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:

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