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Nov 26

What Makes a Good Preacher?

I’ll admit I’m spoiled. We have what I consider great preaching in my parish. For the most part, I choose a parish based on the preaching more than any other element. While I enjoy good music and consider a welcoming atmosphere to be of paramount importance, I also want to hear good preaching more than anything else at mass.

It seems as if the Bishops have finally realized the importance of good preaching or rather, the lackluster preaching performance of late in the Catholic Church in the United States. They devoted a good deal of their meeting to the importance of preaching this year.

According to the bishops’ new document, and using the Catholic term, “catechize,” for teaching the faith, today’s preacher “must realize that he is addressing a congregation that is more culturally diverse than previously, one that is profoundly affected by the surrounding secular agenda and, in many instances, inadequately catechized.”

Fr. Wester (A pastor in Missouri) said he believes the document does a good job suggesting a balance. On one side is the responsibility of the priest to use his time in front of a captive audience each Sunday to teach, and on the other is the duty to foster a mystical connection between God and his flock.

“If we want people to understand their faith, catechesis has to make sense for them in their own life,” Wester said. “Sometimes I want you to know I’m your pastor, an authority. Jesus was not afraid to speak the truth, and then love people.”

Some of this makes me wonder what most people think about preaching? Do some really like “fire and brimstone” homilies? I’m sure others prefer a lighter touch. Some want a short homily 5-6 minutes while others are offended if the homily is less than 10 minutes. I’ll say that for myself, I want to be moved by the preachers words and I want the homily to be thoughtful, make it obvious that you’ve put some time into this.

Good preachers are really good story-tellers. They can weave a good and meaningful story around the message of the readings of the day and then most importantly point us back to the altar of sacrifice where we hear the challenge of the readings along with God’s undying effort to re-connect with humanity and to give them His entire self so that they might have strength for the journey.

Good preaching always refers to the readings of the day and always mentions Jesus Christ at least once. It’s lively and engaging and holds people’s interest. It grabs them “where they live” and tries to move heart and head to live the message of Christ in their daily lives.

I get to preach from time to time at various events where it’s appropriate for me to preach as a campus minister. If I do say so myself I think I’m pretty good–people often tell you when you are good. They rarely tell you when you suck.

A preaching professor once told a friend that preaching always refers to the scripture and that “the scripture is only about salvation.”

My friend replied quite strongly by saying, “Funny, I thought the SCRIPTURES were about love!”

It does seem to me that many people have quite different ideas about preaching. Some really want that fire and a “you’re going to hell if you don’t straighten out your life and others would find that hurtful and condescending (myself included).

What moves you in preaching? The challenging homily? The moving story that you relate to? The guy who doesn’t hold back and says tough things that makes you squirm in your seat? The guy who teaches you about the history of the Bible? What keeps you coming back week after week?

Fr. Tom Foley, CSP once said to a bunch of people:

“You need two things to preach effectively. One is a trip to your local K-Mart and the other is three hours of silence. The trip to K-mart is where you’ll meet the people you’re going to be preaching to. You’ll see the concerns of their lives and follow them as they look for that elusive blue light special.

The three hours of silence?

You need that reflective time because the message that you preach to them is ultimately one that you need to hear yourself.”

I think that’s on the mark. I think every preacher should have a sounding board, one person who they can ask about their preaching–maybe even a team of people–and get some feedback from. Fr. Jack Collins, CSP does that for me and he’s been an amazing help. My preaching is so much better because of his guidance.

“One idea..not four.” “Less theology…more down to earth.” “You’re being too harsh…I wanted to tell you to go jump in the lake when you said that I don’t care enough about the poor.” “You’re meandering…tell me in ONE sentence what you want the message you’re sending to say.”

All good advice from one of America’s best preachers in my opinion.

I’ll say this, I think ordination alone doesn’t qualify someone to preach at mass or anywhere else for that matter. There are some great lay people who are outstanding preachers, some great women religious as well. Priests and Deacons perhaps should have to pass some kind of board to get preaching faculties and perhaps there should even be an order called “preacher” that could be offered in the church that goes beyond priests and deacons and gives laity an opportunity to participate more often and at mass, under certain circumstances.

So what about you? What’s the best homily you ever heard? Who’s the best preacher you ever heard? What makes a good homily?

I’m sure there are a bunch of preachers who are dying to know your thoughts.

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2 comments

  1. Aarti Pereira

    The best homily I’ve heard was by Fr. Jack Ledwon at St. Joesph University Parish on the feast of Corpus Christi (June 2012). There were also some children receiving first communion that Sunday. He said that he was going to talk about circles and asked the children what the circles symbolized. He brought donuts, pool noodle, picture of the Olympic rings, and some other things. And finally he help up the host and he said that the host symbolized what all the other items symbolized together.

  2. Valerie

    I grew up knowing many priest because my mom worked at a rectory in Syracuse. I spent time there and working in the church nursery. Before I left for college there was many I was close too, but one who stood out in the sense of preaching or speaking and being able to capture his audience of all ages! Fr. Raymond Wood, could always bring it home for me. I always left mass thinking and understanding what was said or explained in the scriptures. I left with a message in hand, a lesson to follow. Then in 1984 I attended D’Youville College, joined Campus Ministry and attended mass said by Fr. Bob Perelli. Never before were the scriptures, not only brought to life but put into perspective so well. Fr. Bob was easy to listen to, and understand. He made me not want to miss mass or the story of the scriptures and lesson I would leave with. I have moved 6 times since 1988 and have never found any one who can capture my attention like him. I recently read Fr. Bob’s sample from “a Month of Sundays”, It’s a cold and broken Hallelujah. Brought me back to church and to a renewal of my faith! I just wish I was again one of his parishioners. Thanks to both of these priest for their service to God and sharing their gift of speaking.

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