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Posted April 23, 2009

A Year of Preaching

Eugene Hemrick

One of the most exciting ideas to surface during the Bishops’ Synod on the Bible was the suggestion by Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Arizona to create a year of preaching. If this is created, what might be practical forms it could take?

A good starting point would be to address the nature of the Word, and our use of words. Why should we start here? Because priests have entered an age of bi-location and increased responsibilities. Approximately 20 percent of priests serve more than one parish. This often requires celebrating and preaching several masses in a day. The proverb, “familiarity breeds contempt” reminds us that the Word and use of words can easily become misused, or meaningless. To guard again this, periodic renewal is needed in which delving deeper into the meaning of the Word and the manner in which we proclaim it is given special emphasis.

The Power of the Proclaimed Word

In reviewing the ancient tradition of the homily, the renowned theologian Yves Congar observes “If in one country Mass were celebrated for thirty years without preaching and in another there was preaching for thirty years without Mass, people would be more Christian in the country where there was preaching.”

How can Congar’s strong emphasis on preaching be justified? Isn’t the Mass in itself sufficient?

The meaning of the Hebrew word dabhar “to drive forward” or “to push” gives us one sound justification. It conveys a clear sense of energy. When this definition is applied to the homily, it teaches us that the power of the word carries forth the power of its speaker. In Genesis God said . . . and so it happened. As God’s word created the world, so too, does our preaching create life. This is especially true when it inspires hope in a person filled with despair and lifts up the human spirit to new heights. Even truer is when it leads to salvation.

Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy further justifies Congar’s assertion in stating the real presence of Christ not only is in the consecrated bread and wine, but in the gathered community and proclaimed word as well.

To clinch Congar’s argument, we need only review the historical development of the Church and how the preaching of Saints like Paul, Peter, Chrysostom, Dominic, Francis and Ignatius was the primary reason behind its growth.

I must confess that after decades of preaching, I had become nonchalant about it, that is, until I attended a meeting with the renowned preacher Walter Burghardt. It began with a question being thrown out to those attending. When it was Burghardt’s turn to answer, his words sounded like carefully weighted hammer strokes. His enunciation was impeccable; he didn’t waste a word, and like a professional musician, he intoned each word as if it was the crucial note upon which all others depended. Because of this experience, I resolved to be much more careful in the way I use words, and proclaim the Word.

A year of preaching might begin on this note by studying the awesome sacredness of the Word and the art of choosing and weighing the spoken word.

The Nuts and Bolts for the Year of the Homily

What else more might be included in a schema for the year of preaching? Educators divide teaching into two essential elements: content and process. In the case of preaching, scripture is its content, and employing the best means for communicating it effectively is its process.

A Process to Consider

When the year of the preaching was suggested, some observers of the synod recommended the process of publishing homily outlines to assist preachers. What might be their pros and cons?

If the homily outlines contained a uniform catechesis and priests stayed true to their purpose, one advantage would be more uniform catechesis throughout a diocese. The faithful would receive the same message, which would help keep everyone singing in the same choir at a time in which we sometimes have more dissonant soloists than a unified choir.

When I was a young priest, I utilized a homily outline that was very helpful and contained fresh material. It was published by scripture scholars who possessed good pastoral sense. Below is an example of the use of excellent scripture and applying it with good pastoral sensitivity.

The scripture scholars pointed out Saint Matthew’s central gospel theme is mercy, which contains three meanings in Hebrew: the womb of a woman, a covenant, and no quid pro quo. When we forgive, it should be from the bottom of our heart for the purpose of reuniting us with another, and there should be no expectation of getting anything in return.

The scripture scholars then applied mercy to everyday living. “If you ever want to experience an affirmative nod in the congregation, address the topic of resentment, most everyone is plagued by it. It is also the direct antithesis to mercy and forgiving. In portraying the heart of Christ as caring for and forgiving others, Matthew teaches us how to overcome the hardness of heart it spawns. Practicing Christ’s forgiveness and caring break the death grip resentment has on us!”

