Two easy steps to improve homilies.
Picture this: You wake up on Sunday morning with these words on your lips: “I can’t wait to hear Father’s homily!” Let’s take this further. You spring out of bed and say, “I’d better take a pad and pen with me so that I can jot down my insights and inspirations from Father’s homily while he’s preaching!” Now let’s go all the way. Driving to Mass you say, “I hope I can get a copy of Father’s homily text so that I can share it with my friends!”
How often have your Sundays begun that way? (I can guess the likely answer to that question, but I’ll keep it to myself for now.) A more important question: Would you like your Sunday mornings to begin that way? An even more important question: What would you be willing to do to help your Sundays begin that way? I believe that you are more likely to better hear better homilies more often if you take two simple steps.
Step One: Ask for better homilies! Begin by asking God for better homilies at your parish. Let me clarify. Don’t offer God exasperated advice: “Dear Lord, please make that poor man say SOMETHING worth remembering this morning!” No—don’t do that. For the love of the Word of God, and for the love of the man ordained to preach that Word, pray for our bishops, priests and deacons. I’ve been preaching since 1996 and I know that the ministry of liturgical preaching is a blessing and a burden. Ask God to bless our preachers. Call upon the aid of the great saints renowned as preachers—Augustine, Dominic, John Chrysostom, Peter Chrysologus come to mind at once. I’m heartened by so many faithful people praying for me before I approach the pulpit.
The next person to ask for better homilies is the preacher himself! Now, don’t just go to your pastor and yell, “Preach better!” That won’t help and will almost surely harm. Instead, offer to do for him what people have done for me. In 18 years of preaching, I’ve always had generous, prayerful people offer to review drafts of my homilies as I prepare them. And I’ve had people who sit down with me after Mass to review the homily I just gave. I ask people two questions about my homily: "What do you commend? What do you recommend?” These conversations have made me a better homilist, and they’ve strengthened the bond between me and the people who hear me preach—and that bond is a key ingredient in better hearing better homilies. At these sessions before and after preaching, we say to each other, implicitly and explicitly, “The Word of God is important to me and for the love of God I owe you my best.” And that brings me to the second step towards hearing better homilies.
Step Two: Come to Mass prepared. Even the preaching of my hero Bishop Fulton Sheen would be fruitless if the congregants brought barren soil to the proclamation of the Word of God. Homilists know that most of their congregation comes to Mass simply not ready to hear the Word of God fruitfully. People arrive late and distracted, and they almost certainly have no idea in advance what the day’s Scripture readings are, and don’t know what the readings were for the prior or following Masses, and how they’re related. Even the best of homilists will suffer frustrating (and unnecessary) limitations when most people come to Mass unprepared.
Ok, so, how to prepare? Saint Ignatius Loyola spoke of “remote preparation” and “proximate preparation” for prayer. How do we apply that to preparing to hear better the homily at Mass? Let’s start with remote preparation for Sunday Mass. Before I entered religious life, I met weekly with friends to discuss the Scriptures for the upcoming Sunday Mass. We’d go to Mass together. After Mass, we’d have coffee and discuss the Scriptures, the homily and the Mass. Together we had a proper sense of Sunday Sabbath. This practice helped us to approach Mass with alert expectation, allowing us to better hear homilies. And it helped us to see with the rest of the Church we were moving through the liturgical year together. My seven years with that group formed me as a homilist.