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8 Elements of a Phenomenal Homily

August 31, 2015


I had a great conversation not long ago with a friend about what we think makes for a great homily. I’m sure everyone reading this would have their thoughts on the matter. I knew a priest in Washington, D.C. who, when people would tell him they liked his homily after Mass, asked them: “What did you like most about it?” “Usually,” he said, “they’d blanch as they struggled to think of something specific.” Over the years I’ve made it a regular practice to ask people (mostly adults, but my children too) after Mass what they thought of a homily. And, you may ask, what have I learned from my informal polling? Among the many points, here are eight to prime the pump:

First, I learned that while some people have very strong opinions about particular ideas presented in a homily, most people simply take away from homilies a very basic “be a better person” message. In other words, homilies can be less about specific ideas and more about shaping one’s general sense of things. (Incidentally, this is why I usually bring notepaper to Mass so I can write down important insights for safe-keeping in my journal.)

Second, I learned that people love, love, love stories used to illustrate ideas and link them to real life. Stories ground ideas in the imagination and give us tools for linking those ideas with other ideas that are part of our life story. Great preachers are great storytellers, though the kind of stories the preacher uses and how they use it to bring alive ideas are crucial to its success in shaping a Christian imagination.

Third, I learned that people want their preachers to know their audience and their real-life contexts. To crib from Gaudium et Spes, congregants want to know that the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of parishioners — especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted — are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the preacher. They want to feel that he “gets” their world, and cares enough to discover it by being an attentive listener. As Cardinal Ratziner wrote to the bishops of the world: “The Church, expert in humanity, has a perennial interest in whatever concerns men and women.” People want shepherds who, like Jesus, know their people “by name.”

Fourth, I learned that people want preachers to take them seriously by addressing them thoughtfully, by digging deep into the riches of “faith seeking understanding,” and by challenging them to think with the Gospel of the Lion of Judah. This means serious effort must be put into homily preparations. Especially, care needs to be put into translating unfamiliar religious ideas/terms into a familiar language hearers can access (with the assumption being that unfamilarity with religious terminology/ideas does not mean people are less intelligent).

Fifth, I learned that people need to be encouraged. The “hard sayings” of Jesus and his Church need to become calls to courage and hope, not condemnation and fear.

Sixth, I learned that people want a preacher who speaks with authenticity. Positive comments on homilies frequently contain the phrase, “He really speaks from the heart” or “I feel like he’s talking directly to me.” They want to hear in his tone that he believes what he preaches about, that he struggles like they do and that he tries hard to live what he preaches. But most of all, though this is rarely articulated explicitly, they long to hear that he loves the ones to whom he speaks and the One of whom he speaks.

Seventh, I learned that people want an implementation plan. After the first homily ever preached (Acts 2:14-36), the people asked Peter: “What are we to do?” Though a homily may present wonderful and challenging ideas, and inspire people to change, they need some idea of what that might mean. Nothing too complicated or extreme, just something to help them take “the next best step.”

Eighth, I learned that people want more than moralizing. They want grace, transformation, prayer, a living faith, a personal relationship with God and his saints. In a word, they want Jesus. The living Jesus.

I’m exceedingly grateful to the many priests over the years whose preaching has challenged and uplifted me, inspired and moved me. I’ve known many priests who incarnate these “best practices” and pour themselves into their preaching, even in the face of harried pastoral lives. Pray for your preachers. Beg the Spirit to inspire them. And thank them now and again with a very specific compliment. Then, after you’ve lived his words out during the week, come back now and again to tell him of the fruits born of his loving labors.