Pray, Prepare, Practice: How I Put Together My Homilies
Deacon Greg Kandra
The question caught me a little offguard, and I hadn’t really thought about it until a lector brought it up in the sacristy one Sunday after Mass. “I’m curious,” she asked me, as she slipped her missal back onto the shelf, “how long does it take you to write your homilies?”
I was hanging up my alb and I had to stop and think about it.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I guess it varies. Probably four or five hours a week is average. Sometimes more, sometimes less.”
She didn’t seem fazed one way or another and just nodded.
But it got me to thinking: what does it mean to write a homily? It’s more than stringing words together and it’s more than finishing an assignment or meeting a deadline.
It is a process—at times a subconscious one— and some weeks are easier than others. But in a nutshell, I think, it boils down to what I’ve come to call “The Three P’s”: Prayer, Preparation, and Practice.
Prayer. Most weeks, I’ll begin work on a Sunday homily the week before it’s to be delivered. Usually on Sunday night, I’ll crack open the missal (or at my computer, click on the USCCB link to the readings online) and spend several minutes poring over all three readings for the following Sunday. I won’t delve too deeply. It’s a first read, to familiarize myself with what’s coming up, and orient myself. I’ll also try to read ahead a few weeks, to put the Gospel in context; if there are a series of parables or episodes that seem related, I’ll try to discern a theme. (Reading ahead will also help me avoid a mistake I’ve made a time or two: unpacking the Gospel with a particular anecdote or theme, only to realize that it would have been better to use that story to illustrate a point the following week. D’oh!)
After I’ve absorbed a first read-through of the Gospel, I like to put it aside and meditate on it for a bit. Where do I see myself in the story? What is it saying to me? And as the week goes on, I’ll revisit it every day, usually in the morning, where the Scripture often becomes my Lectio Divina on the subway. As the days go on, I’ll find myself “praying over” the Scriptures and asking myself, “What is really being said here? How does this relate to what is happening in my life or what is happening in the news?” I’ll keep my eyes, ears, and heart open to stories that might help to tease out some truth from the Gospel, and make it relevant. I revisit the Scripture every morning in this way—and as time goes on, I can sometimes be surprised at phrases, words, or images that become stronger and begin to leave a deeper impression. My thoughts about the Scriptures on Friday will often be different from what they were on Monday.
Preparation. After I come up with an idea on how I want to break open the Scripture in my homily, I’ll usually do a little digging to see what others are saying about it. William Barclay’s studies on Scripture are a favorite resource, and very accessible, and the Jerome Biblical Commentary is also a great tool. I get a lot from the essays by Barbara Reid in AMERICA, as well, and I will sometimes go Googling to see what others have to say on particular Scripture passages or parables. I try to avoid reading other people’s homilies, because I worry that it will leave me feeling frustrated and depressed and utterly inadequate. (Like a lot of clergy, I suffer from the malady known as Preaching Envy.)
Once I settle on a basic idea and approach, next comes the hard part: actually writing it. I usually try to tackle a first draft on Thursday night.
Different people employ different methods for preaching. Some people use notes. Others work from an outline. Some just wing it. But I’m a writer, and I just have to put the words on the page. Sometimes I’ll sketch out a brief outline. But usually I’ll just sit down, click on the computer, and start pounding away.
I can hammer out a decent first draft in a little over an hour, maybe 90 minutes. I have a hard time with endings, and will sometimes write only about 75% of the text on Thursday, and leave the rest for Friday (hoping and praying I get a good ending by then.)
If I finish the draft Friday night, I’ll let it cool off and then look at it with a fresh eye on Saturday morning. Then comes the tweaking and trimming, finessing and fussing. I sometimes cut and paste and move things around for the sake of clarity. One technique I use often is “bookending”: beginning a homily with an anecdote and returning to that story at the end, to close it off and make a final point. This is helpful for a couple of reasons: it gives an interesting opening to the homily, and then it signals to the listener that I’m wrapping things up (in other words: wake up, guys, I’m almost finished).
As for length: I usually aim for 1,000 words, which seems about right; read aloud, it comes to about seven minutes. But it’s not unusual for me to bring in a homily at around 800 words. The simple reality is: I’m not that smart, and I’m not that deep, and most people get antsy after five or six minutes anyway. I’m reminded of what Abraham Lincoln said when someone asked him how long a man’s legs should be. “Long enough,” he replied, “to reach the ground.” It’s the same with a homily: a good five-minute homily is infinitely superior to an eight-minute one.
A word or two about formatting: I single space, using 16 point type. It comes to about four pages, and I can read it easily at a glance. More on that in a moment.
Practice. I can still remember trying out my first homily for an audience of one: my wife. My wife is an actress, and a great lector. I knew she’d be a tough audience. I stood in our living room, four pages of text in my hand, cleared my throat, and delivered what I thought was a very good little sermon about Jesus calming the storm in the Sea of Galilee. My wife listened politely. And when it was finished she looked at me. A long moment passed. Then she spoke.
I guess she saw my lip quivering.
“Let me look at this,” she said, as she took the pages from my trembling hand. She read over the text. “Well, this part is good,” she said. “And this one. And I like that. But it’s not punching through. You’re losing me.” She looked at me. “Honey, try to take more time with it. Want to try it again?” I did. And somehow, after a couple more tries, I got it to work. It was a valuable lesson for me: delivering a good homily isn’t about reading. It’s about preaching.
An old joke asks, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice.” The same could be said about how to get a homily from the page to the pulpit and into the hearts and minds of the people.
I’ve worked out a system where I practice my homilies three times before I deliver them. The first time is a simple “cold” read to hear how the words come out of my mouth and to see if I’ve said something stupid. I’ll often shorten sentences or change words or adjust the pacing. You never quite know how something will hit the ear until you say it out loud.
After that, I’ll try out the homily two more times, working out inflections and phrasing and pacing—what parts to speed up, which ones to slow down. By the time I’ve completed my third runthrough, I have a good sense of the overall text—the geography of it—and when I climb into the pulpit to deliver it, I find I only occasionally have to glance at the page. The printed text becomes a roadmap, guiding me from point to point, phrase to phrase.
The result: I find that I don’t read the homily. I preach it.
Some people recoil at the idea of using any text at all—and it may be a matter of personal preference or taste. But I like having it there, to reassure me of where I’ve been and remind me of where I’m going. Once in a while, I’ll ad lib or deviate from it. But words matter, and the choice of words can make a big difference. The text also helps me to keep on time and on track and prevent me from getting lost.
Overall, people seem to appreciate the time and attention I give to this weekly exercise—maybe 20 or 30 minutes a day, across six days, with more time for the actual writing and revising. It won’t work for everyone, but this methodology works for me.
After four years and 200 homilies, and counting, the only complaint I’ve heard comes from my wife—who, late on a Friday night, if I’m stuck trying to find a good ending for a homily, tells me to just turn off the computer and come to bed and worry about fixing it in the morning. As usual, her advice is always the best.
Deacon Greg Kandra serves in the Diocese of Brooklyn. His homilies—and a lot of other writings—can be found at his popular blog, “The Deacon’s Bench” (http://www.patheos.com/community/deaconsbench/). An award-winning broadcast journalist, he now serves as the Executive Editor for ONE Magazine, the acclaimed bi-monthly published by the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA).