Ars Praedicandi: Jesus Calms the Storm

Here is my attempt at a homily from this last Sunday.

For the purposes of this preaching series, we might talk about the pros and cons of preaching without a text. I’ve done both. My theory is that the danger of reading a text is that it’s too stiff, so you have to work to convey engaging spontaneity. But the danger of speaking freely is that things don’t come out right and you forget things, so you have to work to convey poised, sensible content. I’d appreciate your thoughts – all input is welcomed!


  1. From my personal point of view, the order of preference (in descending order) is:

    * Have a prepared/printed text
    * Have a prepared/printed outline
    * Have a mentally prepared/unprinted outline
    * Preach extemporaneously

    I agree that delivery is an important consideration with a prepared text, but of course that is true whether or not we’re working from a written text (communication being something like 90% non-verbal).

    When a text is prepared ahead of time, the delivery needs to be practiced. For me, anyway, that is the key to polished delivery. Hearing the words I’ve authored actually come out of my mouth usually is surprising and illuminating. Best to avoid those surprises when we’re in front of an assembly 🙂

    Having a prepared text doesn’t eliminate the possibility of some spontaneity. It would be rare that my preaching would be word-for-word what is on the page.

    Just my thoughts.

  2. Every preacher is encouraged to do all the heavy lifting at this time, to think for the people as it were. All the homilies and sermons from patristic times to today point this way. And so your listeners will be expecting it, too: authoritative treatment, a series of answers, a clear path with well defined bullet points. I think you have tried here to suggest rather than impose, to get your listeners to probe their own hearts for answers – and questions, too. A homily can achieve its purpose if everyone gathers even a little nugget from it. As you say here, no one knows the mystery of God, and most likely will not know the mystery in the next life either. If people know that this is your purpose, they will know how to listen.

    I was taught to prepare a text with the rhetorical elements, and avoid straying from it. And so I have always done this when I get the opportunity. But with time and with familiarity with scripture and a community – as well as prayerful preparation – I would want to let it flow freely as you have done here. By the way, I would also quote God’s first question to Job: “Who is this?” because it is echoed at the end of the Gospel reading.

  3. At my tender young age (64) I need a printed and prepared text. Otherwise, I’d forget half of what I want to say. 38 years ago, an outline sufficed. I agree with JIm that any major (Sunday or holyday, well-attended solemnity homily needs to be rehearsed.

  4. I’m a fully written-out text sort of guy. The few occasions when I’ve had to preach spontaneously (e.g. when a visiting priest thought I was supposed to give the homily rather than him) it has been disastrous. Even when I’ve had time to plot things out in my mind, I always feel that it has been less precise in its expression and less clear in its presentation.

    I don’t think a read text needs to be dull. Perhaps its because I’ve had the privilege of attending readings by some great writers (Toni Morrison and David Sedaris come to mind), but I think a read text can be exhilarating, if its a good text and is read well.

    What it can’t do, pretty much by definition (unless one writes it like a script and thinks of oneself as an actor), is seem spontaneous. But why should we want our homilies to seem spontaneous? Perhaps we want to convey how Spirit-filled we are (which is a good thing) but we run the risk of coming across as simply under-prepared, with lots of “um”s and “uh”s and “like”s and sentences that meander on and chase their tails,

    Now I’m not saying Fr. Anthony’s homily is like this. But to my ears, it sounded more like a read homily than a spontaneous one. In fact, had I listened with my eyes closed, I would have guessed he was standing at the ambo with a text in front of him. Which is to my mind high praise.

  5. What a breath of fresh air it is to hear a homily that is firmly centered on the Gospel, and that takes a perspective where “we” (preacher and assembly) are in it together, instead of “you”(the preacher) thinking about what “we”(the assembly) need.

    I am happy, in theory, with homilies without a text. But they tend to be longer, and at over 12 minutes, this one may have stretched the congregation’s patience.

    Agree with Fritz that in spite of the absence of a text, this feels like there is a script – it’s organized, all the sentences make sense, the progression is logical, and it doesn’t get sidetracked into irrelevant musings. It must have taken a lot of prep work!

  6. It varies person-to-person. It varies from service-to-service.

    I work from a set of point notes and actually practice delivery for about one hour prior to doing the first homily of the weekend. I rarely look down at my notes, but they are there and do keep me from straying.

    Also, I have used an iPad with my text on it, and moved away from the Ambo at times when it is needed. There are times when you need to be at the Ambo, and times when stepping to the side adds emphasis to the Word. Do nothing “just because.”

    Having any quotes, factual bits and pieces, accurately with me means those who watch me speak are aware that I am referring to my notes and not paraphrasing.

    I tried full written out text many times. For me, it was a disaster. What parent speaks to their children from a fully prepared text … reading the commas, semi-colons etc.? (I know of one parish where they actually hand the homily out to you BEFORE the service and you can follow along as it is read.) I sounded like a robot, the homily was cold and impersonal, and those who cared enough to be honest with me, told me so. Clearly, it was not what I do best.

