By Barb Arland-Fye
Experts say inspiring homilies require preparation that includes reading Scriptures, reflecting on them, prayer and an awareness of what’s happening in the parish, the community and world. But what happens in an emergency, when a priest or deacon has only a short time to prepare?
A homiletics professor presented that scenario last weekend to deacon candidates of the Diocese of Davenport during their homiletics course. They were instructed to produce in just 30 minutes what the instructor described as a “hit-and-run homily.”
The Rev. Richard Stern, professor of homiletics at St. Meinrad School of Theology, St. Meinrad, Ind., stressed that preparing a homily in 30 minutes “is not the norm for preaching on Sundays.”
His guideline for the exercise: read all three Scriptures from the lectionary for that day and focus on one idea to deliver in a homily to a small group of classmates.
All students in the class participated in the exercise, including deacon candidates’ spouses, several deacons, a deacon’s wife, me and another female student studying in the Master of Pastoral Theology program. “Preaching isn’t just happening in a church service,” Rev. Stern said. Preaching involves communicating the message of the Good News effectively.
As a longtime journalist, I’m used to writing on deadline. I had doubts, however, about writing a “homily” in 30 minutes. After praying quickly to the Holy Spirit, I plunged into the readings for the third Sunday of Advent and focused on the Gospel reading: John 1:6-8, 19-28.
One phrase struck me: “I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, make straight the way of the Lord.” Writing in longhand, I scratched out this message:
What an eloquent Gospel reading for this time of year — not just the liturgical time of year, but the secular time of Christmas, which begins the day after Halloween.
John the Baptist says: ‘“I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, make straight the way of the Lord,’ as Isaiah the prophet said.” The Pharisees of Jesus’ time, it would seem, weren’t impressed with John’s call, or perhaps didn’t get it.
The same could be said today. Studies conducted by Catholic and Protestant think tanks note with alarm that fewer people are attending Mass or church services on a regular basis. Those numbers may be turning around, but it’s estimated that 30 percent of Catholics attend Mass each week. Do you suppose the absentees are today making straight the way of the Lord? Or are they shopping for Christmas, watching the game on TV or surfing the Internet?
Are we doing everything we can to make straight the way of the Lord? Showing up for Mass each weekend, praying the Liturgy of the Hours or reading devotions isn’t enough. Pope Benedict XVI and the U.S. bishops have spoken at length about the New Evangelization – sharing the Good News of the Lord not only with those who haven’t heard it, but with those who have heard the message but have fallen away from it.
How can we be instruments of the Light that John was so enamored with? How can we make straight the way of the Lord? Maybe we could invite someone to Mass this Advent or Christmas who has fallen away from the Church. Maybe we could visit an elderly couple from the parish unable to attend Mass because of illness or other infirmities. Maybe we could write letters to an inmate at the county jail or in the state penitentiary, not just once, but on a regular basis.
We might also practice John’s humility in making straight the way of the Lord in our own lives as we attempt to prepare the way of the Lord in the lives of others.
Being the “voice of one crying out in the desert” can be discouraging. By nature we need community. We want to know that others are with us. We have none other than Paul to turn to for guidance. Practice patience, perseverance. Don’t give up the race; take it to completion. And if we do, we’ll have companions on the journey to make straight the way of the Lord.
Afterwards, I thought about how I could have built on this message with more time, reflection and prayer. “This has been a good opportunity,” one of my classmates said afterward. We all agreed. But I think we also gained an appreciation for the preparation required to share our faith.