What Goes In To Preparing A Homily
Every now and then someone will ask me what, if anything, I do to prepare the homilies I deliver at weekend Mass. Over the years I have served as a priest, I have learned to preach without notes, using an outline in my head. That can give some people the idea that I just stand up there and wing it. Nothing could be further from the truth!
I’m not saying that I am a great homilist, not by any means. I’m also not saying that I spend as much time preparing a weekend homily as I should; the best preachers – even the best Catholic preachers – will prepare as much as an hour for every minute they preach on Saturday afternoon or Sunday.
Studies clearly show that most parishioners think preaching is important to their faith life and their Sunday Mass experience. Research also shows that many Catholics think their priests and deacons could do a better job of delivering their homilies.
It is such an important aspect of the ministry that the 10 men from our diocese who are in line to be ordained permanent deacons next summer recently spent a week at Saint Meinrad Seminary in Indiana studying preaching skills and practicing their homilies. According to their instructors, they made great progress during the week and were open to learning and growing. That’s good news for the future of these deacons’ preaching ministry in our parishes.
The best way a preacher prepares is to read carefully through the Sunday Scripture readings on Monday before he preaches. This is one situation where the prayerful method of “lectio divina” that some of you are learning from Father John’s teaching series can come in handy. Letting the readings simmer or marinate in one’s brain for a few days lets the Holy Spirit bring to mind words, phrases or images that God may want the preacher to emphasize to his congregation on that particular weekend.
At some point during the week, the preacher should look through one or more Scripture commentaries – books written by Bible scholars that help us understand what the biblical writer may have been trying to say. Commentaries provide the religious, social, political and historical background to a passage.
Toward the end of the week, the homilist begins to build his homily, or at least an outline. What does he want to say to the congregation? How is he going to weave it together with the Scripture texts and the contemporary world? What will it mean in the day-to-day lives of his hearers?
This last question is one of the most difficult to answer and the one where many preachers can fall short. They may fail to answer their hearers’ question: “So what?” What does this mean to me in my everyday life, relationships, decisions? How can it help me become closer to God in the midst of my marriage, family, work, school, joys and struggles?
Personally, I put together an outline of what I want to say and commit it to memory. As I preach, I refer to the outline and try to remember step by step what I want to say. It is a method that has worked reasonably well for me over the years, as far as I can tell.
Over the past few weeks, I have renewed my commitment to work on improving my preaching, especially in answering the question, “So what?” I hope and pray this will bear fruit for all of us in the OLPS parish family.