The anatomy of a great homily

| June 7, 2016 | 0 Comments

What goes into a good homily?

The Catholic Spirit put the question to Father Thomas Margevicius, who teaches homiletics to men preparing for the priesthood at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity in St. Paul. He also is the pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Minneapolis, where he says Mass in sign language for members of the deaf community.

The following is in his own words. The content has been edited for length and clarity.

Given from the heart

Pope Francis talks about the measure of the homily’s success being the nearness of the priest, the faithful sensing that he’s close to them, that he doesn’t live in a high tower; he understands what they’re really going through in terms of trying to live the faith in their own context.

The idea of the homily is not really to be this oratorical show-off, but to be familiar conversation. It should be natural, coming from the man’s heart and not sound as though he is out of touch with the reality that I live. So I think what really makes for a successful homily is the people sense that Father’s real, he knows where we’re coming from, he talks our language.

Short and relevant

One of the things that Pope Francis has said is the homily shouldn’t be too long because then it overburdens that part of the liturgy to the detriment of the rest. It has importance, but you don’t want to exaggerate it. At the same time, people say that they leave the Catholic Church because of bad preaching and they get better preaching in some Protestant churches.

All the great homilists have been both naturally gifted and worked hard at it. You do have some good homilists who have great natural gifts, but they coast and don’t put a lot of effort into it. Those homilies tend to be entertaining, but can lack in depth and relevance. And then there are other men who don’t have the natural gifts, but invest quite a bit in practice, preparation, prayer. And, because they put so much into the prayer part, even though their delivery might be less flashy than a gifted man, the homily hits home in a way that a gifted but unprayerful homilist does not.

Modeled on the methods of great preachers

Father Robert, now Bishop, Barron is a very fine preacher. He’s got great content and he’s relevant to what people are really going through today. He knows modern culture and how the word of God interests in a way that few people can match.

I’ve never personally heard Fulton Sheen. He died when I was a young boy, but I’ve heard tapes of him and seen videos, and he had both the external gifts, a certain charisma, a flamboyance about him, but he made it relevant in such a way that he drew crowds that even today Protestant preachers would drool over. He was more popular than Milton Berle was on television.

I had one student some years ago who was an average intellect in terms of theology. Because he realized he wasn’t the top tier intellect in the class, he was anxious about his preaching. But, that student was a very good storyteller. And so, I remember at one point he said to me point blank, “You mean, all I’ve got to do is tell good stories and I’ll be a good preacher?” And, I said. . . yes. When you read the Gospels and how Jesus preached the parables, Jesus was a masterful storyteller. Storytelling, I think, is an undervalued gift that this seminarian had, and I wish more of my students would feel the freedom [to tell stories in homilies].

Delivered with confidence

I remember a quote I once heard from Johnny Carson when someone asked him when did he get over stage fright. And, he said, “I’ve never gotten over it. I still have it every time I come out there.” The issue is not to try to get rid of it, the issue is to be OK with it and then use that energy, the tension that it creates, and direct that into a better performance.

All performers will tell us the best way to preclude being frozen by stage fright is practice, practice, practice; to be so familiar with your material and so comfortable in your own skin that when the time comes and the tension begins, you know exactly where you’re going, you’re not at a loss, it’s not unfamiliar territory.

Prepared with prayer

What is the gauge of a good homily? The feedback that people give? My own sense of satisfaction? In the end, God knows what he does through whatever words come out of my mouth. I can’t control how God will work in a listener’s heart. But, I can ask God to work, and can make myself available. So, I would imagine that the right answer is my best homily would be the one that I prayed the most about.

One of the more memorable experiences I had preaching was when I was at Nativity [of Our Lord in St. Paul] in my first summer as a priest. We had one of those summer rainstorms where you got 6 inches of rain overnight.

The rain started Saturday night around 10 p.m. And then, by midnight, I started to notice a trickle of water in the basement. And then, by 3 a.m., the water was actually gushing through the concrete block wall into the basement. And, I’m just trying to do my best with mops and shop vacs and buckets to try to keep as much of the water out of the carpet and off the walls as I could. And, I was just getting frustrated. I must have gotten maybe a total of a half-hour of sleep that night.

