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Effective Catholic Preaching—Part 3

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This is the third installment in our series examining the characteristics of effective preaching in the Catholic tradition today. What follows is my complete list of twenty points. The first five have appeared in the first two parts of this series.

1. Every homily must be (the) Good News. (See Part One.)

2. A homily should make one point, and one point only. (See Part One.)

3. Every homily should appeal to all three dimensions of the human person: mind, heart, and will.

To what I said in Part One, I would add:

a. The appeal to the mind engages both cognition (“left brain”) and imagination (“right brain”).
The use of the imagination is crucial to human understanding. Good preaching deploys both discursive and imaginative language.

b. The appeal to the heart both arouses and educates the heart’s desire, inviting the hearer to fall in love with Love itself.
Preaching doesn’t simply arouse emotion for its own sake. The purpose is to lead the hearer into relationship with the very source of Love.

c. The appeal to the will engages the body and moves the hearer to service and mission.
Preaching is not dictatorial, telling the hearer what to do. But through suggestions, examples, and invitations it makes the hearer want to enact the message in his/her own life. And as we put it into action, we actually know it better in our hearts and minds.

d. Preaching draws upon and inspires us to the good, the true, and the beautiful.
Experience confirms what classical aesthetics teaches us: the good, the true and the beautiful are inherently attractive to the human person, and pursued rightly, they lead us to God and change us.

4. We must preach in a way that animates, stimulates, calls forth, or focuses the proclamation of the Good News by all the baptized. (See Part One.)

5. We preach to facilitate the encounter with a living God. (See Part Two.)

6. Preaching offers or points the way to authentic human encounter, relationship, and community.

Catholic preaching is unapologetically ecclesial, communitarian. We believe that Christ is met and followed in company with others. We matter to one another, and what we share on the journey gives a special depth and quality to our relationships with one another.

7. We treat the listener with respect, as a well-disposed, intelligent adult.

Occasionally we preach to children or youth, of course, but preaching in the Sunday assembly is fundamentally adult business. We address the hearer as a person of faith and good will, who is seeking to grow in discipleship. We respect her/his conscience, free will, and life path. We seek to understand better how adults learn and grow.

8. Preaching has a (quasi-)narrative quality: you sense you’re going somewhere, on a journey of discovery, following a thread, part of something that has dynamism, movement, goal.

What keeps us engaged with the telling of a good story? Suspense, drama, the promise of a meaningful point of arrival. Good preaching draws us along in a way much like that. Even if we know where the homilist is taking us, we want to see how he gets there and what it means for us. There is a promise that even an old message will be rediscovered anew, with freshness and life.

9. Preaching gives the hearer a new way to see his/her life.

As Fulfilled in Your Hearing says, “The homily is not so much on the Scriptures as from and through them,” offering the listener “a scriptural interpretation of human existence.” The goal is not so much a lesson as a lens, a new way to look at the listener’s life and world, a horizon of vision filled with new possibility in the grace of a relationship with God. To put it another way, the Christian mysteries are opened up in such a way as to cast light on our lives. Our doctrinal tradition informs and guides preaching, and pushes us into deeper water, but is not so much a point of arrival as a point of departure for the task of interpreting our lives.

10. The preacher conveys personal authenticity, investment, and urgency.

The preacher’s goal is to draw attention to Christ, not to himself, of course. However, the preacher cannot and ought not disappear from view. The hearer needs to know that the preacher believes this message is urgently important and possible, with God’s help. Even when not explicit, a dimension of preaching is always personal witness.

11. The homily is challenging: it motivates the hearer to keep on reflecting and responding, conveying that change/growth is possible, within reach.

Fundamentally, our hearers want to be challenged. Good preaching “sticks,” that is to say, it is easily remembered and lays down a challenge worthy of continued reflection and response after Mass, holding out the hope of real transformation.

12. The homily is concrete in the ways that it touches real human experience; it takes all human experience seriously and seeks to put it into conversation with the Good News.

Good preaching has its feet on the ground, even as it invites us to soar beyond ourselves. It always takes human experience of all kinds seriously, both for the way experience can make faith difficult, and as the context in which God reaches out to meet us.

13. Preaching honestly confronts evil, in both its personal and social manifestations, and provides hope for overcoming it.

Evil in its various forms is not abstract but something every hearer must confront. Effective preaching is frank about naming this and calls attention to a God who is fighting against it. In Christ—who preached, healed, and cast out evil—we are not trapped victims of evil but share a hope for overcoming what mars creation. Good preaching joins us to God’s power to rout the force of evil.

14. The homily speaks to a concrete hearer and a concrete community.

Good preaching is local theology; it springs from personal relationship with the hearers, knowing and taking seriously the contours of their lives, their hopes and aspirations, their daily difficulties and griefs. The listener comes away from such preaching feeling, “Father was really speaking to me today.”

15. The homily is approachable: it invites participation by the listener, including feedback, real conversation, and mutual learning.

It is often remarked that good preaching has a conversational tone to it, albeit a conversation about matters of utmost importance. The hearer feels invited to a real dialogue, both during the preaching and after, in the back of church, over coffee and donuts in the church basement, or elsewhere.

16. Preaching recognizes and embraces both male and female life experience.

Catholic ordained ministers need to remember that men and women experience life in somewhat different ways. Preaching should not focus exclusively on the experience of one gender, but strive to draw upon and speak to both, building bridges between men and women.

17. Preaching is inculturated: it understands, affirms and challenges the cultural context.

Good preachers become amateur anthropologists, i.e., they get to know the values and practices which characterize the context they share with their hearers, and they assist their hearers in cultural discernment. Cultures contain both lights and shadows; therefore, they can be drawn upon for support for gospel living but must also be critiqued and challenged.

18. We preach a big God who is both transcendent and immanent.

Preaching a God who is always close and familiar could be preaching a domesticated God, a God who is too small. Similarly, preaching a God who is always beyond us and other than us is also too small to do justice to Judeo-Christian revelation. We stand firmly in the paradox of a mysterious God beyond our full understanding who nevertheless has come intimately close to us, especially through Jesus Christ.

19. Our preaching is always paschal, a liberating word from the paradox of death and resurrection.

Every Mass tells the story of Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection. For us, it is the story of all stories, echoed in creation itself and time and again in our own experience: every death yields new life. Our hearers have many, many experiences of dying in various forms. We stand with them in faith that every death is the passage to some new grace, some new experience of God’s faithfulness.

20. Our preaching is incarnational: it affirms and elevates human life, creation, materiality, and recognizes the grace of God building on/working through nature.

It is not incidental that God chose to bring about redemption through becoming one of us; it is the key to the way God typically works with us, by working through the goodness of creation, bodiliness, and history. The Incarnation is God’s ongoing and permanent Yes to human life.

Does it sound like a complicated task, to preach in a way characterized by these twenty points? Indeed it is! Daring, exciting—and humbling.

Your thoughts on what makes for effective preaching? Please write me at martenpr@nd.edu.

Featured Photo: Bishop Patrick Joseph McGrath giving a homily at Saint Albert the Great in Palo Alto, California. Photo by Opusdeiphotography. CC BY-SA 3.0

Michael Connors, C.S.C.

Michael Connors, C.S.C. is director of the John S. Marten Program in Homiletics at the University of Notre Dame. He is an Associate Professional Specialist in the Department of Theology at Notre Dame, teaching in the area of preaching and pastoral ministry.