For the last couple of weeks I’ve been sharing with you some of the content from a conference in homiletics that I recently attended as part of St. Augustine’s Seminary’s 100th
anniversary celebrations (Read part 1
, part 2
, part 3
and part 4
). There are many ways to prepare a homily, but preaching experts agree that homilies must be first and foremost scriptural. They must also be liturgical and pastoral. Some would even suggest that they have to be dogmatic or catechetical by definition, since in a homily, we are learning something about our faith.
One thing that all presenters at the conference agreed is that before we even worry about preparing a homily, we need to prepare the homilist. If the preacher is not a man of prayer, who is in daily relationship with the Word, who is also a man who is in relationship with his congregation (a listener of the Word and of the people), then it doesn’t matter how eloquent he is as a speaker or how brilliant the text of his homilies are.
Pope Francis in his Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel
says that “the homily is the touchstone for judging a pastor’s closeness and ability to communicate to his people
.” (EG 135) He adds, “The preacher must know the heart of his community, in order to realize where its desire for God is alive and ardent, as well as where that dialogue, once loving, has been thwarted and is now barren
.” (EG 137).
At the end of the conference, Toronto’s Cardinal Collins reminded us that ultimately it is the Holy Spirit who is the source of our preaching. Pope Francis says that “it is God ho seeks out to reach out to others through the preacher, and that he displays his power through human words
.” (EG 136) I have to admit that every time I have to preach I am humbled that the words are given to me and that if God is touching people through my homilies, it is exactly that: God is touching people and I am merely an instrument. This is a gift and perhaps I won’t always have this gift.
I do caution preachers that, although we have to trust the Holy Spirit, that doesn’t mean that we don’t have to prepare. It also doesn’t mean that since God will do the “touching” that we don’t have to worry about how we are to deliver a homily. Earlier I wrote that a great writer of homilies, who is a great reader, is not a great preacher. Let me share with you three things I learned about communication while I was in theatre school.
1) Written language is different than spoken language. Plays are written how people speak. This is different than a work of non-fiction. Consider the difference between reading the news online or in a newspaper, and listening to the news on radio or watching it on TV. If you are listening you cannot go back and re-read something that you missed. Because of this TV or radio newscasts tend to be simpler in nature, while the written news tends to have more information.
Look at this news item: “35-year-old wife and mother-of-three, Mary Smith dies in multi-car pileup during winter storm on Hwy 402 outside of London after dropping her children off at school
.” Here we have one sentence with ten pieces of information. To read this is OK, because if you can’t remember how old she was or how many children she had, you can go back and read it. If you heard that on radio, by the time you heard the end of the sentence, you wouldn’t remember the first part. There’s too much information in one sentence. If you were to listen to this newscast it would have to be different: “Today’s snowstorm claimed a life outside London today. Mary Smith had just dropped off her three kids at school.” As preachers we have to consider that people are listening and not reading with us. We have to give them the information in small doses. This also forces us to focus on the important information. Is it important that she was a mother or that she was 35-years old? Is it important that it was on Hwy 402 or just outside of London? Using short sentences forces us to be simple and focus on the essential. It also guarantees that the listeners will remember what we tell them.
Written language is also different in that when we write we tend to use proper grammar and full sentences. This is not something that we do in conversation. Sometimes I’ll close my eyes when a preacher is reading and I’m amazed that it doesn’t sound like they are reading. That’s because what they are reading is written in “spoken” language. I had a pastor once who was the opposite. He never read; he memorized his homilies. But if you closed your eyes, it sounded like he was reading, because what he memorized was written in “written” language (and his tone was always a “reading” tone).
Consider this: “The Lord’s missionary mandate includes a call to growth in faith: “Teach them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Mt 28:20). Hence it is clear that the first proclamation also calls for ongoing formation and maturation.”
(EG 160) This was written by Pope Francis for The Joy of the Gospel. While it is not a lot of information and it is not hard to understand, it is meant to be read. Had Pope Francis spoken this same message it would have been different. Perhaps: “When Jesus tells us at the end of the Gospel of Matthew to ‘go make disciples’, he is also telling us to grow in our faith. The great commission is not just ‘go and make disciples’ or just ‘baptise them’ but it also includes ‘teach them to observe all that I have commanded you.’ That means that when proclaiming that Jesus is Lord, also means that we must teach.”
