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If Catholics are known for many things, good homilies are never one of them. The task of a good homilist is to get people to think and even discuss the message over a cup of coffee, lunch or over the phone. “I went to Mass this morning.” is not the reaction you want as much as “I went to Mass this morning and I am not sure I fully agree with the message preached but it made me think.”
A great example of homilies gone wrong comes to us from the American Heritage® Dictionary which defines a homily as “A moralizing lecture or admonition that is often tedious or condescending.” Zing!!! That is never a good goal in forming any kind of good message.
Research: One Key to a Good Homily
Writing a good homily or any other message takes research. My understanding is that many Christian preachers work about eleven hours to prepare a good sermon or homily. Much of that is study. Catholic parishioners also deserve a well-delivered researched and relevant message. Granted Catholic homilies are shorter than their protestant or evangelical counterparts.
In the United States, a good measure is seven minutes which comes to about one thousand words. Evangelical homilies can go for twenty to thirty minutes.
In order to research well, I use Verbum which does not sponsor this article. I also use Medium and news venues and my daily experience.
I begin by looking over the Sunday readings for the upcoming week. Some will write their homilies weeks, months or even years ahead of time. They do not take into account that the further you get from the day you deliver it the less relevant it is to the issues affecting parishioner’s lives. I write my homilies new every week.
The common lectionary used by Catholics and mainstream protestant denominations have three readings and a psalm every Sunday. Except for Easter Season the order for the scripture passages is Old Testament, New Testament and Gospel. Usually, the Gospel and the Old Testament reading have a connection of some type. It might be slight, but it is there.
This coming Sunday the first reading from the book of Wisdom focuses on the importance of pursuing her and the Gospel is about the wise and foolish virgins. The connection is the difference between those who pursue wisdom and act wisely and those who do not.
After choosing my base reading, I consider a theme, but that may change after research, just as you may begin researching an article idea and then come up with a whole different topic based on your search results. The same happens when I begin putting together a homily. This Sunday I will preach on the first reading: the pursuit of wisdom.
I then go to Verbum, which is the Catholic version of an application published Faithlife. The company also publishes Logos for Protestant and Evangelicals. The software enables me to do extensive research of relevant sources as background for composing my homily.
Searching by the citation of the reading I chose, which this week will be Wisdom 6:12–16, I then go through specific publications.
First the Catechisms of the Catholic Church both from Vatican II and the Council of Trent. I find where that citation appears and in what context. Verbum allows me to select the relevant passage in the respective text and add it to a file of digital clippings which I sort by the date.
Second I go through church documents including encyclicals and other statements and going back to the eighteenth century and up to the present.
Third any other relevant sources including the early theologians of the Church such St. John Chrysostom, St. Augustine, St. Jerome and others. I also check out the Summa Theologica St. Thomas Aquinas’ master work.
I then check through modern commentaries through Verbum and then other means depending on the passage I am using.
After my research, I will have an average of twelve pages of notes which I then have to scale down to a one thousand word homily. Some weeks it is a few as four pages and others twenty-five but the average is about twelve.
This week there were no citations in the catechisms or the church documents specifically around Wisdom 6:12–16, so then I searched on the word wisdom and found more relevant passages.
What Are the Relevant Issues?
Taking those notes, I look at the relevant issues of the day. What is happening in the world for example. Last Sunday I preached on the sin of racism. I focused on the reading from Revelation that the saved are a multitude from every race, tongue and nation and since all humanity in biblical teaching comes from one couple there are superior/inferior races. Therefore, those who engage in racism are in sin.
Medium becomes important here. Medium is not a Catholic publication although I publish as Catholic here. The vast majority of the voices are either not Catholic or ex-Catholic or even anti-Catholic. These provide a good reflection how people see the Catholic Church, what they understand and what they misunderstand about the faith, what we are teaching well and what we are teaching poorly. They represent not only the voices of those who do not agree with us, they represent the voices of those who are the co-workers, family members and neighbors of the members of the congregation.
If writers on Medium believe that the church teaches that God hates them, then that indicates a way we have failed in our teaching. Official Catholic teaching unlike other Christian faiths believes that God does all He can to bring people to salvation. When people feel that they have no place in the Catholic Church, that is not what the Church teaches and that is a failure on our part. The Church teaches that those who are not saved know God’s will and persistently refuse to obey it (cf Catechism of the Catholic Church #1037). I meet few people fitting into that category but when I do there is no mistaking them for others who simply misunderstand Catholic teaching. So it is important to give a full explanation of what we believe as Catholics.
The church teaches that those who are not saved self-exclude from God’s mercy and love. Other Christian denominations have a stricter understanding of salvation including double pre-destination. This is the idea that God makes certain people to be saved and others to be damned and nothing can be done to change God’s mind. It was the base theology of the founders of places like the Massachusetts Bay Colony here in New England and also Rev. Jonathan Edwards author of “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God,” first preached in Northampton, Massachusetts in 1741 and studied in classrooms throughout the country.
That is about as opposite from Catholic teaching as you can find.
What Is Our Mission?
A theme I preach often is that we have a mission to do all we can to lead people to salvation. That is by demonstrating the love and mercy of God.
Believe it or not there are those who are hostile to our Catholic faith here on Medium that provided inspiration for some of my homilies. For example, you may read here of people who reject the Catholic Church. They will also write about how they gave their whole selves into what they believe to bring change in the world, sometimes even risking their lives. I then point out how Catholics claim to believe that the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Christ but are to busy to attend Mass. (Obviously that was pre-COVID-19)
After going over all those ideas, I put together the homily.
I do not usually publish homilies here. Instead I publish them at CatholicAudioMedia.com where I also post podcasts recorded live at mass along with two radio programs I produce locally.
The process for writing a homily takes a lot of research from inside and outside of the Church, knowing the issues affecting people’s lives today, then addressing them well. Hopefully, I my work can disprove the American Heritage® Dictionary.