“The people of God have called for more powerful and inspiring preaching. A steady diet of tepid or poorly prepared homilies is often cited as a cause for discouragement on the part of the laity and even leading some to turn away from the Church”
– USCCB-“Preaching the Mystery of Faith”
No pressure, huh? It still amazes me that part of what I’m learning to do is giving homilies. That can feel like a pretty big responsibility, a pretty big challenge.
But there’s more to it than that.
Here at the Seminary, during the last couple of weeks, my Theology I class has just started preparing and giving our first homilies in our Homiletics class. I love getting a homily ready: the reading, the prayer, the study, the practice. But for some reason, it’s just plain harder to preach to the people we know, especially when we know each other so well. There’s the added feeling of, how can we tell them what we all really need to hear, while they know our weaknesses more than anyone else? I mean, we’re all learning how to preach just the same, so it’s really easy to be sitting in Mass and critiquing others’ homilies, point by point: how did they grab my attention, were their theological points accurate, did they go on too long, too short? Ahhh! I admit, it’s so hard to preach to those I know best and who know me best. And I know Jesus felt the same at times. Just look at Luke 4:16-30. I’d better not stand near a cliff!
This may be motivation enough for me to preach well in homiletics class, but it’s not enough to help me grow to the point where I can say what needs to be said, so that we can all grow from the experience. When I was at Juan Diego House I got my first taste of preaching without notes, without reading anything, and (most dauntingly) in front of my fellow seminarians. Afterward, I was going over how I did with my Formation Advisor, Sr. Regina. She told me something I’ll never forget: without doing much more work on my preaching, I can be a good preacher, one who gets people’s attention and keeps it. But I should not settle for that. I should want to be a great preacher, but that means I’ll have to put in the work.
This is an invitation to let my prayer guide me into what needs to be said; an invitation to dwell in Scripture, and let it dwell in me; an invitation to let my heart be overwhelmed with the Eucharist, and so let it be the source and summit of my preaching. All of these things will make me a great preacher, and certainly not because of my own effort. The US Bishops later wrote reassuringly: “Homilists should not be daunted by the task and should be encouraged by the grace of their ordination and by the great tradition of preaching that belongs to the whole Church” So pretty much, preaching is not all about me. I get to put in the effort, to grow closer to Christ in the process, and be the one you all will see at the altar and the voice you will hear. But if I ever think it’s about drawing the attention to myself, we will all suffer, we will all be distracted away from Christ, whose words are the ones that we desire to hear at the depths of our hearts.
And so, because the homily is not about me, but about all of us, we need to help each other. Pray that we might become the best, most insightful, and, at times, most challenging preachers that we can be, not for our sakes, but for yours. But also pray that we will listen to you: I know that there is so much that you have been through that I will never know for myself. Please, tell us what we need to hear too. The homily should not be some one-sided monologue, but an encounter with the living God. I know it doesn’t always feel that way, but it’s a part of our worship too, and we do it together!
So, yeah, I survived my first homily, and I even got a good grade on it (my instructor pretty much told me he wouldn’t give me an A, because then I would probably feel like I didn’t have any work to do!). I am so excited, even though it can be stressful, to give myself to this, to throw myself headlong into preaching. I hope you are too, because I would love if we could do this together!
– Tim (ST)