New York. Last week. A gala fundraising dinner. About 300 people came. Before dinner a mass. It was something else. A very talented choir. Trumpets and all. It reminded me of Mozart’s Coronation Mass. „I haven’t attended a mass like this for years,“ was a comment that was heard afterwards. Testimonies of evangelization missions that touched me deeply. A financier who, in the shadow of skyscrapers, gets people to make life confessions. In its finest moments, our apostolate movement „Regnum Christi“ is exactly that: very missionary. If we have understood something, it is this: the Church is not waiting on a move of God, the Church is God’s move in the world. It is how he loves to work. He wants our hearts, but also our voices, our arms, our feet. Our voice to declare and bear witness to his name. Our voice to comfort, to edify, to inspire, to admonish, to strengthen, to affirm, to teach, to empower. Our arms and our hands to do his work, to be not only heart and voice for him, but also his feet to carry his message where no one will carry it. And yes, our heart, so that he may love through us. That came across to me yesterday in a touching way. And yet.
And yet one conversation made me think. A couple told me about a homily. But not from the one we had just heard. It was from one they had heard in Florida the week before, on Easter Sunday. Their children had turned their backs on the Catholic Church. That made them sad. But in the end, they had allowed themselves to be persuaded to go to the service in this non-denominational church, which their children now attended. They were overwhelmed. Not from the service. That there was no Eucharist, that something was missing…that was all too obvious. But the husband couldn’t stop talking to me about the sermon. Not just the examples. It was „incredibly good“. And took more than an hour. And no one fell asleep or walked out. Half of the people were moved to tears. Deeply touched. Gripped. And the sermon was challenging. Relevant to life. The encounter with Jesus was central. And there were a good 500 people, mostly young. In a service, which lasted a total of one and a half hours. What he didn’t know (I happen to know the place): That was just one of about 11 such services at 3 locations. And the that church community is incredibly committed to the city around them. “We do that a little too, but not like that”, he said.
For me it was a very surprising conversation. I was at a gala dinner, whose intent was to raise money for my confreres‘ work and Regnum Christi in New York City. All the people there were somehow close to us and had come to this evening precisely because they want to support OUR work. Because they are convinced, even enthusiastic, about it. „You guys are awesome and you do great work“ is something I heard enough of during that evening. And yet, this couple had nothing better to do than enthusiastically and almost euphorically tell me about last Sunday’s sermon. By a non-denominational guy in Miami.
I find it difficult when in Church circles you sometimes here something along the lines of, „Well, they only care about the sermon“, „It’s all a cult of personality“, „They don’t have the Eucharist“, „They lack depth “ or „The music is not a correct form of prayer, it lacks venerable solemnity“. I think we, as a Church, make it too easy for ourselves. I increasingly believe that one of the reasons for our empty churches is irrelevant, boring, often horizontal, unrelated to real faith preaching, or just plain bad. And the Eucharist? There is a reason why the climax of the Mass, the celebration of the Eucharist, is prepared for and led to by the Liturgy of the Word. If this no longer happens, we run the risk that the most precious thing we have will no longer be able to unfold its full potential.
There would be so much more potential. And there I should be the first to look myself in the mirror. I believe that we as Legionaries do not find it too difficult to deliver a “not bad” sermon relatively quickly. You would expect that after 10 to 12 years of training. But there’s a difference between a good sermon and a great one. A good sermon and one that knocks it out of the park, more so yet, if it is deeply anointed by the Holy Spirit and prepared for in prayer. I am not sure we understand what an ingenious tool the Lord has put in our hands. „Preaching that pierces hearts“ is a big theme of Preaching on Purpose – a book inspired by the Divine Renovation movement around Father James Mallon. „Never before has a man spoken like this“ (John 7:46) the temple guard replied to the high priests as the reason why they did not take Jesus as a prisoner. „For he taught them as one having authority, not as their scribes“ (Mt 7:29). Agreed. The sermon is not everything. But Jesus gave a LOT of time to preaching. So should we. Along with personal spiritual direction and prayer, the sermon is the primary vehicle the priest has in building and contributing towards a church that prays, seeks the Lord, is engaged in ministry, is generous in resources and finances, and is on mission…forms missionary disciples.
