The Homilist’s Craft: Communication is Connection
A step-by-step guide to prayerfully preparing a homily
After creating Eve and Adam, God placed them in the Garden of Eden, where God enjoyed spending time with them. In fact, God’s favorite time of day was walking together with them in the cool of the evening. During these conversations, Adam, Eve and God built their friendship. This description from Genesis of their relationship best fits the definition of a homily: A homily is a conversation between preacher and listener.
Each time homilists preach to their congregation, they create for God this special garden moment. Homilists should speak what God wants listeners to hear in order to deepen their relationship with him. Using the Good News of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word, homilists help God and the listeners to deepen their companionship. Preachers then need to approach this awesome connection carefully, making certain that what is communicated makes that connection and helps to strengthen the bond between the audience and God.
Jesus as the Model Preacher
Preaching is challenging, but achievable. Knowing that the Holy Spirit assists in fulfilling this mission, the preacher constantly makes room for him. The Spirit’s presence is powerful enough to break open the Scriptures and fully feed the preacher’s listeners.
With this trusting attitude, the preacher approaches the word with his listeners in mind, his own story before him and the Scriptures’ message. Respecting the Scriptures in this way, the homilist more easily can seek their true meaning, always mindful that a thorough exegesis is mainly for his understanding. Much of what he gathers he may not include in his homily, except to clarify and give his words power.
Every homily also needs to be manageable. If a homilist is preaching to a faith-filled congregation, why preach a homily aimed for a group that needs radical conversion? Most homilist’s listeners need ongoing conversion and support to get through the week ahead, knowing that God is with them. Listeners weighed down with routine and weariness need a message that feeds their faith, instills encouragement and hope, and rekindles their love for God.
A good model of this is Jesus. He preached without being preachy. He knew his audience. He preached to them and not at them, using simple words and examples. Jesus wanted his listeners to be impressed with his meaning and not the preacher. He communicated through parables, easy relatable stories arising from, and connecting to, their daily lives.
Making easy connections, Jesus’ parables spoke about real-life situations. In this way, Jesus associated his message to their daily struggles and happenings. Because connections also happen through posture, tone and attitude, the preacher needs to exhibit the proper demeanor. In all these small ways, listeners recognize when preachers truly understand them.
Remote and Proximate Preparation
What follows is a homily development plan, from prayer, to core statement, to ending.
Every homily develops from two preparation phases: remote and proximate. Remote is the gathering phase, and proximate is the concrete creation of the homily.
Remote preparation begins with the construction of the homily. Starting with prayers to the Holy Spirit, the homilist prays for an open mind and heart to receive guidance and insights from the Lord’s presence found in the words of Scripture.
Then comes a thoughtful reading of the Scriptures for the day the homilist is preaching. This first reading needs to be as if the words are unfamiliar and unknown. The homilist reads the Scriptures aloud, underlining words or phrases never noticed before. Gathering together all insights that surface, he highlights the new and the familiar.
This is done to try and avoid settling for old images and themes and to discover new insights in these Scriptures. The homilist then reads aloud the Scriptures again, stimulating the encounter of the imagination and creativity, and noting ideas, words or phrases that impress him. It is the Holy Spirit leading now, because the homilist made room for the Spirit and now follows.
After taking note of what is new to the ears of the preacher, he may want to go more deeply with the prayer of the imagination. This step asks the homilist to place himself in the Scripture passage, usually the Gospel for the day. Using his imagination, the preacher becomes a living part of the passage. For example, he is on the mountain listening to Jesus preach his sermon on the mount. What does he see as he hears Jesus? Is he listening as a disciple or a worker in the crowd? When the preacher does this, his personal story enters more easily into his preparation.
A Core Statement
Meanwhile preachers continue their other routine tasks: reading the paper, praying, watching the news, attending meetings and other pastoral duties. These together comprise part of his remote preparation.
The ideas gathered percolate and churn, moving the preacher to formulate his homily’s core statement. The homilist writes this core statement in a simple declarative sentence. This helps the homilist to stay better focused. He knows his beginning and ending in one sentence and what he wants the listeners to take away from his homily.
Here are some examples of core statements: for Pentecost, “The Holy Spirit revitalizes believers with new boundaries”; for Easter, “Jesus’ death and resurrection changed creation’s destiny.”
In these statements the homily’s main idea is stated and explained. The homilist has a clear message and plan to get there. It is the hinge on which each paragraph of his homily is attached.
Simmer and Stew
Proximate preparation starts with developing a core statement. Creating a homily slowly and patiently is like watching my mother prepare her Sunday tomato sauce. All day Saturday her ingredients — tomatoes, garlic, onions and basil — simmered and stewed on the stove, teasing everyone going about their different chores. All the while, the bubbling pot was making the sauce.