I’ve paraphrased and explained a bit around the key message, because when we preach, I believe we have to do that. Use language that people use, and explain all the things that they may not get. Stay away from ‘big’ words like “proclamation” and “maturation”, even “formation”. Also stay away from statements or phrases you’d never use in conversation like “missionary mandate.” Instead, in conversation you say, “the mandate to be missionaries”.
My advice: Write it like you would say it. If you would say, “Ok, so this guy says to me that when he was about 8 years old he was at like a shopping mall or something – I’m not sure where he was – and there was this toy store. Now, he didn’t go in, but in the window he saw a toy detective set. And he goes, “it was great! It had everything you need to be a young detective.”
If that’s how you would tell the story, then tell it that way. When we speak we begin sentences with “and” and “but” – we also end sentences with prepositions – that’s how we use spoken language. Our homilies are spoken language. There is something about spoken language that will keep people’s attention and they will feel that you are speaking to them. Reading a text that is written in full sentences is very impersonal and it’s no surprise that people tune out.
2) There are two types of communication: verbal and non-verbal. Verbal is everything that has to do with words; what we say (or write). Non-verbal is everything else: how we say it. About 75% of our communication is non-verbal. That means that most of the time we are communicating non-verbally. It means that even when we are not saying anything, we are still communicating. It also means that the most important part of our communication is not WHAT we are saying, but HOW we are saying it. (Canadian philosopher of communication theory, Marshall McLuhan had it right when he said that “the medium is the message.”) How we say something helps communicate what we are saying. Non-verbal communication is not just gestures, but also our tone, our volume, our eye contact and our emphasis. Saying something very deliberately and softly shows that it is important – people have to strain to hear it. Using sarcasm changes the complete meaning of a sentence. Putting the emphasis on different words may also change the meaning of what is written. Consider this:
I did NOT say that you stole money. (Empathic
I did not SAY that you stole money. (But I did think it
I did not say that YOU stole money. (But one of you did
I did not say that you STOLE money. (But you did take it
I did not say that you stole MONEY. (But you stole something else
These are five sentences that use the same words in the same order, but that have five completely different meanings.
Good communicators are 100% aware of their non-verbal communication. This is probably the main reason why I am against reading homilies. When we read we tend to eliminate all non-verbal communication; everything sounds the same. In fact, what is being communicated non-verbally is that “we are reading.” Don’t underestimate the power of your non-verbal communication.
3) There is no such thing as a monologue. In a play, even if only one character is speaking, or there is only one character on stage, the scene is always a dialogue. Just because the other person is not on stage, can’t be seen or is not responding verbally, doesn’t mean that there isn’t a response. A good homily is not a monologue, but a dialogue. Remember that most communication is non-verbal. A congregation is actively listening. That means they are responding. They are nodding, they are thinking about what you are saying; they may be falling asleep. All of that is a direct response to what you are saying. If a baby cries in the middle of a homily, maybe it’s best not to ignore it. If you say something and directly across from you someone makes a face indicating that they do not understand what you just said, maybe you need to explain. Remember, a homily is alive. It is a dialogue.
Let me end by sharing with you what a non-Catholic friend said to me one time that she went to Mass with me and the priest read the homily: “If he doesn’t know it, how am I supposed to know it?” My response: “You’re right. If he’s going to read it, might as well photocopy it and pass it around and I can read it myself.”
As preachers we need to share the joy of the Gospel. That means we have to be joyful; it’s OK to smile. We have to be passionate about what we’re talking about. Pope Francis says that “a person who is not convinced, enthusiastic, certain and in love, will convince nobody.
” (EG 266) We also have to smell like the sheep (EG 24). Maybe that means knowing them, using their language, walking among them, looking at them while we speak to them, listening to them and not hiding behind a pulpit. Let’s not be afraid to get off script and proclaim the Good News with renewed ardour and light the world aflame with the joy of the Gospel.