What does that mean for us as the JP2 Center?
“When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37). That was the sermon of St. Peter on the first day of Pentecost. „Cut to the heart“ is the work of the Spirit of God. We can’t produce it. And it was the consequence of Peter first himself being filled with the Spirit. Preaching needs the anointing from above. That means pray for the homily and for one preaching. Before, during and after. Prayer can be especially helpful when preparation becomes stuck. It is a beautiful thing to have others involved in this prayer preparation. One simple way we do this is through team prayer, which we do together with our so-called host teams and musicians. We come together half an hour before mass and pray and ask the Holy Spirit to come. But of course that should not be the only prayer preparation. That’s why the „1“ is in brackets here. Prayer is in a category of its own importance. It is the foundation of any effort to prepare the homily. The prayer must penetrate the other 7 points mentioned below. The homily will not inspire unless the Spiritus, the Spirit of God, is present. It will not enthuse if the Spirit does not permeate it, if it is prepared and presented all too humanly, basing oneself merely on human effort. It is almost impossible to overemphasize prayer. If God doesn’t show up, the homily will go nowhere and definitely not pierce any hearts.
Yes. The Holy Spirit must anoint the homily. But that is no excuse for lack of preparation. For us at the JP2 Center, this means investing a lot of time into preparing homilies well. For me in my present circumstances I am happy if I get 7 to 10 hours of preparation, not counting the preparation in prayer and the „gathering“ of ideas. More is not possible for me presently, except for very special occasions. That is a LOT more preparation than I used to. But ideally, where I hope to land in the future, is somewhere around 20 hours of preparation . That’s almost on par with what Divine Renovation is proposing and what most of the preachers that I have learned from are investing.
I also need time to cross out everything I would have said. A good homily is characterized by the focus on the essentials. Respect and appreciation for our listeners demands quality, focus, relevance from us. If they lend us their ear, the least we can do is prepare well. Speaking of time: our ideal is the Ted-Talk format (here their Webseite). Most TED Talks are designed for 16 to 18 minutes for various reasons. Of course, you can also say something meaningful in 5 minutes. And it is also true that time is somewhat relative. An irrelevant 5-minute homily can seem like an eternity. The homily that was mentioned at the beginning, which lasted more than an hour, seemed too long to no one. We don’t want to be consumers, we want to educate disciples of Jesus. And that also implies the willingness to challenge. Don’t ask for a “quick-quick, hopefully the mass will be over soon” mentality. We want to take time to delve into a topic of God’s Word. We get the most pushback about the length of our homily from Churched people. The unchurched don’t know that a mass has to be over in 45 minutes.
It is helpful to build a preaching team that provides feedback during the preparation of the homily and afterwards. However, this is not so easy for the priest. With his homily he makes himself very vulnerable. Especially if he is serious and authentically says what is on his heart. It’s not easy when that’s being criticized. And that’s where it helps when the members of the preaching team understand that. And at the same time it is helpful if the priest can summon up the humility to accept suggestions and criticism. Exra brownie points: Identifying topics with the team that are important for the congregation and not only after the homily, but getting feedback beforehand.
We preach in series. With some exceptions such as certain festive days such as Christmas, Easter and Pentecost, we take 3 to 8 Sundays to explore a topic in depth. This has been an interesting experience. One would think that one would then have to force the Sunday readings to fit the proposed theme. But we try to do it the other way around. Three times a year we read all the readings for about 4 months in advance, pray and see if there is a common thread between Sundays. At the same time we try to ask the Lord what he wants, what the topics should be. And how the readings from the Bible illuminate this topic. In the many years that we have used this method, I have never felt the need to „manipulate“ the readings. On the contrary. I believe that my preaching is much more grounded in the Word of God than it used to be.
4.Relevant (for life)
That means first of all that the listeners have to understand. It is not about a theological lecture. It’s about life change. Opening up to Our Lord and his message. It should not penetrate merely our ideas, but profoundly influence action. But not because one has to, but because one is personally convinced. That requires inspiration. However, it also requires clarity and concrete proposals as to what needs to be done. Here it can be helpful to ask yourself the double question at the beginning of the homily preparation: What do I want you to know afterwards, and what do I believe the Lord wants you and I to do?
