I was 21 years old, a university student, and attending multiple different churches and spiritual groups at the time. Because of my work in the interfaith movement, I was invited to attend the World Conference of Religions for Peace in Kyoto, Japan. And when I returned – young, naïve and confident – I contacted several local parishes to ask if I could share about my experiences. Perhaps stunned by the bold request, I was given a platform in a Uniting, a Baptist and an Anglican church. But the one I remember the most was my Catholic presentation. I had never been inside this particular church before, or met any of its parishioners. The priest somehow had great trust and invited me to speak at the time of the homily. Being there really connected me back to my Catholic past, but it was more than that. I suddenly realised that this is what I had imagined when I had childhood dreams of growing up. The privilege of speaking of matters of faith to a community assembled for the Liturgy.
Preaching and Reflections
Fast forward a couple of years, through a rediscovered Catholic commitment, journeying with the Sisters of Mercy in formation, and studying theology. I was asked to give a reflection for a youth Mass in Adelaide. Using the scripture of the day, they wanted a young person’s perspective, and I really did try to channel my inner juvenile. But it just didn’t gell. I attempted a joke about young people and parties, but no one laughed. I must have been the world’s biggest party pooper, and looked like it too. It wasn’t authentic. I wanted to share some of the riches I had been learning in theology, but it wouldn’t have fit with the expectation of a non-academic ‘young person’s reflection’.
This helped me to understand what separates the Church terms of ‘homily’ (given by the ordained) and ‘reflection’ (given by anyone not ordained). Nevertheless, as I learned, there is a grey area in between: lay people are allowed to participate in the ministry of preaching. In Australia, this is where circumstances demand, bishops admit them, and when they have sufficient formation and life witness (Directives for Australia for Preaching by Lay Persons, Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, 2003). My father was a Lay Preacher in the Uniting Church, and I vividly remember him preparing with his big tome of biblical commentary in our lounge room. This Catholic provision seemed to create a similar outcome, if not role.
Not long after that, I was offered the opportunity to be part of the Ministry Formation Program in Adelaide. I joined prospective deacons, pastoral associates and chaplains to learn about leadership in the Catholic Church. We were trained in liturgical presiding, including the Liturgy of the Word with Holy Communion. Then my local priest became more frail, and asked me to lead one of these liturgies a week, alongside another Sister who did the same on another day. These were small weekday liturgies, and good training ground in hindsight. In my first one, I was told that the primary school would present a reflection, so I didn’t prepare one. However, when I arrived, they asked if I was going to speak before their simple presentation of bible-themed artwork. I declined, unwilling to ad lib. Since then, I have always come with something in mind or on paper!
From then on, I was thrilled to be able to share, in a couple of minutes within the liturgy, the results of my prayer and study of the scriptures. What a privilege! And what a responsibility. Words from the pulpit can be taken as ‘gospel’ and I prepared as if my message had to pass by Jesus, the Pope and my local priest. I am afraid I started a bit too abstractly. The first piece of positive feedback I got was when a story took up most of my preaching for the day. So I tried to swing the other way, and be more relevant. One day, I mentioned Harry Potter and then looked up to uncomprehending faces – every parishioner was over 70! Another time, an older man told me he understood about a third of what I’d said. So I learned to really consider and engage with all of the particular group of people to which I preach, and not assume too many common reference points.
At the end of four years of my Bachelor of Theology, the Ministry Formation students completed a subject called homiletics. For me, it was the crowning joy of my study, and made everything fit together. Learning about preaching was about connecting Jesus, the scriptures and all that theological study with the reality of our lives today. It made me a more reflective person, needing to ponder regularly on the interplay between sacred story and daily existence. I started a habit of writing a few lines each day about what God is telling me through the Church’s readings. That habit has been essential to my morning prayer since then. Yet preaching to others is a step further. It is reflecting with the ears of the community – how does the Word of God speak into their lives, into our lives? What might we learn from our heritage and what might God be saying right now?
