When the preacher can’t preach

When the preacher can’t preach November 17, 2011

What can you do about bad preaching?

I wondered about that recently, after hearing from two different priests, from two different corners of the country, who expressed frustration at deacons whose homilies in their estimation just aren’t up to snuff.

“It was dismal,” one pastor wrote about his deacon’s homily.  “He preached, as always, far too long, vaguely. It was frustrating…”

After outlining a litany of problems, from “flat delivery” to “lack of any real insight,” he raised an interesting point: “It does the diaconate a disservice. Not everyone can preach. If one cannot, it is wrong to impose oneself unnecessarily on a congregation…”

“But a deeper problem,” he concluded, “is the unfairness of ordaining to the clerical state someone who simply does not have the level of articulateness and reflection people, reasonably, expect from their clergy.”

With that in mind, I thought I’d throw this out for discussion: what should be done about poor preaching?   Do you think the deacon should be sent back for remedial homiletics?  Or should his faculties be suspended altogether?

I’m curious to hear how pastors have dealt with this — or how deacons have responded to or benefited from criticism.

One of the chronic complaints about our Church from the people in the pews is that our homilies are lifeless, disconnected or dull.
Okay.  But what can be done about that?

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75 responses to “When the preacher can’t preach”

  1. I am not sure that everyone would agree what is poor preaching. Our pastor talks almost all of the time about sin. He even complains that other priests do not preach about sin enough. Some of us might want, at least occasionally, to be inspired, motivated, or made to feel good about ourselves.

  2. Well, i’ve also heard plenty of priests whose homilies are just as terrible.
    On the other hand, i wish our pastor would let our deacons preach. It is a carmelite parish, and i’ve heard that that has something to do with it. (what i have no idea, maybe some inherent bias in the order).

    Maybe it’s homiletics class. i don’t know what they teach in that class.

    The worst hamilies are the one’s where Father preaches about some experience he had recently, tells this big long story, then tries to somehow connect it to the gospel reading. I hear that quite a lot. It’s more about his story than it is about Jesus. It’s probably well intentioned and meant to convey the message that we are to attend to the presence of God in our every day life. But the problem is, it’s HIS story, not ours. It probably has real meaning for him. But the rest of us are only bystanders, so we don’t have that same level of connectedness to the story that he does, and it puts people to sleep.

  3. I am a year and a half old deacon who’s pastor still asks to see my homilies on occasion. At first my pride got in the way (and every once in a while still does), but I take his asking and use it to work on my humility. He is an exceptional preacher and does talks and parish missions all over the world (just came back from Ireland) so I wonder if he expects a little more out of me.
    The other deacon in our parish preaches MAYBE once a year. He is an OK homilist(understands scripture and can relate it to the people) but a horrible speaker. Is this wrong?…should he be preaching more if it’s that bad? Shouldn’t we leave the preaching to those who can?

  4. Preaching skills can be improved. No, we aren’t going to make every priest and deacon into Fulton Sheen, but that isn’t the point. We do need to teach real good preaching that connects with congregations though. The problem is with the formation in seminaries and diaconate formation – the homiletic classes aren’t very good.

    We need good orators to teach good homiletic classes. Then we need the clerics who preach to put time and effort into learning the skill.

    Some have it naturally, but most will have to learn it and work on it.

    As a national lay speaker, I appreciate a good homily, but am quite open with my friends who are priests and deacons on giving tips to help them improve. NOTE – I do not give tips to priests and deacons who are not friends, which isn’t wise to do.

  5. I find that the homilies we hear on a regular basis are always based on the moral sense: don’t do this, don’t do that. Or, vaguely, one ought to do this or one ought to do that. I think the real difficulty is that by and large seminarians are well-trained in the historical critical method of scriptural exegesis on the one hand, and then still focused in their moral training on a manual-based system.

    My suggestion? Have them read the Fathers, force our seminarians and deacon candidates to spend time with Holy Scripture, searching for the mystical and allegorical meanings of God’s Word.

    It worked for Gregory the Great, Bernard and all of the other great preachers of Christendom: why not stick with what works?

  6. I’ve heard good priest-preachers and terrible, awful, stupefyingly poor ones. And I’ve heard great ones. I’ve heard deacon-preachers who were magnificent, and some who really, really need help. Some of the problem with deacons, I think, stems from their preaching less frequently, but for the priests who are preaching weekly/daily — why isn’t the preaching better? I know a priest — he’s a wonderful confessor and a very holy man — but his sermon is always 20 minutes long and incoherent; he can’t form his thoughts, and if he writes the thing out in advance, he forgets to bring his notes. By the time he’s through he’s tried to reiterate his point so many different ways that we don’t feel instructed or encouraged — just browbeaten.

