the future preachers kneeling before him inspired guidelines and a method to prepare homilies. If observed, this sound advice will add the individual flavor needed “to make incarnate” the Word, Jesus, for his congregation.
The preacher gives new life to the Word through believing, teaching and practicing his faith. He is charged with keeping the word fresh, present and alive. Every bishop hopes that Jesus’ good news will surface and be refreshed from springs deep within the preacher’s heart, seasoned by his life stories before it is proclaimed to God’s people.
In his last work, “Long Have I loved You” (Orbis, 2000), Walter Burghardt, one of the great teachers of preaching, describes this preaching as “wrestling with the Lord who reveals and conceals; God’s word issuing from these all too human lips.”
The preacher shows his best energy and full passion when he mines the Scriptures, teasing out what challenges and nourishes the hearers.
Father Burghardt wrote, “All too frequently our people are not confronted with a word that nourishes while it challenges, heals while it bruises.” Many hearers are eager to grasp a message that scatters life’s vagueness and vividly illustrates a well-defined path to hallowed ground. What the listeners hunger for is not only to follow Jesus but to understand and encounter Jesus every day.
An example is Jesus’ encounter with a blind man (cf. Mk 8:22-28). Initially, Jesus gently touches the blind man asking, “Do you see anything?” The unsuspecting blind man answers, “I see people looking like trees and walking.” Going deeper, Jesus moves a little closer, placing his hands on his eyes, lifting the scales, and then the blind man sees clearly.
Preaching follows this same pattern. Homilies lift scales and restore sight gradually. Believers want “to see everything distinctly” like this man born blind.
In this article, I will review three important words: believing, teaching and practicing, helping to understand the impact they have on homily preparation and delivery.
The preacher has his own story. One day Jesus whispers an invitation to follow him and he readily accepts. The preacher does not know why Jesus wants him, but Jesus does. He believes Jesus sees something in him he needs to help build his kingdom. Since he responded “yes,” the preacher keeps that belief, trusting that Jesus faithfully companions him in his everyday responses.
This happened to Levi the tax collector (cf. Lk 5:27-32; Mk 2:14). Separated from the crowd, Jesus asks him to “follow me.” Excited, but not knowing why, Levi responds, “Yes.” At that moment, Levi becomes Mathew, the apostle. While others only saw a sinner and a traitor, Jesus saw a leader and a faithful apostle.
Like Levi, now Matthew, many preachers remember the gifts of mercy, forgiveness, second chances received and are humbled by the limitless times that God remains faithful when they have not.
Others remember devoted Peter, who before the cock crowed denied Jesus three times. Later, Peter heard his forgiveness spoken discreetly and gently when Jesus asked him three times, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” And Peter answers three times, “Yes, Lord.” Peter heard his forgiveness when Jesus gently replied, “Feed my sheep” (Jn 21:17).
Like Peter, preachers also hear God’s forgiveness for their frequent personal denials with the same invitation to “feed my sheep.” This easily given mercy fills them with compassion to preach the same way. This is their “thank you” to the Good Shepherd for trusting them despite their transgressions. Preachers want their hearers to feel as loved by Jesus as the preachers themselves.
As with Matthew, Peter and all preachers, Jesus has this same hope for all preachers. He wants their kindness and compassion to shine through their weakness to be the light leading the lost from darkness into the light.
Peter, Matthew and every preacher who denies Jesus in some way feel deeply the words of St. Paul, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring [the] good news!” (Rom 10:15) Bathed in the Lord’s mercy, they easily find what is beautiful!
Unpretentious preachers personally know Jesus’ compassion and love, and, like doubtful Thomas, they bow lowly before their Savior, saying: “My Lord and My God” (Jn 20:28).
Peter, Matthew and Thomas all went on to do great preaching and missionary work. Once they realized their failings and the need for Jesus’ mercy and compassion to fill them, they became kind and gentle preachers. Aware of the Lord’s nearness and the healing grace he provided, they became understanding missionaries and gentle messengers of God’s endless love and mercy. They believed what Jesus gave them and passed it forward.
Preachers teach best when they sit with the Scriptures, allowing the word to unfold its deeper meaning and letting it touch their ordinary lives. These quiet moments give the Holy Spirit ample time to assist the preacher in seeing and realizing what is going on in this passage before locking on one idea. Having this clarity, the preacher feels more secure selecting the direction the Holy Spirit is pointing. At this point, three important events are coming together: waiting for the Holy Spirit to assist; making the right connection about what the Scripture is saying; and listening to what Jesus wants your congregation to hear.
