CTU to use grant to examine what makes a homily effective

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Thursday, December 14, 2023

Capuchin Father Edward Foley, photographed at a 2019 event, will oversee a grant to research what makes a homily effective. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

Researchers from Catholic Theological Union and the University of Chicago plan to use a grant to investigate what makes for an effective homily.

The $1.25 million grant from the Lilly Endowment is part of the endowment’s Compelling Preaching Initiative. It is to be used over the next four years to develop empirical evidence about what makes a homily increase trust, hope, empathy and compassion, and openness among listeners, as well as what makes a homily memorable, said Capuchin Franciscan Father Ed Foley, who will oversee the grant.

“How much is rhetoric, how much is performance, how much is voice variation, how much is volume, how much is being culturally in tune with the community?” Foley asked. “What actually enables these things to happen?”

Those are questions leaders at the Lilly Endowment also want to have answered.

“Throughout history, preachers often have needed to adapt their preaching practices to engage new generations of hearers more effectively,” said Christopher L. Coble, Lilly Endowment’s vice president for religion. “We are pleased that the organizations receiving grants in this initiative will help pastors and others in ministry engage in the kinds of preaching needed today to ensure that the Gospel message is heard and accessible for all audiences.”

Foley is working with University of Chicago psychology professor Howard Nusbaum on the study, which will use neuropsychology and cognitive psychology tools to try to find the answers.

“We’re actually going to see if we can answer some fundamental questions about how effective preaching affects people’s brains and nervous systems,” Foley said. “We will be using videotapes or excerpts of people preaching, in English and Spanish, which we will use to document how folk react to the preaching.”

Volunteer subjects will be asked to provide reflections and answer surveys, but researchers also plan to use tools such as EEGs and functional MRIs, Foley said.

Foley said researchers want the answers they find to help preachers adjust their homilies to better communicate their message.

“One of the goals is to create a series of short professional videos, to make what we find — the data and the processes — available to ordinary preachers,” he said. “And we also want to make videos that would be useful in the teaching of preaching. Very often, we teach the methods that the teacher prefers, or that he was taught. The hope is that this will affect this generation of preachers and future generations of preachers.”

Foley, the Duns Scotus professor emeritus of spirituality at CTU, in 2020 oversaw a $230,000 grant from the Templeton Foundation that was aimed at helping preachers use science in their homilies. This project complements the earlier one, he said.

“The difference is that the previous one, that was using science in the preaching,” he said. “This one is, what’s the science behind preaching?”

The use of science to better understand the world and to better communicate with the faithful is something Foley said Pope Francis would support, given his engagement with science, especially in “Laudato Si’,” and his emphasis on the importance of communication in “Evangelii Gaudium.”

Foley said that communication is so important to evangelization that the church must use all the tools available to make sure that preachers are communicating as effectively as possible.

“We have to use everything at our disposal to help us be effective at evangelization and communication,” he said.


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