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Posted July 20, 2004

Homilies: What makes for a good one?

By Jane Harriman
Catholic News Service

WILMINGTON, Del. (CNS) -- In the Diocese of Wilmington, a 2001 survey of 10 parishes found that "the No. 1 way adults get information on faith is from homilies," said Edmund F. Gordon, director of religious education.

"Homilies are far and away the single most important source for like 97 percent of our adults," he said.

So what makes for a good homily?

The new Vatican instruction on the liturgy, "Redemptionis Sacramentum" ("The Sacrament of Redemption"), specifies that homilies should be "based upon the mysteries of salvation, expounding the mysteries of the faith and the norms of Christian life from the biblical readings and liturgical texts."

Their interpretation of Scripture, it says, should refer "back to Christ himself ... so that the light of Christ may shine upon life's events." The document also reiterates that church teaching bars anyone but ordained ministers from preaching.

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," said Mary Louise Chesley-Cora, a theology teacher at Padua Academy in Wilmington.

She was among a number of people in the Wilmington Diocese interviewed by The Dialog, the diocesan newspaper, about what they think makes a good homily.

"I like anything that engages us -- anything meaningful for everyday life," said Angie Malmgren, who with her husband runs Jesus House Prayer and Renewal Center in Wilmington.

Father James Nash, pastor of Christ Our King Parish in Wilmington, said homilies should reflect a personal connection between the preacher and his topic.

"No. 1, you've got to have passion," he said. "I use a lot of stories, personal stuff, stuff that happens in the parish. I think humor is a really good thing -- the congregation gets a kick out of it, and then you get to the Gospel. But you've got to have spirit."

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," said Father Joseph Cocucci, diocesan vocations director.

"Part of the preacher's task is also to awaken in the listener an understanding of what he or she believes, to remind us of the implications of what we say we believe," he said.

For some, style plays just as critical a role as content when it comes to a good homily.

"All of us have endured homilies that go on too long, that keep repeating and emphasizing the same point, or that have three homilies in one," said Father Thomas Protack, associate pastor at St. Luke Parish in Ocean City, Md.

That's why Father Protack said he tries to practice "the three Bs: Be brief, be short, and be done."

At some parishes, clergy and parishioners meet to discuss the coming week's readings.

At St. Joseph Parish in Middletown, pastor Father Stephen Giuliano starts parish committee meetings not with a prayer but by reading the next Sunday's Gospel and encouraging members to discuss what it means to them.

The homily's potential to affect the faith lives of Catholics was one reason Jesuit Father Walter J. Burghardt founded "Preaching the Just Word" in 1990. The program of Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center has trained thousands of priests and ministers in how to become more effective homilists.

The program offers practical advice, said Father Raymond B. Kemp, one of its fellows, but also "a call to convert one's life and to begin to see again our relationship with God, with Christ and with the church -- the foundation from which to preach."

The teaching of homiletics in seminaries and theological colleges has come under scrutiny. In 2002 the Catholic Association of Teachers of Homiletics concluded that "most seminaries and graduate schools of theology had yet to meet the expectations of the U.S. bishops regarding homiletics in the formation of future priests."

Father Richard DeLillio, an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales, formerly taught homiletics at The Catholic University of America in Washington and to members of a diocesan program for permanent deacons in Wilmington.

One of the first rules of a good homily, he said, is to know where you want to start, where you're going and how to get there: "If you don't know where you want to end, you'll lose the people."

Despite all the preparation that might go into delivering a homily, sometimes the homily's impact is more a function of otherworldly influences, said Msgr. Clement P. Lemon, pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Wilmington.

"You prepare, you review Scripture, you use homily aids, you try to tie in your own weak experience, (but in the end) a good homily is largely a matter of grace. Some homilies just don't click for the preacher but then people coming out of church will say, 'That really touched me' or 'That was what I needed to hear.' That is grace," he said.