My father was always critical of my choice of major in college.
"Speech and English?!" He’d shake his head and ask, "Why don’t you do something useful, like business administration?"
The Holy Father has recently advised seminarians and priests to take courses in speech and communications to improve the quality of preaching.
Good idea. One of the most common grumbles I hear from the voices in the pews is about unprepared, uninspired and uninspiring preaching.
I don’t claim to be the world’s best preacher, but I have some confidence because I received an excellent training in my choice of major. Public speaking is an art form, and because good preachers make it look easy, it is easy to think that there is nothing to it. The abundance of poor preaching proves the point.
What did I gain from being a speech major? It wasn’t all high drama. It was hard work. We learned how to build the foundation of a good speech. We were taught the nuts and bolts of dynamic speaking and the practical pointers of reaching and holding the audience.
First, we learned the foundation of a good speech. To speak well, you have to speak with authority, and to have authority, you have to know what you’re talking about. If you don’t know your subject upside down, backwards, forwards and inside out, then you need to do your research.
Too many speakers stand up and open up without first sitting down and studying. You can’t give something out if you haven’t put something in.
A good homilist is not only studying biblical commentaries and books of theology. He’s reading novels and non-fiction, watching films and television, with discretion and with his mind engaged. All of this input will eventually become positive output.
The knowledge then needs to be organized clearly and memorably. I use a very basic formula for my homilies: I have one basic message that I expound or expand with three points. I usually begin with a catchy illustration or story, make my points and conclude by bringing the whole thing back to a focus on the Eucharist.
There are plenty of other good ways to structure a homily, and a practical course in homiletics teaches the preacher not only to research effectively, but to organize his thoughts with clarity, too.
Second, as a speech major, I learned the nuts and bolts of good speaking. We learned about voice production, projection, proper diction and posture. We learned how to use voice range, gesture and body language effectively. They taught us how to use persuasive tools, emotional appeals and humor in ways that complemented the message rather than being gimmicks.
Third, they taught us how to capture and hold the audience’s attention. There are certain techniques to retain attention, but what holds the audience best is the preacher’s passion for his message. This is where the theory of good speaking becomes most interesting.
The good speaker is full of enthusiasm for his message. He not only speaks with passion and conviction, but he speaks from his own experience to the experience of his hearers.
The homily is the point in the Mass where the truths of the Gospel are related to the reality of everyday life. A homily that is too highbrow and intellectual misses the target. A homily that is too lowbrow, sentimental and shallow is also irrelevant. Instead, the preacher must relate the reality of Christ alive in his life and reveal how Christ can be alive in the lives of his hearers.
The preaching of Our Lord is the perfect example. He preached from the heart of his own experience to the heart of the experience of his hearers. He used natural examples from everyday life: a lost coin, a lost son, a lost sheep. He illustrated spiritual truths with homely examples and made ordinary life surge with meaning: a pious hypocrite who does evil or a crooked tax collector who makes good; a suspicious foreigner who turns out to be compassionate or a rich man who neglects the poor and pays the price.
Jesus drew meaning from the lives of the people he lived and worked with: the bridegroom and the bride, the farmer sowing seeds, the shepherd separating sheep and goats or the fisherman casting his net.
To be able to do this, a preacher must first live and move among his people.
This is why Pope Francis exhorts priests to get up and out of our rectories and offices and be with the people. How can a preacher relate the Gospel to ordinary life unless he is immersed in ordinary life? How can a preacher connect with his people from the pulpit if he does not connect with them in their ordinary places of work, play and home life?
I believe this is the magic ingredient to good preaching, and it reveals the basics of good preaching that I have already outlined in a new light. Suddenly, the necessary knowledge and research is not just done with our noses stuck in commentaries and theological tomes. Research for a homily also comes from the home visit, the prison work, the hospital anointing, the counseling session and the visit to the parish school.
The techniques of good preaching can be consolidated through listening carefully to people one-on-one, learning where they are and trying to lead them where they need to be. The sensitive pastor will then understand from his own heart what his flock needs to hear.
His passion and conviction will attract them to Christ, and his preaching will spark in them a deep desire to know Christ more clearly, follow him more nearly and love him more dearly day by day.
Father Dwight Longenecker earned his B.A. in speech
and English, followed by a degree in
theology from Oxford University.
Follow his blog, browse his books
and be in touch at DwightLongenecker.com.