A seminarian on preaching: “The first thing I do is pray…”

Catholic San Francisco has been following the pastoral year of seminarian Tony Vallecillo as he moves closer to ordination in 2014.  The latest installment in the series looks at the experience he is gaining preaching:

The self-described perfectionist spent 10 hours reading, researching, ruminating and rehearsing to deliver the seven-minute “reflection,” the equivalent of the homily reserved for the ordained.

The experienced public speaker has followed the same rules – keep it short and focused; maintain eye contact; avoid using notes – and grueling format since his debut at the ambo before 15 St. Brendan parishioners at a 6:30 a.m. weekday Mass in December 2010.

“The first thing I do is pray, then take a look at the readings for the day,” Vallecillo said, noting he studies the entire Bible for a deeper understanding of individual passages.

Since he cannot read the Old and New Testaments in the original Hebrew and Greek, he compares different translations, using the New American Bible, the Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition, the Douay-Rheims Bible and the non-Catholic New Living Translation “for a different perspective.”

He takes notes, writes summaries and studies key words, using the concordance, or verbal index, that locates all the passages where they occur.

“The word ‘trumpet’ is listed 500 times in the Bible, and the word ‘repent’ appears in three books of the Old Testament,” Vallecillo said. “Reading the word in all its contexts helps me understand what it meant at the time of Jesus, which may be different from what it means today.”

After reviewing the material, he brainstorms, writing down “even the silliest ideas,” then lets his thoughts gel with a prayer and walk or workout. He conducts a second, more focused session, seeks God’s guidance to the “pearl” of ideas and formulates a structure for the presentation.

Heeding his seminary professors, he caps the process with an analysis of commentary on the passage from Scripture scholars, then composes and rehearses his talk, repeating it 21 times, the number experts prescribe for mastering the material.

At the start of his field trial at St. Raphael, intended to determine his affinity and aptitude for diocesan priesthood, the seminarian adhered to this grueling protocol even for the two or three-minute talks he gives at an average three daily Masses a week. Pragmatics have forced him to now limit the arduous preparation to the longer Sunday reflections.

“One of my important goals as a priest is to be an excellent preacher,” Vallecillo said.

That aim gets enthusiastic support from Father John Balleza, the pastor of St. Raphael, who has provided Vallecillo with unusually ample practice opportunities.

“Though technically only bishops, priests and deacons can preach at Mass, some dioceses, such as this one, allow seminarians to do so to gain experience,” Vallecillo said. “My biggest surprise has been how often I’ve been permitted to preach.”

Read it all.

I’m curious: how many other preachers — priests or deacons — do that amount of prep?  Rehearsing it 21 times??  That comes to spending about two hours just practicing the talk.

And you can read other installments that describe Tony’s journey:


  1. Once he gets into a parish he won’t have time to rehearse it 21 times.

    I laud him for doing his research. Even that will be hampered in busy parish life, but many priests I know don’t neglect to do some research in preparing their homilies. One of the first things I noticed after going to Mass at Assumption Grotto in Detroit is that I was hearing the priests refer frequently to Church documents, and quote the saints, especially the Fathers and Doctors of the Church. Hearing something from St. Bonaventure or St. Aquinas definitely challenged me. That caused me to wonder what the saints have to say about this topic or that, when I’m researching.

    Most of my life I had heard a simple, unprepared homily that were generally unchallenging and banal. I really like what I see in younger priests, which is prepared homilies that have substance.

  2. Oregon Catholic says:

    I believe our pastor follows a similar process and I know he often starts mulling his sermon over weeks ahead of time and let’s it take shape gradually. He is a fantastic preacher who speaks effortlessly without notes so I know he practices it many times first. Our deacon is also a very polished speaker but has a more formal style and speaks from a prepared speech that he also obviously practices. I think both men believe their preaching is one of the most important parts of their role and it shows. Our parish is very fortunate.

  3. Deacon Steve says:

    I run through my homily while I am prepping it a dozen times or more. I don’t write my homilies out becuase they end up sounding like term papers. I read through the scriptures for the Sunday prayerfully and find my topic sentence or theme. I then work through my homily many many times in my head. I do it in the car on the way to and from work, in the shower. I go back and reread the scriptures to be sure I am on target. Sometimes I do a lectio divina type bible study on the readings with a group and get their input on what the scriptures are saying to them. It is a very effective way for me to prepare and rehearse my homilies.

