The Craft of Preaching

The best thing I ever heard about preaching

What is the preacher's task?

People in the know weigh in on what makes for a good sermon.

“GOOD SERMONS happen when the twofold listening—to tradition and to the present—really becomes a listening to and for God, so that something emerges almost begging to be put into words.”
—Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury


“PREACHERS are poets, not exegetes, pundits, or comedians. For the preacher’s task is to let the word speak through the mercy of the body, to find the memorable image that enables the assembly to name the grace that suffuses both world and worship.”
—Nathan D. Mitchell


“THE LITURGY OF THE WORD always has about it an event character; that is, the events of the past which are proclaimed become events for the believing community that hears them told.”
—Jeremy Driscoll, O.S.B.


“WE ARE FORMED as we work at giving form to the Word of God. We become more and more like it as we study it and chisel at it and work it into our sermons; until at last, in rhythm with the Word that became flesh, our flesh in a very real sense becomes Word.”
—John Killinger


“AS WORKERS FOR GOD we have to learn to make room for God—to give God ‘elbow room.’ We calculate and estimate, and say that this and that will happen, and we forget to make room for God to come in as he chooses. Would we be surprised if God came into our meeting or into our preaching in a way we had never looked for him to come?

“Do not look for God to come in any particular way, but look for him. That is the way to make room for him. Expect him to come, but do not expect him only in a certain way. However much we may know God, the great lesson to learn is that at any minute he may break in. We are apt to overlook this element of surprise, yet God never works in any other way. All of a sudden God meets the life . . . .

“Keep your life so constant in its contact with God that His surprising power may break out on the right hand and on the left. Always be in a state of expectancy, and see that you leave room for God to come in as he likes.”
—Oswald Chambers


YOU ARE AN INCARNATE Word of God. This means you can only preach out of who you are and what you believe.

You can’t preach a living Word with a dead faith. Take the pledge right now never to say anything from the ambo that you don’t believe in your deepest heart. Preach what you believe!

Because you can’t kid the assembly for long.
—Alice Camille


“IT IS NO USE walking anywhere to preach unless we preach as we walk.”
—Francis of Assisi


“INCREASINGLY, THE FAITHFUL EXPECT better homilies from celebrants at the Sunday Eucharist. Bishops must lead by our own good example as well as our admonitions to improve the quality of Catholic preaching at the Sunday Eucharist. Ritual precision alone will not bring back those who do not attend Sunday Mass.”
Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta at the Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist, October 2005


“THERE IS A DELICATE LINE between the ‘I’ that incites the reaction ‘Ah yes’ that stirs the listeners to think and tell their own story, and the ‘I’ that embarrasses, that makes others mumble uncomfortably, ‘I’m sorry for your troubles, Father.’ ”
—Walter Burghardt, S.J.


“THE CHRISTIAN PREACHER has a boundary set for him. When he enters the pulpit, he is not an entirely free man. There is a very real sense in which it may be said of him that the Almighty has set him bounds that he shall not pass. He is not at liberty to invent or choose his message: It has been committed to him, and it is for him to declare, expound and commend it to his hearers. . . .

It is a great thing to come under the magnificent tyranny of the gospel!”
—Donald Coggan


“PREACHERS SHOULD CERTAINLY avoid insisting in a one-sided way on the obligations incumbent upon believers. The biblical message must preserve its principal characteristic of being the good news of salvation freely offered by God. Preaching will perform a task more useful and more conformed to the Bible if it helps the faithful above all to ‘know the gift of God’ (John 4:10) as it has been revealed in scripture; they will understand in a positive light the obligations that flow from it.”
—Pontifical Biblical Commission, 1993


 “IT IS NOT THE POWER of the homilist but the power of the Word of God that shapes the church and shapes the individual believer. The skill of the homilist comes into play, but it is a skill used to minister the Word of God, not our own thoughts.”
—Bishop Kenneth Untener


• “ONE OF THE PRINCIPAL TASKS  of the preacher is to provide the congregation of the faithful with words to express their faith, and with words to express the human realities to which this faith responds” (no. 11).

