A Catholic who goes to Mass every Sunday and holiday has, by age 18, heard nearly 1,000 homilies. That same Catholic has brainstormed, composed, and delivered about zero. For priests, of course, the practice is routine—and in a recent series of interviews, six clergy at Boston College illuminated some of the mysteries surrounding it.
“I think ideally [a good homily] gives people food for thought,” says Fr. Casey Beaumier, S.J., who preaches at the 10pm Mass in St. Joseph’s Chapel. “It’s something that affirms where people are in the moment and invites them to go deeper and to pursue something greater....[People] who are coming to Mass, they’re really striving to live well. I would never want someone to leave a Mass that I offer saying, ‘I’m so challenged. I don’t think I can live up to that.’ ...I think people face that enough.”
Likewise, Fr. Liam Bergin, a Professor of Theology, explains, “A homily is to encourage people to live the Gospel...to believe that, with God’s help, they can live the values and the vision of the Kingdom.”
Though most priests’ goals in preaching are similar, the process of composing and delivering homilies varies from person to person. Some clergy take notes, meticulously writing and memorizing their texts—nearly all six priests agreed they did this in their first years of ministry. Most are now accustomed to formulating homilies in their heads, especially for daily Masses, and there are just as many methods of formulation as there are priests.
All agreed, however, that preaching starts with prayer and meditation on the week’s readings.
“I begin by Sunday night or Monday reading the Scripture for the following week,” says Fr. Bergin. “[The readings] stay with me all week. And I would perhaps look at a Biblical commentary particularly on the Gospel message, looking at the relationship between the Old Testament passage and the Gospel passage.”
After years of becoming familiar with the Scriptures and their many messages, it can be difficult to decide on a cohesive line of thought for a short homily. This, too, requires reflection, and sometimes an openness to spontaneity.
Fr. Oliver Rafferty, S.J., asks himself, “If I go to Mass, what would I like to hear in the sermon? [That’s] what you would preach about.”
“What I do is I will try to think of what one point I want to make,” says Fr. Ron Tacelli, S.J. “And sometimes it happens that during the Mass, something in one of the readings will strike me... very, very, very intensely. ...It’s almost as if something inside you is saying, ‘No, this needs to be said. Something else needs to be said.’ And I would say almost 100% of the time, that’s what I’ll go with, if it strikes me right on the spot.”
A 2001 Gallup poll claimed that 40% of Americans have a fear of public speaking, so parishioners may wonder whether their priests are afraid of giving homilies. Though some took homiletics training in the seminary—where their mannerisms and speaking methods were critiqued—such courses are not a guarantee against nervousness.
“I am always very tense before I preach a homily,” says Fr. Michael Himes. “The reason is, I think, that when I’m teaching [a class], I’m speaking for myself. When I’m preaching, I’m speaking in the name of the Church. That’s a big responsibility. I find that very tension-producing.”
To seminarians and new priests who are nervous about the prospect of preaching, Fr. Himes adds, “Good! (Laughs.) Stay nervous. I think that’s a good thing. We should approach it with a certain amount of awe.”
This doesn’t necessarily mean that a priest can’t feel at ease in his parish. Fr. Casey describes St. Joseph’s Chapel as his “spiritual home,” saying, “I feel very free in that space, and I can move about. I don’t think at St. Joseph’s I’ve ever preached at the ambo.”
In the end, after 2,000 years of Church history, parishioners might ask whether it’s possible for their priests to deliver “original” homilies. For Fr. Tacelli, the idea of originality has nothing to do with the duty of preaching.
“You can want to write inspiring homilies,” he says. “[If you] just preach what you really believe, you will be inspiring. But if you set out to be inspiring, it’s going to be all about you. It’s going to be showbiz.”
Similarly, Fr. Peter Folan, S.J., makes the distinction between “originality” and “freshness.”
“Even if you have an idea that you’re borrowing from Augustine...is there a fresh way today to present it?” he asks. “[My goal is] to try to present something in a new way, because the Gospel is ever new—or to even use Augustine, ‘O Beauty, so ancient and so new.’”
Of his ministry, he adds, “[I want] to try to tap into why [the Gospel] has not just been Good News in the past, but why it’s Good News today.”
Correction: The Print issue states that Fr. Michael Himes is a priest of the Society of Jesus. He is, in fact, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn. We regret this error.
Image courtesy of Pascal Deloche