This example from a homily outline contains the substance a homily should contain, i.e., Matthew’s gospel is primarily about mercy and its three principal qualities. Furthermore, it exemplifies scripture addressing a pastoral problem: resentment.

Homily outlines of this caliber would be an excellent way to make the year of preaching a time for raising the level of catechesis and evangelization.

Another positive advantage of these outlines is assisting priests who have multiple responsibilities, live alone and do not have a brother priest to bounce off homily ideas. [Some of the best homilies I have given were because of discussions I had with priests with whom I lived.]

This being said, a note of caution must be sounded. One of the drawbacks of ready-made homilies is that they can lead to intellectual and spiritual laziness. Numerous cases have been reported of preachers who read homily outlines word for word. Often these readings are lifeless because the preacher hasn’t conducted the study necessary to make them meaningful. As much as most of us don’t like the word professional to describe our priestly calling, we are professionals who are expected to keep up our education, and utilize the latest resources in preaching.

In a study we conducted on seminarians, it was learned that one of the skills they lacked most was in the ability to do research. This fact leads to another possible objective for the year of preaching: discussing the advantages of utilizing research in preparing homilies. Using resources like a biblical encyclopedia, or scriptural journals create internalization; the homily becomes an integral part of us because of the effort we expend in creating it. And too, our people are the first to sense this. When we are handed a homily on a silver platter, we tend to leave our ongoing education in the hands of another. This in turn reduces our personal touch.

Another caution needs to sounded: homily outlines should not be ones that fit all! In our growing multicultural church, we need to be cautious of producing homily outlines that speak to one culture. Producing meaningful outlines requires multiple homily outlines for multiple cultures. In the book Preaching Words edited by John McClure, James Nieman and Thomas Rogers, they address the work this implies. “It is important to study the social and cultural context and its [the multicultural] demographics. Sermons must be written to respond to the issues and problems of living together as a diverse community beyond the congregation . . . typical issues caused by class distinctions, such as wealth and a sense of danger, grief, and loss, as well as the need for spiritual place, sanctuary and hope.”

“Preachers should use multicultural illustrations and images, working to locate the good news in varied cultural experiences.”

I can resonate with this, as I am sure others can. At times, I recite my breviary in Spanish. With no disrespect to English, the Spanish version is much more colorful and imaginative. Capturing this imagery is imperative for connecting with a Latin American culture. It requires an anthropological mentality in which we enter into another’s culture and avoid using images solely based on our own culture. If this were accomplished ever so little in the year of preaching, we would see many more immigrants in church and fewer flocking to other denominations.

During the year of preaching, another process that might be included in its schema would be to blitz preachers with a list of books and articles on preaching. http://www.jknirp.com/One of the roles of our website, The National Institute for the Renewal of the Priesthood [www.jknirp.com] is to accomplish this. To our surprise, we found more excellent, creative books and articles than we thought existed on the topic. For example, in Fulfilled in Our Hearing: History and Method of Christian Preaching, author Guerric DeBona, OSB points out there is a generative language in preaching “the kind that evokes concrete feelings, memory, or experiences for the hearer”

DeBona’s observation reminds us of the enormous powers we possess for evoking emotions, memories and personal experiences, and moving people’s hearts.

DeBona goes on to say that “language ought to be as specific and economical as possible, using images and metaphors that generate the concrete world of brick and mortar, the skin and bones where men and women work and love.” Put another way, we are being encouraged to enter into the workplace and homes of our people through the homily in order to lift them to new spiritual heights.

In The Practice of Preaching: Revised Edition, author Paul Scott Wilson states, “Sermons need to end with a mission and [inspire] lives of faithful service . . . Sermons need a So what? Or Therefore! Every sermon needs to answer for itself Micah’s question, ‘What does the Lord require of us?’”

Bishop Blase Cupich of Rapid City, South Dakota states that the process of good preaching “begins with a sound knowledge of Scripture and includes reflection on the church’s tradition down through the centuries to the present time.” In other words, we should be growing in our understanding of the traditions of the church and scripture constantly in order to be living symbols of them through our preaching.