• “The community gathers to respond to [the] living and active God. They may also gather to question how or whether the God who once acted in human history is still present and acting today” (no. 12).

• “We listen to the scriptures, we listen to the people, and we ask, ‘What are they saying to one another? What are they asking of one another?’ And out of that dialogue between the Word of God in the scriptures and the Word of God in the lives of his people, the Word of God in preaching begins to take shape” (no. 20).

­• “. . . . a homily should sound more like a personal conversation, albeit a conversation on matters of utmost importance, than like a speech or a classroom lecture. What we should strive for is a style that is purposeful and personal, avoiding whatever sounds casual and chatty on the one extreme or impersonal and detached on the other” (no. 63).

• “In preaching, as in all forms of communication, remember that it is the whole person who communicates. Facial expression, the tone of voice, the posture of the body are all powerful factors in determining whether a congregation will be receptive to what we have to say” (105).

• “Although we have received this good news, believed in it, and sealed our belief in the sacrament of Baptism, we need to rediscover the truth of it again and again in our lives. Our faith grows weak, we are deceived by appearances, overwhelmed by suffering, plagued by doubt, anguished by the dreadful silence of God. And yet we gather for Eucharist, awaiting a word that will rekindle the spark of faith and enable us to recognize once again the presence of a loving God in our lives. We come to break bread in the hope that we will be able to do so with hearts burning. We come expecting to hear a Word from the Lord that will again help us to see the meaning of our lives in such a way that we will be able to say, with faith and conviction, ‘It is right to give him thanks and praise’” (no. 48).

—U.S. Catholic bishops’ 1982 document Fulfilled in Your Hearing: The Homily in the Sunday Assembly


“A SERMON IS PART of the liturgical action whenever a rite involves one. The ministry of preaching is to be fulfilled most faithfully and carefully. The sermon, moreover, should draw its content mainly from scriptural and liturgical sources, for it is the proclamation of God’s wonderful works in the history of salvation, which is the mystery of Christ ever made present and active in us, especially in the celebration of the liturgy.”
—Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy


“IT IS IMPORTANT that we ourselves experience the love God reveals through the cross, that we have a deep confidence in a personal God who works actively in our lives. This is the foundation for all our preaching and for all our pastoral ministry. Our own experience of God’s love will move us to proclaim it as good news.”
—Robert Maloney, C.M.


“DON'T BE A CYNIC and disconsolate preacher. Don’t bewail and moan. Omit the negative propositions. Challenge us with incessant affirmatives. Don’t waste yourself in rejection, or bark against the bad, but chant the beauty of the good.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson


“WHAT THESE TEXTS are saying to the homilist, in reading them on their terms, will provide a homily. If the preacher pays attention to the words rather than trying to force a meaning upon them, the homily will often preach itself. An opened text speaks to the reader. And what it says to the reader, the reader can proclaim to the church.”
— Father Robert Schoenstene


THE PREACHER has no credentials for mounting a pulpit except as an exegete and expounder of God’s Word.
—Martin E. Marty, The Living Pulpit  (Jan.-March 2003)


ALTHOUGH WE HAVE RECEIVED this good news, believed in it, and sealed our belief in the sacrament of baptism, we need to rediscover the truth of it again and again in our lives. Our faith grows weak, we are deceived by appearances, overwhelmed by suffering, plagued by doubt, anguished by the dreadful silence of God. And yet we gather for Eucharist, awaiting a word that will rekindle the spark of faith and enable us to recognize once again the presence of a loving God in our lives. We come to break bread in the hope that we will be able to do so with hearts burning. We come expecting to hear a Word from the Lord that will again help us to see the meaning of our lives in such a way that we will be able to say, with faith and conviction, “It is right to give him thanks and praise.”
—Fulfilled in Your Hearing: The Homily in the Sunday Assembly, no. 48


“THE PREACHER is a witness who searches the scriptures on behalf of the community and then returns to the community to speak what he or she has found.”
—Thomas Hoyt, Jr.


