12 January 2006

The Art of the Homily

What is the “art of the homily”? My recent post on the “Mechanics of the Homily” lead some to ask me to share my thoughts on the art of writing a homily. Here are some very practical considerations drawn from my short experience preaching on a weekly basis:

1). Use the lectionary texts. The arguments/theses of my homilies are limited by the lectionary texts in front of me. What’s the alternative? The newspaper? CNN? A recent visit to the therapist? I preach the Gospel—the gospel text. I preach the epistle—the epistle text. What do I mean by “use the lectionary texts”? At the very minimum, I mean use the language, imagery, ideas, etc. from the actual texts. Pick up the image of the blind man raising his eyes to be smeared with spit and dirt (and yes, say “spit and dirt”!). Pick up the image of the Simon and James and Andrew throwing down their nets to follow Jesus. Pick up the cadences of the biblical language. Look at the repetition of vowel sounds. Watch the way Paul builds an argument with rhetorical flourish, layering one idea on top of another until the fullest possible picture of his teaching is compete. That’s not teaching…it’s proclamation! He’s not being pedantic, but rhetorical; that is, he’s not being a classroom Teacher so much as he is being a Preacher. Here’s an example of what I mean:

From today’s reading in Mark: “[The healed leper] spread the report abroad so that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly. He remained outside in deserted places, and people kept coming to him from everywhere.”

Pick up on “spread,” “abroad,” “impossible,” openly,” “remained outside,” “deserted places,” and “everywhere.” Two movements of note here: 1) the healed leper’s faithful spreading of the Good News against Jesus’ express command to be silent, and 2) Jesus’ captivity to the crowd, the mass of people who have the freedom to come to him.

My “use” of this short passage: “Jesus does what he came to do: to heal the sick, to witness to his Father’s love and mercy. The healed leper, overcome with joy in his newfound cleanliness, disobeys Jesus’ command to remain silent and spreads the Good News. He spreads the news, sends it abroad, talks openly about his moments with Jesus. And the crowd listens to this Word proclaimed—healing for the sick, cleanliness for the unclean. They drive Jesus into the deserted places with their desire for his healing, with their longing for his wholeness.”

Nothing particularly profound here at all. Just a re-telling of the short lectionary passage. However, this is how the readings get repeated in the homily so that the language and images are heard again.

2). Don’t avoid complexity, controversy, or the “hard sayings.” I don’t assume that the folks in the pews are dummies incapable of digesting a complex idea or dealing with a controversial topic. I preach against sin. And do so without sugarcoating it. God’s mercy is bigger than any fear we might have of those who will wag their fingers at us for daring to mention Hell from the pulpit. I preach against specific sins. We all sin. And we all commit specific sins. God’s mercy is universal and free. Say so! Call sin sin and shout about God’s mercy. Avoiding talk of specific sins is just a way to keep the peace at the cost of the truth. I’m not suggesting that anyone go out and punch folks out with belligerent homilies on the Evil of the Day. However, preachers of the gospel MUST teach and preach what Jesus taught and preached. What else is there to teach and preach?

3). Prefer the Oral to the Written. Uh? OK. Here’s what I mean: homilies are oral performances. I don’t mean theatrical performances, but they are works enacted, works given life in their portrayal. If you write your homily and then perform it as a written piece, then you are inviting comparisons to an academic lecture. This happens to me a lot because I use a prepared text. It’s something I have to work on. Writing oral English requires that you “hear” your homily being preached aloud as you write. Take for example this opening line to an Easter homily:

“This morning the universal Church celebrates the resurrection of the Lord.”

OK. True enough. Nothing theologically dodgy, but I’m snoozing already. Here’s my version in oral form:

“He is risen! In Irving, Texas and Bangladesh. In Cairo and London. In Capetown and Maui-maui. He is risen indeed! He is risen to new life! In Jackson, MS and Miami, FL. On the riverias of France and the tundras of Russia! Our Lord is alive again!”

How are these two different? They say basically the same thing: Jesus is risen from the dead and all the world celebrates this fact on Easter morning. The difference is that the first opening paragraph is a description and the second is a proclamation. The first tells us what is going on and the second IS what’s going on. Another substantial difference is that the first is a general description and the second is a specific proclamation. The first says “universal Church”—an abstraction—and the second says “London, Maui-maui, Jackson, and Russia”—all very specific places. The difference in oral impact is dramatic.