    I regularly video-tape myself and sit and critique my homilies. It can be humbling; it can be eye-opening; it can help avoid pitfalls and bad habits that I was not even aware of … do I really say “you see” that often!!!! … am I really shuffling my self around that much?

    Even more humbling is the drive between parishes, sitting beside my wife, who has often heard the homily once or twice before. She is my most accurate weather-vein of what is effective and what is not … remember, in formation she took the homily courses as well!

    Here is link that you may not have seen … on what I have seen far to often …

  7. It is a very rare American Catholic preacher who is good at extemporizing homilies. Chronically extemporized homilies convey a sense that they are not worth preparing. (Resist mightily the temptation to tell the congregation how you got your homiletic theme, and never ever succumb to the temptation to say how hard it is to homilize about X, Y or Z. The first person singular should be rarely employed. Extemporizing make one more vulnerable to these temptations.)

    I have excellent deeply rehearsed homilies delivered without notes. I don’t find sponteneity to be an important value with homilies – more typically, it’s a distraction.

    Deeply prepared usually means fluid, rather than stiff. If it’s stiff, you need to go deeper with preparation. Same as in music.

  8. When I took Homiletics in grad school, we had to use a text; that discipline was important for us as students.

    My own preaching is done in the context of Evening Prayer at our parish; I usually have my text, but I rarely “read” from it, word for word. Once, and only once, did I come out from “behind the ambo” and speak extemporaneously – luckily, it worked. I had not planned that, but the Spirit pushed and I flew!

    In the pews, I am distracted by someone offering a homily, looking down at their paper and struggling for no spontaneity, but for authenticity. To be able to have your text and “read” comfortably as you preach is a gift. Years ago I was in a parish where the priest offered Homily Help style homilies, read directly from the page; you could go to the bank on hearing the same one every three years… *sigh*

    Those who preach regularly, that is weekly, and who do it well have a great gift. Blessings on all of you who do so!

  9. It was the late Cardinal John Wright, I believe, who regularly entered the assembly as presider and preacher, crosier in one hand, and rolled-up homily text in the other. Often enough, he “waved” to the people with it, perhaps saying to them, “I’ve prepared something special, which hopefully will be of help to you.”
    I’m a firm believer/dependent on a full text, the fruit of hours and days of preparation and practice. By the time of delivery, I’m well familiar with that text, which also leaves me free to wander from it, when necessary and as moved. I don’t read the homily, because I’ve had too many of those experiences, which engaged neither head nor heart. For as long as I’ve been doing it, I’ve had people in every congregation tell me that there is neither evidence nor sense that there is a text in front of me, certainly not that I’m reading from it.
    It’s very much a matter of style, and whatever one’s style might be, THAT demands both preparation and practice.
    While I have, successfully, I think, on occasions abandoned both text and ambo, and spoken from the sanctuary or nave, I’m not convinced that it’s always/ever the best approach. I remember being at a Confirmation liturgy years ago, at which the bishop preached while wandering around the nave. That helped me decide it wasn’t a good idea, and it also provided him a certain bit of safety. Since we didn’t know where he was going to pop-up next, it remained difficult to shoot a moving target.
    All of that said, I deeply respect those who can/do preach in what appears to be an extemporaneous style. The truth, I believe, is that those who are really good at doing so, have prepared longer, harder and better than the rest of us, and are using-well a gift they have been given.
    If we all took time to figure-out the gift of our “style,” perhaps everyone would be better-off, and the Word of God would accomplish the end for which it was sent.

  10. I can only tell you what I have seen in my experience. The absolute best homilists have included both extemporaneous and scripted homilies. The absolute worst have included both extemporaneous and scripted homilies. Just my humble opinion. I will say that if you are going to be extemporaneous you need enough self discipline to focus on a few really important points and avoid drifting off the main road you intend to travel. If you’re going with a script, try to avoid reading it completely – it’s really hard to read each word and not make me think you’re saying “Bueller? Bueller?”

  11. I’m seeing a misunderstanding in a lot of these comments. Preaching without a text is not necessarily preaching extemporaneously. I have never preached from a text (nor do I write things down as part of the process) but my preaching is far from extemporaneous. In fact I have had parishioners who have attended more than one mass on a weekend comment that they were surprised that it was the same homily both times. Preaching without a text is a skill. It takes work and discipline and practice. But I have always found the benefits worth the effort. Our archbishop (Kurtz), who also preaches without a text, told the story of long ago being chastised by a beloved aunt for preaching from a text. “If YOU can’t remember it long enough to tell it to us, how do you expect US to remember ANYTHING?”

  12. FWIW – a priest in our archdiocese once told me that he and his classmates were trained in the seminary to preach extemporaneously because they would be expected to encounter many situations in which they’d have to preach without the luxury of preparation. So apparently, at least for his class, it was positively a strategy.

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