How many times have you sat through a homily and wondered when the torturous mundane words would cease? This is not to imply that all or most sermons/homilies are not good. It takes a lot of discretion to ensure that the right theme is found to speak on, and then use examples that relate to the listeners and their recall of certain newsworthy issues that deal with the gospel (or other readings’) message.
When a specific message is apparent (connecting the gospel story with current events that the listeners may relate with) take time to give the gospel reading an opportunity to blend into the present existence of worldly, local, or even personal happenings that can place them in the middle of the event. Much like closing your eyes and imagining you are there while the exhortation places you in the middle of the action. Somewhat like a theme of “Where you there? This is Expository preaching.
In Luke’s Gospel, we find that Jesus told Parables as someone who came to visit at the kitchen door, where people were busy, common folk if you will. The most simple persons who had to struggle daily to feed their family, ensure the children were studying, and most importantly staying together as families; these were the ones that Jesus spoke of often when He said; give me your poor, and those who can not fend for themselves.
Topical preaching finds a current issue or popular topic that everyone may be aware of and uses selected scripture passages to back up the preacher’s exhortation. Both types are well worth using at any given moment if the need is present, and the people will be given an opportunity for good reflection.
Which type the speaker chooses to preach on is not the issue with this article, but the mechanics is. There are some do’s and don’ts that all speakers should adhere to when ensuring that their message makes sense to the listener. As mentioned in the 3d paragraph, Jesus knew how to get his hearers’ attention. To fishermen he used stories of the sea from which they could readily grasp the analogies. People who tilled the land as farmers and those who took care of trees as arborists, all could follow his teaching and relate his message to their background. A lesson that makes sense once the preacher knows who his audience is.
A voice that speaks eloquently and succinctly is one criterion to be sought by speakers. Speak directly to the listeners without a monotone scenario. Don’t be afraid to change the pitch and be a little dramatic if the theme calls for that. Most of all, your audience is looking at you, look back at them as well. It will make your delivery more personal as to say; “he was looking right at me.” You’ll know you got their attention.
By the way, this does not only relate to clergy preaching, but to anyone speaking, teaching, or relating specifics regarding their chosen vocations.
Theology? Not unless you are speaking to clergy who are are studying theological premises or to theologians themselves. The average person in the pew can easily drift off when anything too deep is given for them the chew on. The message will be lost. This brings the subject of learning theology from a very learned theologian while our class was in the seminary. Remember we were not all college graduates, and maybe one or two had ever studied philosophy. Try as he might, he was speaking over our intellect and it took another priest the second year who knew just how to bring the message to us. He, like Jesus, taught us where we were, at our level of understanding. I was thankful for that.
What about the length of a sermon/homily? If one goes to a Protestant Service, where preaching is all they have, a lengthly sermon fits their purpose. But, in the Holy Mass, we have two distinct liturgies, one of the word and one of the Eucharist. They both are to be approximately the same length. With a 25 minute homily along with the other parts of the Liturgy of the Word, Mass might end up being two hours long. Nothing wrong with that, but with back to back Masses it might create logistical problems.
One well-known priest in Pittsburgh told me, after I preached a seven-minute homily at a 40 hours celebration, said the homily was good; only seven minutes, I laughed saying it was good because it only took seven minutes? He said no, but after seven minutes you’ll be wasting the people’s time. I am not certain that a seven-minute time-limit is apropos, but a lot depends on too much repetition in a homily can also lose the listeners’ attention.
We were taught that a good homily uses one theme, and no more than three examples. Too often a deacon or priest will have a very well put-together homily, and about the time you know he has made his point, he begins an addendum and keeps on going, maybe with another main point or worse believing the first point was not made and here is assurance the listeners got the point.
Keep it succinct, get their attention, avoid boredom, and make sure to feed them with one point that they can carry with them. Too much talking will sometimes, if not most times, find the audience respectfully turning off the listening abilities and look for a quick escape.
Ralph B. Hathaway, June 2019