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How to deliver a good homily that at least some listeners remember

      Summer is here, so how about we talk about homilies?

      Love ‘em or hate ‘em, you can’t get around them when you go to Mass. Now and then during a weekday Mass the presider will simply sit down after the reading of the Gospel, foregoing a homily. Sundays though? You’re going to get a homily, short or longer, preachy or conversational, interesting or not.

      Speaking of simply sitting down after the reading of the Gospel and foregoing the homily, I’ve never understood a homily being preached after the proclamation of the Gospel at the Palm Sunday Mass and the Good Friday service. Really? Something can be added to what we just heard? Wouldn’t it be more fitting for all of us to just sit down and gnaw on what was just heard?

      But I digress.

      Once, in a class of seniors at school, I asked the class for their opinions about homilies. Remarks flew quickly and weren’t very flattering. “Boring.” “Too long.” “Rambling.” “Nothing to do with me.”

      And those were the tamer responses.

      Next, I asked a group of parishioners 50-plus their opinions about homilies. Again, there was no hesitation in responding. “I can’t understand what he’s talking about.” “His accent is too thick.” “He’s all over the place.” “Too long.”

      Finally, I asked an instructor at a seminary how homiletics was taught at educational facility. Expecting a rather drawn out, theologically laden response, I was pleasantly surprised with his pithy retort: “In one ear, out the other.” 

      What it boils down to with homilies is this: get in, get out, shut up, sit down.

      To be more specific:

      Talk for no more than eight minutes. Beyond that, eyes glaze over and heads droop in slumber (with arms crossed). Phones come out.

      Stick to one idea and one image. Think small. If you want to confuse the assembly, do the opposite. A good barometer of whether you are following this rule is if a parishioner approaches you the following week and says, “You know, I really liked that one about the pizza.”

      Do not, I repeat, do not retell the readings. The assembly has already heard them. Besides, you’re wasting time.

      Do not preach on all the readings. Select a passage, a phrase, a word from one of the readings and run with that.

      Do not tell me what the original Greek says. I don’t speak or read Greek. I live in the USA in the 21st century. Besides, your knowledge of Greek doesn’t impress me.

      Unless you are a Rodney Dangerfield clone, don’t tell jokes. This does not mean, however, that humor in a homily is to be avoided. Far from it. Clever observation or pithy retort (see above) usually goes a long way. Besides, I think the Lord has a sense of humor. Exhibit A: the woodpecker - “I’ll create a creature that likes to bang its face against a tree,” God said.

      The homily is not a lecture, and the congregation is not a class of students.

      Prepare the homily well in advance. This may sound elementary, but many Sunday homilies (not to mention weekday ones) sound as if they were knocked off a half hour before Mass blasted off. Don’t plead lack of time for not preparing. Give me a break.

      Out in the assembly, couples and single parents are running ragged trying to get the kids here, there and everywhere while working a 40-hour week, grocery shopping, helping out with homework and doing the laundry. Retirees are balancing doctor’s appointments with babysitting the grandchildren and the household chores – all at a slower pace. I know you’re busy…but so are they.

      The homily should be concrete, not abstract. Avoid Church-talk. Shun clichés: “journey,” “dynamic,” “faith-commitment,” “problematic.” Eschew adjectives. Show, don’t tell. Jesus is the master at this. Check out the Parable of the Lost Coin or the Simile of Salt or the Parable of the Great Feast. Vivid images, one idea, no cliché, no religious talk.

      Of course, many fine homilists abound, and those that do adhere to the above. You know them when you hear them. But why aren’t there more?

      That’s my take on the homily, anyhow. What is yours? Let me know.  


      Deacon Mark Plaiss teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at Carmel Catholic High School in Mundelein, Ill. He is an oblate of Saint Meinrad Archabbey. Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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