“WHEN YOU TREAT virtuous and sinful acts in your sermons and exhortations, use simple language and sensible idioms. Give apt and precise examples whenever you can. Each . . . in your congregation should feel moved as though you were preaching to him alone. Your words should sound as though they were coming, not from a proud or angry soul, but from a charitable and loving heart. . . . This way of preaching is profitable to congregations; an abstract discourse on the virtues and vices hardly inspires those who listen.”
—Saint Vincent Ferrer (1350-1419), Dominican preacher, from his Treatise on the Spiritual Life


“A GOOD SERMON is one side of a passionate conversation. There are three parties to it, of course, but so are there even to the most private thought—the self that yields the thought, the self that acknowledges and in some way responds to the thought, and the Lord. That is a remarkable thing to consider.”
—From the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead by Marilynne Robinson


“MANY PRIESTS and preachers realize we have missed the bigger picture of faith, justice, and community. We have spent the past generation trying to form large parishes into communities over coffee and donuts. . . . In the midst of our building programs and “creating community,” the simple fact of God’s creative intention to create a world community has not been well preached. . . . We need to recover the biblical roots of our faith. We need to return to classic themes: creation and community, sin and the sundering of relationships, and the re-creation of a new community that is committed to the cross and sent into the world.”
—Father Raymond B. Kemp


THE TASK of all liturgical ministers, including the homilist, is to help the flow of what Christ is doing, for Christ is the leader of all liturgical prayer. The first thing we must do when preparing a homily (or planning a liturgy) is to stand humbly before the Lord.
—Bishop Ken Untener, Preaching Better (Paulist Press, 1999)


“THE ASSEMBLY is made up of lots of different kinds of people, so cast your net in a variety of directions. Avoid formula preaching, i.e., always starting with a joke, using the Three Things outline (there are three points I want to make), offering nothing but exegesis, or, conversely, nothing but personal sharing. Sometimes Jesus taught, sometimes he prophesied, and sometimes he told stories. What is the best way to bring the Word home this week?”
—Alice Camille


“INTERGENERATIONAL preachers deal in a world of symbols. They are less the proverbial wordsmith, but a more a ‘symbolsmith’ who, in performing their artistry, surf the net of interlocking symbol systems and alight for a time on the dock of individual symbolic universes.”
—Andrew Carl Wisdom, O.P., Preaching to a Multigenerational Assembly


“ETHICAL IMAGINATION in preaching points to ethical boundaries or the results of those boundaries having been crossed. It is at the same time compassionate expression with wide-open spaces of salvation.”
—Paul Scott Wilson


“BUT GOOD NEWS—what kind of good news? Jesus, in his first sermon—his Nazareth manifesto, you might say—said, ‘The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.’ “
—Jim Wallis


“OUR CHRISTIAN ORATOR, while he says what is just, and holy, and good (and he ought never to say anything else), does all he can to be heard with intelligence, with pleasure, and with obedience. . . . and so far as he succeeds, he will succeed more by piety in prayer than by gifts of oratory; and so he ought to pray for himself, and for those he is about to address, before he attempts to speak. And when the hour is come that he must speak, he ought, before he opens his mouth, to lift up his thirsty soul to God, to drink in what he is about to pour forth, and to be himself filled with what he is about to distribute.”
—Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430)


PREACHING IS to some extent a natural gift; some are given the gift of words while others can never feel at home in this arduous task however hard they may try. [But] those who are naturally gifted speakers may never rise to the height of a preacher, properly so-called, for fine words and eloquence are not enough. They will be, as Saint Paul says, “a sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal,” unless behind their fine words they have a virtuous life. It is not so much what a preacher says as what he is in his own inner life, which will in the end be the means of winning souls to God.
—Father Desmond Murray, O.P.


