13 January 2010

Tips and Exercises for Composing a Homily

On occasion I get requests from priests and deacons to post a piece on tips for composing homilies. The most common problem seems to be generating ideas for the homily from the lectionary texts.

So, here are my basic guidelines for composing a homily with three heuristic exercises to generate ideas.

General Guidelines

Keep in mind: these are the guidelines I use. I didn't find them chiseled on stone tablets nor were they delivered to me in the middle of the night by an angel. They work for me. They may or may not work for you.

1. Give yourself firm word or space limits. When I start a homily I set my document parameters at 16 point, Times New Roman, double-spaced. For a daily homily: three pages with maybe three or four lines on the fourth page. This translates into about 5 mins. For a Sunday homily: six pages, or about 11 mins. Consistency in length over time establishes a contract between the preacher and his listeners. If your congregation knows that your homily will be no more than 5 or 11 minutes, then they are prepared to pay attention. Word/space limits are also a good way to force you to get to the point quickly and avoid rambling. What you want to avoid at all costs is preaching the Homily in Search of an Idea. Like making sausages and laws, nobody wants to watch you make a homily on the spot.

2. Always have a question in mind that the homily will try to answer. The heuristic exercises below will help generate interesting questions. What you want to avoid is simply repeating or summarizing the readings. It helps to repeat the question a few times throughout the homily to keep it fresh in the minds of your listeners. Restrict yourself to One Big Question, but don't be afraid to follow up with collorary questions if necessary.

3. Remember that you are writing for the ear not the eye. Your audience will not have a text of your homily to follow along. “Writing for the ear” means:

--using and repeating key words and phrases from the text;
--unpacking theological words or concepts using ordinary language (e.g., “Christmas is the Church's celebration of the Incarnation; today the Son of God takes on human flesh to walk among us.”);
--as much as possible use present-tense verbs in an active-voice, especially when referring to action in the text (e.g., “Jesus gathers his disciples, teaching his friends that walking the Way is the key to eternal life.”);
--make use of alliteration to emphasize a point (e.g., “Christ wins the war against our wandering ways. Our work is the work of surrender.”);
--mix up simple and complex sentences so that the ear doesn't grow bored or tired;
--if you have a choice between using a comfortable metaphor or image and using a jarring or shocking image or metaphor, choose the latter but only once or twice in any single homily;
--and mostly importantly, remember: you are preaching a homily to a congregation not delivering a lecture to students!

There's no need to “dummy down” a homily; however, it's not likely that your people will appreciate a discourse on the history of the fine distinctions the Church has drawn between “hypostasis” and “persona” in a homily on the Holy Trinity. You can be intellectually challenging without being academic.

4. Homilies are meant to be challenging without being off-putting. I hear from Catholics all the time that their pastors' homilies are forgettable precisely because there is nothing in them to wake them up, nothing in them to shake things around. You don't have to be controversial in order to be challenging, but it doesn't hurt to push a few limits to keep your people thinking. I've learned the hard way: no matter what you say, you will be misunderstood, misinterpreted, misheard and you will upset or offend someone. Every congregation has what I call They Who Wait to be Offended. If you try to craft a homily with the express purpose of avoiding anything and everything that might possibly be offensive to someone, you will find yourself standing in the pulpit staring at the congregation in silence. By the same token, there's no reason to go out of your way to be intentionally offensive or controversial. If you do this, it's a sign that you believe the homily is your pet project for personal aggrandizement.

5. Assume from the start that the readings are addressing an urgent contemporary problem. The crowds in first-century Judea have the same basic existential problems and concerns that twenty-first century people wrestle with: family, love, betrayal, sin, survival, desire to succeed, fear of death and sickness, need for mercy, etc. Our circumstances are different, the basic problems of human life are the same. The Word is eternal and the human predicament is enduring.

