It’s Thursday night, and Rev. Bill Parent, a Roman Catholic priest, is still struggling with the opening of his Sunday homily. His fingers sit unmoving on his computer keyboard. He has had several ideas, but none has taken on a life of its own. He writes two sentences, stops, and rubs his chin. Then he quickly highlights them and presses “backspace.”
Preachers are the last remnants of an ancient tradition that today has all but died out. Every speech a politician delivers has been crafted for him by others. Editorials are cut and polished by many hands before they go to press. Even live television is scripted, cued, timed, and rehearsed to the point that nothing is left to chance. The age of the soapbox speaker and the town hall meeting is behind us. But every week, people all over the world still listen to their priests, ministers, and rabbis speak to them directly, in their own words and with their own voices. These are the last true public speakers.
According to the Bible, when Jesus anointed His disciples as His first priests, instructing them to go out and preach His word to the people, He used this analogy: “You were fishers before, now I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19). But what good is a fisherman without his hook?
“I think that good preaching is not primarily deductive but inductive,” Father Bill says. One might imagine that the homilist is led effortlessly by divine inspiration, but preparing a homily is actually a very tedious process that demands a routine. For Father Bill, it always begins the same way: by reading and reflecting on that Sunday’s gospel reading. He usually does this on Monday and then returns to it several times throughout the week in meditation and prayer. Even now, the Bible on his desk lies open to John 11:1-45. It’s a long but moving passage about one of Jesus’ greatest miracles: raising Lazarus from the dead. Of course, the reading is the reason for the homily, but Father Bill’s job is not simply to restate it: He must present and interpret it in a way that his parishioners can relate to, without patronizing them or compromising the gospel.
This week, as every other week, there’s much for Father Bill to consider as he drafts his homily. Sunday will be the fifth week of Lent as well as the feast day of St. Patrick. Since his parish, St. Mary’s, which borders Chinatown in inner city Washington, D.C., has a high percentage of Asian- and African-Americans, he has decided not to talk about St. Patrick.
Although the process of finding a hook is ultimately an internal one, the source is almost always external. “If you read Scripture, you see what is going on around you through the filter of it,” he says. “Ideas can come from everywhere, and if you are attuned to what’s coming up on Sunday as you go through your week, something’s going to happen that will click in and give you the idea. I look at what’s going on in the world. And not just heavy news but sports and entertainment!’
It’s easy to see the reward of using contemporary examples. If something in Father Bill’s experience stands out, then it may do the same in the lives of his parishioners. Recently on a flight back from Rome, Father Bill saw the movie Moulin Rouge and was surprised at how he couldn’t get it out of his mind. Although he wouldn’t hold up either of the lead characters as moral examples, he was touched by the sweetness of their love story and how love transforms and redeems them. That Sunday’s gospel was about the adulterous Samaritan woman who was transformed by her love for Christ after an encounter with Him at the well. While reading it, Father Bill was again reminded of Moulin Rouge. There was his hook.
Now if only something like that would pop into his head for this Sunday. He turns his attention to world events, making a brief scan of the front pages of several papers. Nothing stands out.
He glances at a well-worn biblical commentary that sits in the middle of a large bookshelf between books by Ernest Hemmingway and C.S. Lewis. That could be a source. He tries to think of what he’s currently reading. But a book on medical ethics and a mediocre contemporary novel don’t lend themselves easily to the homilist.
Father Bill says he never consults Web sites devoted to sermons, as many preachers are doing today. If anything, he usually has too many ideas of his own. He compares a preacher to a juggler: “You have all these different ideas and sources that you are drawing on and trying to keep in the air.” Too many ideas at once can quickly bring the whole homily crashing down.
Homilies change over the course of a priest’s life, and Father Bill, like most priests, is a little embarrassed at some he delivered when he was younger and more sensitive to criticism. “After you hear responses hundreds of times, it frees you to be a better preacher, because you’re not so worried what the reaction will be!’ he says. “It frees you to say what is true, not what people want to hear.”
