Bishop DiMarzio’s Speech To The National Filipino Priests Conference

Below is a transcript of the Bishop DiMarzio’s speech to the National Filipino Priests Conference in Orlando, Florida on Nov.5, 2014:


First, it is my pleasure to be here with you today for the Regular General Assembly of the National Association of Filipino Priests – USA. How fitting is your theme – Paring Pinoy 2014: Nurturing, Sharing, Witnessing Our Call – as you ask me to speak on effective preaching.

What is effective preaching? Obviously, it is preaching that has an effect. An effect first of all on the preacher and then an effect on those who listen in the congregation. Scripture tells us that God’s Word is effective if it is compared to the rain that comes down and does not return to the sky unless it has watered the earth. And so it is with God’s Word. The Word is what is entrusted to us. The Word is all powerful. We are mere instruments of God, we are prophets who speak the Word for God. Not foretelling the future, but in effect presenting the Word of God for the present. We are mediators and the Word of God passes through us to the people who listen. In order to be an effective preacher, we must forget ourselves.

Yes, we must forget ourselves. We must let ourselves go. Saint Teresa of Avila once said, “Preachers who do not let go of themselves will never inspire people. They must be like the Apostles who threw all caution to the wind.” When we are self conscious, we cannot let the Word of God work through us. Forgetting self does not mean that we cannot be personal. We must be personal, however, to be personal does not mean to be self-centered. A homily constantly using the word “I” is a good indication that it is rather self-centered, and the homily will not exude confidence in letting the Word of God speak through us. Giving a homily is somewhat like being on a stage. The best actors are those who exude confidence and conviction. In a sense, they are able to work out of themselves to take on the character of the person they portray. We are to be Christ to God’s people in preaching the Word. We cannot be self-conscious. We cannot worry about making mistakes. We must let the Word of God work through us. Yes, certainly there is a message to be delivered. It is something truly important that we have to say. It is God’s very word intended for the hearers that it might make a difference in their lives. However, sincerity and authenticity are truly important if we are to preach effectively.

Aristotle, himself, is credited with coining or proposing the three parts of a discourse. First there is the speaker, then there is a message, and finally there is a listener.   And so it is with preaching. There is the preacher, the Word of God, the kerygma, the kernel of the faith, and then there is the congregation. There is a certain approach to preaching that takes into account these three different and yet united and dynamic actors in the communication of preaching. Some authors have compared preaching to telling a story. Yes, each component in the dialogue has a story. The preacher, the story of God’s Word, and the story of each person in the congregation.

What is a Story?

But what is a story? A story is not a fairy tale. A story is not invented or made up. A story is not just an ice breaker or an opener for a homily. A story can best be defined in this way, a story is in its deepest sense, “A quest, a search of this particular person or community in history. Story is the narrative symbol of how we have ordered our experiences with a vision.”[1] Yes, each one of us has a story. We have made our lives a living story. If we were to tell another about ourselves, we would tell our story, our origin, our experiences, our successes, our failures, our deepest hopes. All of these are components of our personal story. Obviously, our listeners have the same components in their life’s story. But what about the story of God? Yes, the Scriptures are truly God’s story. They are how God reveals Himself to us, with the same components that are a part of our personal story. We just have to make sure that the three stories; our own, that of God and that of the listener, somehow connect. This is an act of true communication. Stories are opportunities for transformation and challenge, not just tools for moralizing or simply giving examples to the listeners. The Biblical story interprets our own stories and that of the listener. The story shaped in the homily often emerges from the Biblical text itself because it is the revealed story of God’s interaction with His people. The story telling provides almost a check list for a homily to determine if it contains the story of the preacher, the story of God and the story of the listener.

