Dear Father …
An epistolary appeal to prioritize homilies
Dr. Donald P. Richmond Comments Off on Dear Father …
Dear Father in Christ:
I am a weary pilgrim, and it has taken me many years to move from Canterbury (where I served as a priest for many years) to Rome. It has been an arduous journey, punctuated by intense and sustained “wrestling” with God over many Roman Catholic priorities, principles and practices.
But now home and embracing change as a child, I listen and I learn — notwithstanding my 20-plus years of studiously studying Catholic theology, ecclesiology and liturgy beforehand. And I have much more to learn. We all, together, have a great deal to learn.
If I were asked what I miss most about being Anglican, it would be this: I miss good, solid, educated and empowered preaching. Understanding the many responsibilities of a parish priest, I certainly appreciate the difficulties associated with preparing a homily. Many things militate against the well-prepared and well-delivered sermon. But, in spite of the challenges, it must be done. As ministers of word and sacrament, pressured priests are to build up the parish, send out the parish and bring in the lost. The faithfully preached word and the rightly administered sacrament help to accomplish these priorities. And they work together, always together. Priests are privileged, and appointed, to such responsibilities.
The Second Vatican Council document Dei Verbum teaches, “The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord” (No. 21). Here we read that the Church prioritizes preaching. It is a priority. It is a disciplined practice. It is a sacred responsibility. Priests must prioritize and practice preaching as part of their daily discipline. And, to be clear, amid many difficulties, prioritizing preaching can be a martyrdom — a sacrifice.
Dei Verbum, in keeping with the Emmaus Road narrative, asserts that word and sacrament are essential to creating burning hearts and opening blind eyes to the resurrection potential of God’s entire self-revelation. Do we want our parishioners to “burn” in their desire for God? Do we want them to “see” and experience Jesus more deeply? If we do, as I assume we do, word and sacrament must be carefully and prayerfully curated. As such, the priest must be as committed to the word as he is to the sacrament. Showing it and saying it are liturgical necessities.
Upon considering your high and holy calling, and having served in a priestly capacity for many years, I offer the following five functional priorities.
1. PRIORITIZE PREACHING, in keeping with your calling and the councils. As a priest, you must be studied. You must invest your time in preparation. You must not simply appear and preach, hoping that the sacrament will carry the entire weight of liturgical responsibility. Priests must, practicing due diligence, be entirely prepared to preach. If preaching were compared to a dinner invitation, would you present your guest with undercooked and ill-prepared leftovers? I think not. The same principle applies to the preparation of the homily.
2. PRIORITIZE PREPARATION by front-loading your Scripture study. All too often priests allow time to determine and dictate their priorities. But time is a gift from God that he intends us to use wisely. A priest, most especially, must prioritize his sermon preparation by intentionally setting aside time to prepare. Set an appointment with yourself to prepare. Schedule it. Book it. Fix it in the schedule. Tell your administrative assistant about these times. Educate your parishioners about these times (everything is “not” an emergency). Apart from real emergencies, established times must be made and kept in order to prepare your homily. And, to be clear, preparing a message for Saturday/Sunday on the night before it is delivered is unwise and unacceptable.
3. PRIORITIZE PURPOSED PRAYER. As a priest, the Liturgy of the Hours is one of your primary responsibilities — if not the primary responsibility. Like the blessed apostles, you have a holy obligation to “the Word of God and prayer.” Priests must be praying men! No prayer, no power! But there is more. Beyond the Liturgy of the Hours, prayer must be prioritized in preparing the homily. If a priest truly prays well — and this would take some time to unpack and nuance — he will preach well. Priests must pray their preaching before they say their preaching. No prayer, no empowered preaching.
4. PRIORITIZE PRACTICED PREACHING. Not everyone has the ability to preach without practice. Practice, practice, practice makes perfect. As part of their preparation, priests must rehearse their homily out loud. When we speak something out loud, it helps us to hear where the weaknesses are. Practice helps us iron out the wrinkles. Practice prepares. Parishioners deserve to hear, and see, a “well-pressed” homily. When I started to prepare homilies for my parish, it took me about 20 hours per week. That’s a lot of time! As I developed my style, and keeping in mind the priorities above, it now takes me about five or six hours to prepare. People are different. My preparation will be different than yours. How much time should sermon preparation take? Enough time to do it well. (Daily homilies, which require different priorities and practices, need to be discussed separately.)
5. PURCHASE PREACHING AIDS. In my opinion, it is very bad practice to consult the commentaries before you engage with the texts. It is, it seems from my limited perspective, lazy. Priests must do their own studious homework before they consult others about the texts. Once the priest has invested his own heart, soul, mind and strength, he can consult other educated and devout commentators. Notwithstanding this, it is important that the priest has some emergency resources at his fingertips. This helps mitigate real emergencies when sustained and studious preparation is not always possible. While many texts might be useful, I would heartily commend Dr. John Bergsma’s four-volume Lectionary commentary “The Word of the Lord.” It is easy, accessible, informed and entirely orthodox.
Priests are ministers of word and sacrament, not word alone and not sacrament alone. We need both wings to fly well. It is, therefore, imperative that priests take their calling seriously. It will always be a challenge, but isn’t preaching part of your charism as a priest? Dear Father, for the sake of Jesus, be prepared.
DR. DONALD P. RICHMOND, a widely published author and illustrator, is an Oblate of St. Benedict.
Preacher as a Man of Holiness
The U.S. bishops, in the document “Preaching the Mystery of Faith: The Sunday Homily,” advise: “To preach the Gospel authentically to the Christian community, the homilist should strive to live a life of holiness. In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus strongly challenges those religious leaders who ‘preach but ﹍ do not practice,’ those who ‘tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people’s shoulders, but … will not lift a finger to move them’ (Mt 23:3-4). To attempt to evangelize through words and example those who need to revitalize their faith, without awareness of one’s own need for ongoing spiritual renewal, would be in vain. The homilist who humbly and confidently seeks the light and inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the preparation of the homily proclaims God’s word with greater clarity, integrity and effectiveness. This in turn enables him and the hearers to participate more fully and actively, with more understanding and authentic faith, in the Eucharist.”