PROVIDENCE — Words matter. Words have the power to comfort, to give others hope, even to change a life – or, if poorly spoken, to fall on deaf ears or leave deep, gaping wounds. A priest’s words carry significantly more weight as authentic preachers of the Gospel. That is why the Church forms sacred ministers to preach effectively to their flock. Words often meant to edify and enlighten the faithful have sometimes gone awry or gotten lost amid poor preaching.
“Because the homily is an integral part of the liturgy, it is not only an instruction, it is also an act of worship,” reads an excerpt from the Homiletic Directory for the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. “[The Fathers] understood that the purpose of the homily was not only to sanctify the people, but to glorify God. The homily is a hymn of gratitude for the magnalia Dei, which not only tells those assembled that God’s Word is fulfilled in their hearing, but praises God for this fulfillment.”
Father Thomas Macdonald, S.T.D, vice-rector of St. John Seminary in Boston, where many seminarians from the Diocese of Providence receive their priestly formation, remarked “If the liturgy is the source and summit of the Church’s life, as the Second Vatican Council reminds us, then preaching carries the Church’s invitation to climb the heights and dig into the deep wellsprings of Her life as Christ’s bride and body.”
“Good preaching is one of the hinges by which Christ opens the door of faith to those who seek Him. Consequently, bishops, priests and deacons should never cease to strive to be more convicted and convincing preachers of God’s Word. So very much hangs in the balance when they mount the ambo.”
While homilies impact those in the pews, not everyone is a natural-born speaker, asserts Kiki Latimer, author of a new book on homiletics, “Home for the Homily: The Sacred Art of Speaking.” In her years of teaching the subject at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut, Latimer put her background in “storytelling and oral communication” into practice, teaching and coaching young men to use the words God places within their hearts to inspire those in their future congregations.
Latimer wrote the book when the pandemic sent her from the classroom in 2020. The return to teaching that she had expected never materialized and she, like many throughout the country, found herself with time on her hands, “so I said, I need to write what I’ve been teaching for the last six years.” The book’s main purpose is to give priests and deacons additional guidance in capturing their audience’s attention when they approach the ambo.
In her book, Latimer talks about what a homily should not be, and what it should be. Unlike in Protestant churches, where the sermon serves as the ceremony’s main course, “For the Catholic, a homily is part of the Mass. We have the Liturgy of the Eucharist and the Liturgy of the Word and it’s part of the Liturgy of the Word, but it also serves as a bridge between [the two],” she stated.
Among the gems of homily-building wisdom the book contains, she explores what she calls “the one-egg homily.” This means that one main point is emphasized in an effective homily, rather than the speaker tossing multiple hypothetical points to listeners that might be expected to juggle and not “break.” Having one main point allows the listener to take that aspect of the homily home, to let it penetrate the mind and heart and to learn from it.
Home is a common theme throughout the book.
“I call it ‘Home for the Homily’ because the homily has four homes. Its first home is within the Mass,” Latimer said. She stressed that a homily must fit into the Mass both in terms of length and message, aligning with the day’s readings or Mass texts are prescribed by the Church.
Next it must find a home in the listener’s intellect, meaning that the message must be comprehensible, the preaching orderly and the language familiar, avoiding the pitfalls of slang or poor word choice.
“Then it has to move from there to what I call the home of the heart. It has to inspire you; you have to care about it. You can understand something but not care about it at all.”
One problem that she sometimes encounters is when priests or deacons fail to bring a biblical passage into the mindset of the 21st century; to relate the lives of people who lived 2,000 years ago to the lives of modern-day human beings. A good speaker should be able to engage the listener with the importance of the message.
The last “home” is that of the will or the domestic church, where the listener takes what he or she was given and applies it to daily life; “where it changes our behavior, where it changes our thoughts, where it makes us do something different or it moves us to holiness.”
This process of change generally must be accomplished through “baby steps,” according to Latimer. A priest or deacon who understands the difficulties that accompany growing in holiness can effectively use the homily to teach his parishioners how to accomplish this “slowly and gently,” often over time.
Though she no longer teaches, Latimer continues to offer her private homiletics coaching and has begun working on another book, a collection of essays about “last times,” such as the last time a person might see another, whether they realize it at the time or not.
“Home for the Homily: The Sacred Art of Homiletics” is available through En Route Books and Media enroutebooksandmedia.com, and Amazon.com.