But what about the preacher’s story, your story? Well, allow me to tell it as I might think it to be. First of all, you are Filipinos. Most of you are immigrants and some of you were born here in America being ethnic Filipinos. You have a particular culture, a particular way of speaking, a particular accent and cadence. You are priests. You are in a certain sense missionaries to our land. You are international priests. You are considered in some dioceses as externs, not quite what you would like to be and treated equally as everyone else. Hopefully, this snip-it of a story has some relevance to your own lives. Your experience of being an immigrant is not an easy one. I have worked my entire priesthood with immigrants and I know the nostalgia, the problem of enculturation and all that is involved. Unfortunately, many times Filipinos are taken for granted since you speak English and the other dynamics of integration seem to be neglected or taken for granted. Sometimes you are confused with other people, other Asians even in a liturgical assembly. I remember one time when I was celebrating the Mass in a parish where I served as pastor many years ago and the lectoress got up to speak and said, “A reading from the St. Paul to the Filipinos.” Of course, it was the Philippians, but it was close enough and there were Filipinos in the congregation who chuckled a bit. We will talk more about humor in a homily later in this presentation, humor that is intended and humor that is not intended.

Pope Francis’ Advice

One of the great resources that we have received recently from our Holy Father, Pope Francis, is his Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel. There is an entire section, which is certainly worth reading, which speaks about preaching, the proclamation of the Gospel, the Good News. (Numbers 135-139) The Holy Father gives, obviously, good and heartfelt advice. As we can see, he, himself, is a good preacher. He seems to connect with people and departs from the printed text and inserts humor. The Holy Father communicates. In The Joy of the Gospel, we hear that we must personalize the Word ourselves. In the Scriptures, we must make them our own. We must be in love with the Word of God so that we can communicate it clearly to others. Truly, we must be spiritual men, seeking holiness. For by meditating on the Word of God we are able to achieve the mission given to us as priests and preachers. We must be witnesses to the Word of God. In that document, the Holy Father reminds us, quoting Blessed Paul VI, in his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Nuntiandi, “the faithful expect much from this preaching, and will greatly benefit from it provided that it is simple, clear, direct, well-adapted.” They will listen to people who say what they believe, truly being prophets speaking for God. And so after you have heard it in your spiritual reading in the Lectio Divina on the readings from the Scriptures on which you must preach, the Holy Sprit will direct and guide you. Again, in Evangelii Gaudium,The Joy of the Gospel, the Holy Father says that we must preach from the heart, “Where your synthesis is, there lies your heart.” The synthesis is the kernel of the Gospel, the pearl that we wish to leave with our hearers. I once heard it said, “Are we trying to deliver a pearl or a necklace?” Remember where pearls come from? They come from clams. A single grain of sand enters a clam and irritates it enough so that a great pearl is formed. That is something like what we should do with a homily. We must irritate people a bit.   We must, as it is said, console the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. That is also something that we will speak about in limiting the scope of our preaching, delivering one single pearl of great price, so that our hearers will accept it and live by that single pearl, and not be weighted down by a necklace of pears, similar to a charm around their neck.

Advice to Preachers

The Word of God is meant to set a fire on the earth. As the black preachers of old used to say, “If there is no fire in the pulpit, there will be ice in the pews.” It must be a fire that is truly something that does not consume us, but a fire that truly enflames us. We are always reminded, as we hear in First Peter, “If we preach, let it be with the Word of God.” We must preach only God’s Word. Not ourselves, not our story alone. But we must preach our story that can illustrate how we have accepted God’s Word and are a witness to His Word.

First, the preacher is called to be truthful and tell it like it is, understanding the story of the world in which we live and the story of the Scripture. I repeat over and over again the great philosopher Karl Barth, “We must preach with the Word of God in one hand, the bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.”We need to bring together the story of the then to influence the now. It is a difficult task, however, it is the key to effective preaching.

Karl Barth, in an interview from 1966, for example, stated: “The Pastor and the Faithful should not deceive themselves into thinking that they are a religious society, which has to do with certain themes; they live in the world. We still need – according to my old formulation – the Bible and the Newspaper.”[4]

Second, we must be human and not fear our own humanity, but be willing to tell our own story. Sometimes we preach as wounded healers, but always as one faithful to God’s Word. This does not mean to preach about our sins, but failures can be communicated. Obviously, our story must be real and heartfelt, as we must shed light on God’s story and mirror the story of our listeners. We have to talk about life as we know it and have experienced life. This is so that our hearers will not say, “What does this have to do with me?”, they will know what it has to do with them.