It was in his first year as a priest that he learned not to put too much stock in his audience’s reactions. One day a man came up to him after Mass and told him what a great homily he had given. But Father Bill told him that he hadn’t given the homily. A deacon who bore not the slightest resemblance to him had spoken instead. “You begin to realize that some people say that as just something to say.”
He does get satisfaction when people talk genuinely about something in his homily that touches them. Often, however, when people compliment him, it’s for some minor point unconnected to the theme of the homily. “Priests will tell you over and over again that they get compliments for their throw-away lines. It’s a strange phenomenon.”
No line was a throw-away the Sunday following September 11. Americans flooded their churches with renewed interest in their preachers’ ability to make sense of what seems to make no sense. This was particularly the case here at St. Mary’s, just a few miles from the Pentagon. “Tragedy has a way of making people return to what is most important in their lives,” Father Bill explains.
Remarkably, the Sunday gospel reading following September 11 was the famous “love your enemies” passage. Father Bill had an incredibly hard time reading it because of his outrage. As a runner, he used an analogy from a past marathon. “There’s a saying that the race begins at 20,” he says. “When you run a marathon, the classic mistake is to use up all your strength so that there is none left at the end. I compared that to September 11 and how we had all this resolve now, but what’s going to happen when it gets hard, when we reach mile 20?”
Having been a priest for just over ten years, Father Bill is now entering what his colleagues say is the golden age of preaching. He’s young enough not to be recycling any material, and he can relate well to his parishioners. Yet he’s also old enough to be comfortable in his position.
He’s been through all the readings in the lectionary cycle at least three times, and he’s seen enough of the world not to harbor any illusions.
Father Bill is known among his colleagues for his strong homilies, some of which have been published in journals. Although it’s hard to say what makes him a good preacher, one thing that sets him apart is the care he takes to avoid sounding uncompassionate. He doesn’t believe in unnecessarily hectoring the faithful, since he feels the people who may actually need to be rebuked aren’t the ones who come to church.
Some of his methods can be seen and appreciated by his parishioners. He steadfastly refuses to use himself as a positive example, feeling it’s much more effective to talk about his weaknesses. “I do this so people come to realize that we don’t just stand in judgment,” he says. “That we struggle with the same kinds of things they struggle with.” He never says “you” in his homilies, preferring to use “we.” Why? “Because we’re all in this together,” he says.
But other parts of Father Bill’s method aren’t as obvious. Though he spends a lot of time throughout the week preparing his homily, he spends even more time preparing himself. “The process is more about living a certain life,” he says. “I have always associated preaching with the forgiveness of my own sins.”
The tone of Father Bill’s preaching isn’t so different from the tone of his conversation. In truth, you cannot talk to him for long without receiving what amounts to several mini-homilies; and yet, strangely, you never feel preached to. Although Father Bill has a weekly deadline to meet, he never allows himself to take the easy way out.
But this week, he’s running out of time. He performs his duties on Friday with his homily in the back of his mind. Still no hook. He decides to clear most of Saturday to work on it.
Saturday morning comes and goes, and still no progress. It has been an extremely busy week, even by a priest’s standards. He and his colleagues have endured a barrage of questions from the media about the sex-abuse scandal. But this week there’s also something else on his mind. Father Bill has just learned that he will be reassigned to the prestigious Mount St. Mary’s Seminary (where he will teach homiletics, among other things). This is secret information that won’t be announced officially until Father Bill gets permission to say good-bye at the end of Sunday’s Mass.
He laughs at his struggle with this week’s homily. “Some teacher,” he thinks. After a while, he takes a break from his prayer to settle down with Friday’s edition of the Washington Post. As he’s scanning the front page, his eye catches a story about some gruesome frontier justice in rural Mexico. The story relates how the town’s elders decided to punish a young man for killing his cousin by burying him alive in his cousin’s coffin. The boy’s mother could still hear him screaming beneath the ground. Father Bill is claustrophobic, and he shudders at the horrific image of the man slowly suffocating.