    If I could have a bishop’s ear I would say, please, please, bishops — develop ongoing formation of the clergy (priests and deacons alike) that would require them to take a homiletics/preaching retreat perhaps every two or three years, to relight their fires, get some constructive feedback from other preachers who have listened to them/suffered through their stuff and for heaven’s sake, bring in public speakers — lay and secular is okay by me! — to help them, guide them, give them pointers and perhaps even feed their enthusiasm and self-confidence.

    And please, please, please, all bishops, all priests, all deacons, learn the rule: if you cannot get your message delivered in 7 minutes, you won’t get it done in 20. All you’ll have done is allowed the parishioners to drift off, grow impatient, start to chat under their breaths or wish they were anywhere but in that church, at that time.

  7. Just last week-end, I was on the team of experienced deacons who were called in to evaluate the very first attempts by second year diaconal candidates doing their Homily Practicums in their formation program. The consistent complaints of all of the evaluators:

    –They tried preaching like priests and not like deacons.
    –The tried to cover too many points.
    –They had no passion in their delivery
    –When they were finished, no one in the room could remember any one critical point that they made that could be carried forward.

    I meet my same group of candidates again on Sunday December 4 so we’ll have to see how much they improved. I also plan on having a copy of my script for this Sunday — Christ the King — as a sample of how I do it. Not that they have to mimic my style but they do have to show some sharp improvement!

  8. It’s not limited to deacons. Look on the bright side- Amish ministers choose the preacher by lot, and ( or so I’ve read) using any inflection is considered “showy” and is thus frowned upon.
    There are at least two issues here: delivery skills ( which sometimes can be improved upon) and content. Could part of out problem be that we’re constantly trying to re-invent the wheel? The homily is, more often then not, the only catechisis the adult in the pew is going to get. Is hearing Father’s ( or Deacon’s) musings on the Prodigal Son…again…. the best use of that opportunity? As far as delivery, the least we should be doing is showing some emotion and enthusiasm for what we’re preaching. ( I’m in my 2nd year of formation. We don’t have a dedicated homiletics course, but we practice a lot. Usually 2 or 3 times a semester )

  9. Our pastor has no sense of how to modulate his voice or pause. It is flat and run on. Also heavily laced with condescension as if we were children. It is a chore to get through.

    A skilled secular public speaker could surely aid in his delivery.

  10. Though I don’t preach myself, I would recommend a book I couldn’t resist picking up: “Preaching Better: Practical Suggestions for Homilists” (Paulist Press), by the late Ken Untener, bishop of Saginaw, Mich. Lots of good, practical suggestions, as well as ideas for more long-term growth in one’s preaching capabilities.

    I’m also reminded of what my favorite priest from college days (Fr. Jake Foglio of St. John’s parish at Michigan State University) once mentioned. He said that one of his favorite homiletics profs (or perhaps a colleague) once advised that every priest should approach his homily writing with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other….meaning, I suppose, that making the connection between the text from the OT or NT and life in the age we live in is an essential part of any preacher’s job.

  11. I am in my fourth year of formation as a deacon, and am taking Homiletics right now, every Tuesday night this Fall. (During these past four years, my classmates and I have also had to give regular reflections on the readings during evening prayer.)
    In Homiletics, we spend the whole 2 1/2 hour class giving and critiquing each other’s homilies under the direction of a priest who is known in our diocese as being a very good preacher. I really do think that all of us have gotten better. We are staying focused on the Gospel. We stick to one theme and don’t wander. We try to inject personal stories *only* if they help elucidate the readings. We also try to make sure that the homily points people to the Eucharist.
    The most important thing I have learned is that giving a prayerful, thoughtful homily that informs and inspires people to live a life centered on Christ is very difficult.

    BTW, thank you Deacon Greg. Your Blog and your witness have been a great grace to me in my discernment.

  12. All good advise, individuals all are we. Preach, Homily, Sermon, three different characters. Can they be accomplished at the ambo? Tough, but possible. As Fr. Deacon Daniel says, BE BOLD, BE BRIEF, BEGONE. More messages delivered on sin and SALVATION. God Bless.

