Last week my parish offered four opportunities to attend a Faith Festival, a parish-wide, intergenerational opportunity for community and catechesis, including a light meal, prayer and faith formation in age-appropriate groups.
Our January Faith Festival carried this title: Am I a Catholic? What do I need to believe? We chose this topic because it encompasses two of the questions I am most frequently asked in the course of my ministry.
I was the presenter for the adult and high school student contingent. Over the course of the week I gave my presentation to a combined audience of about 275.
Something happens to a presentation as you offer it four times over the course of a week. Some penciled editing is done and some redaction occurs even as you are presenting (to be penciled in later!).
The greater command the speaker has of the material, the freer the speaker is to add and subtract from the prepared text, especially in relationship to the audience listening and its response (verbal/body language).
Repetition, of course, can also be deadly. If the speaker is tired of the material, the audience will tire of listening to it. But if the material continues to engage even the speaker, it has potential for new life each time its offered. That was my experience this past week. Although I had confidence in my material before presenting it the first time, by the end of the week I found myself significantly more personally engaged by it, even though the fourth offering was on a Sunday night after the morning's liturgical schedule and an afternoon of other pastoral work.
I was pleased, too, that by Festival IV my presentation was tighter, not more unwieldy, and thus allowing for greater interaction with my audience after my talk.
Some of this dynamic also applies to preaching a homily on the weekend, albeit in a tighter time frame. No matter how long I work on preparing a homily, I don't really know it's strengths and weaknesses until I have preached it in the liturgical setting. Our weekend Mass schedule includes an anticipated Mass on Saturday evening and three Masses on Sunday morning. I generally preach at 3 or 4 of these celebrations.
Preaching at the 5:00 on Saturday has something of the "out of town tryout" about it - even though it plays in the heart of the home "town." It's in the preaching that preacher discovers what further work the homily needs.
My 5:00 preaching often shows me that my homily began in the wrong place! That's right. I often realize after preaching once that my opening material is either unnecessary or that it delays my getting to where I want my work to take me and God's people. Saturday night and the cut-and-paste feature of word processing make for a better beginning on Sunday morning.
After preaching a text once I also often realize that I have unnecessarily repeated words/phrases/concepts/sentences. Almost always my Sunday preaching ends up being a shorter homily because of my Saturday night redactions. If a deacon preaches on Saturday night my homiletic processing doesn't begin until the 7:30 a.m. liturgy. Between Masses I find a corner in the sacristy for editorial work but there's no keyboard or printer there so it's done by hand: scratching out and writing in.
The final redaction occurs when I prepare my text for publishing here on my blog or on the parish website. I will often see that phrasing that worked in an oral presentation doesn't do as well in print and so a final sweep of the text takes place before I click on "Publish Post."
As was my experience with my Faith Festival talk last week, preaching the same homily three or four times in a 19 hour window allows the presentation to steep, like a pot of tea. Feedback from parishioners over the weekend (observed attention or inattention during the homily and comments as folks pass by at the church doors) either builds the preacher's confidence or indicates the need for more work.
Perhaps most of all, repeated preaching of the same text affords me a comfortability with it that yields a better delivery and presentation. I know that pauses, inflection, emphases, tone of voice and a better "shaped" delivery become more effective over the course of the weekend's preaching.
As you can tell from the above, I almost always preach from a text and I write that text in sense lines which I believe enhances delivery and frees me for better eye-contact with the assembly. That's why my homilies appear in that form on my blog and on the parish website.
I've noticed over the past year or so that my homilies are getting shorter. My ambo text used to be generally 5-6 pages, double spaced, 16 point print. They are now generally just over 3 and sometimes up to 4 pages. I'm pleased with what's happening although it was not a change I had set out to make. My memory is that some less lengthy homilies seemed, to me, to be more effective and I slowly but surely found myself writing that way.
And, as you might guess, no one has complained that my homilies are too short!
Thanks for reading - I've found it helpful to think these things through and organize my thoughts.
Below: Now here's my dream! Monitors scrolling the text of my homily right at the ambo, with a computer in the sacristy where I could do some editing between Masses on a Sunday morning! How will I present this request to the Parish Finance Council?