Priests share the Word
For centuries, Christians have been urged to “practice what they preach,” and nearly 200 priests of the Archdiocese of New Orleans gathered Sept. 23-25 for their annual convocation designed to help them preach what they had practiced.
The art of effective preaching – a vital priestly ministry that brings the real presence of Christ to the church assembly – was the focus of the annual three-day gathering. Archbishop Gregory Aymond asked two Dominican priests – the Dominicans (O.P.) are known as the Order of Preachers – to lead the reflections.
Dominican Father Gregory Heille, author of an upcoming book on “The Preaching of Pope Francis” and professor of homiletics at the Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis, and Dominican Father David Caron, the new director of the archdiocesan Office of Evangelization, shared both the theological underpinnings of the homily and practical tips for how priests could prayerfully examine the Scriptures each week and then prepare an effective Sunday homily.
Father Heille gave a broad overview of major church documents on the preaching ministry, starting with the Second Vatican Council; the U.S. bishops’ 1982 document “Fulfilled in Your Hearing: The Homily in the Sunday Assembly”; Pope Benedict XVI’s 2010 apostolic exhortation “Verbum Domini”; and the U.S. bishops’ 2013 document “Preaching the Mystery of Faith: The Sunday Homily.”
But before going deeply into Catholic theology, Father Heille talked about Pope Francis’ vivid image in his Easter Vigil homily, when he urged Catholics, like the first disciples, to “return to Galilee” where they would meet the resurrected Jesus.
Father Heille told a personal story about how his faith had come into sharp focus as a reluctant 16-year-old sitting in the back of his parish religious education class. During the class, he thought he had heard the priest who was teaching the class say, “Jesus rose from the dead.”
For some reason, the story intrigued him, and after class he approached the priest privately to ask if he had really said that. The priest replied: “Well, Greg, I did say that Jesus rose from the dead.”
“What can I say, in that moment, in that second, I became a believer,” Father Heille said. “The Gospel was announced to me and it transformed me. It was the most important preaching I had ever heard, and what can I say?
“Perhaps it was the culture of the time, but I never looked back. In that moment, honest to God, I knew I would be a Catholic priest. ... I don’t care if you’re a flashy speaker – and your people don’t, either. Flashy speaking can be very deceptive. But, oh my goodness, to bring people to Galilee, to announce the resurrection, that’s what we’re about.”
Father Heille admitted that good preaching often is a tightrope act.
“We’re not here to talk about ourselves, but people need to realize that this is a heart-to-heart conversation about things that matter,” Father Heille said. “Pope Benedict says preaching is an act of love first, and (also) an act of faith.”
Pope Francis is a model
If there are preachers or preaching styles worth emulating, Father Heille suggested, priests should look no further than Pope Francis himself.
“His preaching is so pastoral, so imaginative, so vital,” Father Heille said. “All you need to do is go to the Vatican website (www.vatican.va) once a week and look at some of his preaching. He goes to a parish in Rome once a month and preaches. It’s always so pastoral – and it fits on one page.”
Father Heille said many studies of Catholic worship have shown the importance Catholics place on the Sunday homily, and he said it was interesting to find the same dynamic being raised at the consultative sessions hosted by the archdiocese as part of the Ninth General Synod.
“Typically, what people say is that they want preaching that speaks to their lives,” Father Heille said. “Pope Francis may speak about 300 words in a daily homily and 700 words on Sunday. That’s three to seven minutes. When he uses images, he always has his audience in mind and speaks to their needs and their real lives. He’s not on an ecclesial or churchy agenda when he’s preaching. Then, on the big papal occasions where he is carrying out an agenda, he offers a consistent message about staying close to the poor. He talks a lot about mercy and compassion.”
A shorter homily is not necessarily better, Father Heille said, even though people sometimes complain about lengthy homilies that don’t seem to be carefully structured.
“Often when people say, ‘Just keep it short, Father,’ it’s because the preaching is not speaking to them,” Father Heille said. “If you offer a message that mediates meaning through the liturgy and Scripture, people aren’t going to be looking at their watches. I also think we need a really good formation in parishes to help people learn what it means to be a good listener.”
Father Caron spoke in practical terms about how priests could schedule their time to prepare better homilies. One of the keys is to begin the “remote preparation” of the Sunday homily early in the week, allowing prayer and other experiences to speak to the priest as possible connections to the Sunday Scriptures.
“Schedule your preparation time and keep it,” Father Caron told the priests. “That seems like a no-brainer. Homily preparation demands discipline. Activities not scheduled on the calendar will not happen. I invite you to consider reorganizing your priorities so that the ministry of the word process begins earlier in the week, so that it follows you during the week.”
Early preparation helps
Father Caron said his practice is to review the readings for Sunday’s Mass on the previous Sunday evening.
“Then I take my homily out for a walk, because when the body goes, so do our thoughts,” Father Caron said. “I go out for a walk, bathing my senses in beauty. Those images get me started for next Sunday’s homily.”
He told a story about a priest who was reassured by a woman every week after Mass, “Nice homily, Father.” On one Sunday, the priest knew he had not delivered a great sermon, and he thought to himself, “If this woman tells me, ‘Nice homily, Father,’ I’ll never believe her again.”
When the woman approached, she shook the priest’s hands and said, “Nice vestments, Father.”
“We all have had ‘nice vestment weekends,” Father Caron said. “Our goal is to have fewer ‘nice vestment weekends.’”
He asked the priests to make their preaching “compelling” and have it make an “impact.”
“Good preaching needs to be grounded in prayer – in silence,” Father Caron said. “We do need to unplug. Technology is so wonderful, but we are so connected that when we do allow silence to come into our preparation, we often run away from the silence.”
Some priests use a small group of parishioners or friends to discuss the upcoming readings and see how those readings have made an impact on their lives.
“Excellent preaching transforms both the preacher and the assembly,” Father Caron said. “A good homily emerges from the dynamic interplay of vision, promise and practice. Our preaching shapes people who are already being shaped by God. God is always there, every step of the way, even when we get in the way – and sometimes, we get in the way.”
As a final exercise, priests read through the Gospel for the upcoming Sunday and went through a process designed to help them prepare the homily.
Several priests said they left the convocation with renewed energy and practical tips for better preaching.
“For me it was a great reminder and a refresher about the nature of the homily and how important it is in the celebration of the liturgy,” said Salesian Father Louis Molinelli, president of Archbishop Shaw High School. “As a religious priest, I was also able to build bonds with many diocesan priests and to see that religious order priests are well accepted here.”
Father Gil Martin, pastor of St. John of the Cross Parish in Lacombe, said the gathering would help him in his preaching.
“I learned you’ve got to put yourself behind your words,” Father Martin said.