Tag Archives: Preaching

Preaching Notes

Cistercian fathers figured prominently in my education and spiritual formation. In the latter case, they heard my confession and directed my spiritual life. In the former case, they were my professors when I was an undergraduate and graduate student at the University of Dallas.

When I was a doctoral student at Duquense Unversity’s Institute of Formative Spirituality, I had a Cistercian novice master as my primary professor and mentor. Though he remained a Trappist monk to the end of his life, in the early 1980’s after 20 years in the monastery, Fr Richard Byrne had to leave the monastery for health reasons. His lectures in spiritual direction, preaching and teaching have been important element in my own ministry as a priest.

At the request of a brother priest, I updated Fr Richard’s notes on preaching and thought I would share them here.

Fr Richard was a lovely man and his friendship and support was a great blessing to me as a young graduate student. His death in the early 1990’s was a great loss to me. Had he lived, I suspect I might have pursued an academic career in the Catholic Church and never become Orthodox.

But God’s plans are not ours. Fr Richard’s caused me to re-evaluate my plans and while I sorely miss the teaching career I never had, his example inspires me still today as an Orthodox priest.

Rick was a good man and an exemplary monastic and priest. Please remember him in your prayers.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

The goal of the homily is to help the congregation (corporately and individually) make the transition from being “hearers” of the Word to “doers” of the Word within the context of the celebration of the Eucharist.

    1. The homilist’s first task is to be himself a prayerful hearer of the Word.
    2. This means he must reflect not only on the Sunday readings but also
    3. cultivate the daily habit of reading and meditating on the Scriptures (lectio divina).
      • This can mean either the daily reading of the lectionary or lectio continua (the sequential reading of the Old and New Testament (usually over the course of a year)
    4. If we don’t pray, we can’t preach no matter how erudite and eloquent we speak
      • it is my personal life of prayer transforms my speaking into the prophetic act of Christian preaching.
      • For the homilist, becoming a “doer” of the Word means be able by God’s grace and his own preparation to proclaim the Gospel with power and authority for the glory of God and the salvation of his audience

(2) As for content, a homily should seek to answer three questions based on the text of Scripture:

      • What is the faith of the Church?
      • What does this faith look like in practice?
      • What are some of the concrete obstacles and facilitating conditions for living this faith in our everyday life?

(3) What We Believe: the Faith of the Church

      • This is primarily the level of doctrine and dogma; what does the Church believe.
        • This isn’t a matter of using the text of Scripture as an illustration for a predetermined dogmatic or moral point.
        • Rather, through prayer and study, the preacher must ask what aspect of the faith is contained in the text?
          • The answer the preacher comes to will likely change as he returns to the text year after year not because the meaning changes but because he does; his relationship with Jesus and with the congregation is dynamic as these relationships change he will be able to see from this new perspective previously hidden depths.
          • Again, this assumes the preacher prayers and prayerfully reads Scripture, the fathers and the teaching of the Church

(4) Living Icons of the Faith

      • As he seeks to articulate the practice of the Church, the preacher can reflect not only events in other books of the Scripture and the lives of the saints but also secular subjects (e.g., history, current events, psychology, literature, film and even popular culture).
        • In choosing his practice examples, the preacher should make sure its fit with doctrine in natural and not forced.
        • The example also need to be appropriate for his listeners; an example that will inspire a youth group may very well insult the intelligence of older adults. Likewise, what he says to a monastic community or a gathering of clergy may not be appropriate for the broad mix of people in the congregation on Sunday morning.

(5) Following Christ: Practical Instruction

      • For many preachers is often the hardest part of the sermon: offering practical instruction in following Christ in a brief and concise manner.
      • Practical instruction from the saints and spiritual writers are good sources for instruction
      • If judiciously used, so too are secular disciplines like psychology
      • The question here is straightforward: What are the habits of thought and action that either helps or hinders the person living the faith.
        • One source for insight here is what the priest hears in confession. While he shouldn’t–must not in fact–discuss specific sins of people bring to him in confession, over the course of time (years!), specific themes will emerge.
        • Is his parish elderly? Are they concerned (or not!) with their own impending deaths? Are they concerned that their children and grandchildren are estranged from the Church? Are they facing declining health or increased economic hardship? Maybe both?
        • There are common struggles in every congregation; learning what these struggles are helps the preacher help his congregation become hearers and doers of the Word as he reflects with them on their shared experience.

(6) While there is a broadly intellectual aspect to the homily, it’s focus isn’t communicating information but fostering the spiritual formation of those in the congregation.

      • Formation is the concrete and practical process of helping people grow self-discovery (i.e., self-knowledge) and self-expression (“good works” that give glory to God) in Christ
      • An often overlooked element of this process is thankful self-acceptance
        • While marred by sin, my life is God’s first gift to me and the condition of possibility for all subsequent gifts
        • My life as it comes to me from the hand of God is the primary source of my personal vocation as a disciple of Christ
        • “The highest degree of love is this, to love myself because I have first been loved by God” St Bernard of Clairvaux, “On Loving God”
      • In addition to practical, preaching must be inspirational
        • Specifically, it should inspire people to join with Christ in the Eucharistic sacrifice
        • With Christ, the members of the congregation need to offer their lives with all its messiness to the Father in the Holy Spirit
        • In Holy Communion, the receive back their lives as accepted and transformed in Christ
        • With Christ, I receive not only my own life but my neighbors’ as well
      • Helping people understand, accept and act on the fact that in Holy Communion together with Christ we become food and drink for each other is the formative goal of the homily

(7) Final thoughts:

    • The ABC’s of the homily:
      • Audible: Can people hear me? Do I need to speak up or using a microphone?
      • Brief: At 7 minutes people’s minds are getting ready to wander, at 10 minutes they’re wandering, at 12+ they’ve stopped listening
      • Christ centered: The homily isn’t about the Church, or moral theology, or politics (or fund raising!) but about the person’s relationship with Christ, with helping these people here in front of me offer themselves as they are to Christ