Many years ago I used to give a talk to seminarians about taking responsibility for their spiritual growth after their ordination. One of the recommendations I offered them was that when they prepared their homilies each week they spend some time reflecting on the scriptures for the coming Sunday with some of their parishioners.
My reasoning was that the scriptures—as the inspired word of God—speak to each person differently. I reminded them that as celibate males it can be helpful to hear how the scriptures speak to women, to those who are married, and those of different ages. I also told them that over the years, I have been continually and pleasantly surprised—and often humbled—by the insights and wisdom of parishioners as they shared how a particular scriptural passage spoke to them. I always closed by telling them that it was the height of foolishness and hubris for a priest, deacon, or bishop to think that in preparing a homily they can’t benefit from the insights of others.
Now, I know most people reading this column aren’t preparing to become preachers. But you do participate in the homily each week, by listening to it and reflecting on how it affects or reflects your life. Given this, your insights are important and can provide a grounding in reality for the homilist.
I would hope parishioners would feel confident and comfortable enough to let a preacher know when he has missed the mark and failed to tie the homily to your lived experience. A good preacher can learn from feedback from his parishioners. That doesn’t mean just telling a priest his homily was “good” or “bad.” Instead it may involve telling the priest about a specific point that resonated with you or raising a question about something you didn’t understand.
Preaching is an art not a science. Preparing a homily takes time and effort, and an openness to God’s grace and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In my experience, however, priests often face three major pitfalls in regard to preaching. 1. Superficiality; 2. Splitting; and 3. Spilling. Let me say a word about each of these.
Superficiality occurs when the preacher spouts glib bromides and tired maxims instead of taking the time to do background reading and research, prayerful reflection on the scriptures, and welcoming and listening to the insights of others. It may be easy to be sweet and sugary in preaching, but the people in the pews deserve better.
Splitting occurs when the preacher tells people how they should live and act, but isn’t living and acting that way himself. In its worst form, this has occurred with abusive priests, but it also occurs when a preacher is telling people to be good, kind, forgiving, generous and loving, and isn’t doing this in his own life. People pick up on this almost immediately. It takes a certain amount of humility to be able to say: We need to do these things and I struggle with them in my own life. This is a vital aspect of preaching.
Spilling in preaching is perhaps the worst offense for preachers. Spilling occurs when a preacher decides to talk about their personal issues, or uses the pulpit to express his own opinion on a political issue. For example, when I was growing up I remember hearing a homily on the evils of chlorinated water. I also have heard priests preach about how poorly they have been treated by people in their parish.
To this day, I have no idea where these priests found these themes in the scriptures, but nonetheless they preached on them. These are good examples of spilling. At base, spilling is an abuse of the power of the pulpit. The person who is spilling may use the scriptures as a springboard, but in reality all they are doing is using the pulpit to promote their own ideas and agenda. It is always and everywhere, wrong.
The power of preaching is not to deliver holy truth from on high, but to connect people’s everyday experience with the extraordinary experience and presence of God. Preparing and giving a homily should be an opportunity and an occasion for spiritual growth. Most priests I know take preaching very seriously and work hard at it. I suspect, though, that there have been times when we have all been guilty of superficiality, splitting, or spilling. And unfortunately, some do this on a regular basis. One of the best ways to prevent this is to take the time and make the effort to listen to what the scriptures are saying to others, to consider the lives of the people in the pews, and to connect God to their everyday live. That can help us hear more clearly and keenly what God has to say to us in the scriptures.