Bishop Coyne’s homily for Ordination Mass
I was ordained a priest in 1986 and served in my first assignment at St. Mary of the Hills Parish in Milton, Mass. When I was in seminary, I took a number of courses on preaching: the history of Catholic preaching; public speaking basics; technique, content, and theory of preaching; etc. I also had two “practicum” in which we practiced preaching our own homilies in front of classmates and instructors. One of the practicum I took was with an instructor, Fr. McGrath, who was famous (or infamous depending upon how you looked at it) for the brutality of his comments in criticism of the student’s preaching. He started off our first session by telling us that we were all adults, we had limited time, and he was not going to waste that time by telling us what we did well but only what we did not do well. He was true to his word. His classes were brutal. But, I learned a lot.
So I came out of seminary believing I was well prepared for preaching in a parish. I had all these plans for how I was going to preach and what I was going to say. I was all set and ready to preach…. Thank goodness, I lucked into a parish where the people were just as critical of my homilies as Fr. McGrath was. Not that they were unkind, they just had their opinions about the homily and my preaching and they weren’t hesitant to tell me so. This was especially true of the Franciscan sisters who lived in the parish convent. They had a 6:30 a.m. Mass everyday and it was normally up to me, as the junior priest, to celebrate that Mass. If I didn’t have the parish 7:30 Mass, I could stay for a bit of breakfast with the sisters and it was there that I would often hear a few words or quite a few words about my preaching.
I learned a lot from the loving criticism of my fellow Catholics. They told me that “I talked at them at times rather than with them,” that my homilies were too heady, too much about “theology” and not enough about Jesus. There was a lot more they said but the most important thing was that they humbled me. I realized that, in spite of what I learned in the seminary or from all the other homilies I had ever heard preached, my education and formation on how to become an adequate preacher was only getting started. Since then, I have and continue to be a student of the art of preaching.
Kevin and Robert, in a few moments you will stand before this assembly and answer five questions concerning your commitment to the duties of priestly ministry to the people of God. One of the questions you will be asked is, “Do you resolve to exercise the ministry of the Word worthily and wisely, preaching the Gospel and teaching the Catholic faith?” It is that question I wish to ponder in light of the challenges we face in the Church today. As to the other four questions, I know you will celebrate the Church’s Sacraments and her Liturgy worthily and well. I have seen you assist at the Mass as deacons. I know that you are committed to the Liturgy of the Hours and daily prayer as well as being men faithful to the Church’s Doctrine and Magisterium. I encourage you to continue to do so. But I want to most sincerely encourage you to be men of the Word of God who will serve the Word wisely and worthily especially in the task of preaching.
You are aware, as am I and your brother priests, that we are no longer an established Church but a missionary Church. The culture landscape we face today is very different than that of even twenty-five years ago. Many people have never been exposed to any faith in God at all. They need to hear the Word of God. Many of those who have heard the Word of God before and have been part of our faith are leaving and they are not coming back. This is especially true of young people. When people are asked why they stopped coming to Mass on Sunday they give many answers: the Church is intolerant; I’m too busy; I can pray on my own; the abuse crisis; etc. But one major reason is bad preaching. Now that category of “bad preaching” covers a lot: “the priest was all over the place;” “no point to what he was saying;” “all he did was scold us;” “he talked in a monotone;” “it was boring;” “all he did was tell jokes;” “he always talks about himself;” “it was like a catechism lesson;” “it was too long;” “I couldn’t understand him;” “it wasn’t real at all;” “all he did was talk politics;” etc. I’ve heard them all. Not about me, of course. But I’ve heard all the complaints. I’ve sat through bad preaching and know exactly what they are talking about. There is nothing that will drive people away from church faster than bad preaching.
If we are serious about being a missionary Church and carrying out the New Evangelization, then we must be serious about our ministry to the Word of God. We must be afire for the Word, enthusiastic about our preaching. We must see the call to preach the Word of God as a matter of spiritual life and death. Now this doesn’t mean that we become some sort of homiletic cheerleaders, but that our preaching comes out of our hearts, out of the conviction that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life and that the fullness of salvation is found in and through His Church. Our preaching must be sincere. And when it is, the people know it.
There’s a story told about Blessed Damien of Molokai, a 19th century Redemptorist priest who ministered to a group of people who, because they had Hansen’s disease (“leprosey”), were exiled on the island of Molokai, Hawaii. He spent many years with them and eventually contracted the disease himself. When he did so, he noted how his preaching became so much more effective because he no longer spoke to the people of his parish as “you lepers” but “we lepers.” When we preach we must see ourselves as part of the audience as well. It must be as if we are preaching in front of a mirror. The priest must be a man aware of his own need for salvation and of his own experience of salvation in the person of Jesus Christ and his Church. The stories he tells, the words he offers of mercy and encouragement and faith are words that he knows and lives. They must be the words from his heart.
This also means that you and I must know the stories of our people. In order to be effective preachers we must know to whom we are speaking. And our people must feel that we know who they are as well. Most of our work in preaching the Word of God is not done in the pulpit but in the parish. We cannot be preachers who prepare our homilies simply in the comfortable confines of the rectory or the the chapel. The 20th century Protestant preacher Karl Barth used to say that the preacher has to have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. We might say that today the preacher must have the Bible in one hand and a digital tablet in the other. One thing I try and do every week is read the Scriptural texts for the Sunday to come on the Sunday I just finished. Then I spend the rest of the week studying the Scriptures but also paying attention to the signs of the times around me.
Kevin and Robert, I encourage you to be practitioners of the Word of God, even beyond what you will normally be doing in your life as a priest. In your ministry you will be immersed in Scripture – the Liturgy of the Hours, the daily readings at Mass, reading at Wakes and funerals, Communion services and the celebration of the Sacraments. There is quite a bit of Scripture every day in the busy life of a priest, but it is not enough. An attorney deals with the law everyday, but she still needs to study the law beyond her everyday practice. A doctor practices medicine everyday, but he still needs to study and research medicine beyond his day-to-day work. Would you want to go to a doctor who hasn’t cracked a book in twenty years? So it is for us. While we are immersed in Scripture all day, we still need to read it, study it and ponder it, especially in preparation for the Sunday homily. I have found in my preaching that the people of God want you to break open the Word of God for them and allow them to see how it will help them live the good life of faith. This means you must know the story of faith found in Scripture and the story of faith found in them.
In your formation as a priest you have been encouraged to keep the practice of a “holy hour” of prayer in front of the Blessed Sacrament. I wonder if we may consider a “holy time” each day with the study of Scripture as well? This could be a lectio from Scripture itself, literature about Scripture, readings on the art of preaching, readings of others preaching, especially the Fathers of the Church and the saints, even research within digital media. It doesn’t have to be about next week’s homily. All knowledge of Scripture serves the act of preaching in one way or another.
My brothers, you have often heard it said that the bishop is the chief shepherd of the people of God entrusted to him and that priest is a sharer in that shepherd’s care. Give them that shepherd’s care. When the people of God come to Mass and the Sacraments, they are entitled to be fed well. When they walk through the doors of our churches, they are entitled to the Church’s liturgy. When they come to the holy feast of the Mass, they are entitled to be fed with the finest of spiritual foods. Feed them not only with the Sacraments of the Church, especially the Eucharist, but also with the Word of God in Scripture, prayer and preaching. Let the Word of God, rich as it is, dwell in your hearts so that it may overflow in an abundance of praise and thanksgiving for your own salvation and that of others and may God bless you in the ministry of service that you are undertaking.