Then, I had to get up that morning and preach at Nativity. I was a physical and emotional wreck. So, I got up there in the pulpit and I said, “What do you do when God pulls the rug on you?”And then I started to cry as I’m preaching.

People just remembered that and they said, “Don’t worry, Father, we got water in our basement, too.” I felt silly. It’s only water in the basement. It’s not like my mother died. But, somehow at that moment, it hit me in a vulnerable place. I preached from a place of vulnerability, and it had a powerful effect on people’s lives.

I’ll never forget my very first Sunday when I started at St. John the Baptist in Dayton. I was up there to preach to all the assembly, and I said, “When I approach the Scriptures that I have to preach, I talk to God about them, and God sometimes makes me uncomfortable. But I believe that when God puts something on my heart, chances are that’s what God wants parishioners to address in their hearts as well. So, if I read the word of God and it makes me squirm, I’ll preach in such a way that you’re going to squirm because that’s God trying to get your attention just like he’s trying to get mine.”

Indicative of effort

I think I’m pretty good with English, I’m pretty good at getting a good message across. I’m not so good with signing, I’m not so good with translating on the fly. So, trying to do four things at once comes across as awkward. But, I’m willing to put myself out there, and the people see I’m awkward and they say, “You know what? He’s trying.” And, I hope that counts for something.

Most of the faithful really have a lot of patience for their priest trying to give a homily. They’ll put up with a lot of mediocrity because they really want him to do well, and they’re pulling for him. That’s what I tell my seminarians. Many of them get bent out of shape about mispronouncing one word. “Oh, I just screwed up in my homily, the whole thing’s going to crash and burn.” No, the faithful are pulling for you. They really want you to do well and will tolerate a lot of imperfection. So, be OK with that. Just be more concerned about being prayerful and real than you are with being polished.

Words of wisdom

Five priests of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis celebrate their 60th jubilees this year. They offer advice and encouragement to the nine men ordained May 28.

Interviews by Dave Hrbacek

“The fact that you are being ordained the day before the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ suggests that I quote to you what J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote to his son. He said, ‘I put before you the one great thing to love on earth, the Blessed Sacrament. Here you will find romance, honor, glory, fidelity and the true way of all your loves upon earth.’ Here, you, the newly ordained, will find the grace of your fidelity for all the years of your priesthood. And remember, when you celebrate the Eucharist, you are, each time, bringing your flock, in the words of the Second Vatican Council, to the source and summit of all their Christian life.”

— Father James Reidy

“Be prepared for the unusual and unexpected. You can plan ahead, but it doesn’t always go according to plan. Nothing does. Things change all the time. Remember to be flexible. You might have a lot of good ideas, but they don’t always work, so you have to adjust to the situation and adjust to the people you’re dealing with. Sometimes that’s hard to do, but you still have to be able to meet them on their ground.”

— Father Francis Roach

“One thought that comes to my mind is having compassion for the underdog, for the powerless, for the marginal people. I think often in parish work, you end up in the middle of a controversy, and if you sit down with the group that tends to be the powerless, the marginal group in the debate, I think often that’s the right side. Nine times out of 10, you’re on the right side. Be more sensitive to the people that are often neglected and hurting. I would just encourage young priests to be aware of that. So often, I think people are attracted to the powerful and the mighty. But, it’s the poor, the hungry and the homeless that often are the ones that are the objects of neglect. Also, be kind and be a man of faith in your parish. Those are the two qualities I think people are looking for when they see a new pastor. They hope that he’s a man of faith, a man of prayer. Secondly, they hope that he’ll be kind. Those are qualities that are indispensable to being a good pastor.”

— Father Bill Kenney

“Stay as close to our Lord as possible and have true devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary.”

— Father Fred Meyer

“You must extend your love to all God’s people and persevere in your priestly vocation, whatever challenges may come.”

— Father Marvin O’Connell

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Category: Ordinations