Finally, we must be interpretive. We need to be almost like doctors, doctors of the soul. We need to diagnose the problems of our listeners, we must understand their origin, their causes, and we must write a prescription. That means that we need to observe the world in which we live. We need to see the causes of evil as we find it in so many ways. And we must try to fix the problem of evil, which is beyond our responsibility, however, we must shed light onto those problems. This is the work of the preacher.

I have an anecdote to tell you about when I received my doctorate degree. I tried to explain to my immigrant grandfather, who only finished his schooling to the third grade, that I was now a doctor. As cleaver as he was, my grandfather said to me, “Answer me one question. Can you write a prescription?” I replied, “No.” He then told me, “You are no doctor and you never will earn any money!” I think this is so true about we who are preachers. If we are doctors of the soul, we truly must understand the prescription, the fix, the application which is so important in our homilies, and I will speak about this later in this presentation.

Now What About God’s Story?

How do we know God’s story? How can we proclaim the Good News? In The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis tells us, “Another feature of a good homily is that it is positive. It is not so much concerned with pointing out what shouldn’t be done, but with suggesting what we can do better. In any case, if it does draw attention to something negative, it will also attempt to point to a positive and attractive value, lest it remain mired in complaints, laments, criticisms and reproaches. Positive preaching always offers hope, points to the future, does not leave us trapped in negativity. How good it is when priests, deacons and the laity gather periodically to discover resources which can make preaching more attractive!”[5] Sometimes people complain about preaching. They said, “All we hear is bad news.” Well, again, we are to point out the bad news, however, I would also suggest that we need to find out how this can be remedied.

Our Sunday preaching is concentrated on the Lectionary and the three cycles – A, B and C – concentrating on, respectively, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke Gospels, and also where the Gospel of John is interspersed. We have the First Reading normally from the Old Testament or the Acts of the Apostles. The Responsorial Psalm, which is truly sometimes very important. The Second Reading is from the Epistles and the Acts of the Apostles. And, finally, the Gospel itself.

This wonderful new approach to preaching is exciting. When I looked in my library for some books on preaching, I found one which I had used in the seminary called, “Gauging Sermon Effectiveness.”   The word used then was sermon, not homily. This is because we had a very small portion of Scripture on which to preach. As you well know, the preaching cycle came to us after the Second Vatican Council and liturgical reforms. How important it is that we see God’s story in the Scriptures.

In order to preach effectively, we must have what we call ” hermeneutics”, which means interpretive understanding of the Scriptures we read. There is a certain amount of research that we must do in order to really get to the true meaning of the Scriptures. We need to understand the historical context, we cannot preach allegory as once was used in the interpretation of the Scriptures. We must take advantage of the historical critical method which has been approved by the Church. We need to immerse ourselves in the Scripture understanding itself. Part of it is that we must read the Scripture. We should not start preparing for the homily unless we have read the Word of God on which we must preach. Then we must take each reading, sometimes with the help of “Homily Helps” that truly interpret the existential situation of Jesus in the Scripture for us, so that we understand the story and the uniqueness of God’s story that is being communicated to us in a certain set of readings. Remember, the Old Testament reading and the Gospel usually compliment one another, while the Second Reading normally stands on its own, while sometimes it is connected to either one. Many times, the Responsorial Psalm also emphasizes something said in one of the readings. So, we need to find those connections and try to make our listeners better understand the readings.