5.Descriptive or visual
The homily becomes relevant to life when it becomes clear what the practical consequences for everyday life should be. This is where testimonials can be very helpful. And storytelling. But if the homily is just one narration of a story and nothing more, then there is a danger of becoming superficial, it will lack spiritual depth. Or it will just become a compilation of self-help tips. But the Gospel is not a self-help book. It is the power of God, the Risen Lord, who wants to work in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. It must therefore always remain the „Good News“, not just a suggestion to do good. It must keep reminding us that the Lord saved us, that we are allowed to come to him and that it is he who forgives us but also sanctifies us. The homily should therefore be an aid to growing in faith, which becomes effective in love (cf. Gal 5,6).
6.Understandable For and Respectful Of Outsiders.
Descriptive also means that a language is spoken that the listeners understand. If, for example, I use a word like “sacrament” or “grace” or “Eucharist” I explain what that means. Or instead of saying, „Romans 8:14,“ I will saying something like, „There is a book in the Bible called the Epistle to the Romans. It was written by someone called Paul.” In other words. We don’t water down the Gospel. But we try to remember that maybe Mrs. so-and-so’s son is here today, who is giving the Church a first and last chance and has no idea about faith. How would I talk when he’s in the room? And how would I talk about abortion when I can assume some in the room have had abortions? Or about transgender, if I can assume there’s someone in the room who has deep doubts about their identity?
It’s not about rubbing the „truth“ in someone’s face or stuffing it down their throats, but about winning them to Jesus and thus to themselves. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t tackle hot issues. It’s about the tone, the way, my motivation why I’m even talking about it. Sometimes someone might come and say, „But, Father George, there’s nobody here today that’s unchurched, why are you talking like that?“ To which I respond: „If I don’t talk like that, then you’ll never invite anybody who is unchurched. You wont feel safe to do so.“ We are missionary church. That takes missionary preaching. Provided that we really believe that Jesus is the Savior of the world and not one teacher of the good life among a plethora of such teachers: „For there is no other name under heaven given unto men, by which we must be saved ( Acts 4:12).“
There are a variety of methods for this. Personally, I find Andi Stanley’s (adopted by Divine Renovation and others) „I-we-God-you-we „structure helpful. This structure isn’t a big fan of preaching „points.“ Rather, it is about preaching a single idea. In a way that is very similar to storytelling. And because of that, I think it can more easily inspire and create an atmosphere where the Word of God can really „cut to the heart.“ Because only then will it lead to a life change. So the structure looks like this:
- „I“ – I’ll throw out a question for which I’m really (and not just rhetorically or artificially) looking for an answer. Something that is currently moving me.
- „We“ – then you can say something like „do you sometimes ask yourself that“? – So you try to build a bridge between what moves me and the audience. If that succeeds, tension arises immediately, because the listener then also wants to hear an answer to this question. It has become his own. And then he doesn’t fall asleep, and he wants to follow you on your journey. That makes the homily much more liek a pathway, a story, and much less „Point #1,#2,#3“.
- „God“ – that’s where you bring in the Word of God. What does the Word of God tell us today about this question? It is the moment of enlightenment where we try, like a flashlight, to shine the Word of God on something that has not been clarified and still lies in a certain darkness.
- „You“ – then you take what you saw in the „God“ section and show how that applies to the everyday life of the listener. It might be good to suggest a crawl, walk, and run step here… that way you can speak to different target audiences: People who may have little knowledge of faith and are going to church for the first time. People who have been there for a very long time but maybe have become lukewarm, or also people who are already quite far along their path of discipleship and are still being challenged by the Lord to grow in love.
- “We” – it is the moment of inspiration. “Imagine a community where x or y is part of the culture. What an impact that would have on the lives of our children, our workplace, if…etc.”
It pays to invest in preaching. My encounter some nights ago in New York inspired once more to overcome any form of mediocrity. We owe that to our Church, to our world, to the people who are entrusted to our care and to those who don’t even know what a church looks like from the inside.