Quality is as important as duration
(Source photo L. Desroche)
Eloquence teacher (1) (Source photo L. Desroche)
Eight out of ten Internet users who responded to our survey “What do the French think of the homily?” – carried out in March 2021, it had collected more than 10,000 responses – indicated that their attention was less than ten minutes. But we must not make duration an absolute indicator. We would sometimes like twenty-minute homilies to go on while we pick up on others from the first minutes. What counts above all is the content and the structure of the homily. What concrete link do we establish between the spoken word and daily life? With what essential message do we want the faithful to go home? While discussing with priests, I realized that many could not answer this question… The structuring facilitates the understanding of the main message. In the training we offer, we rely on six criteria, part of which finds its source in Antiquity.
The logos aims at the comprehension of the homily by all, even by the youngest. The ethos invites sincerity in the way of speaking. I am referring to this “priest’s voice”: a white, slower, more veiled voice that has nothing to do with the usual way of expressing oneself. The third criterion is pathos: what emotion, linked to the text, do you want to convey to the assembly? The joy of the found sheep, anger at the rejection of the sick and sinners, the sadness of Christ at the tomb of Lazarus? Many are uncomfortable with this question of emotion and do not want to take it into account. They prefer to take refuge in more intellectual considerations. The last three criteria were formalized by Albert Mehrabian, professor of psychology at the University of California. It talks about verbal and vocal language: what we say and how we say it. And visual language: gaze, gestures, posture. How do you establish a connection with the faithful when you have your nose immersed in your text? Working on his eloquence, his expression, is misunderstood. It’s manipulation, some are indignant. We must not confuse eloquence, which is an oratorical art in the service, here of the Gospel, and the sophistry which seeks to persuade anyone of anything… Addressing the question of the homily, when we is secular, is sometimes badly perceived: it remains the preserve of the sacred. However, we are the first recipients! Addressing the question of the quality of a homily is a sensitive subject for a priest: any comment affects him personally. We forget that this discipline was dispensed by the Church from the 13th to the 19th century. Today, only three seminaries, out of the fortnight that I contacted, still teach this subject. Yet the needs are enormous. A priest confided to me recently: “The homily is my weekly cross. »
Collected by Gilles Donada
(1) A homily training is launched this week ([email protected]).
We must not take the assembly hostage
(Source photo F. F. Dubois)
Brother Franck Dubois
Dominican, master of novices at the Convent of Strasbourg (Bas-Rhin), regular preacher of the “Day of the Lord” (Source photo FF Dubois)
Spontaneously, I would answer that the homilies must above all be incisive, which induces a rather short speaking time. I think it’s a very cultural prism, moreover… The question is probably posed differently in France and in other countries, where there may be more propensity for length. What I find unfortunate is when one has the impression that the preacher is taking the congregation hostage when the latter – barring exceptions – is not going to start leaving the church or expressing its dissatisfaction in front of our point! The faithful are at the mercy of the one who preaches, and limiting this speaking time can be a mark of respect towards them. During weekday Masses, I try to limit myself to three minutes of homily, and seven on Sundays – even if of course it is not timed. Besides the length, there are many other criteria that can help make a “good homily”. For example, I find that we must be careful not to fall into an academic exegesis: we can make some developments on the context of the biblical passage, but not retell it – and often less well – by paraphrasing it!
For me, a homily can be structured in three strong moments: first, a hook (the technique of telling a little story often works quite well), followed by an element of doctrinal reflection – on the mystery of the incarnation, of the trinity, the resurrection… the fundamentals of the faith, which we can decline in one way or another -, and finally a more practical word to relate to our daily life by asking questions, by proposing challenges… We are certainly not here to make people feel guilty, but no doubt to wake them up, make them wonder!
The homily reveals something about the preacher, it is very exposing. It implies for him to find the right balance by giving himself up, without lapsing into a lack of modesty. Its very position entails risks: of overhanging, of crushing, of manipulating by diverting the word of God, of having influence, of shocking or hurting on delicate subjects which may have to do with morality, ethical doctrine… This requires tact, without however taking away from the Gospel its rough and disturbing side. The word of the preacher can truly edify and build, as it can also challenge or destroy.
There are proposals on training for preaching in France, but I think we still have room for improvement. Pope Francis often speaks of the importance of preparing, through the text and through prayer, the homilies so as not to bore people. It also evokes the more global disposition of the preaching cleric, priest or deacon, who must know and love the assembly and the word of God enough to get his message across, without falling into excessive formalism or crass indigence.
Collected by Malo Tresca
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