Like my mother’s sauce, the homilist goes about his daily tasks, while in the background his homily simmers and stews, blending all his gathered ingredients to formulate his core statement. With all the words spoken in the homily, the core statement is the one thing the homilist wants the congregation to remember.
Once the homilist has his core statement, he is now ready to move deeper into the proximate phase of homily construction. At this point, he searches for an opening story to introduce his core statement and to grab the attention of his listeners.
|‘They are Witnesses’|
“Modern man listens more willingly to
witnesses than to teachers, and if he
does listen to teachers, it is because they are
— Pope St. Paul VI in Evangelii Nuntiandi
Some homilists think they are not good storytellers, or that stories are for children. Yet Jesus, the premier homilist, didn’t hesitate to use them. His stories, the parables, are based on the lives of his listeners. When Jesus begins his parables, they are real and clear and immediately connect with his listeners. It is as if they are listening with their eyes. “There was a man who found a treasure in a field.” We could also say, “Once upon a time a man found a treasure in a field.” Both of these openings have the same effect: They grab the listener’s attention.
Some homilists feel that stories place attention on the preacher and not on Jesus and his message. Yet, using a story to attract listeners’ attention also brings attention to the Scriptures and the core idea of the homily.
When a homilist uses story, it is to highlight the core statement. Too much story is just that, too much story. When a story has too much to be remembered, it is too long. A good example of how to use story can be found in the homily helps section in The Priest magazine.
Building a Case
Once the attention-grabber is decided, it is best to next show where the core statement is found in the day’s Scriptures. From that point, the preacher begins to build his case. He may answer the following questions: Why is this core statement important? Why haven’t I heard of it before?
The following is an example of a core statement and what follows from it. Jesus wants followers to accept his message as sent from the Father. The homilist then explains why one can’t accept Jesus without accepting the Father, because Jesus came to us because the Father wanted his creation back. The homilist then would continue to build his case using ideas and words that strengthen and reinforce the core statement. After this step, the preacher may list obstacles that work against living this message, such as unnecessary distractions, weariness or feeling unworthy of the message.
At this point, the homilist may present choices to overcome these obstacles or to help strengthen the listeners’ resolve. It’s best to keep these examples practical and easily applicable to the listeners’ lives. Simply offering them confession, avoiding sin and attending daily Mass may not resonate. Be creative and offer suggestions from their lives. If the homilist knows his listeners and their lives, he can find good practical examples. Once again, homilists need not overload with too many examples. A few good, practical examples are enough.
One final important thing to consider is editing. This can be difficult. Carefully read the manuscript one more time. Look for pious phrases, churchy phrases, insider words, too much exegesis, multiple endings, and then delete them. Every preacher has to delete a beautifully crafted sentence or paragraph that just doesn’t work, and it is difficult.
The ending is important. Every homilist wants his ending to be memorable. If he has said everything he wanted to say, he has no need to go back and add or repeat anything here. In other words, if the homilist is at the right airport, it is time to land the homily. Good final connections can be used to connect back to Scripture, the opening story or the core statement.
Before the actual delivery, read the homily aloud and time it. The average adult’s attention span is about 12 minutes. It is safest to aim for the 10-minute mark. Make certain every paragraph connects to the one following it. The homilist communicates best if he isn’t reading his manuscript. This is another reason to read it over several times before you deliver it. Prepare your delivery by highlighting important words and phrases that you want to emphasize. Be sure to adjust the microphone to your voice, volume and height.
Last, believe in your homily. Believe in the message you are delivering. This gives your preaching conviction and inspires your listeners. In the end, it is the Holy Spirit who is guiding you, and then, let Jesus do the rest.
FATHER RICHARD R. DE LILLIO, OSFS, D.Min., an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales, is a retired associate professor of homiletics at The Catholic University of America.
‘Integral Bond Between Scriptures and Worship’
“For many centuries the sermon was often a moral or doctrinal instruction delivered at Mass on Sundays and holy days, but it was not necessarily integrated into the celebration itself. Just as the Catholic liturgical movement that began in the late 19th century sought to reintegrate personal piety and liturgical spirituality among the faithful, so there were efforts to deepen the integral bond between the Scriptures and worship. These efforts, encouraged by the popes throughout the first half of the 20th century, bore fruit in the vision of the Church’s liturgy bequeathed to us by the Second Vatican Council. The nature and purpose of the homily is to be understood from this perspective.”
— The Homiletic Directory, Introduction