6. Write your homily out and preach it word for word. This is probably the most debated point in practical homiletics. My profs in seminary hated this idea because it tends to produce academic papers rather than homilies. When we start writing about scriptural texts, we are tempted to fall into student mode and type out seminar papers to be read silently rather than homilies to be delivered. If you follow the guidelines above this shouldn't be a problem. Writing out a homily and reading it helps you to avoid a number of common mistakes that preachers make: delivering rambling, disjointed speeches that make you look unprepared; falling into factual or theological error by using ill-considered language or images; saying something unintentionally controversial or offensive; and it is always nice to be able to produce the text of your homily when someone calls the bishop on you for preaching heresy! If you are gifted with the ability to preach well extemporaneously and stay within a reasonable time limit, then give thanks to God daily for this gift. If you write out your homily to read, make sure you practice it out loud several times so that you aren't just reading it like you would a novel or a newspaper article. Homilies are delivered, given not simply read aloud.

Heuristic Exercises

These exercises will help you generate ideas for a homily using the lectionary readings. These are exegetical in nature only to the degree that they will get you closer to the text in order to unpack it for ideas. I do not offer these as tools for getting at the real meaning of the text, or ferreting out secret teachings. If you are studying a text and simply cannot come up with an idea to preach on, then these exercises will jump start your creative engine.

Exercise One: Saying Not

Take the text and write out what it could be saying but isn't. Literally, write: “This text could be saying X, Y, and Z.” Then ask yourself, “Is this text saying X, Y, and Z?” Following your meditation on the question, write: “This text is NOT saying X, Y, and Z.” The next question is obvious: “Well, what is it saying?” For example, take the gospel text of the adulterous woman. This text could be saying that women are more responsible for adultery than men. It could be saying that public condemnation of sinners is a good thing. It could be saying that Jesus thinks adultery is OK because he doesn't condemn the woman. Now, negate each of these by writing: “This text is not saying. . .” Keep in mind here that the point of the exercise is not to find theological truth in the text but to generate ideas for a homily. By negating what the text could be saying you set up an opposition that might produce an interesting tension that could in turn develop into an excellent question for a homily. You are still obliged to preach the truth of the gospel, so you really can't preach that Jesus thinks adultery is OK because he doesn't condemn the woman to stoning. However, your homily could be based on the question: how do we handle public sinners in the Church? This leads to questions about the nature of forgiveness and how we go about not only forgiving sin among us but also how we understand our progress in holiness as one Body. Notice for example how Jesus binds the adulterous woman to her community by pointing out that everyone in the crowd is guilty of sin as well. Wouldn't it make for an interesting homily to ask: how does sin bind us together? Now that would be a great homily!

Exercise Two: First, Then

Take the text and divide it into a series of consecutive actions. I usually cut/paste the text from the USCCB website and then divide it up in my document. Assume that the actions described in the text are ordered the way they are for specific reasons. Once you have the action of the text divided out, ask: why are these actions put in this order? More specifically, why does act B follow act A? The answer might be completely uninteresting, e.g. you have to pick up a stone before you can throw it. However, asking the question forces you to think about why the text was written the way it was and this may lead you to an insight you have missed in the past. For example, I noticed in the readings from yesterday's gospel that the people in the crowd are astonished by the authority of Jesus' teaching before he performs an exorcism. Now, we can make the boring assumption that this is simply the way the actual historical event progressed. So what? But if we ask, “Why are they astonished by the authority of his teaching before he demonstrates his authority in the exorcism?” There could be a hundred reasons for this. Good! You have homily material for the next one hundred times this reading comes up in the lectionary cycle. What if the text is one where Paul lists the virtues of the individual who lives in the Spirit. He writes that this person is: merciful, loving, prudent, kind, patient, and fervent. Now, objectively speaking, it is very likely these are listed in this order for no particular reason (this is exactly what I did here). But you are assuming that they are listed as such for a very good reason. What could that reason be? Well, being merciful comes well before being fervent in the list. What could this indicate for our spiritual growth? Maybe nothing at all. But ask the question. Why should we be patient before we are fervent? How does being kind follow from being prudent? It's one thing to preach that we should be merciful, loving, prudent, kind, patient, and fervent. It's quite another to preach that we should be loving before we are fervent, or that being fervent in the faith is a product of first being loving.

