Fr. Justin Huang He prepares homilies five weeks in advance, praying, reading, studying, writing and re-writing what he’ll say in front of 1,000 parishioners each weekend. Photo of courtesy of B.C. Catholic

A preacher’s guide to a good homily

By  Agnieszka Krawczynski, Canadian Catholic News
  • August 22, 2018

VANCOUVER – By the time Fr. Justin Huang stands before St. Anthony of Padua Church on a Sunday morning, he has done 10 hours of preparation and written about seven drafts of what he’ll say.

“It’s a lot of work, but it’s so satisfying. I have never looked so forward to Sunday Mass.”

Huang takes his homilies seriously. He prepares five weeks in advance, praying, reading, studying, writing and re-writing what he’ll say in front of 1,000 parishioners each weekend. He also has a panel of seven devout Catholics who critique his homily and provide feedback on every draft. He re-writes the draft for content, flow and timing until they’re all satisfied.

“The pressure is tremendous, but that’s also healthy,” said Huang. 

After he delivers a homily, he publishes it in the bulletin and on his blog so families can think about the message and talk about it at home.

Improving preaching of Vancouver clergy is a priority for Archbishop J. Michael Miller. When he announced his latest “Priorities and Goals” in 2016, he urged everyone in the archdiocese to “Make Every Sunday Matter” by focusing on beautiful music, hospitality and effective preaching.

By then, Huang had already begun revamping his own preaching strategies and agrees with Miller that thoughtful homilies are extremely important.

Preaching “is going to be absolutely critical for parish renewal and the new evangelization.”

To help pastors improve their homilies, the Archdiocese of Vancouver welcomed long-time pastor Darrell Johnson to speak at a Priest Study Week in November. The Regent College teacher shared insights and tips with about 110 Catholic priests over several days.

 “The joy of preaching is being able to talk about Jesus,” Johnson said, summarizing his classes in an interview with The B.C. Catholic.

“Jesus is the most amazing human being to ever live. When you recognize that He’s also God in the flesh, He’s the most amazing God to talk about. We will never be done talking about Jesus. No one will ever be able to say: ‘I have that task done. I’m going to move on to something more important.’ No priest, no pastor, will ever be done with that job.”

Johnson, who has been preaching for 50 years, said the key to an engaging homily is joy and an inner love for the text. For him, that means daily meditation and in-depth study. He takes an average of 12 hours to prepare a sermon.

It’s a good idea to tell a story sometimes, but the story can’t distract from the message, he said. 

“The story you tell is supposed to get people back into the text. As a preacher, I’d be disappointed if all people remember is my story. I want them to remember why I told the story.”

Like Huang, Johnson usually writes out his whole script. He practises it aloud before preaching.

In Protestant churches, sermons can go 25-30 minutes. Catholic priests tend to speak for shorter amounts of time, which can be just as challenging, Johnson said.

Priests also face other difficulties. Besides trying to find time to meditate and dig into historical context, he said they must try to reach people who have different worldviews and cultures or might not even speak English as their first language.

Fr. Gary Franken, the archdiocese’s vicar general and the pastor of St. Anthony’s in West Vancouver, said Johnson’s workshop on preaching was “very valuable” for local priests.

“It’s an awesome privilege and a joy to preach, but it’s sometimes one of the hardest things to do, depending on circumstances and what you need to preach about,” said Franken.

When he’s preparing to give a homily, Franken begins on Monday by reading the upcoming Sunday readings. “It’s incubating all week, getting ideas, reading other ideas, doing research and praying.”

He agreed that priests often feel swamped with other work. “We have to live up to the challenge of what needs to be done, and that’s passing on the revelation that we’ve received in Jesus Christ. If preachers are too busy doing too many other things and they can’t properly prepare for that and be supported in that, then we’re handicapping them.”

(The B.C. Catholic)

DarrellJohnson homilyTips from Darrell Johnson, Regent College teaching fellow and former senior minister at First Baptist in Vancouver:

• Ask the Living Jesus to meet you in the text you’re going to preach. That’s the first thing. Stay in that text until Jesus meets you.

• Seek to say only what the text says. Discipline yourself not to bring your own agenda into this, but let the text determine what you’re going to say.

• Have as clear a flow as possible. You can give a lot of content if the flow is clear. Think of an arrow that’s being shot, that goes right through the air, clear to the heart. Work on clarity.

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