The most consistent comment that priests and deacons hear at the church door is “Good homily, Father” or “Appreciated your homily, Deacon.” What does that mean?

Bishop Ken Untener, in his book Preaching Better, says that kind of post-Mass immediate feedback is rarely helpful to a preacher’s growth in effectiveness. It often means: “We like you.” “I am being polite.” “You’re-standing-there-shaking-my-hand-and-I-know-that-I-have-to-say-something-because-you-are-a–priest-and-I-don’t-really-know-what-to-say-to-a-priest, so ‘Good homily, Father’.”

One priest chuckles, “I took it [that feedback] seriously in my first six months after ordination, thought I was preaching pretty well! Then one Sunday I heard it several times… our deacon had preached that Mass!”

Preaching feedback is hard to find. It would be rare for a parishioner who is trained in communication to sit down with his parish priest over a cup of coffee and shoot the breeze about public speaking. If a priest or deacon wants to grow more effective in reaching his people, how is he to go about it?

The University of Notre Dame’s John S. Marten Program for Homiletics and Liturgics has delved into that conundrum, asking, “What is effectiveness in Catholic preaching?” and “How do we help preachers to grow in effectiveness?”

Mass in the Log Chapel at the University of Notre Dame is one of many that attracts students to weekend worship. (Credit: University of Notre Dame Photography.)
Mass in the Log Chapel at the University of Notre Dame is one of many that attracts students to weekend worship. (Credit: University of Notre Dame Photography.)

As a result, the Rev. William A. Toohey, C.S.C., Notre Dame Preaching Academy, a five-year initiative funded by the Lilly Endowment of Indianapolis, launched last year. Currently the program is recruiting its second cohort of priest-participants through partnering with (arch)dioceses.

The program focuses its one-year curriculum on helping priests to grow in their preaching through self-assessment and goal-setting, congregational studies, coaching from homiletic experts, and peer-group learning and support.

“The heart of effectiveness is to bring our people into an encounter with God,” says Rev. Michael E. Connors, C.S.C., director of the Marten Program. “That encounter then leads to a life of discipleship. The quality of the homily matters,” the Holy Cross priest suggests.

Dr. Karla J. Bellinger, associate director of the Marten Program, specializes in the interaction between homilists and their listeners: “Most of those who preach get no feedback at all. The long-term particulars of ‘I can remember this part of the homily where you gave me an image of comfort (hope, challenge, clarity, etc.) and that memory changed my life in [this] way’ would be the most helpful, but it is rarely given. Unfortunately, negative memory sticks more readily than the positive – people may say, ‘Oh, Father, we remember the time when… (fill in the blank with your most embarrassing moment).’ Growth in effectiveness comes from consistent and helpful feedback. Few of our priests and deacons get much of that.”

In its search for effectiveness, the Marten Program has also focused on that topic with its upcoming biennial preaching conference. “To Set the Earth on Fire”: Effective Catholic Preaching will be held on the Notre Dame campus July 24-26, 2017.

Keynote speakers include Rev. Peter John Cameron, O.P., Rev. Ronald Rolheiser, O.M.I., and Dr. Ann Garrido. Fifteen workshops on various elements of effectiveness range from preaching with young adults to homilist burnout to listener receptivity and much more. Registration is now open.

In 1983, John S. and Virginia Marten of Indianapolis established the John S. Marten Program in Homiletics and Liturgics at Notre Dame with the hope that Catholic preaching could grow more effective in reaching its listeners. Together we pray that “Good homily, Father” will grow “great!”

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