Pope Francis says no to boring homilies

by Thomas Reese

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Pope Francis told 19 new priests earlier this week to make sure "that your homilies are not boring."

Francis' exhortation at the April 26 ordination of the men for the diocese of Rome made me reflect on my own experience of preaching and of listening to homilies. I do not consider myself a great homilist. I would never presume to tell another priest how to preach.

As a young priest, I found preaching a real challenge. I never liked public speaking and was never good at it in school. I can't even tell a joke or a story without flubbing it. Classes on preaching in the seminary were not that helpful. I gradually learned how to preach by doing it.

Standing in front of a church full of people is scary. They are all waiting for me to say something profound and inspiring, and I am not sure I have anything worth saying. I am not a holy man; my faith is not without lots of doubts. "What am I doing here?" I have asked myself more than once.

I never pray harder than when right before reading the Gospel. I bow before the altar and pray, "God, help somebody get something out of this. They need your help because my words won't do it." But as one of my teachers said, "God can even use the jawbone of an ass" (Judges 15:16).

As a young priest, I did make a promise to myself that I would never use words in a homily that did not make sense to me. As a result, I usually avoid phrases like "saving souls," "God's grace" and "transubstantiation" because I am not sure what those words mean. They are abstractions that don't touch me. On the other hand, love, compassion and mercy are words that I can connect with.

I also promised myself that I would never say anything from the pulpit that I did not believe or that I did not at least want to believe. I would not pretend to be more than I am.

Pope Francis put that more positively by telling those to be ordained to make sure "that your homilies arrive directly in people's hearts because they flow from your heart, because what you tell them is what you have in your heart."

Preaching demands authenticity. The People of God are very patient with their priests, but they intuitively know when words do not come from the heart. This does not mean that the priest is coming down from the mountain with inspiration from God. Rather, it often means that the priest is struggling up the mountain with the rest of the People of God.

One of the things drilled into us in the seminary was that our homilies should be on the Scripture readings of the day. Prior to the Second Vatican Council, the priest might preach on the catechism or other topics not connected to the readings, but that is discouraged today.

I have found preaching on the Scriptures helpful because they keep me from preaching on the same thing over and over. Following the church's sequence of readings forces us to reflect on the full Gospel, not just the parts we like. Also, the language of the Gospels is simple, which keeps me from being too abstract.

Having a regular set of readings also allows the laity to read over the Scriptures early in the week before they come to Mass on Sunday. That way, the Scriptures can speak to you directly before you hear the priest's reflections. No other spiritual exercise is more fruitful than praying over the Sunday Scripture readings before going to Mass.

I find the Scripture readings always inspire some thoughts I can share, even if I am just repeating what is in the readings.

I usually try to emphasize the meaning the Scripture author intended rather than just taking a phrase and running with it. Sometimes this requires a little exegesis to get to the author's message, but a homily is not a class -- the Scripture readings have to be connected to this community, not just to a community long gone.

One thing I always get complimented on is introducing the first and second readings on Sunday. I find that it helps people listen to the readings if I explain their context beforehand. It is often helpful to know what was going on prior to the section read on a particular Sunday. This means not just repeating what is in the reading, but setting the scene so that when people hear the reading, they get more out of it.

Many people argue that a priest should not use a written text when preaching, but should speak without notes or text. This, they argue, is more personal.

I agree, but I can't do it except on weekdays, when I only preach for a couple of minutes. Burying your nose in a text and not looking up is disastrous, but without a text on Sunday, I am lost. I always go over it enough times beforehand so I can keep eye contact with the congregation, but I don't trust my memory enough to toss the paper.

I especially need a text to keep on track and to make transitions from one point to another. Without a text, I would ramble and forget what I was supposed to say next. Plus, after I finish writing my homily, I can walk away and do something else. Without a written text, I worry about it until I finish preaching.

I finally got over my guilt for using a written text when I saw Jesuit Fr. Walter Burghardt preach. He was considered one of the greatest Catholic preachers in America, and he used a text and stuck to it. In fact, I taught him how to use a computer in writing his homilies, but that is a story for another time.

The pope tells priests not to be boring. I would add: Be short, and be clear.

Preaching is not easy. Thank God the People of God are patient and forgiving. If you do hear a good homily, make sure you compliment the priest. We need the encouragement.

In the comments section below, tell us about a great homily you heard and why you liked it. 

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is treesesj@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ.]

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