“THE PREACHER renders a world not known in advance. It requires no great cleverness to speak such a world, but it requires closeness to those texts that know secrets that mediate life. . . .”
—Walter Brueggemann


“WHEN I TRY to make too many points, I don’t make any of them well. My better sermons are the ones in which I repeat a phrase over and over again—‘Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ.’ You come at that point from every angle, from top to bottom.”
—Minister and author Max Lucado


 “IT IS A PLEASURE to listen to your sermons; you forget yourself and preach Jesus Christ.”
—A remark to Saint Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787) after hearing one of his homilies


“SINCE THE SECOND Vatican Council we have moved . . . from making our liturgical language one of rubrics and directives, but, on the other hand, we can neither turn it into the language of business or politics, nor that of dogma or catechesis. The liturgical reform has challenged us to learn to speak the language of God and church and to express it in simple yet poetic ways for contemporary society.”
—Father Juan J. Sosa


“IF WE SIMPLY REPEAT the formulas of the past, our words may have the character of doctrine and dogma but they will not have the character of good news. We may be preaching perfectly orthodox doctrine, but it is not the gospel for us today. We must take the idea of good news seriously. If our message does not take the form of good news, it is simply not the Christian gospel.”
—Albert Nolan, O.P.


THE PREACHER goes to the scripture, but not alone. The preacher goes on behalf of the faithful community and, in a sense, on behalf of the world.
—Thomas G. Long


“PREACHING IS EFFECTIVE as long as the preacher expects something to happen—not because of the sermon, not even because of the preacher, but because of God.”
—Episcopal Bishop John E. Hines


“PREACHING IS NOT SO MUCH a function of one’s ministry but an integral dimension of one’s identity. To be grounded in the reality ‘I am a preacher’ keeps the focus on the word, not just for proximate preparation but in remote preparation as well.”
—Joan Delaplane, O.P., “Spirituality of the Preacher”


“A PASSAGE may make no sense to us. It may even scandalize us. We may want to ignore it, but it will not go away. The more we wrestle with it, the more troublesome it becomes . . . . When this happens we have one of the best signs that we are on to something vital. The Word of God may in fact be challenging our faith, calling us to conversion, to a new vision of the world.”
Fulfilled in Your Hearing, 1982


“PREACHING HAS as its primary purpose reminding believers of God’s mercy and justice and calling them to respond by living lives motivated by the Christ-life within them. When it stays close to biblical patterns of preaching—which is not the same thing as citing the Bible copiously—it can be most effective.”
—Gerard S. Sloyan, The Collegeville Pastoral Dictionary of Biblical Theology


SOMEONE  ONCE ASKED John Wesley [the founder of Methodism] why so many people traveled long distances to hear him preach. “I set myself on fire, and the people come to watch me burn,” he replied.
Quoted in Commonweal, March 28, 2003


BE SO WELL-PREPARED that you, the preacher, can answer the question: If you could say only one sentence that would summarize your homily, what would that sentence be?
—Submitted by Father Jim Bream


“A GOOD SERMON is one which points away from the preacher, drawing our attention beyond his speaking to the unspeakable mystery of God’s relationship to his human creation.”
—Mark Searle


“THE FAITHFUL ASSEMBLED as a paschal church, celebrating the feast of the Lord present in their midst, expect much from . . . preaching, and will greatly benefit from it provided that it is simple, clear, direct, well-adapted, profoundly dependent on gospel teaching and faithful to the magisterium, animated by a balanced apostolic ardor coming from its own characteristic nature, full of hope, fostering belief, and productive of peace and unity.”
—Pope Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, 1975


