Share this story

 | Msgr. Mark Pautler


What Does It Take to Make a Great Homily?

Every priest has one great homily in him. What does it take to make a great homily? I’d boil it down to three elements: work, prayer, and inspiration (also known as luck). These fundamentals are indistinctly distinguished. Combine these elements and you get a story, images, and a joke. Yes, you need a laugh line. But don’t overdo it, or the homily turns into self-promotion. Is there a difference? Not if you’re a saint.

As I said, we each have one great homily in us. I remember mine. My GOAT (Greatest Of All Time, for those who haven’t lapped up this acronym from sports) was on transubstantiation. It happened more than a decade ago on the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi is a more manageable handle). I didn’t even use the term, but that was the substance.

For this homily, luck was the foundation. I stumbled upon an issue of U.S. Catholic where I read a story that I could develop and adapt. The story became the substance of the homily. The visual imagery and emotional resonance were all accessible — connecting with what most of us experience — or so I hoped. I credit myself with manufacturing the laugh line craftily woven into the story. The article, by the way, was written by a laywoman. I don’t recall her name. Did she ever publish again? Dunno. Maybe this was her GOAT. It looks like U.S. Catholic has disappeared. Don’t look there for your inspiration.

I’ve used this homily on two or three occasions and nurtured its development. The story has moved from an illustration of my main point to almost standing on its own. If you get the story, you get the point. To explain it would undermine it.

Do you want to hear my GOAT? If I’m preaching on Corpus Christi next year, I will pull it off the shelf, but you will get a variant. (Are you going to scream if you hear “variant” or “abundance of caution” one more time? You never cross the same river twice, said the philosopher Heraclitus.) I’ve got to be careful about prayer, because that’s where I might hear: “Pleased with yourself, aren’t you? Just stand pat and get your laugh. If you don’t want to dive deeper, why should anyone else?”

What reaction does a homilist expect to his GOAT? Something like: “You really hit that one out of the park.” “I listened to Bishop Barron’s homily for this Sunday, but you outdid him.” “Thank you. You’ve completely changed the way I think about the Eucharist.” I have no recollection of such reactions to my GOAT. What I recall is: “That was a nice story, Father.” Nice. The earth was not moved. But I was.

And now, a public service appeal. Dear reader, if you received the COVID-19 vaccination, thank you, especially if you had to overcome apprehension and distrust, having more regard for the health and safety of others than for yourself. Now, be an apostle of vaccination. Not vaccinated? Then do it. We may never know whether COVID-19 was a natural occurrence or the result of human error or ignorance. But we do know that prolonging the pandemic is due to human error and ignorance. So, for your sake and for your neighbor, to avoid becoming the vector of another variant or out of an abundance of caution — get vaccinated. Now, you may scream.