Updated: Dec 1, 2020
Great homilies have the ability to change lives, to mend hearts, and ultimately to bring your parishioners back on a road that leads to heaven. And chances are that you have preached a homily like this at least once or, if you are exceptional, then many times. The question is, what made each homily great?
Obviously the role of the Holy Spirit is in play here, and God opens and closes the mouth (Exodus 4:11-12) according to His purposes, but if that were all we needed then I daresay our homilies would be far better across the dioceses of the world than they certainly are. So what are we missing?
Grace Builds on Nature
For one thing, many preachers have forgotten that God doesn’t simply put words in your mouth. Instead, God prefers to use the words you already have. He uses images, illustrations, and examples you’re familiar with. He uses the concepts you understand and have studied. In essence, He shows you how to speak from your already gathered resources, using your internal library to assemble a homily for those He is preparing to hear it.
But what many don’t realize is that even the structure of what is said can be studied and organized, so that when God opens me up to pour out His Word, He will find a way of speaking that is more persuasive.
DOES THAT BOTHER YOU?
I know it bothers some people. And it bothers them because they want to believe that if God wants us to speak to someone in say another language group, then He will simply cover us with tongues of fire and recreate another Pentecost. Or if a priest or deacon is an academic through and through and needs to preach to inmates at some correctional facility, then somehow his immense vocabulary and way of speaking will be subdued, forcing him to sound in the end like a man who has had similar experiences or subtle turns of phrase as the inmates would.
Yes, God could do that, but it is not His usual way. His usual way is to build on nature, to take you in all of your freedom and reach those He loves without doing violence to your choices.
If you would like to preach great homilies more consistently then you will need to make some choices, and the first decision must be to change how you begin.
Some Powerful Openings
There are many brilliant and insightful preachers out there but the problem is that they cannot get anyone to listen long enough to get to the good stuff. So here are four openings that work. And I know they work because I have used them to gain the attention of crowds of all sizes, inside churches during parish missions, and in large assembly areas at conferences. Try them out, and you just might find people hanging on your every word.
If you haven’t yet …
Begin the sentence and then pause right after the word ‘yet,’ letting it sink in as you look around.
When you begin your homily this way the listener’s response is something like, “haven’t yet what?” And that’s what you want. You want your parishioners to want to know what you are going to say. So follow it up with something worth remembering, some kernel of wisdom that they can repeat and pass on to their friends and family even if it’s in their own words.
For example, you might begin, “if you haven’t yet … go home after church and open up your Bible to find this phrase: ‘In the Beginning was the Word and the Word was with God.’ Find it, and tell me how it ends, because if you can then …”
Or, you might say, “if you haven’t yet … tonight you need to turn to your spouse and say, ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry for all of the times I have hurt you. I’m sorry for not being your helpmate as I vowed. I’m sorry.’”
Of course you can and should expand on the point, but you are already off to a great start, and your parishioners will remember precisely what came after your opening.
***Use this opening especially when you want to point out a spiritual truth, practice, or moral behaviour that your congregation should have already attempted or began.
When you are ready …
Begin the sentence and then pause right after the word ‘ready,’ letting it sink in as you look around. When you begin your homily this way your audience immediately senses a challenge coming, and people love that. They love to hear that there is something to strive toward, something to do, something that comes next.
It says something else though. “When you are ready” implies that you may not be ready yet. It signals to those in the audience who are struggling and willing to admit it that you understand and are sympathetic to their plight.
Either way, you now have their attention and you can use it to unpack the Gospel.
For example you might say, “when you are ready … turn to Jesus and say …”
Or, “when you are ready … I want you to take a real hard look at what Jesus just said in today’s reading.”
Again, you are going to expand on the first point, but your audience already has a call to action in front of them, something to do when they get home or even before that.
***Use this opening especially when you want to call your parishioners to take a much needed step in their spiritual lives.
It is not enough …
Begin the sentence and then pause right after the word ‘enough,’ letting it sink in as you look around. When you begin your homily this way your parishioners instinctively know that some form of chastisement is coming. This doesn’t mean that it has to be harsh; in fact, it probably shouldn’t be. Just the fact that one’s spiritual shepherd is disappointed with our behaviour can be more than enough to call us to repentance.
For example, “it is not enough … that we come here on Sundays.”
Or you might say, “it is not enough … that we say ‘Jesus is Lord,’ we also need to act, to behave like Christians.”
Once again you will expand on the core message of the homily, but you already have them. They are listening, and they want to know what they can do to ‘make it enough.’
***Use this sparingly. Too much correction and the opening itself loses it ability to grab your listeners’ attention.
I’ll never believe …
Begin the sentence and then pause right after the word ‘believe,’ letting it sink in as you look around. When you begin your homily this way you actually give your parishioners a little shock to their systems. The reason is that you, their pastor, their deacon, their spiritual leader are almost always associated with the word ‘belief.’ So to say, “I will never believe” not only sounds suspicious to them, it even sounds somewhat incredible, and you are going to use that to its full effect.
So you might say, “I will never believe … that a Catholic can be okay with abortion.”
Or you might say, “I will never believe … that you are beyond redemption.”
Your punchline here has to be full of impact. Remember, you are using the word never here so make sure that you mean it.
***Use this opening when you want to teach your parishioners about one of your most dearly held convictions.
A Final Word
If you haven’t noticed, these are opening cliffhangers. They begin your homily only long enough to say, ‘I don’t know if you’re ready for what I’m about to say,’ and that’s one of the reasons why they work so well. So please, take your time when you use them. Get your parishioners to invest in the homily to come, and make your next four homilies, four great homilies, messages that can change lives.