  13. I think that first point is very interesting: preaching “like priests and not like deacons.” From listening to some homilies by newly ordained deacons, I have a sense of what that means, at least to me. But I’d really like to hear some elaboration of the point. I think it would be worthwhile to discuss it with the men in formation.

  14. I think the concerns for poor preaching has been heard. Homiletics is a priority in the diaconate formation program in our Archdiocese. From preparation to delivery, everything has been worked on to deliver concise meaningful homilies. It seems to be paying off because the quality of delivery has improved for everyone in our class (and we are held to 7 minutes max). It took a while to handle the blunt criticism but we got used to it and we would all rather get it in formation rather than see it on the faces of the people in the pews.

  15. First, a preacher that doesn’t know his God has nothing important to say. There were a number of priests in that category back in the ’70’s when the Charismatic renewal was spreading – and they felt threatened. On the other hand, there were those who did have that personal relationship with their God – and these were not threatened but they rejoiced and gave those with new experiences of God their patient guidance. God Bless them!

    Has the preacher, in prayer, asked His Lord what to say to His people? It seems to me the essence of preaching is prophecy, properly understood, which is being the mouthpiece of God to a people that need help hearing some aspect of what God wants to say (when the day comes that each one of us hears God clearly on our own, as St. Paul says, prophecy will cease). If the preacher either doesn’t know his God intimately and personally, or doesn’t know those he is to preach to, or worst of all, knows little about either – well then he will deliver a poor homily no matter how gifted a speaker he is. While it is true that the Holy Spirit can “fill in” a preacher about what topic to cover and how to cover it, my general experience (not with preaching, since I don’t) is that God expects some due diligence from us in our attempts to serve Him. Thus, a preacher who has no contact with those he preaches to is at a disadvantage, and may be presuming upon God’s grace to replace what should be his effort.

    I can put up with a lot of poor delivery – as long as what is said is what God wants said at that time and to that particular set of people (and I can understand it). A zealous preacher that has that as a firm goal will seek help with any problems with delivery on his own, given a chance.

  16. There are all sorts of things to do right in a homily and all sorts of things to do wrong and what is bad about one deacon’s or priest’s homilizing might be completely different from another’s.

    I really think the best way to improve is 1) to practice and 2) to ask for constructive feedback from trusted sources whether that is another trusted clergyman or an educated, faithful layperson. I’ve seen “baby” priests begin with horrible homilies and yet after a year show significant improvement (like from a D to a B if I were grading) just from practice and humbly accepting and applying advice.

  17. Untener’s text is one of the books that we used in formation when we were learning Homiletics. It is important for each person that is proclaiming the homily to find their natural style. My first attempts in formation were disasters because I was trying too hard to recreate the style of priests that I enjoyed. The big problem is they were not me, and their style did not work for me. I have found my style, and based on comments from my parishioners they like my homilies. I always tell them that they are free to criticize my homilies via email, in person, written letter etc. I find that having people compliment me doesn’t always help unless I know I can trust them to tell me when I do poorly. I had a group of teens that I was meeting with each week to break open the readings for the upcoming Sunday and when I preached at the Life Teen mass I used their input to help prepare my homily. Each week they were invited to say what they liked and did not like about the past week’s homily. One week I didn’t do a very good job, I got lost in the middle and just couldn’t get out. One of the teens came up to me after mass and said he wouldn’t be there on Monday night, but that it wasn’t a very good homily. I thanked him for telling me. It is important for us to get honest feedback on or homilies so that we can improve. Having my wife and children helps because they will tell me if it is good or bad, and what could be improved.

  18. I was ordain 28 years ago at 39. In the formation program, homeletic course were short. i think that a deacon who is poor on preaching, should let go and let the others disponible do it. I remember, that once whith soft words, during a retreat I warn one of my confrere, that he should advise the parish priest that he was unable to do good and intersiting preaching. But he was admirable whit old age persons, visit them ,bless them and he liked it. So he listened to me and cease preaching. He realise after all, that he had not this talent, and he was not mad at me, but glad to know it.

  19. One of our priests followed the 7-minute rule. Great homilies, thoughtfully delivered that left me wanting more. Our pastor? Twenty minutes, tries to make too many points, is boring much of the time. Every once in a while, tho, he delivers something thought-provoking.

  20. I definitely agree with Elizabeth Scalia’s 7-minute rule, and Ed Peter’s 3 point rule!
    However I also believe that one can get something good out of even a poor homily, and that we shouldn’t be too hard on those who don’t have that talent. If people use poor homilies as an excuse not to go to Mass; sorry, they’ve got the wrong focus.
    Every deacon and priest can improve their skills, but not all of them are gifted speakers. The only homilists that really get on my nerves are the ones who always ride their favorite hobby-horses.

