Deacon Leroy P. Branch Jr. proclaims the Gospel during a Mass for solidarity and peace on Aug. 24, 2017, at St. James Cathedral Basilica in Brooklyn, New York. Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn celebrated the liturgy. CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz

The Palatable Pulpit

How to effectively communicate God’s written word in the homily

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“Well, at least when we have a bad homily, we still have the Eucharist!” This quotation, lifted from a conversation between a Catholic and her Protestant friend, highlights a problem in our parishes. Although the Second Vatican Council emphasized the importance of the written, spoken and preached word, many Catholics are subjected to substandard preaching. With so few priests and so much work to be done, this is entirely understandable. And yet, importantly, many American Catholics are starving for a good “meal.” We hunger for the well-spoken homily, and for the revelation of Jesus Christ as found in the Eucharist. We long for the burning heart and the open eye provided through Word and sacrament. What can and must be done?

The ‘You’ of Preaching

Crafting the pulpit requires cultivating the deacon. One of the primary responsibilities of the diaconate is effectively communicating God’s written word. Deacons must do this in word and in deed. This is accomplished through cultivating a relationship with Jesus Christ. This is no small task and requires repentance, reading, reflection and personal examination. Living a repentant life means that deacons must be living a learning life, a life of submission to God that empowers speaking to others.

Thomas à Kempis, a canon regular of the late medieval era and author, has said that the person who would fully understand the words of Christ must completely commit himself to the life of Christ. In other words, the deacon must strive to serve the Word before speaking the word of God. In short, the deacon must preach to himself before he can preach to anyone else. Personal preparation and liturgical presentation are both important. To do otherwise yields unpalatable results.

The ‘Why’ of Preaching

Deacons preach because, ideally, they are compelled by the love of God to do so. It is their calling. It is their commitment. But this love is virtually unknown except through the revelation of God. God’s special revelation, as found in Scripture and Tradition, guides the deacon regarding the well-spoken word.

As such, deacons must know the Bible if they are going to know what to preach and why they preach it. Consequently, the primary resource of the deacon is, along with the Holy Spirit, the holy Bible.

St. Jerome has said that ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ. These are important words! Knowing Christ requires following Christ. Preaching Christ requires following Christ. The “why” of preaching is found in the “way” of Christ. In order to know and grow in Christ, deacons must know the text, what the text says, how to personally integrate the text, and how to effectively and efficiently communicate the text to others. He is, in some ways, the message and the messenger.

The ‘Who’ of Preaching

The deacon also bears personal, historic and contextual responsibilities for effectively and efficiently communicating Christ. He cannot be lazy. He cannot minimize the role of the homily because the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of worship. Sacrament and word are required. To provide one without the other is to ask parishioners to fly with only one wing. As such, deacons must be intentional about the preparation and delivery of the homily.

Personally, as mentioned above, the deacon must preach inwardly before preaching outwardly. Repentance, based upon God’s revelation, precedes the communication of what God objectively says. The deacon must inwardly digest what God has said before he shares with others. But the process of preaching involves far more than personal reflection and repentance. A deacon must be “able to speak,” and this requires real effort. Lazy liturgics, which includes the homily, is dangerous and derelict.

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Homily Helps

Did you know The Priest magazine offers Homily Helps to assist preachers with their planning of homilies? Subscribe to The Priest at www.thepriest.com

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Deacons also have a historic responsibility. They owe a debt of gratitude, and proper servitude, to those who have gone before them — that is, more precisely, they owe a debt to the creeds, councils and fixed communication of their forebears. They cannot preach what they want. They must preach what they have received in a coherent, cohesive and compelling manner. “Just be nice” homilies just won’t do. Preaching is not a time for creativity (although craftsmanship is needed!) but a time for catechetical conformity that is culturally communicated.

This also requires contextual fidelity to Catholicity and community. Deacons must preach from the church to the Church. They do not create, per se. They preach Christ and him crucified. They preach creation, fall, redemption and the consummation of all things in Christ. They preach the four pillars of the Faith. They preach liturgically from all texts to all people. Only historically rooted preaching can make for truly relevant cultural and cross-cultural communication. Deacons must liturgically communicate the whole counsel of God to the whole Church of God. This requires an exceptionally studied and practiced approach to preaching.

The ‘When’ of Preaching

One of my old homiletics professors used to say, “Be ready at any time to preach, pray or die.” This is reinforced in the Bible, which tells us to be ready “in season and out of season.” In other words, the “when” of preaching is anywhere to anyone at any time. It cannot be simpler — or require more devotion. This means that the deacon must learn to live and walk and speak in the Spirit. The when is now!

The ‘How’ of Preaching

One of the collects from the Book of Common Prayer urges the faithful to “hear, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” holy Scripture. There is a lot compacted within these few words that the effective preacher must learn. These few words provide the deacon with a trajectory by which he can come to understand, integrate and communicate what is written.

Read the text. Read it again and again in both its immediate and broader contexts. What does the text say immediately? What does the text say within the broader context of the book in which it appears? How does this text fit within the broadest sweep of the Bible? How has the Catholic Church historically understood and communicated this text? Reflect upon it. Mark what is said. Identify what is said and why it is important. Learn the lesson of the text, both personally and pastorally. Learn it personally. Learn it pastorally. Learn it practically. There is cohesion and comprehensiveness in a thoroughly Catholic approach to exegetical studies. Inwardly digest it. Make it your own! Learn to say it with the Church, and then learn to say it with caritas. This type of inward study sets the stage for outward speaking.

These, of course, must be set and structured and steeped in prayer. Prayer is the deacon’s foremost preparation, although homiletical and hermeneutical preparation is also required. The deacon must turn to the page (Scripture), the Paraclete (Spirit), the people (saints) and prayer (supplication) as they polish and practice. It is the rare person who can provide a compelling sermon at the moment. Most must practice, polish and study.

Making our pulpits palatable requires that the deacon reframe, rethink, reform and renew his roles and responsibilities as a communicator of truth and midwife of souls. Much attention is needed. Many abuses must be corrected. We need Christ and the whole counsel of God. But how will people hear without a practiced and pious preacher?”

DR. DONALD P. RICHMOND, a widely published author and monastic illustrator, is a Benedictine Oblate for Saint Andrew’s Abbey who worships with St. Teresa of Avila Catholic Church.

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Preaching the Sunday Homily

“Proclaiming the message of the Kingdom preached by and embod­ied in Jesus’ person and mission is intrinsically linked to the Church’s mission of justice, a constant and powerful message, amplified in a strong way in the teaching of recent popes. A straight line can be drawn from the call for justice on behalf of those who are vulnerable in the Old Testament (‘the widow, the orphan, and the stranger’) to the fulfillment of that mission of compassion and justice in the ministry of Jesus (and taught in the ongoing Magisterium of the Church). The Church’s urgent call for respect for human life, partic­ularly for those who are most vulnerable, the call for justice for the poor and the migrant, the condemnation of oppression and violations of human and religious freedom, and the rejection of violence as an ordinary means of solv­ing conflicts are some of the controversial issues that need to be part of the Church’s catechesis and to find their way in an appropriate manner into the Church’s liturgical preaching.” — From “Preaching the Mystery of Faith: the Sunday Homily,” a 2012 statement from the Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations of the USCCB

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