Kerry Alys Robinson

The inestimable blessing of excellent preaching

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

A well-crafted homily, beautiful music and hospitality conspire to create meaningful liturgies. Excellent preaching is not only crucial, its opposite can have a wholly deleterious effect on one’s active participation in the celebration of the Eucharist. 

The best homilists make it look easy, but in fact take hours of preparation to ensure the quality of both content and delivery. A few of my favorite diocesan pastors formed a priest support group shortly after they were ordained. They meet faithfully throughout the year and always dedicate some time to a prayerful discussion of the coming Sunday’s readings and ways to apply the Gospel to current concerns weighing on their parishioners’ hearts and minds. One of these pastors established “homily duty” in his parish. Modeled after jury duty, it was understood as a civic responsibility conferred upon all registered members of the parish. Juries consist of 12 parishioners who meet with the pastor to discuss the readings and offer insight connecting the passages with the concerns and topics of the day. One’s obligation does not end with that, however. The group meets with the pastor once more, the following week, to critique the homily including delivery, intonation, word choice, quality of exegesis, length and acuity. 

Another pastor introduced a small church community structure within the wider parish assembly, encouraging small groups of parishioners to meet weekly to pray, be challenged by the readings, and enter more deeply into Christian life. Commentaries and historical background on the readings are provided and members of the small church communities are encouraged to discuss the readings in the context of their lives. Key perceptions as well as unresolved questions are recorded and when the pastor prepares his homily, he takes cues and inspiration from these accounts. As he notes, the quality of the liturgy is significantly enhanced when a sizeable percentage of the community has already read, prayed with and wrestled with the readings. They are eager to learn more and often hear their own insights woven into the homily.

Not everyone is a naturally gifted preacher, but everyone can improve and be accountable. At the time of his death, my friend Father Walter J. Burghardt, SJ, was widely regarded as one of the best preachers in the United States. Architect of “Preaching the Just Word,” he was resolute that one should “never settle for a good word when the best word is better.”

Fortunately, there are tools available to homilists, many available for subscription online. One particularly innovative and new resource is available free of charge. Catholic Women Preach is a global platform for ordained priests, deacons, catechists, retreat directors and all involved in the ministry of the word in the Catholic Church. The website features theologically sophisticated Catholic women who offer reflections on the readings for Sundays and important feast days by video and transcribed text, in English and Spanish. As its website indicates, the initiative is a response to “Pope Francis’ call for broader and more active engagement of the baptized in the preaching mission of the church … and is a deeply faithful, hopeful and joyful initiative intended to build up the Church.” Co-founder and preacher coordinator Betty Anne Donnelly describes her work in this way, “It has been a privilege and absolute delight to reach out to so many gifted, faith-filled women around the world and invite them to contribute a reflection.” Since its launch one year ago, according to co-founder Deb Rose-Milavek, Catholic Women Preach has had more than 100,000 views. Four prominent Catholic women based in Chicago have been featured:  Barbara Reid; OP, Dianne Bergant, CSA; Anita Baird, DHM; and C. Vanessa White. Priests who utilize the resource emphasize the unique value of women’s voices, perspectives, imagery and insight. 

Excellent preaching matters, and should not be rare in our Catholic parishes. Nor should the onus of responsibility lie solely on the pastor’s shoulders. As every example here has shown, laypeople have important ways to contribute, support, encourage and hold pastors accountable for excellence in preaching.


  • liturgy