In his book How to Make Homilies Better, Briefer, and Bolder, Fr. Alfred McBride, O. Praem implores preachers who give funeral homilies to “begin with words of sympathy for relatives and friends. Be warm, personal, and consoling.”

“Next, briefly refer to the paschal candle that symbolizes the presence of the risen Christ who leads our friend to the Kingdom. Explain the white pall, or robe, over the casket that recalls the baptismal robe received by our beloved, who has completed the earthly journey.”

In Homilies: What makes for a good one? Catholic News Service columnist Jane Harriman learned from respondents of a homily survey that they believe “a good homily is something that resonates with my faith, something that makes me go a little deeper and connects to the faith with honesty.”

She also found “the ideal homily helps its hearers apply scripture to their daily lives, but it also reminds them of the presence of Jesus Christ among us and the fact that he alone is our hope.”

Another sobering finding was the advice to practice the three Bs: “Be brief, be short, and be done.”

In other books we have posted on www.jknirp.com, some authors went into the difference between evoking feelings of empathy and compassion, and how to preach with fire in the belly.

As we can see from these few examples, the list of sermon/homily books and articles on the process of the homily is enormous and varied waiting to be fully tapped.

The Content

Turning to the content of the homily, the year of preaching might include providing scriptural resources, lectures or courses that explain the biblical underpinnings of the gospels?

In an age of the i-pod and teleconferencing, some of this information could also be posted on the Internet. I say “some,” because I believe it would be equally important to have clergy gatherings built around this topic. Gathering priests for a clergy day would emphasize the year of preaching is for everyone — that it is a concerted effort! There should be no holdouts!

Dioceses might also compose a list of books and articles specifically geared to scripture-based homilies. They might go so far as to give short summaries and evaluations of the books.

A Suggestion

Allow me one make a suggestion dear to my heart. How about someone or a diocesan office scanning the literature on preaching and posting weekly preaching tips similar to the daily marriage tips the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops posts on its website? Below are two examples of which I speak.

“A final decision making strategy--Consensus--combines parts of Concede, Compromise, Chance, and Create a New Solution. It looks at the most likely solution and asks if both partners can live with the decision even if it isn't perfect. One decision making strategy is Chance, in which you flip a coin or play rock/paper/scissors. A better approach is to Create a new solution. In this way you set up a win/win situation.”

“In couple decision making one spouse can Concede to the other if it's not something he or she feels strongly about. Compromise, however, is the more common strategy where both of you agree to meet in the middle.”

How about posting brief, digested suggestions on how to make a homily more substantive, inviting and contemporary? Why is this dear to me? In the practice of Centering Prayer, one of its exercises is composing a short prayer and repeating it throughout the day in order to center on one thought and internalize it. What better way to improve a homily than working on one tip weekly?

I also like the idea of homily tips because short quotes often contain more wisdom than long dissertations. They are short, easy to remember and a good quote is worth its weight in gold.

A Sage Principle for all Preaching

Allow me one last suggestion. The year of preaching should address in one way or other, the sage advice Saint Charles Borremeo gave to his priests: “Be sure that you first preach by the way you live. If you do not, people will notice that you say one thing, but live otherwise, and your words will bring only cynical laughter and a derisive shake of the head.”

Would it be suggesting too much if a means were constructed for helping us realize more deeply how daily ministry carries into preaching? Perhaps a retreat is the place for this to be implemented?

The schema proposed here is the tip of an iceberg that contains a plethora of exciting schema waiting to be imagined and employed for a year of preaching. In fact, there is so very much we could include in it that it might be extended beyond a year. Take for example the following suggestions:

— Have preachers trade pulpits with neighboring preachers.

— Select a group of lay persons to give feedback on homilies.

— Have preachers attend mass and observe how others are preaching.

— Gather famous talks/speeches, and have a session that studies their dynamics.

— Have a session with persons who are in the business of maximizing communication for the public.

— Invite homiletic professors to address preachers.

— Encourage preachers to video/audio tape themselves and evaluate their performance.

As we can see, a year of preaching could be very interesting, invigorating and inspiring. It could also be very refreshing for our parishioners who often endure rather than enjoy the homily.