Ever doze off during a particularly boring Sunday homily? You’re probably not alone.
Even Pope Francis, as he ordained 19 men to the priesthood last year, urged priests to make their homilies more engaging.
The pope, who regularly makes headlines with his off-the-cuff daily homilies, told the newbie priests to ensure that “homilies are not boring, that your homilies arrive directly in people’s hearts because they flow from your heart, because what you tell them is what you have in your heart.”
His remarks were just the latest in a string of candid remarks from Catholic leaders about priests needing some help with their homilies.
Studies have found that many Catholics stop attending Mass because of the quality of the homilies, and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops noted as much in a 2012 document, admitting that “a steady diet of tepid or poorly prepared homilies is often cited as a cause for discouragement on the part of laity and even leading some to turn away from the Church.”
So how can priests get better?
The University of Notre Dame thinks it has a solution in the Notre Dame Preaching Academy, an initiative launching later this month that combines online classes from preaching experts, peer-to-peer coaching, and feedback from congregations.
The first cohort of the two-year program includes priests from the school’s religious order, the Congregation of the Holy Cross, as well as priests from Indiana and Kentucky.
“I think it’s widely felt that Catholic preaching is uneven,” said the Rev. Michael E. Connors, director of Notre Dame’s Marten Program in Homiletics and Liturgies, who is overseeing the preaching academy. “You hear this anecdotally everywhere you go. Catholics really are interested in preaching and value good preaching.”
While Notre Dame’s program takes just a couple of dozen participants each year, other online resources are casting a wider net.
Take, for example, ePriest, a website that provides bishops, priests, and deacons customizable templates for Sunday Masses.
Called “homily packs,” the aid provides a lesson, an illustration, and suggested applications based on the three readings from any given Sunday. The templates are then downloaded and ready to go.
But Ryan Foley, executive director of the Georgia-based nonprofit, said they aren’t canned sermons.
“With each homily, we give them a preaching tip for the week so they become better preachers,” he said. “The whole idea is that you would localize it, make it more personable, and deliver it to your audience.”
When the site launched in 2006, one of the fears some priests had was that parishioners might discover the homilies they hear weren’t entirely original. But a decade later, and with more than 13,000 active users, Foley said those concerns have largely evaporated.
“Priests all get their ideas from somewhere,” he said. He thinks the bigger issue stems from other priests, who might think using tools such as ePriest indicates laziness or a lack of skill.
But, Foley said, “I don’t think lay people care one bit as long as it’s a great homily. People have to get their information from somewhere.”
Foley said that ePriest plans to launch its own app later this year, which priests will be able to use to collect followers and post homilies, which are then rated by their followers.
While ePriest doesn’t just hand the clergy a canned homily, it’s not difficult to find sites that do (although most don’t appear to be geared to Catholics). There’s CreativePastors, for example, run by a Fellowship Church pastor, which offers sermon transcripts for $10. A Methodist minister started Desperate Preacher in 1996; $39.95 a year gets you sermons and other resources.
And if a priest just doesn’t feel like he’s that good at preaching, maybe he can act like he is anyway.
That’s one approach at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, which used a husband-and-wife acting duo to train seminarians on the art of preaching last year, the Detroit Free Press reported.
Arthur Beer and Mary Bremer-Beer worked with the seminarians on the physical aspects of delivering homilies, such as breathing and composure, as well as how to convey various emotions from the pulpit.
“They need to attain vocal variety — in pitch, in volume, in speech, and in emphasis,” Beer told the paper. “You are charismatically commanding them vocally. Your voice has to envelop them, otherwise you’ll never control a congregation.”
Like any skill, practice makes perfect, says Susan McGurgan, who works with men preparing to become deacons at Mount St. Mary Seminary in Cincinnati.
McGurgan said the large number of preaching commitments in the Church — daily Mass, multiple Sunday Masses, weddings, and funerals — means Catholic homilists have to hone their craft constantly, so they welcome help.
“It’s a real art, and it requires a lifelong formation,” she said.
Connors, the Notre Dame priest, agrees.
Ideally, seminaries would train priests to be great preachers, he said. But when that doesn’t happen, the Church must do a better job providing resources for improvement.
“Right now, there just aren’t many of those,” he said.
But he believes even a bad preacher can become someone capable of inspiring parishioners — with a bit of work.
“Sometimes it’s a misunderstanding about what the people in the pew are actually wanting, needing from” a homily, he said. “But there are ways, given the right format, time, and resources, that we could help guys who struggle with preaching to get better.”