4). Use a combination of short, declarative sentences and longer, complex sentences. This combo helps me to introduce a Big Idea and then reinforce it with repetition. The oral form requires repetition for comprehension and retention. An example:

“Mary, pregnant with Jesus, visits Elizabeth, pregnant with John, and John leaps in his mother’s womb at Mary’s approach, preparing himself now for his ministry later. He knows Jesus. He knows Jesus is the One Anointed. And he leaps. He leaps again and again in joy, telling the world of the coming of the Christ.”

The shorter sentences are repetitions of the longer one. The frequent, creative repetition of the main idea is a sure-fire way to etch the image/language into the memories of those listening.

5). Questions are good…if you answer them. Using rhetorical questions for affect is dubious at best. I mean, ending a homily with something like: “What would you do if given the chance to heal the sick”? I almost always think of this as a cheapy way to end a homily. It’s safe, easy, noncommittal, and, frankly, dishonest. How so? If the homily is about making the Word present to those listening, then it must look and sound like the Word, like Jesus, like Scripture. Rhetorical questions are gimmicky in that they seem to ask a real question but really just serve as a stopping point or pretend at being intellectual exercises. In fact, they can be escape routes for chicken preachers. Start with questions and answer them. The folks in the pews are smart enough to figure out that our answers are either dumb beyond reckoning or right on target. The right question asked of a difficult text can open multiple doors and shine a vigorous light on scripture. But you have to think that scripture is actually the Word of God and that your homily is a door to that Word.

6). Use theological language but temper it with appositive repetition. I think preachers fear using theological language because those listening will label them pretentious or academic or both. There’s nothing obviously wrong with using the historical language of the Church to talk about the truths of the faith. I use “Incarnation,” “redemption,” “grace,” etc. all the time. You might object and say that I preach at a Catholic university parish and you would be right! However, the way to use theological language productively is to follow each use with an appositive repetition; that is, every time you use a theological term, follow it immediately with a more scriptural or mundane appositive that develops its meaning for those listening.

Some examples:

"The Trinity, the community of divine persons that is our One God, reveals to us Who God is to us and for us."

"Christmas is the celebration of the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, the coming into flesh of the Son, his arrival among us as a man."

"This sacrifice of the Mass, this surrendering to God in thanksgiving, is our greatest praise, our highest oblation."

Now, obviously, you can’t capture every nuance of a complex theological term in a single appositive, but I think you can do a lot of good teaching in a small space.

7). Religiously use a thesaurus. Preachers, like everyone else, are creatures of habit when it comes to language. We have our favorite phrases, our favorite themes, and our favorite images. And we use them over and over. This can become a problem over time because language use not only reveals patterns of thinking, it can begin to limit patterns of thinking as well. I mean, if you stick to certain kinds of words, certain discursive rhetorics (e.g., psychology-inspired terms or military-inspired images) then your understanding of scripture slowly shrinks to the basest limits of your preferred vocabulary. The thesaurus is the most immediate remedy to this problem. Using the thesaurus is a kind of “language-play,” but well worth the effort when it jogs us out of stagnant familiarity. Here’s what I do: I write a sentence and immediately notice commonly used words (e.g. “grace”). I grab my thesaurus or use the one on my word processing program to search for alternatives. The top six alternatives for “grace” are: elegance, refinement, loveliness, polish, beauty, and poise. OK. None of these will serve as a substitute for the theological concept of “grace.” However, each one could be used to describe God’s attitude toward us as sinners or used to describe what grace does for us.

Examples: “God’s grace, His elegant invitation to live His life with him, polishes the human soul, refines our path to His beauty, and grants us a final loveliness, the last gift of seeing Him face-to-face.”

A more direct use of the thesaurus…

Original: "We gather here this morning to see and hear the Gospel proclaim and preached, to offer our prayers and thanksgivings to God, and to celebrate the sacrament of our redemption."