In his ministry, Jesus had a way of getting the right message connected to the right audience.
When Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well, he asks for a drink of water. Yet the passage ends in an entirely different place than the unnamed woman thought it would (cf. Jn 4:4-29).
First, she is astonished that Jesus, a Jew, is showing her respect by talking with her. As a woman and a Samaritan, she expected a patronizing attitude mixed with scorn. Soon, the conversation about water quickly turns to her lifestyle and her desire for a deeper life despite her external lifestyle: “Give me this water, so that I may not be thirsty,” she begs. When Jesus asked to call her husband, she responded: “I do not have a husband.”
Jesus replies: “You are right in saying, ‘I do not have a husband.’ For you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.” This shocked her. The whole story of her life falls wide open. Her conversion is happening, and she cannot halt the momentum.
This woman, burdened by past shame, is suddenly a different person. She left Jesus and ran into town telling everyone what had happened and proclaiming, “Could he possibly be the Messiah?” Because of her witness, many Samaritans believed in Jesus because of the woman’s testimony. This is an astonishing miracle.
Her conversion and witness story speaks to hearers everywhere. Jesus turns an ordinary scene, a private conversation, into a memorable grace moment. Jesus’ effectiveness flows from his style. He does not lecture or point the finger at her faults. He simply listens and calmly asks questions. Through Jesus’ words, she saw her own need to change her life and went after it. Is not this what each preacher hopes will happen with each homily — ongoing transformation?
The preacher listens and teaches in tone and language in ways the congregation understands. Simply put, be yourself and let the Spirit work!
Besides going deeper with the Scriptures, the preacher needs to make clear and crisp connections within his content. These are clear connections listeners wait to hear. Connections are the hinges that latch everyday life to the preacher’s words and images. Since this is an essential part of his homily, the preacher gives this section practice, time and effort. He looks for timely concrete and real-life connections, which is exactly what the listeners come to hear.
Often, preachers fear this part of their homily preparation. Preachers want to share meaningful homilies but worry about not having enough time, or feel they lack the creative spark necessary and take shortcuts by recycling old material and shaping it for the current Scriptures.
On the road to Emmaus, Jesus set the example. Jesus listened to the distraught strangers before responding. He stayed attentive as they explained the present moment. He listened so well that when Jesus spoke and then left, they remarked how their hearts burned while listening to him. Homilists who listen to their congregations can know who their hearers are, where they are from and what they hunger for.
The preacher realizes his listeners are the same hungry seekers who followed Jesus over the hills and roads of Galilee, to be fed the bread that comes down from heaven. His listeners are the same imperfect people who long to grow and to be better than they are. They sit in the pews hoping this homily is the lampstand lighting their path.
Nurturing his listeners’ hearts on what to love, Jesus educated his listeners on their choices. If preachers share how easily love does this, those in the pews eagerly listen. The desire to grow closer to Jesus is deeply rooted in all baptized Christians. It is what Ronald Rolheiser, priest, author and theologian, calls the “holy longing.”
I encourage every preacher to hear again the words spoken to him at his ordination: “Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you believe.” They are inspired words. They show us how Jesus wants us to follow him and lead his flock through “the narrow gate.” It is a sure way of planting the Word that nourishes and challenges. The Word that provides healing while bruising just enough to grasp more eagerly Jesus’ message: “I came so that they may have life and have it more abundantly” (Jn 10:10) on earth and forever in heaven.
FATHER RICHARD R. DELILLIO, D.Min, is an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales who is a retired associate professor of homiletics at The Catholic University of America.
Prompting of the Holy Spirit
Preachers need to remember that the Holy Spirit begins working long before the preacher does. His start is a response to grace flowing from the preacher’s pledge to complete what the Holy Spirit initiates. St. Augustine refers to the Holy Spirit as the “first move” or prevenient grace. Seeking the Holy Spirit’s inspiration is practicing doing God’s will.
A way to help the hearers listen is for the homilist to practice seeing what he is saying. If he can see the image he is projecting, then he knows the listeners see it as well. If he does not, the preacher may have to substitute another phrase, word or image. The preacher practices with different words until he is satisfied, remembering to make room for the Holy Spirit’s assistance.