National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  January 23, 2004

Connecting God’s story with the people’s

Good preachers can bring hope, joy and consciences to the congregation, say conference speakers

Morristown, N.J.

The preacher asked the more than 100 other preachers gathered at his workshop what made for the best homily they’d heard recently. Answers came quickly:

“It was orderly, focused; it had a theme.” “The listener could identify with the preacher’s experience.” “The preacher was on fire.” “The preacher was convinced of what he was saying.” “The preacher was a person of faith.”

But how does the preacher get all these elements into his Sunday sermon? That question predominated during the daylong preaching conference held Nov. 15 at the College of St. Elizabeth, sponsored by the school’s Center for Theological and Spiritual Development.

One way is for the preacher to become an “attentive listener,” one who pays heed to his world, his congregation’s world and the world at large, said Dominican Fr. Jude Siciliano, whose two workshops drew almost all of the 300 attendees at the conference, many of them deacons, sisters and laity as well as pastors and seminary instructors.

Siciliano encouraged preachers to find a contemplative place in their busy lives if they want to be good homilists. It is in this space that they can best encounter God’s word, his people and also their own self, he said.

Instead of letting the Spirit guide you in the pulpit, “let the Spirit lead you to the library,” he told his listeners.

The Dominican, who travels the country preaching and runs a Web site for homilists -- The Preachers’ Exchange -- from his base in Raleigh, N.C., said he hears often that priests are too stressed to compose good sermons. It makes him wonder how there can be fire in the congregation “if there’s ice in the pulpit.”

Preaching need not be a Herculean task if homilists remember to connect God’s story with the people’s story and the preacher’s own story. The goal is to get someone in the parish to say: “I know myself in that story.”

Related Web Site
The Preachers’ Exchange

Old and New Testament stories such as those that speak of the enslaved Israelites in Egypt, the defeated Jews exiled in Babylon or the diseased and crippled who seek out Jesus are relevant today when preachers look at “what seems impossible, what’s defeated in our churches today and who or what will help us out.” Alluding to the sex abuse crisis, he said he thinks it will take two generations to restore the damage that has been done to the church.

That’s why churchgoers need messages that will “lift up our hearts,” he said. Siciliano pointed to his pastoral work on death row, to how stories about inmates caring for one another can be a source of encouragement for those who have given up on the world, their families or themselves.

Although each audience is different and needs to be approached differently, there are elements linking all who show up for a sermon, said Auxiliary Bishop Robert Morneau of Green Bay, Wis., one of two conference keynoters. A pastor may only see his parishioners for 45 minutes a week, but he needs to be aware that by age 16, children have seen thousands of acts of violence on their video screens and people over 50 have already spent seven years of their lives in front of the television. Both of these facts have caused “a radical disconnect” between what we believe, what we celebrate and what we see portrayed in the culture, the bishop said.

“We have lost the story and images that once healed us,” Morneau said. It is the preacher’s job to retell the story so that it affects the heart. He urged preachers to recognize that people are hungry for real intimacy and that “good preaching can lift people up, giving them life and hope.”

Msgr. Virgilio Elizondo
-- Patricia Lefevere

A key reason why Msgr. Virgilio Elizondo preaches -- be it in San Antonio’s San Fernando Cathedral where he has served as rector, in seminaries, retreat centers or on Catholic Television of San Antonio where he is program director -- is because he wants to motivate, challenge and bring the light of the Gospel to the people, he told NCR.

Elizondo, a conference keynoter, finds the homily the key moment in the education of a parish. “People are hungry for basic catechesis” and the homily is the perfect part of the Mass to expound on why and how the church conducts its liturgical rites. A good sermon allows the scriptures “to flow” naturally into the sacrificial core of the eucharistic celebration, he said.

Elizondo, who is a visiting professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara and at the University of Notre Dame, divides Jesus’ public life into two parts: the “picnic ministry” or ministry of invitation practiced by a simple man from Galilee, and the confrontational ministry that begins with Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem and his challenging the money changers in the temple. Both ministries have much to say to those who feel they are “nobodies” in a society that values only the rich, well educated and successful, he said.

Jesus’ sacrificial ex-ample is pertinent to all who have known suffering and have sacrificed for others. The poor, the unemployed and those who have left their homelands to provide for their families can find healing in sermons that connect their lives with Christ’s life, he said.

“Preachers are not politicians or economists, but we have to call people to consciousness,” Elizondo said, just as Jesus “struck a nerve” when he chased the defilers from the temple. Issues such as globalization, refugees, justice, violence and poverty must be seen in terms of Gospel values, he said.

“Good preaching helps us discover something good in ourselves, something that we might not have known was there, but which we now want to rush out and share with others.” Leaving the listener with a deep sense of joy “is the greatest gift the homilist can impart to a suffering world,” said the priest.

Patricia Lefevere, a longtime contributor to NCR, lives in New Jersey.

Helpful hints for the harried homilist
A homily can hang like a headache over a homilist the whole week. It need not. During a recent visit to New Jersey, famed preacher Msgr. Virgilio Elizondo of San Antonio shared with NCR some of his habits in the preparation of a homily:

  • Consult next Sunday’s readings the Sunday before you need to preach.
  • Consult commentaries on the readings.
  • Consult the church Fathers on the readings.
  • Find an image that is central to the readings.
  • Reflect how readings relate to people’s lives in your place and time.
  • Reflect how readings relate to your own life.
  • Combine the readings, images and experiences into a message that can motivate, challenge and give hope to your audience.

National Catholic Reporter, January 23, 2004

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