Effective Preaching, From a Listener—Part 1

There is a mystery dimension to effectiveness in Catholic preaching. For example, I can sit in a pew with five faith-filled folks who hear the same homily and one will say, “Wasn’t that inspiring?” while another will shrug, “meh. . .” A lay preaching student told me that when she was in Preaching I class, she analyzed Pope Francis’ homilies for why he so touched people and wondered, “Just as an experiment, if I preached those same homilies, would they have the same outcome?” In the twentieth chapter of Acts, St. Paul preached on and on—so long that a young man was overcome by sleep and fell out of a window; yet the folks in Troas continued to listen to Paul speak on and on until daybreak. So what is “effectiveness” in Catholic preaching? And how do we get to “it” in ordinary homiletic practice?

As Fr. Michael Connors, C.S.C. and I have been preparing for the Notre Dame Marten Program’s conference next summer—“To Set the Earth on Fire: Effective Catholic Preaching”—we have had in-depth conversations about this topic of “effectiveness” in Catholic preaching. He has just concluded a four-part series in this journal.[1] To extend his valuable contribution, I offer a few thoughts from the viewpoint of a listener—a homiletically-educated lay woman who works with those who preach.

Effectiveness—what is it? Much that is written about preaching speaks of the assembly, the homilist, and the homily.[2] But is preaching so clearly delineated? What about the elusive mystery dimension that surrounds the moment of preaching? The mystery of it all suggests that “effectiveness” is impelled, enfolded, and supported by the working of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is at work in the believer before he or she ever slides into the pew; the Spirit is at work in the homiletic life and leadership of the preacher; and the Spirit is at work in the bond and interactions of the faith community upon whom the words of the homily rest. More than simply the sum of its disparate parts, the homily is a relationship among the preacher, the community of the faithful, and the Holy Spirit, the Tie who binds it all together. At its best, then, “deep calls to deep” (Ps 42:7). In preaching that “works,” the spiritually deep place within the homilist touches the deepest place of the listening community through the action of the Holy Spirit.

What does this mean for listeners? In my empirical research with young people, Catholic high school students did not ask for their homilist to entertain—they asked for his words to “go deeper.”[3] In order to connect with them, they said, “Relate to me.” In the difficulties of life, when dealing with the impending death of a grandma or the attempted suicide of a friend, they asked for a word to touch their lives. Parents hope for the same for their children. Adult hearers also hanker to be helped.

At the same time, homilists hunger to hear the response, “you touched me today” and “you helped me find God in my life.” At their depths is the desire to help people come closer to Jesus, to encounter the Father, and to experience the Holy Spirit. To bring meaning is what gives life and joy to a priest or deacon’s ministry.

Church documents call us to this depth also. In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis says, “The homily can actually be an intense and happy experience of the Spirit, a consoling encounter with God’s word, a constant source of renewal and growth” (§135).

It would seem then, from the pew to the pulpit to the Pope, we together are discerning a similar plea from the Spirit: the homily as a mediator of spiritual experience through which we all encounter the Lord. We seek a mutual inspiration through the act of preaching which leads to commitment and discipleship. Preaching matters: “Let us renew our confidence in preaching, based on the conviction that it is God who seeks to reach out to others through the preacher, and that he displays his power through human words” (EG §136).

Depth, encounter, renewal and spiritual growth—these express a common desire for where we would like to be within the relationship that is preaching. That is the ideal.

At the same time, many factors impact the reality of preaching.[4] I have heard homilists wonder how to form listeners who listen. I have heard listeners wonder how “they” (usually someone “other” in a position of authority) could form preachers who can preach. Conversation does not flow between those two sides. If we are to “renew our confidence in preaching,” how do we move together toward the vision of where the Spirit is calling us to be in our preaching practice?

One place to start is to better understand listener receptivity. This is an area of study that is little studied in homiletics. Yet we can ask: Where and how is the Spirit at work in the hearts and minds of the listener as he or she prepares to “open up” to the homily? How does he or she dwell within the experience of the homily itself and allow the words of preaching to sink in like good butter on warm toast? How do listeners remember, cultivate and act upon the insights illuminated through the homily? And what can a homilist do to help that to happen?

In the next two segments of this series, we’ll look at (albeit briefly) what makes for “effectiveness” from the receiver-side of preaching—how do we as listeners listen? What brings clarity and depth? What engenders fire and passion? How is the Holy Spirit at work within the listening community and how does that affect the impact of the homily?

In the meantime, in this wintry season, stay warm. Have a cup of tea and a piece of toast and watch the butter soak in and take a moment to ponder how the Holy Spirit soaks into your speaking and listening.

As with Fr. Connors’ articles, please continue to share with us your thoughts to deepen and enrich this conversation. If you’d like to send us your thoughts, please email us at martenpr@nd.edu. Until next time. . .

Featured Photo: Catholic Diocese of Saginaw; CC-BY-ND-2.0.

[1] See Michael E. Connors, C.S.C. “Effective Catholic Preaching,” Journal of Church Life at http://churchlife.nd.edu/2016/09/28/effective-catholic-preaching-part-1/

[2] The pioneering document of the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Priestly Life and Ministry, Fulfilled in Your Hearing: The Homily in the Sunday Assembly, 1982, used that structure and many authors have followed.

[3] Karla J. Bellinger, Connecting Pulpit and Pew: Breaking Open the Conversation about Catholic Preaching (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2004), 90.

[4] For a more in-depth analysis of historical, clergy, and listener factors that influence Catholic preaching, see section II, “Unpacking the Complexities of the Homiletic Encounter” in Connecting Pulpit and Pew: Breaking Open the Conversation about Catholic Preaching.


Karla Bellinger

Karla Bellinger is the Associate Director of the John S. Marten Program in Homiletics and Liturgics at the University of Notre Dame.

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