Thesaurus: "We draw closer together at daybreak to glimpse the Gospel, to take heed of its declaration and its preaching, to tender our petitions and gratitude to God, and to make merry in the sacrament of our deliverance."

Now, I wouldn’t use the Thesaurus Version in a homily. I just went through and replaced key words with “thesaurus words.” But I think you can see how this exercise offers up some insight into making that opening paragraph more interesting. I like “draw closer together” (“gather” is one of our most overused words. I would argue that it has almost become meaningless), “daybreak,” “take heed” (yes, a bit old-fashioned, but just odd enough to require one’s attention), and “make merry” (“celebrate” has become stale, overused), and I really like “deliverance” instead of “redemption.” That’s my Baptist coming out.

8). Read good literature. There’s no substitute for reading good poetry and fiction for developing a sense of how a sentence works or how an image conveys meaning. I would go so far as to say, “Lose the homily helps and spend that money on a couple of good poetry anthologies and a few prize-winning novels!”

What I haven’t covered here is the process of reading and prayer that goes into a homily. As a Dominican, my community life and my study are inextricably bound up together in the composition of a homily. If there’s interest, I’d be happy to share some thoughts on the how prayer and study fit into the art of the homily.



  1. Again, an excellent post, Fr. Philip. Reading poetry would not be the first thing I would naturally think of when considering this issue, but it makes perfect sense.

    One minor note about something I like in the homilies you post -- you talk about Gospel events in present tense. It is something I picked up on unconsciously when working on reflections, but I don't always hear in homilies. It changes the process of working through a reflection while making the language much more direct and, as you put it, more "oral". And, for me at least, it significantly alters the impact of a homily.

  2. Anonymous12:34 PM

    OK, seriously Father... PODCAST.

    What help can I render?

  3. Claude,

    You're absolutely right about the use of present tense verbs. I thought about including a paragraph on verb use right after I posted and decided to leave it for later.

    The present is almost always preferable to other tenses b/c it leands an immediacy to the language, a kind of urgency that demands attention. It's hard to do sometimes with historical texts, or when writing about historical events; but, it is always possible when writing about God's action in the world!

    Fr. Philip

  4. Will,

    I have a PodCast account. I set it up fewer than fifteen minutes ago. However, the space provided to d/l the recording has a little red box with a white "x" in it. The student helping me nearly went mad trying to get the page to load correctly!

    Any suggestions?

    Fr. Philip, Op

  5. Anonymous6:15 PM

    Another rhetorical device I find helpful in oratory (since I'm not a priest, I don't give homilies) is similar to repetition but is much more structured: anaphora. Take as an example a sentence from a talk about confession that I gave last weekend at a youth retreat: "But that Fall from grace, that Fall from unity, that Fall from Communion, has affected every one of us here." Different device, same result...and to my ear, more pleasing than mere repetition of words, because it falls into a constant structure as well.

  6. Anonymous6:31 PM

    Do you ever recourse to what the Saints and Doctors wrote (for instance, Chrysostom and Augustine) for certain Bible passages in their sermons, homilies, and tractates? Either with quoted sections or, more likely, as a jumping off point for your own?

    If not (or not regularly), why not?

  7. Jake,

    This is basically what I'm talking baout in #6. This form of repetition allows you to use a number of different rhetorics (say, biblical, theological, philosophical, and legal) in describing the same thing. Very powerful in catching an audience's attention.


    In a comment somewhere below I note the usefulness of the Patristic readings in the Office of Readings. These are paritcularly good b/c they are usually somehow tied to the day or the saint being remembered and provide a much deeper, much longer look at the tradition.

    Thanks to you both for commenting!

    Fr. Philip, OP

  8. ""This sacrifice of the Mass, this surrendering to God in thanksgiving, is our greatest praise, our highest oblation.""

    It's a very minor point in your wonderful presentation, but I would cringe if I heard that in a homily. I remember reading in a missal years ago an exegesis for the Feast of Corpus Christi. It was all about US, the People of God, who together are the Body of Christ. Not untrue, but misleading.

    Pick up a catechism, or THE Catechism, and you won't find this as the primary meaning of the term, "Sacrifice of the Mass." Some things can't be left out without being at least unintenionally misleading.

    I'm being a jackass, I know, but somehow it seems worth saying, even at that price.