‘Omilies on the Margins
Since then, I have been asked to preach, mostly by priests, but also bishops and communities, in various circumstances. Many times in prison services and in nursing homes, sometimes multiple times a week. I loved those environments, and what the people there taught me. As a preacher, I would only be heard if I had developed good relationships with the people present. They listened to those who were first witnesses of God’s compassion that confers dignity. I was asked to speak for ecumenical services, and when the priest was away at an Anglican church (for which I was paid). In my parish it was rare to be without a weekend priest, but I trained up leaders for Liturgy of the Word with Holy Communion for the odd weekday. Once, a priest was away for a weekend in a neighbouring parish, and couldn’t find another cleric. I became the “visiting preacher” or “liturgy leader” in three small and dusty country Mass centres. Another time, a bishop asked me to perform that role over the Easter Triduum in another tiny parish. Those were such precious experiences, and I was moved at this fulfilment of my childhood vision. Again, it was more than that. I felt God truly present, giving confirmation to this sense of vocation, and a deep oneness with the people of God in the congregation. I could now be authentic, who I was always meant to be.
Now, in my mid-30s, and after two more years of studying theology, I am extremely privileged to regularly lead Sunday or weekday liturgies and preach in rural church, school and nursing home settings. In some places, others are trained to lead the liturgy and I just come in after the gospel. A friend calls them ‘omilies. And for other liturgies I have worked with people (especially youth) to reflect on the readings themselves. What richness they have offered! In all cases, I think that a diversity of perspectives on the scriptures is important. We all benefit from lectio divina gatherings. I wouldn’t want a group of people to hear my voice every time, or anyone’s, and I try to bring priests in for Mass as much as they are able.
That was difficult during the heavy COVID restrictions, as my school could not admit outside visitors. But as I am an employee, a chaplain, I was still able to attend and journey with them spiritually. Perhaps as a chaplain, the students had seen me as a quiet religious person. But after my first preaching at a boarders’ Sunday Liturgy, they suddenly related to me in a new way. It was like we had become more real to each other, and shared in our human struggles.
At the school, I am clear that I am not a teacher. In fact, I did not survive in that profession for more than a year. Teaching is very important, but there seems to be a great difference between teaching and preaching (see, for example, Rom 12:6-8). After one school liturgy, the teacher said to me, “Thank you. You said things today that I could never say in my class.” Good preachers move the heart, as well as the mind. They make us leave the church reassured by God’s faithfulness and challenged by Christ’s calling. I have certainly not done this well every time, but it is a skill that I aspire to develop. In fact, as everyone knows, I LOVE to listen to homilies or reflections by others. Mostly I find them inspiring, but I enjoy them even if not. If I disagree then I reflect on what I might have said instead, and what the Spirit is telling me by this reaction. There is always something to learn!
Practising what we Preach
Every Pentecost, we hear the story of Simon Peter preaching to the “devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem” (Acts 2:5). He reiterates the words of the Prophet Joel: “Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.” I wonder when this day is to come in our Australian churches? Australian Women Preach has done a wonderful job in asking women to share a podcast on the Sunday readings every week since May last year. The women show the way in many areas, including acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land at the beginning. Recently, the ABC did a story about women who have this calling. And an inaugural national school of preaching program was held last weekend for ministers, priests and lay people. Finally, of the Plenary Council First Session Proposals, two of them were to “Establish a Ministry of Preaching in the Life of the Church in Australia” (#19 and 20). Another Plenary proposal recognised that “reinstating women deacons allows for women to preach” (#48). So let’s watch this space and pray in thanksgiving for those who break open the scriptures in liturgy, both now and in the future.
A couple of my favourite online resources for preaching:
- The Word – A short daily audio homily from the Order of Preachers. This includes the many Dominican varieties of charisms for men and women from around the world.
- The Sanchez Archives – Detailed biblical commentary for preaching preparation from Patricia Sanchez via the National Catholic Reporter.
- LiturgyHelp (subscriber site only) – Each week there are four commentaries and five homilies or reflections from biblical scholars and preachers.