It is not an easy task for the preacher to understand God’s story, however, that is exactly what effective preaching is all about. If we do not know God’s story, how can we make it known to our listeners? One suggestion that I have is that before each reading is proclaimed that we do a brief monition, which summarizes the reading. You all know that it is difficult for most people to follow the Scriptures, especially if the Misselettes are not provided for them, whereas liturgical purists think that the people must “just listen.” However, seeing and listening compliment one another. If there are particularly difficult readings to understand, I always try to give some summary, either at the beginning of Mass or before each reading, depending on the custom at each parish.

The story of God is found in the covenant historical model of the Bible. The story of God is the story of His relationship to God’s people. This is our frame of reference. We must help people understand that God truly is involved with us. He knows our individual stories, and we need to understand how He has revealed Himself to the human race in history. As I previously said, the preacher must take the now in terms of the then, that is in the Sacred Scriptures. We cannot just explain as a text book, we must transform it and make it part of the story which we preach. At the same time, we cannot pervert the meaning of the Scriptures, which, unfortunately, happens many times, especially when our Protestant brethren when they concentrate on the Old Testament, and most especially the televised Evangelical brethren. They hardly ever seem to speak about the New Testament because the stories of the Old Testament lend themselves to more direct and moralistic preaching. We must, however, understand the teaching of Jesus in the Scripture and present it to God’s people.   We always know that God’s Word, God’s story, is a two-edged sword. The uniqueness of God’s relationship with us calls us always to comfort and challenge.

But what about the story of our listeners?

Before we can become good preachers, we must become good story listeners. We need to understand our people. It is so difficult to preach when we do not know the congregation. When we become part and parcel of the congregation in a parish, however, we understand their needs when we suffer with them. Only then do we know what they need to hear when we preach. There is a principal that once was explained to me which says, “You should not simply preach to the universal, but even dare to preach to the particular.” This means, perhaps, that when we are preparing a homily we have to think about three or four people we may have encountered recently and their own given stories, their suffering and their joy. We must aim our homily at them, because it is a real story that they represent. You will touch them if they are present in the congregation, or others with similar stories. It is so difficult to make a general story. We must go from the particular to the general story, not vice versa from the general story to the specific story. It is much easier for people to understand something concrete that is real, something that truly touches them personally.

Karl Rahner, the great theologian, once said, “The preacher should be able to hear his own sermon with the ears of the actual audience.” Yes, the preacher should not really just repeat the story of the listener, but must give the story a perspective, a center, a way of seeing through the dark because many people cannot interpret their own life experiences.   Sometimes they are shattered by those experiences, or confused by them. The preacher’s role is to enlighten the listeners to understand their unique stories and transform them into better understanding how the Word of God is calling them to something more than what they can experience or understand themselves. Each listener has a story and, although we do not know each individual story, they know their story. We need to help them organize their understanding of themselves. As we know, all preaching must make theological sense, and we will speak of this in greater length later in the talk. Some preachers engage in preparation sessions with groups of parishioners who will meet several days before the homily is being delivered to offer their own ideas, studying the Scripture, and giving some feedback to the preacher. This is very effective if one can find the right group of people that will assist us in this great and important task which we have before us. Some priests Skype each other as they reflect on the Scriptures for the coming week. Sometimes we do this indirectly by listening to the stories of people, by interpreting what we read in the newspaper, or now a days read on the Internet, or Facebook or Twitter.

The stories in our experience that are best suited to preaching first of all are stories that are similar to and dissimilar to our own. It is hard to make up things which we do not understand. At times too, stories that are sad, yet hopeful, are important for people to hear, since it does touch to their own experience. Also very useful are stories that attend to the listeners needs as we find them.

Some questions we could ask, or at least theoretically ask, of our listeners are these:

  • What did the sermon say to you?
  • What difference, if any, do you think that message will make in your life?
  • What did I as the preacher do to help you or hinder our communication?

Handing out a sheet with these questions, or leaving them in the pew, and asking people to respond to the questions after Mass and having them collected might be insightful if we have the courage to do so.

As we can see, we must tell a story. We must be in dialogue with our listeners, while at the same time be in dialogue with the Word of God because we have the responsibility of communicating that Word of God.

