A homily has the power to inspire and evangelise, writes Susan Gately
The Pope recounts that a priest told him once, that on a visit home, his father said gleefully: “You know, I’m happy, because my friends and I have found a church where there is Mass with no sermon!”
The anecdote was part of a talk by Pope Francis at his general audience in 2018 where he addressed the topic of the Gospel and the often maligned, homily.
The priest, bishop or deacon giving the homily must be conscious that he is not doing his own thing, said Pope Francis. “He is preaching, he is giving voice to Jesus, he is preaching the Word of God.” The homily must be well prepared, and be brief, he added, not longer than ten minutes.
The Pontiff is only too well aware of the soporific effect long sermons have on people. “How often, during the homily, do we see, some falling asleep, others talking or going out for a cigarette,” he continued to laughter in the Paul VI Hall. “For this reason, please, keep your sermon short but it must be well prepared.”
Long sermons, a feature in churches in many countries abroad, are not generally a problem here, where for years priests have been drilled to keep their homilies to a reasonable length. Nonetheless snoozing during a sermon, can be commonplace.
So what is the trick to writing a homily that is memorable, moving and ‘brief’?
The community that is gathered to celebrate the liturgical event, is the starting point for a homily, says Dr Liam Trecey, Professor of Liturgy at St Patrick’s College Maynooth, – their joys and sorrows, their everyday lives and their desire to open their very selves to the action of God. The next pointer are the texts of the liturgy, he says.
The timeframes for sermons differ from culture to culture, says Dr Trecey, but “shorter homilies are much more difficult to craft. I would counsel any preacher to say one thing well and with modesty in one homily.”
Fr Brendan Purcell, author and philosopher, now living in Sydney, Australia, begins the preparation for his homily on the Monday before the Sunday he is preaching it. He downloads the readings and starts to meditate on them, checking what Fr
Michael Mullins, the well-known Irish scripture scholar, has said about that particular Gospel. (Fr Mullins has published four books, with Columba Books, commenting the Gospels of Mat-
thew, Mark, Luke and John).
“Blessed Paul VI said to go for just one point in the readings, so I look for just one (or maybe two) points to hang my hat on.
“Then, since the Word has become flesh, if I can find someone has lived an experience that fleshes out the point I’m focusing on, I say ‘Halleluia’!”
Fleshing out the Word of God with real human experiences makes a sermon real. Addressing a gathering of priests years ago, Dori Zamboni, author and a founder member of Focolare, warned them against “serving up a menu” in their sermons. How would you feel, if you arrived in a restaurant and someone placed an ornate dish in front of you, whipped off the plate cover and there before you was a recipe showing the ingredients and cooking instructions? You have to cook the dish through living it out yourself, advised Ms Zamboni.
Fr Purcell freely admits that most of his inspiration comes from others and in his own words, his homilies are “stolen goods”. He uses stories from the lives of people “living the Gospel at the rate of knots”, from other priests, sometimes from a recent film and every now and then “my own mediocre life throws up something relevant I can share”.
These life experiences flesh out the scriptural content. He says that 80% of the positive comments he gets relate to experiences he has “borrowed”.
Be that as it may, he must be doing something right, as priests from 12 countries have requested him to email them his sermon each week, and they are widely circulated on social media.
“I think the basic rules hold for all communication: that I respect the people I’m speaking to, so never make anything up or exaggerate, and make sure it’s something I find interesting myself. And (stealing this from St Paul) be sure that behind it, I’m only doing this because I love you, otherwise them ‘ole noisy gongs and clanging cymbals’ will be making a racket in the background!”
Dr Trecey knows many priests find it hard to preach, but believes it is an art that can be learnt. “Practice, seek feedback from peers and parishioners, root your preaching in your life and ministry, learn to reflect more deeply on that. Have a clear method to how you prepare your homily,” he advises.
Fr Purcell uses a word count to keep himself in line on time – from 750 words (four minutes) for Irish homilies, to 999 words (six mins) in Australia.
He recounts that the choirboys at the evening Masses in St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney instead of “listening to my words of wisdom, were taking bets on how long I’d speak—apparently 58 seconds was a winner!”
He calls his daily sermons “tweeted homilies” where he highlights something from the first reading, the Gospel, or the saint of the day. “But sometimes, having sweated a bit for something to say, the best thought comes when I’m sitting down during that first reading.”
He advises avoiding clichés and complicated language in homilies. “Don’t use ‘solely’ when you could say ‘only,’ or ‘enormous’ when we’ve got ‘big’ or ‘huge’.” Write from life, don’t invent, and try to look at the congregation.
In Rome, Pope Francis concluded his talk saying that if people “listen to the good news during the Gospel and sermon, they will be converted and transformed by it.
Entering through our ears, the Good News, “goes to the heart, reaches the hands to carry out good works”.