Exercise Three: That's Absurd

If your reading contains a statement or a question, take that statement or question to its logical absurdity and see what happens. Every often you will find that a teaching in scripture will state a truth that either cannot be reduced to a more basic truth or that it can be reduced to something more fundamental. If it can't be reduced, then you have at least one topic for a homily. If it can be reduced, then you have not only the stated truth but the underlying truth as well. For example, Paul writes to the Ephesians: “In [Christ] we were...chosen, destined...so that we might exist for the praise of his glory...” Say to yourself, “This is absurd! Paul is claiming that the only reason for our existence is to praise God for his glory? The ONLY reason? Really? So, out of the billions of souls on earth, we alone were picked out to exist for seventy or so years to do nothing else but praise God? No family, no friends, no jobs? Just stand around and praise God. That's our reason for existing? Is this what we sign on to do when we were baptized?” Obviously, this is not what Paul is saying. But reducing his claim to an absurdity invites you to argue against the absurdity and clarify what it means to exist in order to praise God. Left alone, Paul's claim is interesting enough for a homily, but what else is there to do with it but repeat it with emphasis, or explain it in pedantic terms. You might even set up a challenge to Paul by saying, “I'm happy to praise God, of course, but I think I might exist for other reasons. . .” What are those reasons? Can those reasons be tied back to praising God? Can raising a family, or cultivating friendships, or working faithfully at a job be considered a form of praise? Would your congregation think so? By refusing to take a teaching at face value or in its simplest terms you set up a contrast that will produce another way of reading the text. And even if you reject your contrary reading as false, you have an idea for how to present a false reading of the text and a chance to correct it in your homily.

I want to emphasize again: these exercises are not meant to lead you to correct readings of the texts. Their sole purpose is to get your creative juices flowing so that you can present the gospel in a way that is interesting and useful to your listeners.

(This is more or less a first draft.  Revisions will follow as better examples occur to me, so check back on occasion.)


  1. Thank you so much Fr. Philip!

    I am a final year candidate for the Permanent Diaconate here in the Houma/Thibodaux Diocese in Louisiana. Our homily instructors are a Priest and a Deacon. One says we can have notes, but can't look or sound like we are reading and the other says we shouldn't have notes at all. This point has led to some confusion on the behalf of some of us students. Now we are getting those who deliver memorized staccato type homilies or broken, meandering bits of exegesis spattered with a story or two.
    I'm not saying I'm perfect (far from it I know), but your homilies and others such as Msgr. Pope, Fr. Jack Durkin and etc., have led me to delve into knowing the subject matter intimately, comfortably and be able to deliver the Word with some conviction.
    Your homily guidelines will be most helpful and I will point my fellow candidates to this source (again) and hope they take advantage of it soon. They tell me they don't have time to read blogs, listen to mp3's or research on the 'net. I try to challenge them and ask them if they have time to be a Deacon then? Research and wanting to be the best Deacon you can be is paramount to responding to God's call.
    I am lucky to have a very good homilist Associate Pastor at my parish. He and I talk a lot about his homilies and the Deacons we hear, refining points and clarifying doctrine. I almost feel you are also one of my Associate Pastors from a distance.
    Thank you again for such an informative blog! I would hope to be able to meet you one day.

  2. Anonymous8:33 AM

    Thanks padre. I'll remember to keep this in my 'must do' list, as i am discerning for deaconate formation this spring in TX.

    God bless.

  3. Thank you Father, this was helpful and very well done. I am asked now and then for preaching suggestions and I will--with your kind permission--point people to your post.

    In Christ,


  4. Father Thanks for this was really helpful.

    Youth for Jesus | Nothing is Impossible with God


    Youth For Jesus

  5. A 90 year old priest - an extraordinarily gifted homilist, writer and teacher --- told me that the state of the homily in the Roman Catholic tradition would be far better if priests wrote out their homilies!

  6. Anonymous6:12 PM

    My husband is studying to be a permanent deacon. Homilies is something that we've discussed a lot. I'm going to print your suggestons for him. I know he'll appreciate it.

    You touched on two of the biggest problems that we've seen among men who are learning how to give homilies - focusing on too many different topics (like you said, one question) and treating the homily like a lecture to students. Another problem is restating the Gospel. It's called the Gospel according to Luke, not the gospel according to Steve, Mike or Joe.

    I know that preparing a homily is hard work. And I appreciate all the time and effort that goes into them. Thanks for the ponters, I'll pass them along.