THERE IS NO ONE WAY of falling in love with the Word of God, but I cannot imagine it happening unless proximity is involved. Unless you draw near to the “object of affection,” approaching the text as a “thou,” you are likely to relate to it as an object, treating it only as a carrier of meaning from the past, which is found most quickly by consulting biblical commentaries. The problem with going to commentaries right away is that you short-circuit your own encounter with the text.
James A. Wallace, Preaching to the Hungers of the Heart​ (The Liturgical Press, 2002)


“GOD HIMSELF compares his word to a fire that spares no one, does not leave us alone, that consumes everything it touches. We should not limit ourselves to seeing it from afar, to admitting it and hearing it. Nor can we take it into our hands without it changing us; one cannot let oneself be touched by fire and still remained unharmed, because if it gets to my hand, I am burned. Any contact with the living word enflames and agitates us, tends to radiate everywhere.

“In order to preach, theology is not enough; what is needed is the burning experience of our encounter with God. Religious concepts are not enough, and we must also be penetrated by fire.”
—Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini


“THE HOMILIST'S FEELINGS, religious insights, habits, or hobbies—in short, the persona of the homilist—should not dominate the homily. . . . This does not mean that a homily cannot be highly personal; even without intending to, the preacher will convey a great deal of his persona just by the way he preaches.”
—Catherine Mowry LaCugna


 “THE HOMILY HAS BEEN an integrating part of the Christian liturgy of the word from the most ancient times. It actualizes the message of scripture in concrete terms for today. . . . The homily is a spiritual word in a special and very specific sense.”
—Johannes Emminghaus, The Eucharist: Essence, Form, Celebration


THREE THINGS TO REMEMBER when preparing the homily:

1. We don’t have to come up with an idea for Sunday. The Word is already spoken in the readings; all we have to do is find a way to plant it in the people.

2. If it’s God’s Word we are proclaiming, then the first task is not to speak but to listen.

3. There are three main elements to every homily: the text, the assembly, and the preacher. It isn’t a homily unless all three are present.
—Alice Camille


“THE TEST OF A PREACHER is that his congregation goes away saying, not ‘What a lovely sermon!’ but, ‘I will do something!’ ”
—Francis de Sales (1567-1622)


 “THE TASK of the preacher is to hold up life to us; by whatever gifts he or she has of imagination, eloquence, simple candor, to create images of life through which we can somehow see into the wordless truth of our lives.”
—Frederick Buechner


“SO, LET THE FUMBLERS and the bumblers among us, the slow-witted and the recalcitrant, the weak and the proud—all of us—take heart: biblical preaching is not reserved for an intellectual, moral, or spiritual elite who choose to preach as a favor to God. He chooses, calls, enables, and undergirds us . . . to be his ambassadors, deputies, and heralds.”
—Wallace Fisher, Who Dares to Preach?


“GOD IS in the audience. . . . God’s presence in the audience ought to guard against reducing preaching to pandering and the sermon to a speech. When we know God is in the audience, our worship changes. And preaching as an act of true worship can emerge.”
—Harold Dean Trulear, quoted in The Living Pulpit


“PREACHING IS bridge building, from the Word of God to the heart of the assembly.”
—Alice Camille


“THE HOMILY, integral to the celebration, must share in the nature of the liturgical event. It is to be a prayer-filled utterance in the midst of the community; in its prayerfulness, it calls for the assembly to respond by blessing and giving thanks.”
—John Allyn Melloh, S.M.


“THE CONGREGATION sometimes judges the homily to be successful insofar as the homilist is able to relate the biblical text to the Christian life today. Our participants are aware of that since almost all made an effort in their homilies to do that. Most, however, made superficial connections that had the effect of triviliazing the concern of the text.”
—Catholic Theological Union study


“TO BE A PREACHER requires two apparently contradictory qualities: confidence and humility. . . . Without confidence we cannot preach. We must dare boldly to proclaim our faith. But we also need the humility of those who know that we know so little.”
—Father Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., I Call You Friends