“Pray, prepare, practice…”

Several months ago, the folks at Deacon Digest asked me if I might have anything interesting to contribute to a special issue devoted to preaching.

Well, I didn’t.

But they printed it anyway.

Now you can find that essay — “Pray, Prepare, Practice: How I Put Together My Homilies” — here at Patheos.  A snip:

I can still remember trying out my first homily for an audience of one: my wife. My wife is an actress, and a great lector. I knew she’d be a tough audience. I stood in our living room, four pages of text in my hand, cleared my throat, and delivered what I thought was a very good little sermon about Jesus calming the storm in the Sea of Galilee. My wife listened politely. And when it was finished she looked at me. A long moment passed. Then she spoke.

“That was . . . okay.”

I guess she saw my lip quivering.

“Let me look at this,” she said, as she took the pages from my trembling hand. She read over the text. “Well, this part is good,” she said. “And this one. And I like that. But it’s not punching through. You’re losing me.” She looked at me. “Honey, try to take more time with it. Want to try it again?” I did. And somehow, after a couple more tries, I got it to work. It was a valuable lesson for me: delivering a good homily isn’t about reading. It’s about preaching.

An old joke asks, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice.” The same could be said about how to get a homily from the page to the pulpit and into the hearts and minds of the people.

I’ve worked out a system where I practice my homilies three times before I deliver them. The first time is a simple “cold” read to hear how the words come out of my mouth and to see if I’ve said something stupid. I’ll often shorten sentences or change words or adjust the pacing. You never quite know how something will hit the ear until you say it out loud.

After that, I’ll try out the homily two more times, working out inflections and phrasing and pacing—what parts to speed up, which ones to slow down. By the time I’ve completed my third run-through, I have a good sense of the overall text—the geography of it—and when I climb into the pulpit to deliver it, I find I only occasionally have to glance at the page. The printed text becomes a roadmap, guiding me from point to point, phrase to phrase.

The result: I find that I don’t read the homily. I preach it.

Curious? Check out the rest here.

If I had one more thing to add, it would be a little advice for those in formation.  In two words: record it.  I’d never heard myself preaching until I started taping my homilies recently (the results are here and here).  It’s proven to be a valuable learning experience and, I hope, will serve to make me a better preacher.

UPDATE: A complaint I hear often is that of too many priests or deacons just “winging it” — and delivering homilies that, to the contrary, never take flight.  Many, in fact, crash.  Recently, a seminarian told me about a priest who always taught that if you can’t prepare, for one reason or another, just don’t preach.  And he practiced what he preached.  Once, at daily Mass, he proclaimed the gospel and then concluded by saying, “I had a lot to do last night and didn’t have time to prepare a homily.  So let’s just take a few moments to silently reflect on the gospel.”  And he sat down and that was that.  That priest is now my hero.

Comments

  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you! The people of your parish are blessed to have someone so dedicated to preaching the Word. I am in business and often have to give talks and presentations and all of what you wrote resonated with me because it is exactly what I do in preparing my talks. Practice, practice, practice. I record it, say it in front of a mirror and then my poor wife listens and like yours gives me a realistic critique. I know that our priests and deacons are often very busy with other duties, but I feel the homilies they give are o vitally important and in many cases just come off so flat. I hope this is not sounding overly critical, but I think some really need to work a little bit at improvement of not just the message but heir delivery. A good homily that expounds on the Word of God really can help sustain you and focus you week to week. Thanks again Deacon Greg for your hard work.

  2. Our pastor could use some help. I would not mind the twenty-minute homilies, but he says the same thing at least three times. He is in his mid-60s – I do not see him changing.

  3. Regina Faighes says:

    It is obviuos that the Holy Spirit guides your hand when you write your magnificent homilies!

  4. Regina Faighes says:

    I meant to type “obvious.” Mea culpa

  5. I think people can be trained to speak publicly and deliver homilies in a satisfactory manner. In the other hand I also believe that public speaking like singing, dancing, the ability to draw or paint, is a talent you are born with and the truly great orators (and homiletic greats) are people who “have it”. Like I said, you can train to be fairly proficient, but truly great preachers are born.

  6. Katie Angel says:

    Anyone who wants to become a better speaker should check out their local chapter of Toastmasters – it is an amazing organization that has helped thousands of people to improve their speaking and leadership skills. And they are truly international so there are chapters throughout the world.

  7. even better than hearing one’s homily is to have someone video it. to actually hear oneself and see yourself is a real learning experience. the best homilies i have heard are not just in content, but when the real personal engagement of the preacher with the word comes across in his delivery and engages the congregation.

  8. Irish Spectre says:

    I often attend the noontime Mass at a tiny nondenominational chapel in a local nondenominational hospital, presided over by a youngish African priest who strikes me as being quite authentic and quite holy. His three-to-four-minute homilies are usually pretty impactful, but every so often, upon concluding the Gospel, he simply sits in the pew with us for a couple of minutes, affording himself and us a few moments to reflect in silence upon that day’s readings. Maybe those are the days that Fr. David has not had time to prepare, but there is a genuine power too in the post-Gospel quietude that this good man allows.

  9. I think preparation for homilies, reflections and public speaking in general comes from a continuing immersing of self in your field. I mean reading, researching, praying, reflecting, studying constantly, not just before delivering your homily or speech, but be completely versant on whatever you are speaking on. My own style is to internalize your subject matter, organize your thoughts on it, perhaps write a few notes and then deliver without reading. I have done a lot of public speaking and I have never written a speech or slaved over its crafting all night long or sweat too much about it; so far it has worked. I guess each person has his or her own style.

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