How to Preach Better

I am not saying this because I do not believe that each one of us with the grace of Ordination has been given the ability to preach. Perhaps it is simply, or perhaps it is with not great style, however, we do preach the Word of God. It was handed to us as deacons and as priests. But the Word of God in the Scriptures is our responsibility above all others. There is nothing more important than that which we do, except, of course, the celebration of the sacraments which incorporates the Word of God. How can we make our sermons more effective? Presumably, this is why you came here today to listen to me who, perhaps, is not the greatest preacher, however, I try to preach well. Some one of my own priests who is here, like Father Patrick Longalong, suggested my name since at times I do give effective homilies.

Allow me to speak from my own experience first in general terms and then very specifically. First, we must prepare for every homily. We cannot make it up as we go along. When I was taught to preach, I began writing out my homily, and I continue to do that to this day, so that I do not wander, and so that I have specific points which I want to make and a story which I want to tell. I try not to read a homily, however, I do have it in front of me so that I can follow my notes. Sometimes I will outline what I have written, so that I can be more effective in eye contact with the listener. It is very important for us to look at our listeners, as we cannot be a voice from the pulpit from afar.

Many years ago, my ten-year old nephew asked me, “Can you talk like a priest?”  I was a bit confused as to why he asked that question, since he has always known me as his Uncle Nicky. As I spoke to my brother, my nephew’s father, I learned that the priest in his parish has a falsetto preaching voice, which is very different from his speaking voice. Truly, that is not what we need to cultivate. We need to be natural in our presentation. We need to connect with people, have a conversation with them. And so we see why preparation is truly important.

As I mentioned before, we need to pray over the Scripture readings, we need to read them and we need to understand them better each time we read them. Then there must be a period of what we might call incubation. The preacher allows for time to help him understand better how we can communicate. Sometimes we need to write down various words. There is an old adage that “quantity makes quality.” When we have a lot of ideas, we pick out the best ones so that we have just a few things to communicate. Again, how important it is that we try to make our homilies simple and direct, so that they can be easily understood by the listeners. There are moments when truly we will be illuminated. We will have insights into what we are speaking about. We can keep a note pad with us and jot down some notes and then review what we have written down, and cut out what is not essential, in an effort to make sure that every word that we use is understandable to our hearers.

Once I was paid a great compliment by an older woman who approached me after a Mass and said, “I really love your articles in the weekly newspaper because I never need to use a dictionary to look up the meaning of any words.” Well, I guess simple words comprehensible to most people are the words we should use. Unfortunately, sometimes we can get lost in our thoughts. As we clarify those thoughts, we can make sure that the message is verifiable. As we develop a homily, we always note that God’s story, our story and that of the listener will come together as we speak. The more time we give in preparation for the homily, the better the homily will be when it is preached.

Just a word about keeping a file of homilies preached for reference in the future. Simply get about 150 file folders marked for each Sunday in an alphabetic manner (eg  Advent, 3rd Sunday, Cycle A “OR” 23rd Sunday, Ordinary Times, Cycle A) and you can begin from some point in the past which can give you a jump start on the present homily.

Certain issues come up time-and-time again in homilies, and one issue is the use of humor.  I do not believe telling jokes is usually a good part of a homily, although some preachers are effective with that style. I do believe, however, that humor that comes from the Word of God itself can get the attention of people and humanize the homily. For example, several Sundays ago the Gospel was about the paying of taxes. I began the homily by asking the congregation, “Who here likes to pay taxes? Please raise your hand.” Of course, no one raised their hand and everyone laughed. This gave me the opportunity to use that attention getter to complete the homily. One of the things I said was actually a quote from Saint Augustine who said, “The money which had Caesars image belonged to Caesar, but we, who are created in God’s image, belong to God. And so we must give back to God what we have, the image of God which is love.” This could have been a whole homily itself, but of course I had to add other things to the homily, however, that is the kind of connections I believe we need to make even when we use humor.