  21. As my formation came to a close before my 1990 ordination, my wise pastor passed along to me this quote: “It is the job of the preacher to comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable.” In Acts, we read that the Apostles preached with boldness. The preacher should strive to preach with apostolic boldness, inspired by the Holy Spirit.

  22. With the experience of middle age, I no longer expect oratory, passion or inspiration from a homily, and perhaps these are not reasonable expectations. But I would really, really like an end to 1) an irrelevant monologue that is all about the homilist himself (his car, his reading material, his personal political views, his garden and his cat) with no connection to the Gospel; or 2) a pop psychology session that is all about making us feel good about ourselves, without one single mention of God or Jesus, which could be delivered anywhere and not be identified as Christian or Catholic. Both are regular occurences at my parish church and in my diocese’s cathedral church (delivered by experienced priests, incidentally). It’s the wasted opportunity that makes me cross!

  23. Ron:

    In my studies of Medieval Homilies, I realized that there was a pattern that was used during that era which paralleled how the Lord Jesus used parables: (1) The “exemplum,” — a story that engaged the listener; (2) The “discourse” which explains how the exemplum is applied to the scripture and life of that day; and (3) The “exhortation: “Go thou and do likewise!”

    Conventional wisdom has priests being ordained at the age of 26 straight out of their seminary training which was straight out of their baccalaureate degrees which was straight out of high-school graduation. The “resources” such a priest uses in their “exemplums” are all those events within his own personal experience — extensive study of the Church Fathers; extensive study of Sacred Scripture; a lot of Moral Theology (they will be confessors, thus need that) and a close knit sense of fraternity in a single-sex community who believe the same way they do.

    While the earliest a permanent “married” deacon is ordained is 35, most are not ordained until their late forties/early fifties. They not only have successful marriages they have children and successful secular careers as well. They have bonded not only with their own families but also with the wider world which very often does not believe the same way they do. Thus, when they preach, they use “exemplums” out of their own unique set of lived experiences which most certainly are very different than those of the priests.

    The very best preachers — both priests and deacons — preach out of their passion but their stories, their presumptions about human nature and even their conclusions are VERY different.

    BTW: look for an e-mail from me as well on this topic as well.

  24. BTW, for a great homiletic resource, I highly recommend the Ancient Christian Commentary series. It goes through all of the books of the Old and New Testament and weaves together a tapestry of Patristic commentaries on particular pericopes (say it three times fast). The thing to keep in mind about the Church Fathers is that these men were pastors and homilists first and foremost. Their words still reach people very powerfully.


    As my friend and Patristics instructor at Holy Apostles Institute, Fr. David Anderson, says, “if as St. Jerome affirms, ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ, then ignorance of the Church Fathers is ignorance of Scripture!”

    (you can hear him here…)


  25. Just a thought or two… I’ve only been preaching for about a year, but I have a theory on homilies that goes back decades: A good homily should fit (in bullet points) on a 3″ x 3″ post-it note. If it can’t fit…you are trying to do too much. And if you can’t sum it up neatly (with some room to spare) in that space, you’ve no hope of getting the congregation to remember what you’ve said. My homiletics professor in Diaconate Formation, a fabulous priest by the name of Father Don Wester, suggested that a good homily takes about an hour to prepare for every minute you are speaking. I’ve spoken to priests and deacons who wouldn’t dream of putting in that much time…and that, my friends, it part of the problem. Good preaching takes time: to read, to reflect, to pray…finally to write and then to ruthlessly edit down to the very best words you can find to make God’s point (not your point). (When I edit –and it’s something I did for a living for many years– I pretend I am getting paid $100 for every word I cut. It’s amazing how you can slice!) And, most of all –particularly for those who are not accustomed to public speaking– it takes a lot of practice.

  26. Interesting thread.
    I wonder…what sorts of things are needed for the ‘application’ process for sem studies? I wonder if ‘writing samples’ should be required. Treat the sem like grad school.
    Maybe that’s weird…but one can tell a lot about one’s ability to preach by how they write…no?

