Catholic News

Advice to homilists: Please get to the point in six or eight minutes

August 19, 2011

By Peter Finney Jr.
Catholic News Service

PRIEST DELIVERS HOMILY DURING MASS AT NEW YORK CHURCH IN 2010 Father Edward Sheridan delivers the homily during Mass at St. Rosalie Church in Hampton Bays, N.Y., in October 2010. Two speakers at an eight-day seminar on homilies at Loyola University New Orleans told participants they should get to the point in six to eight minutes. (CNS)

NEW ORLEANS (CNS) — For eight days at Loyola University New Orleans, three priests and five deacons absorbed the cool mathematics and internal symmetry of good preaching.

Just as Moses descended from Mount Sinai with Ten Commandments chiseled on two stone tablets, the rules laid out by Father Roy Shelly and Deborah Wilhelm of the Diocese of Monterey, Calif., while not etched in permanent marker, are boundaries worthy of respect: six to eight minutes for a Sunday homily, three to five minutes for a weekday sermon.

“The idea is not so much ‘brevity’ as it is not taking longer than you need,” said Wilhelm, a doctoral student with a focus on preaching at the Aquinas Institute of Theology.

Improving the quality and spiritual depth of preaching has been a passion for Father Shelly, who is director of vocations and oversees homiletics training for the permanent diaconate in his diocese.

If priests and deacons do not take seriously their vocational call and the preparation needed to preach the Gospel, Father Shelly said, the resulting communication will be flat and possibly even an obstacle to worship.

“The Pew Foundation looked at why young adults are leaving the church, and the first reason the study gave was poor preaching,” Father Shelly said. “In the Diocese of Monterey, we only recently renewed the diaconate. The mandate that came from the presbyteral council was that deacons should be effective preachers — and we should also hold the presbyterate to the same standards. This post-Vatican II generation expects more from us.”

Over the course of a week earlier this summer, three priests from the Archdiocese of New Orleans — Fathers Chris DeLerno, Kevin DeLerno and Martin Smullen — joined five deacons in preparing two homilies each, which were videotaped and then critiqued by the group.

Spiritual preparation is critical, Father Shelly said, and the methodology employed involves “lectio divina” — reading, reflecting and praying over the Scripture passage.

“Archbishop Fulton Sheen said, ‘If you want me to speak for an hour, I’m ready. If you want me to speak for 10 minutes, I’ll need a week,'” Father Shelly said. “This is a very deliberate process. We encourage people to focus in on one idea and also to realize that this is not the only time in the lives of these people that they will hear this text preached on. The worst thing is to try to say everything. Focus on one thing.”

In training preachers, Father Shelly asks them to write down one sentence that encapsulates the homily they are about to give. Then members of the congregation are asked to write down in one sentence the theme of the homily they have just heard.

“We have index cards and pencils, and we collect all the cards,” Father Shelly said. “Then the presider sits down with the preacher and goes over the cards.”

Father Chris DeLerno said the thought of delivering a homily without notes might have been daunting before the course, but he felt he could do that after going through the exercises.

“For me it’s just coming up with a primary theme and not writing it down, but just fleshing it out in my mind and coming up with some supporting topics,” he said. “When I’m preaching without notes, I don’t feel like I’m stuck to the text that I’ve written.”

Father Kevin DeLerno said Deacon Greg Wilhelm of the Monterey Diocese noticed that the priest had a tendency of turning his head downward when looking at his audience.

“I never thought of it as looking condescending, but he brought up the point that it kind of looks that way,” Father Kevin DeLerno said. “I caught myself doing that again, and I said, ‘Oh, I have to remind myself not to do that.’ I also try not to be repetitious.”

Wilhelm said an effective preacher is “first and foremost a listener to God’s word. It’s presumptuous to speak God’s word to God’s people without listening to God’s word first. And, second, everyone can improve. We’ve never fully arrived as preachers.”

Great preaching is a balancing act, Father Shelly said. While the homily should be “personal, it should not be about ‘you.'”

“You want to make it personal — a revelation of your own faith life — and place that in service to the people, but it should not become narcissistic,” Father Shelly said.

Father Smullen said many times preachers forget the value of silence as a tool in teaching God’s word.

“We can only see the eloquence, the gentleness and the meekness of it when we’re quiet,” he said. “Jesus chooses to be silent to allow us to experience his quiet presence, not to experience his commands or his admonitions.”

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