by Father Mark Goldasich
There’s a story about a famous preacher who told his congregation, “Every blade of grass is a sermon.”
A few days later, a parishioner saw him mowing his lawn. “That’s right, Father,” the man said, “cut your sermons short!”
Apparently, Pope Francis agrees. Awhile back, he had this to say to preachers: “No more than 10 minutes, please!”
As The Leaven continues the series on the Mass, this week’s entry, on page 16, has to do with the Sunday homily. It’s written by Father Herb Weber, of Perrysburg, Ohio. Readers should find this behind-the-scenes look at one priest’s preparation method enlightening.
I know I did. And what I concluded is that there’s no typical way to prepare a homily. In fact, the pope says, “every preacher has both his merits and his limits.”
My method differs from Father Weber’s, although we both take the Sunday homily seriously. And remember that it’s not just one homily that a preacher has to prepare each week. There are also weekday Masses, weddings, funerals, etc.
Obviously, though, most people are reached on Sundays. And what a mixed group it is: young and old, male and female, single and married, divorced people, blended families, people with hearing difficulties (due to aging or disinterest), folks of profound faith and those there by habit or coercion.
During the homily itself, there are babies crying, people coming in and out on the way to the restrooms, folks writing out contribution checks, several “resting their eyes,” small children playing or eating, folks coughing and sneezing, and people checking their smartphones (which are not always on vibrate).
And it’s to this collection of God’s people that the homilist is called to relate.
That’s a daunting task, which is why I start my preparation first with prayer. As I ponder the Sunday readings, usually on a Wednesday or Thursday, I ask the Holy Spirit to guide me to what most needs to be heard by the most people.
Next, I read a commentary or two to understand better the context of the readings, which I often pass on to the congregation. Then, I let things percolate for a couple of days.
In that time, all sorts of ideas will emerge: from videos on YouTube to items in the newspaper to experiences of parishioners or my own.
Contrary to Father Weber, it’s a rare Sunday when I don’t tell what he calls a “canned story.” For me, stories are the shortest route between people and the truth, and they stick with people, sometimes for years.
And while Father Weber and many other priests I know write out their sermons word for word, that’s never been my style. I’m most comfortable delivering my homily without notes, standing in the center aisle.
What that means is that my homily will not be exactly the same at each weekend Mass, but the opening story and the central message will. After 37 years of ministry, I feel more relaxed preaching in this way that feels more conversational.
I don’t tend to give fire-and-brimstone sermons, since fear is a pretty poor motivator for people. Instead, emphasizing the love of God, neighbor and self that we’re to develop is more inviting, in my opinion, as well as more challenging.
In preaching, I stress that “we” are all on this journey of faith; I have as much work as anyone to do in my spiritual life. I try to also convey a sense of joy and hope because, after all, it’s called the good news, right?
Finally, I give listeners a little assignment to keep the readings fresh in their minds throughout the week.
If I have one request, it’s to ask people to pray for all those who preach, lest the following befalls them:
A rabbi and his wife were cleaning up the house. When the rabbi came across a box he didn’t recognize, his wife told him to leave it alone; it was personal.
One day, when she was out, seized with curiosity, the rabbi opened the box to find three eggs and $2000 inside. After his wife returned, he fessed up to opening the box and asked her to explain its contents. She told him that every time he had a bad sermon, she would put an egg in the box . . .
He interrupted, “In 20 years, just three bad sermons! That’s not bad!”
His wife then continued, “ . . . and every time I got a dozen eggs, I’d sell them for $1.”
Yikes! Sounds like I’d better get crackin’ on this Sunday’s homily!