    As for what homilies should be about.
    I wonder how much of the ‘Lutheran’ homiletic formula could be appropriated in today’s new V-II Catholic Church.
    The (confessional) Lutheran formula:
    1) Remind the congregation that they are miserable sinners, unable to save themselves apart from God. Remind them of the necessity of confession and a contrite heart. Don’t tell stories.
    2) Remind them of God’s free gift of grace, love, and forgiveness, the sacrificial, saving work of Christ, and His real presence in His Body and Blood in the Eucharist. Don’t tell stories.
    3) Tell them how the stories from the Scripture readings illuminate points one and two.

    That’s a standard Lutheran homily from my youth, week in and week out.
    One could keep to this formula with Catholic tinges, yes? I’d imagine that the riches of the Catholic faith could allow a preacher to go to town with this formula..

  27. As a listener to many sermons over the years I agree with most everything said here, especially the 7-minute rule and “be brief, be bold, begone.” The worst sermons I have been subjected to, besides being repetitive, disorganized, underprepared, and lacking in insight, have usually been too long in the first place. I doubt deacons as a rule are less effective preachers than priests, but then I may be prejudiced since almost the only deacon I have heard preaching is Deacon Greg!.

  28. “If I could have a bishop’s ear I would say, please, please, bishops — develop ongoing formation of the clergy (priests and deacons alike) that would require them to take a homiletics/preaching retreat perhaps every two or three years”


    BUT I think it would be even better to require someone who is recognized as an excellent preacher–and is open to a variety of ways of preaching effectively–to work with people one on one for, say, eight weeks at a time. Have the “student” deliver the homily via Skype or video, and offer critique. The most painful thing I do is watch myself teach. OK, I’m not that bad, but you just have no way how things come across unless you see yourself do it!

    Frankly, I think that is the homiletics teacher thinks the deacon candidate is not up to snuff, he should not be ordained. But once ordained, give him concrete help to work on the homilies.

  29. Actually I think the Vatican through one of its spokesmen or another, has endorsed the 7 minute “rule.”
    But one could argue–just what is a good sermon. I read somewhere that St. John Vianney’s sermon delivery and voice were terrible. But his sincerity and faith were so powerful it came through loud and clear (and reached many people).
    So should a priest (or deacon) spend huge gobs of time working on his speech mechanics?? Or should he immerse himself in deep prayer and study in whatever time he has available in the spirit of St. John V.

  30. I am fortunate to be in a parish where both our priest and our deacon are excellent homilists, but our priest is exceptional and his homilies are never long enough to suit me. Father speaks in a conversational style without notes and never loses his train of thought or flubs his lines. He makes it seem like he is just talking off the cuff but it is the result of putting in a lot of time to get it just right. He almost always preaches about the readings and I know that he starts planning his homilies weeks in advance and let’s things evolve as he thinks and prays and even asks for input on ideas he has. The time and effort he puts into his homilies really show in how effortlessly they appear to be delivered.

  31. We have two priests at our parish. One is a great preacher and one is not that great. They roughly alternate which mass they serve. I try to go to the one with the better preacher.

  32. The 7-minute rule doesn’t necessarily apply in all cases. For example. Archbishop Chaput tends to preach longer, but his homilies are good, they flow, and they make sense. And – to me – the best gauge of a good homilist or celebrant is that you never look at your watch or feel bored. But if you looked at your watch at the end of the homily or at the end of the Mass, you’d be surprised at how long/short the Mass or homily went.

  33. I would recommend that the Deacon be given the chance for remediation by attending some additional homiletic training, and repeat every few years. I am currently a Deacon Candidate in my fourth year of formation and just went through a week long homiletics practicum this summer. When I shared what my class learned with the previous group of deacons (trained 3 year earlier) they indicated we were taught a few new methods to help in preparing homilies. One of the tools was a method in a book by Paul Scott Wilson, “The Four Pages of the Sermon”. This provided a great framework to relate the trouble & grace in the scripture to the situation in our present times. If it’s been a few years since the deacon took homiletics it is worth a refresher as there may be some new tools to help in better preparing homilies. This will help with content. It was also emphasized to be brief (under seven minutes) and focus on a single theme.

    I’d also recommend some coaching with the Deacon on delivery. One of the better formation sessions we had early in the program was on delivery which focused on good eye contact, pronunciation, pacing, and practicing. This was done by a person who had a background in theatre. The instructor shared with us some results of surveys of those hearing lectors and homilists on what impacted them most: content, verbal skills, or eye contact. You would think it was content, but eye contact was most important followed by verbal skills, then content. The eye content really helps to make a connection with people. Since taking this class I have noticed that some of the better homilists are those who really make a personal connection with the people they are preaching to.

