Deacon Bill Weeks preaches a homily at St. Cecilia’s Church, in Tustin, California. Spencer Grant

Preaching, Digestion and Transformation

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The purpose of a homily is to assist the people to receive the word of God. It is, in some sense, analogous to the Rite of Communion, through which the people receive from the table of the Eucharist. The homily helps us receive from the table of the word. Preaching assists us with the process of digestion of the word. We need to keep in mind that it is the word of God and not the words of the homilist that is to be received. The preacher’s part is a help toward the process of reception.

When we eat ordinary food, we transform it into our own bodies, but with the Eucharist the process is reversed. What we consume as bread and wine transforms us into the body of Christ, the Church. The Eucharist makes us; we don’t make the Eucharist.

Good preaching assists us to experience the same process with the Scriptures. We are transformed by the word of God heard with our ears into the Word of God who became incarnate and dwelt among us. The word of God makes us and transforms us by the Holy Spirit.

If good preaching assists digestion of the word, I want to suggest that bad preaching may become a hindrance to the process and result in indigestion. Good preaching should set hearts on fire. Poor preaching can cause the wrong kind of heartburn.

Three things are essential for good preaching — preparation, contemplation and listening. Other things are necessary, but these three are at the top of the list. Doing the opposite of these is characteristic of bad preaching.

Preparation

There are two quotes I have on my study wall, and I look at them each time I have to prepare a homily. The first is from Walter J. Burghardt which appears in his book “Preaching: The Art and the Craft” (Paulist Press, $18.95): “To me, the unprepared homilist is a menace. I do not minimize divine inspiration; I simply suggest it is rarely allotted to the lazy.”

The second comes from Rino Fisichella, in his book “The New Evangelization: Responding to the Challenge of Indifference” (Gracewing Publishing, $16.95), “To neglect the preparation of the homily or, even worse, to improvise a homily, is a wrong done to the word of God and after that it is a humiliation inflicted upon the faithful.”

Preparation requires reading the texts well ahead of time. This means reading them several times during the week. Consulting a commentary, especially about the Gospel text, is essential to understanding. Reading different translations of the texts from different Bibles can also assist in developing understanding.

Having a sense of how the text relates to the feast or season being celebrated is important when we preach at Mass. Every Mass is a celebration of the Paschal Mystery. How can the text and season be related to assisting people to deepen their appreciation for the mystery that we are celebrating?

Make sure you know the doctrinal content of your homily. When in doubt, refer to the relevant section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. For many people, what they hear in a homily is the only faith formation that they get, so you want to make sure you are providing what is true.

Write your homily in full, and practice saying it aloud. Having the full text allows you to see the flow of your own homily and keeps you on task. Reciting it aloud helps you imagine how a congregation might hear it. Speaking it out loud also allows you to recognize words and phrases that you need to emphasize by a change in intonation or pauses, as well as other verbal cues to help people process the content.

Hearing the text aloud also allows you to accurately time your homily. For a Sunday Mass in the context of a world shaped by the internet, social media and other short-attention-span technology, a homily of seven to ten minutes is more than enough. At a funeral or wedding, maybe only five to seven minutes is enough. Quality of words, not quantity, makes a better homily.

Contemplation

If you do not already know about or practice lectio divina, learn it and apply it to your reading of Scripture. Lectio is about a slow and meditative reading of Scripture. A key element of the process is ruminatio, which is to ruminate on the text.

Pope Francis, in his document establishing the Year of Mercy, wrote, “Through contemplation and conversion, we discover a word of mercy the world needs to hear and learn to say it in a way that the world can comprehend.” Preachers need to cultivate a contemplative dimension, which not only ponders deeply the word of God found in the Bible, but also can read the signs of the times in the light of that Gospel.

When a preacher contemplates a text, a double reading is required. He needs the text to nurture his own faith. He needs to be able to ask, What does God want me to say about this word to the people at this time and in the context of their lives and the world in which we live? What is required is more than study of the Bible, though that, too, is required. Contemplation is a reading of the Bible that allows the Word to read us and our times.

Listening

Finally, I think good preaching requires another type of listening. We need to listen to the people who listen to our homilies. When we are starting out in preaching, it is good to ask three people in the congregation to be our official listeners, who can take up the task of listening so as to help you learn to be a better preacher. They don’t have to do this active listening every time you preach, but, certainly when you start out in those first years, it is good to have semi-regular official listeners. If you have never done this and have been preaching for a while, try it. It’s great.

I ask my official listeners to each take one aspect of my preaching. I ask one to listen to my speaking, including clarity and projection, pace and intonation. I ask the second to listen for the structure and development of my homily. How did it flow and how were the connections made between ideas? I ask the final one to tell me what they thought my homily was about or what seemed to be my main point.

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Be prepared for the response to the last one. Remember that a homily is there to assist the people to digest the word of God and not the words of the preacher. It may be that the person who receives your homily may receive from it something very different from what you intended, and that this reception may be a legitimate outcome of the preaching process. Be prepared sometimes to be surprised, and to have confirmed for you once again that a homily aims to assist digestion of the Scripture proclaimed.

Listen in all humility to your active listeners because they may be crucial to you becoming the kind of preacher who sets hearts on fire. If you get it right, you will set their hearts on fire in the right kind of way, and not give them indigestion and heartburn.

Try to be the best preacher that you can be and set hearts on fire. Help people receive the Word and be transformed by that encounter. While you strive for that, know that sometimes you will get it wrong, just as the great preacher St. Paul got it horribly wrong. One day he droned on and on, “and a young man named Eutychus was sitting on the window sill was sinking into a deep sleep as Paul talked on and on. Once overcome by sleep, he fell down from the third story and when he was picked up, he was dead” (Acts 20:9). Your bad preaching may not result in death; heartburn is rarely fatal. Good preaching should leave the people with some sense to say to one another, “Were not our hearts burning [within us] while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us?” (Lk 24:32).

DEACON ANTHONY GOOLEY lives in Sydney and is a deacon of the Archdiocese of Brisbane, Australia. His ministry includes working on mission and identity formation in Catholic healthcare and aged-care settings. His most recent book is “Deacons Today: New Wine & New Wine Skins” (Coventry Press, $23.95).

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Intense and Happy Experience of the Spirit’

The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments made the Homiletic Directory of 2015 available so “that ‘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’ (Evangelii Gaudium, No. 135). Each homilist, making his own the sentiments of the apostle Paul, is to renew the understanding that ‘as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please men, but to please God who tests our hearts’ (1 Thes 2:4).”

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