And so, my dear people, lettuce

Thursday 5 March 2015 — Icebound in Falmouth Harbor — Full Lenten Moon

This Lent, I’ve resolved to take special care preparing my daily homilies. I deliver a brief (three to five-minute) homily at daily Mass throughout the year but Lent is a season when preaching the Word has increased Spiritual importance. Every preacher has his own preparatory routine. Here’s mine.

The first Mass of the day is at 7 a.m. so I get up at 5 a.m. in order to meditate. First, I get a steaming hot cup of coffee and sit down on the old couch in my study (with Transit the greyhound sleeping upside down beside me). There’s a small table to my right. On it are several favorite books I use in preparing my homilies. 

I begin by looking up the day in the 2015 Ordo. This is the “Order of Prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours and the Celebration of the Eucharist.” Due to my geographical location, the edition that applies to me is specifically geared for the Archdiocese of Boston and the dioceses of Fall River, Springfield, and Worcester. The Ordo tells me all I need to know to celebrate Mass properly that particular day. It even tells me what color vestments I should wear. It lists the Scripture readings officially assigned to the day. My task is to celebrate Holy Mass in union with the Church Universal and the local diocesan Church, all the while conscious of the Spiritual needs of this particular gathering of the Church at prayer. 

Next, I review the Bible passages. I like to read them in more than one translation in order to pick up subtle nuances. I consult several Bible translations that I also keep on my table. Then, after a quick prayer to the Holy Spirit, I ponder the Word in my heart. What is God revealing to me personally in these passages? What does God want the assembly to hear this day? 

After I have some idea of what I will be talking about, I look at what insights others have had in reading the same passage. Also on my table are several daily meditation booklets. I especially like “Magnificat,” “Give Us This Day,” and “Living Faith.” Then I move on to consulting various Bible commentaries and dictionaries of the Bible that I keep in my pile of books.

By now, I usually have some ideas. I let them float around in my mind for a time, let them focus, and then head off to the Sacristy to vest for Mass. My system usually works — but not always. Of course, this procedure applies only to daily homilies. On Sundays and Holy Days, my regime is much more extensive. 

Recently, the priest scheduled to celebrate 7 a.m. Mass telephoned to say he was unable to make it to the church due to weather conditions. I had barely enough time to grab a cup of strong coffee, but no time at all for reflection on the Scriptures of the day. As I went to say Mass, I resolved not to preach. Better to remain silent than speak with no preparation whatsoever. 

The first reading that day happened to be one of the Creation accounts from the Book of Genesis. This, unfortunately, was breaking news to me. As I sat there listening to the reader, a thought came to me out of nowhere. The reading presumed an understanding of how the author comprehended the physical universe. Using an upturned glass bowl on a platter, I explained the concept and invited the congregation to reread the passage with this in mind. At 7 a.m. on a Monday morning I was expounding on ancient Hebraic theories of cosmology — for the Spiritual benefit of the congregation. I’m not sure if anyone found it inspiring, but it was either the intervention of the Holy Spirit or the effect of too much caffeine. God alone knows. 

The first rule of preaching is this: always prepare. You really need to have an attention-grabbing beginning and a definitive ending. Ending can be the most difficult part, but if you haven’t struck oil in a timely manner, quit boring. Between the beginning and the end, you need a theme. Make your point clearly and succinctly. Strive for continuity. Affirm and challenge at the same time.

Don’t insert a lot of long quotes so as to appear well-educated (Zzzzz). On the other hand, preach with confidence. It’s not about what you think, what you believe, or what opinion you hold — it’s about the authoritative Word of God. One phrase to always suppress, dear readers, is “My dear people.” It sounds way too patronizing. “Let us” is another one to avoid like the plague. Sounds like “lettuce.” You are a preacher, not a greengrocer. 

Use well the tools of rhetoric — alliteration, pauses, word-play, eye contact, etc. Look to Bishop Fulton J. Sheen as your model. Know your congregation. And don’t dumb down your thoughts and words. Even little children will get your drift. 

And so, my dear people, in conclusion, lettuce (sic)….

Anchor columnist Father Goldrick is pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Falmouth.

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