    Another point that was really emphasized was practicing the homily. Practicing in front of a mirror or a friendly audience several times before delivering the homily is very helpful. It helps to work out the kinks and become comfortable with the content.

  34. Please, please, please, just don’t re-state and re-read the Gospel and readings.
    I hear this a lot…”did you hear what Jesus said?” followed by a complete re-reading of the Gospel…finger wagging and a repeat at the ‘announcement’ at the end of Mass…’remember what Jesus said’…another complete re-reading of the Gospel.
    What happened to the Word of God synod where the priests (and deacons) were encouraged to catechize the Body of Christ during the homily?

  35. Good post Art ND,

    A very good friend who was an excellent priest and someone who was able to draw from a wide area of the city not only to his homily at mass, but to his evening with the Lord and his lunch with the Lord told me one time before his early death his secret to success.

    He spent time before the Eucharist before he even started to think about putting anything down in preparation seeking out from God what he was supposed to say. During this time, he asked God to help him get out of the way with his own thoughts, his own agenda, his own ideas, and to fill him with the Holy Spirit that he might better serve God. Then he spent time on the gospels for the upcoming mass and studied scripture and other material so that he was as close to Jesus as possible in context and time and place. Only then did he sit down to prepare. He truly believed that it was important to say what Christ would say to the people and not to be afraid to make those in church uncomfortable and say things they might not want to hear, but desperately need to hear. He also advised to always remember that everyone in front of you is probably in a different place in their journey to find and become one with God and as such, like the apostles who were understood in many languages after receiving the Holy Spirit, your words will probably have the same impact on this wide area of those you are trying to help shepherd to Christ.

    This priest had a very profound impact on thousands of people all over the city. He filled the church for his evening with the Lord where he would give a more in depth discussion about the upcoming gospels so we would be able to come to mass having had time and help in thinking it over. His talk would last about an hour. Often, he would ask someone to give a short talk about something in their life that was related in some way to his talk and the gospel. If we were approaching the pro life Sunday or the anniversary of Roe, he would often have a mother who had an abortion and now helped counsel other women or to a woman who was not able to have children and was adopting as part of her vocation call from God rather than seek out that which the church forbids in IVF. He would bring in mustard seeds for everyone to have one to take with them so we could see the size of a mustard seed and visualize how with faith even this small we could move mountains. He had been to the Holy Land many times and had many stories about each of the places he had visited and how they impacted not only his faith, but many others he met along the way.

    I have often wondered why our Lord allowed this wonderful priest to be called home so young when he was bringing so many home to Christ. His funeral had some many that we had a mass at our parish church and then a second at the downtown Cathedral and even then there was an overflow into the Church huge croft where monitors had been set up and overflow outside. I have never forgotten what he said about his preparation. Despite handling everything in the parish and school virtually on his own with no assistant or deacon, he managed to get it all done and still do his preaching which after the mass was his number one job.

    I would advise every dioceses to find a priest like this and to have them teach others for they are gifted by God in this very special way.

  36. We also have 2 priests in our parish. One delivers remarkable homilies and the other is not so talented. In spite the second priest, junior as father likes to call him on occasion, he is not really bad, because he preaches from the heart. However, if we miss our mass we’re forced to attend a nearby parish and listen to the Oxford graduate former Anglican priest. The contents of his homily are brainy, yet his delivery is lacking. I don’t complain about the homilies. At least they try.

  37. One thing that would be helpful for Catholic preachers are lectionary discussion groups. Many of our Protestant brethren who use the common lectionary will gather together and throw out their thoughts on the readings.

    These groups are usually made up of neighboring churches, but since our parishes especially in the South West and West are scattered a solution might be an online group that could be accessed by deacon and priest preachers from around the English speaking world.

    Maybe Elizabeth would host it and Greg would moderate (I know he has idle time on his hands, NOT!)

  38. Bad preaching used to bother me until Corapi and Pavone, great speakers, ran into trouble. Now I prefer the hard work shown by less gifted preachers–i.e., most of the padres who say the Daily Mass on EWTN–who may lack charisma but are strong on facts and information and insight and do their best to provide me with information that I lack and guidance that I need.

    At one time I would have been ecstatic about the swift rise of Father Barron, noted now for his series, “Catholicism.” But then I remember Corapi and Pavone. One can only pray that Father Barron will not begin to take himself too seriously. So far, so good. But I listen to him with one ear only and probably will for several years. The loss of Corapi “wised” me up. The disappearance of Pavone did not bother me personally but there is no denying the man can preach. My hope is that Pavone will resurface. But who knows.