He’s almost all the way through the article when it hits him: Sunday’s gospel is about Lazarus being buried!
But will such a dark story work? The fit isn’t perfect, but it could work on several levels. He can work in the theme of redemption. Just as Jesus rescues Lazarus from the tomb, He can save us from being buried alive in our sins. The story is on the front page of the Washington Post, so several parishioners will have read it. He looks at the clock. It’ll have to work.
Now that he has the hook, it’s time to put some meat on it. “The hook is the driving idea for the whole homily,” Father Bill says. “But it should never feel tacked on. It should take you through to the conclusion of the entire homily.”
He’ll type out the whole thing, even though he’ll have it mostly memorized by tomorrow. By typing it, he can perfect it and cut it down to size. This is important because he never talks more than ten minutes. Short and to the point. Now he has work to do.
It’s Sunday morning just an hour before Mass and Father Bill doesn’t seem calm as usual. As he rereads each line of his homily, he scratches out words and sentences before him.
Outside the second-story window of the rectory, the decorations are setup for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Downstairs the doorbell rings several times and no one answers. Father Bill is engrossed in his homily. He repeats some words five and six times to make sure they sound right, retreating to his office to retype a small section. As time runs out, his delivery gets more animated. When he makes the analogy of “being bound”, he pulls his arms tight around himself. A bell chimes in the adjacent church. Mass starts in 15 minutes. After one last read-through, he throws his coat on and spends the last two minutes searching for his ChapStick. It’s in his pocket.
His appearance is perfect. Not a strand of his thick hair is out of place. Blessed with deep-set eyes, angular cheeks, and a chiseled chin, he looks like a Hollywood actor playing the role of a priest. The rule for being attractive is the same for a preacher as for a politician: It never hurts.
He peers out from the sacristy to look at the small crowd. There’ll only be about 40 people—maybe 41 if you count the person who will arrive halfway through his homily. If he’s disappointed in the turnout, he doesn’t show it. Mass attendance has continued to dwindle in churches across the country after the initial post-September 11 spike. His parish is also very transient, a unique inner-city hodgepodge of cops and store and restaurant workers. You never know who will show up to Mass. He tugs on his purple cassock, adjusts the miniature microphone hidden beneath it, and greets his altar server, a middle-aged man.
Twenty minutes later, the first and second readings are done. He slowly rises from his chair, bows his head, and says a silent prayer. Every priest has a certain formula he recites in this moment, but Father Bill always adds his own to the end: “Come Holy Spirit. Forgive my sinfulness and speak to these people through my words,” he says under his breath. With today’s homily about redemption from sin, he prays just a little harder.
He takes two deliberate steps over to the lectern, turns to the gospel reading and begins. From the podium, you can see and hear everything in a church. This can be as much a curse as a blessing. Once Father Bill had to pause in the middle of his homily because he kept hearing soft bells. The puzzling noise was becoming louder and more distracting, so he finally asked the parish, “Is it just me, or do you hear bells?” Everyone heard it. Then someone yelled, “I’m sorry, Father—they’re on her shoes.” Parents had brought their two-year-old to church with bells on her shoes. After everyone had laughed, it wasn’t so distracting.
He dislikes priests who glare at or scold a screaming child. “When we get too self-important, it makes our preaching ponderous and leaden,” he says.
Today, a woman in the third row follows along in her missal. In the sixth row, a man’s head periodically bobs as he fights off sleep. Father Bill looks up as he finishes reading the gospel.
He pauses for a moment. A man eight rows back rubs his stubble and checks his watch. A woman in the fifth row slowly pulls out her checkbook and makes three entries. But a woman in the front row smiles at Father Bill encouragingly. Everyone is ready for him to speak. Some are waiting for a little wisdom to make sense of their lives. Some are waiting for him to finish before he’s even started. But everyone is waiting.
He clears his throat and begins. “Teofilo Gonzalez Cano murdered his cousin three years ago in a fit of alcoholic rage…”