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A New Homiletic Hearing

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We are a society which tends to live out of its mouth. It is hard to visit a doctor’s office, a restaurant, or even a church these days when folks are not chirping about this or that. Perhaps some of it is necessary; much of it not. And maybe we have always loved much talking. After all, even before technology made instant communication a no-brainer, oral cultures trafficked in stories, gossip, and newsy items. Now we have soundbites and lots of noise to keep us company: a plethora of words jockey for position to get our attention, including evangelization.

Rather than more words, however, we could all benefit from a better set of ears. In a recent homily, Fr. Eugene Hensell, a monk of my community, challenged the congregation to take hold of “a new hearing” as a prelude to the New Evangelization. His point was that, unless we discover new ways of listening to the Word made visible, we are probably not going to be very good at reimagining evangelization. That attention to listening goes double for preachers. If we pretend that we are trumpets of the Good News without acknowledging the ears inclined to hear the melody which has called us into mission, then we are chirping about a lot of cackle and nonsense. According to Fulfilled in Your Hearing (1982), the liturgical homily aims at “deepening and giving expression to the unity that is already present through the sacrament of baptism.”[1] Listening comprehends the mysterious space where the preacher encounters the Word of God for the assembly. I will suggest three ways here in which a new homiletic hearing might be engaged: the preacher, the text, and the assembly.

Good homilies depend on a preacher’s self-awareness as a listener. The one who preaches then becomes the first hearer of the message. In our Foundations for Preaching course at St. Meinrad, we typically assign the students to review a homily off-campus and analyze the event through the lens of Ken Untener’s book, Preaching Better: Practical Suggestions for Homilists (1999). I think the exercise encourages a lifelong encounter with experiencing other people’s preaching and asking: How did this preaching deepen me or not? What was its focus and why did it grab me? Did the preaching make a difference in my life? These experiential questions are related to important psychological and spiritual inventories which ought to form the ongoing life of any preacher. In order to be effective in preaching, we must know what is happening in our own lives. Am I present to the Word of God as I hear it unfolding before me, or am I preoccupied with past resentments and angers or worried about future decisions and changes? A preacher would do well to listen to such questions before serving the Good News on the Table of the Word.

Second, good preaching is only as deep as it lends insight into the Scriptures. Sounds simple enough, but by my estimation neglecting Scripture by either a shallow reading or a complete neglect of the text remains a ubiquitous problem in preaching. Sometimes the inattention to the Lectionary for the day remains a lack of preparation pure and simple. Let’s be honest about it: listening to a text alone in a quiet place does not carry immediate rewards or benefits to some preachers; some would prefer more extroverted pastoral ministry. At other times, the preacher’s personality overshadows the scriptural text at the liturgy. But that show gets old very quickly, at least for the assembly.

For those who struggle with a deep listening encounter with the Word, we might keep the prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel in mind: these prophets literally devoured the Word of God in a scroll. Encountering the Word involves all of our heart and mind. Ironically, an exercise that helps in this regard is reading the text aloud with our fingers in our ears because it jars us to grasp words that slip by when read silently. Also, the use of lectio divina with the Lectionary about a week before the preaching event allows the homily to emerge in the context of pastoral ministry. What words shine to us at this moment and move us to prayer and contemplation?

This last point raises a crucial and third issue: always exegete the assembly. Listen to the people. Preaching is meant for the sake of others, and those are the people to whom we listen faithfully day after day. What are their hopes, dreams and desires? Or their despairs, frustrations and disappointments? When Pope Francis reminds the Church that “shepherds are to smell like the sheep” that experience will clearly surface in a homily that addresses the pastoral needs of the congregation. We can only get there by attentive, pastoral listening to the congregation we serve and by attending to the Body of Christ, wounds and all. A particular struggle in this regard is dealing with a multi-generational assembly. How do we discover linguistic reference points, symbols, or illustrations which will span the extraordinary range in a Sunday assembly gathered from small children to the elders in their eighties and even their nineties? As ethnic and cultural diversity becomes a more and more complex gift to our Church, what are the ways that cross-cultural preaching might address the needs of people so vastly different? In a certain sense, the Sunday liturgy becomes the site of reorienting a fragmented, wandering people into a new vision of Christian conversion and God’s love. Preaching, then, lifts up the hearts of those gathered to hear the Word with joy. If we meet the people of God where they are, then our words will fall on rich soil, the rich earth which God has given us to till the Word.

Being called to preach and evangelize begins with the ears—with our listening. In his Rule for monks, St. Benedict refers to listening with the “ears of your heart.” If we attend to the deep encounter with the Word of God, we will discover what is truly new in the New Evangelization: a new hearing.

Featured Photo: Cliffords Photography; CC-BY 2.0.

[1] NCCB, Fulfilled in Your Hearing: The Homily in the Sunday Assembly (Washington, D.C.: USCC, 1982), 6-7.

Guerric DeBona, OSB

Fr. Guerric DeBona, OSB, a monk and priest of St. Meinrad Archabbey, is also novice junior master for St. Meinrad Archabbey, and professor of homiletics in the department of pastoral studies.