  39. One of the finest preachers in our Christian tradition, St. Augustine, was trained in rhetoric. He could captivate his community in Hippo for as much as several hours with his sermons, copies of which have recently discovered. (By the way, the faithful were standing.)

    He had a wonderful rapport with his audience, who could be quite raucous in their responses to his words, as attested in the transcriptions. One of his comments, found in the transcription of one of his sermons is the following:

    “Ah, I perceive by the smells that I must have spoken at length today.”

  40. We dedicate one full saturday a month through the whole formation process as opposed to just doing a semester’s worth of evening courses.

  41. I’m late to this party. I’d be pretty happy if preaching were simply removed entirely from the mass. 98% of the time I find the homily an intrusion that breaks the unity of the liturgy, such as it is in most places. Proclaim the readings, move straight to the creed.

  42. I started out life as a Protestant… When I started attending Mass 30 years ago, I was astounded at how poor the preaching was. It seems to have gotten a lot better over the years, but I am growing tired of our Pastor’s beginning every single homily with a joke. It’s always very predictable. At any rate, I didn’t become Catholic for the preaching, so I get what I can from it and move on.

  43. The charism of good preaching, like all God’s gifts, comes with the responsibility for stewardship. You don’t have to be a bad speaker to be a good preacher; you do have to keep always in mind Whose Word you speak, and to Whom your listeners owe praise and adoration. Humility is the key, and it is nurtured in community, with accountability to spiritual directors and peers who are not “fans.” The problem with Corapi and Pavone is not their eloquence, but their pride and their tendency to solo. I don’t know enough about Fr Barron’s circumstances to guess whether he has healthy spiritual support to keep him from going the way of these other loners, but I pray so, because he clearly has a gift the Church sorely needs.

  44. I know this will open a can of worms, but I have always wondered why preaching at Mass—which, unlike celebrating or assisting at the liturgy, requires the preacher to use his own language and creativity and engagement skills to break open the Word—must be limited to those in Orders. Yes, it is part of the teaching function of the clergy, but we do not limit teaching in other circumstances to those ordained. If laypersons (and yes, I mean women too, worm can openers at the ready!) who have the gift of preaching could be well formed and vetted, why couldn’t they supplement the gifts of priests and deacons who have such a gift? Ego is involved, of course, and no one wants to admit he is not a good preacher, but I believe there would be relief more often than not. After all, Paul numbered preaching among those gifts that not all have–but that all who are so gifted are called to use for the good of the Body of Christ.

  45. As a Christian, what makes your faith different than that of a Muslim, a Hindu, or even the “non-faith” of an atheist? Are we able to properly explain our faith to each other, let alone someone who is desperately in need of the healing power of the forgiveness of Jesus Christ? The Four Pillars of the Kingdom is an attempt to help us do just that by laying the groundwork, in an accessible manner, of what it means to be a Christian. The pillar of belief: why do we believe as we do? The pillar of knowledge: how we obtain our knowledge through scripture, prayer and even praise. The pillar of life: what is the proper Christian life and how our actions represent Christ to the rest of the world. And the pillar of love: how all love comes from God and should flow from us to those around us. The Four Pillars of the Kingdom will challenge your relationship with Jesus but, in doing so; make it stronger and closer than you ever thought possible
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  46. A simple cure to the problem with priests’ and deacons’ preaching is a small tablet, which used to be found in pews in many parishes, called “View from the Pew”. If use were encouraged, anonymous criticism would be offered…..the only valid criticism. A page or two discussed among the clergy weekly would greatly improve any problems.

  47. vox borealis — one of our occasional visiting priests introduces the Prayer of the Faithful by saying, “At this point in the liturgy we pause to present our needs to the Lord.” No, no, no! The Prayer of the Faithful continues the liturgy, as much as the homily and the preparation of the gifts. It is part of the flow, not an interruption.

    Pat Horrocks — about 15 years ago, I went to a Catholic wedding in Germany. I rode to the reception in a car with several Protestants and one of them remarked about the homily, “The Catholics always preach better than the Protestants. Always.” Nobody disagreed. I said that in my country it was generally the other way around.

