NEW ORLEANS, USA – For eight days at Loyola University New Orleans, three American priests and five deacons absorbed the cool mathematics and internal symmetry of good preaching.

Just as Moses descended from Mount Sinai with Ten Commandments chiselled on two stone tablets, the rules laid out by Fr Roy Shelly and Ms Deborah Wilhelm of the Diocese of Monterey, California, while not etched in permanent marker, are boundaries worthy of respect: six to eight minutes for a Sunday homily, three to five minutes for a weekday sermon.

“The idea is not so much ‘brevity’ as it is not taking longer than you need,” said Ms Wilhelm, a doctoral student with a focus on preaching at the Aquinas Institute of Theology.

Improving the quality and spiritual depth of preaching has been a passion for Fr Shelly, who is director of vocations and oversees homiletics training for the permanent diaconate in his diocese.

If priests and deacons do not take seriously their vocational call and the preparation needed to preach the Gospel, Fr Shelly said, the resulting communication will be flat and possibly even an obstacle to worship.

“The Pew Foundation looked at why young adults are leaving the Church, and the first reason the study gave was poor preaching,” Fr Shelly said. “In the Diocese of Monterey, we only recently renewed the diaconate. The mandate that came from the presbyteral council was that deacons should be effective preachers – and we should also hold the presbyterate to the same standards. This post-Vatican II generation expects more from us.”

Over the course of a week earlier, three priests from the Archdiocese of New Orleans – Frs Chris DeLerno, Kevin DeLerno and Martin Smullen – joined five deacons in preparing two homilies each, which were videotaped and then critiqued by the group.

Spiritual preparation is critical, Fr Shelly said, and the methodology employed involves lectio divina – reading, reflecting and praying over the Scripture passage.

“Archbishop Fulton Sheen said, ‘If you want me to speak for an hour, I’m ready. If you want me to speak for 10 minutes, I’ll need a week,’” Fr Shelly said.

“This is a very deliberate process. We encourage people to focus in on one idea and also to realise that this is not the only time in the lives of these people that they will hear this text preached on. The worst thing is to try to say everything. Focus on one thing.”

In training preachers, Fr Shelly asks them to write down one sentence that encapsulates the homily they are about to give. Then members of the congregation are asked to write down in one sentence the theme of the homily they have just heard.

“We have index cards and pencils, and we collect all the cards,” Fr Shelly said. “Then the presider sits down with the preacher and goes over the cards.”

Great preaching is a balancing act, he said. While the homily should be “personal, it should not be about ‘you’”.

“You want to make it personal – a revelation of your own faith life – and place that in service to the people, but it should not become narcissistic,” Fr Shelly said. - CNS

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