The theological approach must also be emphasized. If preaching to an African-American congregation, normally we hear a lot of “Amen’s” when the people agree with what you say. In fact, when I do preach to an African-American congregation, I often ask someone to “Please count my Amen’s” to see if truly I am getting through to the listeners. There are other groups who may not shout out “Amen,” however, you can see by their facial expression or the nodding of heads that they understand what you are saying, you are connecting with them. This is exactly why it is so important to look at the congregation, to have that silent dialogue which truly makes a difference in the long run.

Sometimes sound bites are really important as well. Unfortunately, our culture today lives on sound bites, those three, four or five words that seem to stick in the minds of people. It is also unfortunate that sometimes these sound bites are not exactly correct, or even false, however, that is what remains with people.   Our sound bites in a homily can be helpful as people take something home with them at the end of the Mass.

Allow me to speak a bit about how a homily can be structured, or at least how I structure my homilies. First, again, there is an introduction. There is some reference to a story, an incident from the current news, or something that illustrates the Scripture explanation which must follow. Unfortunately, too many homilies begin with, “In today’s Gospel.” Usually, one looses the congregation at this point. The story does not need to be retold. It is truly is important, however, if you can find another story which can illustrate the story in the Scriptures, use it.

A Sample Homily

Allow me to give you an example. Next Sunday is the dedication of the Feast of the dedication of St. John Lateran Basilica in Rome, which we only celebrate every seven years on a Sunday. How I would begin a homily on this occasion is in this way, “When I was a young boy, I went to Mass every day in the Monastery Church connected to the high school at which I attended. Etched in the glass of the door to the Church were these words in Latin, “Porta Coeli, this is the gate of Heaven.” This is what every Church is, it is truly our gate or window into Heaven. You could then go on to explain a little bit about the Lateran Basilica which is the Cathedral of Rome, the first basilica transformed into a Church in the time of Constantine, and explain then the meaning and why we honor the Church buildings because they are our spiritual homes. Again, how you approach people will depend on your own experience, your own understanding. For example, you might speak about your home parish Church in the Philippines.

Then, normally, I would follow with an explanation of the Scriptures, trying to bring together especially the Old Testament and Gospel with the message that is there, sometimes concentrating one the Second Reading or even the Responsorial Psalm. But now the critical part of the homily comes. What is the application? What do you want people to take home with them? What is the remedy after you have diagnosed the problem? What do you want them to do?   The worst way to tell the listener what you want them to do is say, “Let us.” Lettuce is something that we eat. Lettuce is not a good way of encouraging people to do things.   Rather, we must find a way in their own experience to assist the listener to make the connection between the story of God and their own story, and your story as you have presented it to them.

For example, staying with the same Gospel readings for the Feast of the Lateran Basilica, we hear in the Old Testament reading about the temple of Jerusalem from which came forth living water. Then in the Gospel we hear about Jesus in that same temple who destroys the money changers’ tables and scatters those who are selling animals for sacrifice, reminding us that the House of God must be a House of Prayer.

How we pray when we come to Church might be one approach. What is our attention to the Word of God in Church. Suggesting, perhaps, that people read the Scripture readings before they come to Church might be something the listener can do. Certainly, today the readings are readily available in the Missalettes and also on line in so many forms. Preparing themselves to hear God’s story and then relating it to their own story may be helpful to the listener. Finally, in every homily, liturgically we are asked to make some connection to the sacrificial meal which we are to consume. And there is always some way that this can be done. For example, with this particular Gospel reading from the Feast of the Lateran Basilica, we hear in the Second Reading, “Are you not the temple of God in which the Spirit lives?” Yes, we are the temple in which the sacrificial offering of our lives is given with Christ as He offers His sacrifice once and for all, but continually made available to us in the Eucharist.

Hopefully, these thoughts, perhaps somewhat random at times, will be helpful to you in trying to find a better way of preaching, of telling your story, reflecting on God’s story and connecting it to the story of your listeners.

May God give you the grace necessary to be effective preachers.