  4. Deacon Greg Kandra says:

    I think every preacher has to find the method that works best for him. (Or, in other traditions, um, her.)

    I wrote something about my method here.

    Dcn. G.

  5. Spare a thought for those preparing lectures 4-5 times a day for one hour duration five days a week, for most of the year plus marking every evening. (And the lectures are interactive so they are not a one way delivery.)
    Once a week for 8-9 minutes is a comparative walk in the park.

  6. George Mason says:

    “Though technically only bishops, priests and deacons can preach at Mass, some dioceses, such as this one, allow seminarians to do so to gain experience,” Vallecillo said. “My biggest surprise has been how often I’ve been permitted to preach.”

    He is deluding himself because cquite frankly, he is not allowed to preach at Eucharistic Liturgies. Rome has spoken and the case is closed. No faculties are granted to bishops let alone pastors to dispense from this law. It’s quite clear in the document on collaboration with the lay faithful that only priests and deacons who have faculties are allowed to preach at Mass, Benediction, or Communion Services.
    The pulpit should not be used for “gaining experience.” It is for the ordained minister to exercise his office of teaching.

  7. Deacon Greg Kandra says:


    I don’t disagree with you, but Canon Law appears to give a little (very little) latitude:

    Can. 766 Lay persons can be permitted to preach in a church or oratory, if necessity requires it in certain circumstances or it seems advantageous in particular cases, according to the prescripts of the conference of bishops and without prejudice to ⇒ can. 767, §1.

    Can. 767 §1. Among the forms of preaching, the homily, which is part of the liturgy itself and is reserved to a priest or deacon, is preeminent; in the homily the mysteries of faith and the norms of Christian life are to be explained from the sacred text during the course of the liturgical year.

    The article takes pains to describe the seminarian’s preaching as a “reflection” rather than a “homily.” But it’s unclear how that distinction is made in the context of the liturgy at this particular parish.

    Personally, I think it’s valuable experience for a seminarian (or deacon candidate) to preach from time to time. But I think those exercises should be confined to things like Evening Prayer, funeral wakes or Communion Services.

    Dcn. G.

  8. Deacon Norb says:

    Deacon Greg asked the question about the homiletic preparation processes of other deacons — here goes:

    –On Weekend parish liturgies, the third week-end of the month is “Deacons Preaching” assignment. We have two active deacons in my parish and two week-end masses — so the assignments are spread out.

    –On other services (such as Funerals, Weddings, Baptisms, Free-standing Communion Services in both the church proper and in Nursing Homes; Free-standing Liturgies of the Word; or maybe even school Masses), I typically preside/preach at four of these smaller ceremonies a month.

    I will start preparing my next Weekend Mass Homily immediately after I finish with the previous one. So, I have already started mulling ideas for the one I will deliver in mid-February. By the time it is ready to deliver, I may have 10-12 hours of prep for a 10-12 minute homily.

    Preparing for Funeral Homily is always a last minute deal so many deacon I know have created a homily shell/skeleton and all they do is to insert important points the readings selected by the family and important points about the life of the deceased. Prep is maybe half that indicated above: 5-6 hours for a 10-12 minute homily.

    I use the homily shell/skeleton approach for my Wedding Homilies as well but there I know the couple for at least a year and the readings are given to me typically six weeks in advance — not three days as in funerals. But since I do use a shell approach, my actual preparation time is shorter.

    In my parish, baptisms are usually communal and I have a fairly standard homily I use for those. If, however, it is an individual baptism, I do research on the Patron Saints of the child being baptized and go from there. Maybe an hour of prep for a two minute message.

    Independent Communion Services/Liturgies of the Word are a different scene entirely. I usually know six weeks in advance on these. The preparation will vary depending upon the day (and thus readings) that the service is held.


  1. [...] Here you’ll find an interesting post on a seminarian and the preparation he puts into reflec…  I haven’t put that much time in myself yet, but I see it’s importance.  What I appreciate, though, is how he sees preaching as so very central to Catholicism.  It really is.  I’ve said it here over and over again: the crisis of the Church can be based, to a certain extent, in a crisis of preaching. [...]

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