CNS PHOTO | GREGORY A. SHEMITZ
Father Edward Sheridan delivers the homily during Mass at St. Rosalie Church in Hampton Bays, N.Y.
NEW ORLEANS - Just as Moses descended from Mount Sinai with Ten Commandments chiselled on two stone tablets, the rules laid out for potent peaching while not etched in permanent marker, are boundaries worthy of respect: six to eight minutes for a Sunday homily, three to five minutes for a weekday sermon.
"The idea is not so much 'brevity' as it is not taking longer than you need," said Deborah Wilhelm, a doctoral student with a focus on preaching at the Aquinas Institute of Theology, who led a recent eight-day workshop on preaching here.
If priests and deacons do not take seriously the preparation needed to preach the Gospel, said Father Roy Shelly, the resulting communication will be flat and possibly even an obstacle to worship.
"The Pew Foundation looked at why young adults are leaving the Church, and the first reason the study gave was poor preaching," said Shelly, the other workshop facilitator.
Improving the quality and spiritual depth of preaching has been a passion for Shelly, who is director of vocations and oversees homiletics training for the permanent diaconate in the Diocese of Monterey, Calif.
Spiritual preparation is critical, Shelly said, and the methodology employed involves lectio divina — reading, reflecting and praying over the Scripture passage.
"Archbishop Fulton Sheen said, 'If you want me to speak for an hour, I'm ready. If you want me to speak for 10 minutes, I'll need a week,'" he said.
"This is a very deliberate process. We encourage people to focus in on one idea and also to realize that this is not the only time in the lives of these people that they will hear this text preached on.
"The worst thing is to try to say everything. Focus on one thing."
Father Chris DeLerno, a participant, said the thought of delivering a homily without notes might have been daunting before the course, but he felt he could do that after going through the exercises.
"For me it's just coming up with a primary theme and not writing it down, but just fleshing it out in my mind and coming up with some supporting topics," he said.
In training preachers, Shelly asks them to write down one sentence that encapsulates the homily they are about to give. Then members of the congregation are asked to write in one sentence the theme of the homily they have just heard.
Deacon Greg Wilhelm said an effective preacher is "first and foremost a listener to God's word. It's presumptuous to speak God's word to God's people without listening to God's word first."
Great preaching is a balancing act, Shelly said. While the homily should be "personal, it should not be about 'you.'"
"You want to make it personal — a revelation of your own faith life — and place that in service to the people, but it should not become narcissistic," he said.