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The Art of Preaching
The Art of Preaching
I once asked participants at a workshop for young people involved in preparing liturgy what aspects of Sunday Mass they considered to be most important for engaging them in the celebration and supporting their commitment to the worshipping community. And the winner was … the homily!
Formal surveys have reached similar conclusions. The Pew Foundation in the US looked at why young adults are leaving the Church and the outcome of the study showed that the main reason was poor preaching. In Australia the 2006 National Church Life Survey found that the quality of preaching was an important factor in the experience of Mass for all age groups.
The Second Vatican Council restored the homily as an integral part of the liturgy and made, what were then, some startling statements about the preaching ministry. The Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, for example, stated that “the primary duty of priests is the proclamation of the Gospel of God to all” (4).
The purpose and importance of the homily is explained clearly in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy:
“By means of the homily, the mysteries of the faith and the guiding principles of the Christian life are expounded from the sacred text during the course of the liturgical year.” (52)
In other words, the homily unfolds the mysteries of faith contained in the word that has been proclaimed and relates this word to our lives today.
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal explains that the homily is “necessary for the nurturing of the Christian life” and “should take into account the mystery being celebrated and the particular needs of the listeners” (65).
The Introduction to the Lectionary for Mass says that the homily must be “truly the fruit of meditation, carefully prepared, neither too long nor too short, and suited to all those present, even children and the uneducated” (24).
How does a preacher judge what is “neither too long nor too short”? At a recent symposium for preachers at Loyola University in New Orleans, Fr Roy Shelly recommended six to eight minutes for a Sunday homily and three to five minutes on weekdays. To be effective, the homily needs to focus on a key message that the assembly can absorb and reflect on.
Fr Roy Shelly described good preaching as a balancing act: while the homily should be personal - a revelation of the preacher’s own faith life - it must never become narcissistic by focussing on the preacher.
Like the reading of scripture in liturgy, the homily is a two-way process, a dialogue. The assembly, not just the preacher, has a part to play in assuring that the homily achieves its purpose. This involves our listening attentively to the words of the preacher, keeping an open mind to the insights which are being presented, and applying them to our own personal circumstances.
It helps, too, if preachers are given feedback on their homilies (positive and constructive as well as critical!) and are kept in touch with the realities of life today so that the homily can indeed relate to the lives and needs of listeners.