Can you imagine the headline: “Man falls from window after sermon puts him to sleep?” This actually happened to a young man named Eutychus while he listened to the preaching of no less than Saint Paul himself, as we can read in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 20:9). We shouldn’t judge poor Eutychus too harshly, however. Scripture makes it quite clear that Saint Paul had “talked on and on”- until midnight, as a matter of fact- and Saint Paul once admitted that he wasn’t the most exciting public speaker.
Saint Paul was an inspired evangelist, to be sure, and God used his words to touch the hearts of countless people. Since then, the Church has been blessed with the gifts of many outstanding preachers, such as Saint Dominic and Saint Anthony of Padua. At the same time, Saint Paul wasn’t the last preacher to put his listeners to sleep. And that’s a shame! Good preaching builds up the Church, glorifies God, and changes lives. Preaching is so important, in fact, that Pope Francis makes a special point of discussing the proper preparation of homilies in his new Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium.
It’s been joked that, at ordination, every new priest or deacon is given a “pilot’s license,” in case they need to “wing it” in the pulpit. But winging it should be the exception, and not the rule, because more often than not, “winging it” produces homilies that fly about as well as a lead balloon. Pope Francis concedes that deacons and priests are busy people. Nevertheless, they should strive to make homily preparation a top priority for their ministry.
First and foremost, preachers should call upon the Holy Spirit to help them discern what God would have them say. They should become transformed by prayerfully reflecting upon the biblical texts on which they’ll preach, so they in turn can preach words which God can use to transform others. After all, one cannot give what one does not have! Preachers should know the people they serve so their homilies can speak directly to their situations. They shouldn’t speak over people’s heads, so that they’re left scratching those heads. And although he doesn’t say so in so many words, Pope Francis encourages preachers to employ the KISS principle: Keep It Simple, Silly. Part of being simple is being short, just like the attention spans of so many of us today! Short and simple doesn’t mean superficial; it’s just that they’re a key to being effective. And being effective, Pope Francis insists, also involves delivering a positive message: “Positive preaching always offers hope, points to the future, and does not leave us trapped in negativity.”
Scripture insists that faith comes through what is heard. Therefore, preachers should ensure that what the faithful hear is the very best they have to offer, and comes from the heart. The bottom line is, Pope Francis concludes: “Preparation for preaching requires love.” Amen to that!
Reverend R. Scott Hurd is a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington, and is presently serving a three year term as Vicar General of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter, established by Pope Benedict XVI on January 1, 2012. Fr. Hurd began his ordained ministry as an Episcopal priest and entered the Catholic Church in 1996. He holds degrees from Oxford University and the University of Richmond. He and his wife Stephanie live in Virginia with their three children.
His first book, "Forgiveness: A Catholic Approach," received an "Excellence in Publishing" award from the Association of Catholic Publishers.
His third book, "When Faith Feels Fragile: Hope for the Wary, Weak, and Wandering," was released in September 2013 by Pauline Books and Media.