  48. BTW, I think Catholic preaching has improved over the years, but it is quite uneven from preacher to preacher.

  49. Each person has God-given gifts that differ from every other person’s gifts. Not everyone can hit a golf ball 300 yards. Not everyone can dunk a basketball. Not everyone can sing like Susan Boyle. And not everyone (including priests) can preach effectively. As a Deacon I have had to assess my strengths and weaknesses. I believe I know where I can be effective, and where I can’t. But self assessment alone isn’t enough. We must rely on our pastors and associate pastors and diaconate directors (and others) for timely, honest feedback. Likewise, a pastor should not assign a deacon the responsibility to preach if the deacon simply doesn’t have the skill to do that. The pastor has a responsibility to his congreegation to be sure that it’s spiritual needs are fulfilled and if that means keeping a deacon out of the “starting line-up” for preaching, then that needs to be done. Then it’s up to the deacon himself to either (1) find ways to improve, or (2) move on to other aspects of his ministry where he can be consistently effective.

  50. Greg,
    I would recommend you read “Biblical Preaching” by Haddon Robinson. It was the method I was given in seminary on how to preach and I have found it very beneficial and so far, I’ve only gotten positive feedback on my sermons. I don’t know the difference necessarily between a Catholic and an Evangelical Protestant sermon, but I would be willing to bet it could, or should at least, be pretty close. God bless in your quest here, I bet God will definitely help you figure it out!

  51. I am always amazed when having attended some form of Protestant service how LONG those guys can talk. I would be SO done. My longest homily since ordination in 2007 has been 13 minutes, including proclaiming the Gospel.

  52. Preaching is not what you say, it is what they hear. To touch someone’s soul your words need to carry what you understand and believe about God. A homily is a conversation with your friends about what is the most important thing in your life. GOD. Touch them with your belief in God and they will not remember you delivery. Believe and understand your message and the rest will come.

  53. As a first-year teacher, I’m used to people observing me and giving me (hopefully) constructive feedback about my presentation and teaching. Yes, sometimes it isn’t fun to hear, but the whole point is to learn and to engage in self-improvement. If preachers (both deacons and priests) looked at criticism and homily-checks in this way and sought each other’s feedback, it would benefit everyone.

    I would also say that homilies should be to-the-point and organized. 5-10 minutes is a good length, but like someone above said, there shouldn’t be a hard-and-fast time limit. 15-20 min is too long unless it’s the bishop or it’s a special occasion that requires more comments. The organization is the most important. State the main point (or points) you’re going to make, elaborate on them, and then conclude. If the people know where you’re heading, even a long homily will be okay because they understand how it all fits together.

  54. Dear Greg,

    I am a Deacon who was ordained in 1994. I studied under Dr. Haddon Robinson (“Biblical Preaching” is a must read for every preacher) and received a Doctorate in preaching from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. My thesis was “Effective Preaching for Roman Catholic Deacons”. Rick is correct in that while there are doctrinal and dogmatic differences between Catholics and our Protestant brothers and sisters, a good homily should be able to make our congregations think, react and change. Deacons have a unique place in the preaching task. Since the vast majority of Deacons are married (many with children and grandchildren) and hold secular jobs, we can only preach what we live, and that is generally empathetic with most of the folks sitting in the pews. It would be quite helpful if Deacons had a competent homiletic teacher who was also a Deacon. Having a Deacon as part of the preaching program would be a big plus. However, Pastors must encourage and mentor their new Deacons (just as they would a new associate pastor) and give them the chance to become proficient. Preaching three or four times a year is setting one up for failure. If you only played golf a few times a year you would never be able to reach your potential. Formation, training, continuing education, mentoring and encouragement!! That is what is necessary to enable effective preaching. Keep up the good work.



  55. “From the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks” Matthew 12:34.

    Look, this doesn’t mean that everyone is a terrific preacher. But, a preacher that believes what he has read in the gospel, preaches what he believes and practices what he preaches is going to be so much more effective than one who does not. It’s not a “dog and pony show!” It’s the good news of Jesus Christ, who is the way, the truth and the life, the alpha and omega. If the homilitic message doesn’t begin and end in Christ, the homilist is missing the point.

    So, what to do? Amend our lives…and get good, honest feedback and training for the less than eloquent.

    I once heard a priest say, “never let the gospel stand in the way of a good homily!” His homilies were entertaining, and I remember his funny stories and anecdotes, but I find it hard to remember how he broke open the gospel (sometimes he just read to the congregants from the breviary). On the other hand, I remember homilies from a different priest many years later. Both spoke well…but, the terrific homilist really believed in and tried to live his life in accordance with the gospel, though he was as flawed as any one of us. Big, huge difference between the two speakers!

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