  9. I think ending a homily with a question can be very effective. Perhaps not a thought exercise like, "What would you do if given the chance to heal the sick?" But one that challenges the congregation, that puts the matter the preacher has been talking about squarely in the listener's lap? Sure.

    Of course, the preacher should keep in mind that his listeners will have at most a few moments of silence to reflect on any such question before they stand up and go on with Mass. If he does end with a question, it has to be one people will be able to recall half an hour or more later.

  10. Jeff,

    You're not being a jackass at all. You're exactly right to say that the appositive I used is too limited. That's why I noted in the short paragraph after those examples that no appositive repetition can completely capture the complexity of our theological terms. And that's why the good preacher will go on in his homily to layer the various appositives and give the term a much richer flavor.


    I don't mind a homily ending in a question. I just don't want the homily to end with a purely rhetorical question. It just seems gimmicky to me for some reason. It's a cheap way out of the homily. Maybe it's a taste thing.

    Thanks for y'all's comment!

    Fr. Philip

  11. Anonymous5:56 PM

    Hum...the 'ending a homily with a question' thing leads me to a different question: what about ending the homily with an exhortation to action (specific or general)?

    Or, more generally, what about exhortations to action within a homily?

    Why, I wonder, do we not hear calls to some kind of action? "Write a letter to your congressman" might be too lame, but "do [something different] to help those poorer than you this month". "Go to confession, even if you don't _have_ to." "Gain an indulgence for a departed loved one." Whatever.

    In retrospect, I would sort of expect my Church to challenge me more. We're supposed to put our money (time) where our mouth is. There's also a component of 'learning by praxis'. In tempo with liturgical time, with something at one point and something else at another, this seems a good way to do it.

    Your take?

  12. Hmm. My favorite "call to action" in homilies is a call to address Jesus in the Eucharist. One time the priest invited us to beg Jesus to make us perfect; a couple of priests have suggested saying "thank you" to Jesus (interiorly, not audibly!).

  13. Anonymous10:59 AM

    Our pastor finished an Advent homily with a proclamation "Get to confession this Advent!" He used his most serious, deep voice and all but pounded the pulpit, staring us all down. Very dramatic, very effective, but unfortunately, no follow through (i.e, a reminder, during "Announcements" of confession times as well as an invitation to call the rectory and schedule a time if these don't work, etc.).

  14. Dear Fr. Philip:
    You have by now seen my blog post commending your posts to others. I really appreciate them, their nuances and good sense.

    I am deeply sorry to have gotten your order wrong! I even remember now seeing on your blog that you were Dominican -- I must have misinterpreted OP as Paulist rather than Order of Preachers. My mistake.

    I have been preaching for a little while, and I still use a manuscript, too. (As you mentioned in an earlier, related post) I had one dear mentor who really encouraged me to move away from it,but I never did, and for many of the reasons you mention: precision in word choice, length, focus, etc. I place it under the category of hospitality (and respect) for my listeners.

    On the other hand, I also write in my "speaking voice" when I am writing a homily, and spend enough time with the text that the delivery sounds spoken not read. (I imagine most preachers who use texts do that.)

    Anyway, thanks again for these postings!


  15. Jason,

    No worries about the confusion over my "OP status." I won't tell you how I almost became a Paulist.

    Writing in an oral form is difficult and takes lots of practice. My training in lit has helped me tremendously, however, I have to be careful b/c sometimes I want to get too creative! I think a homily can be literary but not Literary.

    Thanks for commenting!

    Fr. Philip

    P.S. I spent a year at your school's archrival on the other side of London! I never got over to Cambridge, but the English Province has a priory there.

  16. G'day Father.

    Thanks so much for posting this series. I hope you are able to post more thoughts. It is very insightful.

    I'm not a priest or deacon (I'm not even a seminarian... yet.)

    I hope its not a bad thing, but I was so frustrated at my parish priest's homily for the Epiphany that I wrote my own homily (don't worry, I haven't tried to deliver it!) I tried to follow the advice you gave in your previous post.


    Would you be able to have a read and offer me some feedback? While I'm not likely to give a homily for at least another 7 years, I would appreciate your advice.

    Kind regards,