Some Thoughts on Preaching

Articles on preaching typically emphasize advance preparation. The most crucial advance preparation occurs in seminary, or even pre-seminary, in the systematic reading of Scripture. Long years and discipline in Lectio Divina are the foundation for effective homiletics. It is these years of discipline that I draw upon when—often in haste—I prepare for a Sunday homily. Typically, on weekdays, I do not prepare. In the lead-up and in the act of preaching, it is important to give the Holy Spirit “room to move,” to say what really meets the occasion. The following are “framework” remarks.

Links and Context of Lectionary Readings
Our hearers rarely have a wide sense of Scripture, and often even a sentence or two will allow links to be drawn between lectionary readings, and the context to be outlined. Sketching links and context is crucial for hearers making sense of lectionary textual portions.

Literary Kinds, and Key Words
Further, nowadays, our hearers mostly have weak literary sensibilities. Years of Lectio Divina also give a sense of literary kinds and literary shifts. A good translation (a Revised Standard Catholic Edition of the Bible is really the standard) and access to a Greek-English Interlinear New Testament is a crucial aid. Too often, lectionary translations fail to capture what precisely is being said (for example, when “community” is used for ecclesia), and also often fail to capture resonances in the text (as when “road” is used, and the sense of “way” is lost). Carefully chosen highlighting of key terms and how they sharpen the proclamation in the scriptural text serves to focus attention on the preached proclamation.

Sustaining a Scriptural Focus
The most frequent remark on my preaching is appreciation for the textual focus of what is said. Surprisingly, people often remark that homilists tend not to expound the lectionary texts. Scriptural exposition that gives the big-picture and selective attention to textual precision generally keeps hearers alert.

Highlighting Scriptural Messages That Are Generally Not Seen
Familiarity with and sharp attention to a textual portion, or to a textual sweep, at times allows surprising zooming-ins. For example, John 1:1-8, the Gospel lection for the fourth Mass of Christmas Day, contains “but to all who believed in him … he gave power to become children of God.” It is a Christmas joy for people to hear that it is through this Child that we become children of God. We believe this Child as Saviour, Jesus, and our living confession enacts a proclamation and a joy that we celebrate in commemorating this birth! Ite missa est!

Parallels Between Scriptural Messages and Contemporary Concerns
An element of surprise also helps, although generally it is better to let one’s hearers know, so that they do not think you are “off track.” For example, “I’m going to make some observations that seem quite off-the-point, but I’ll draw them into some key points in our readings for today.” One can then speak to something that is topical, or recount an incident with which hearers are likely to identify, and then relate it to what is seen in a different culture and different context in the scriptural text—thereby making the text “contemporary.”

Allow Oneself To Be Known, Selectively
For many years, I studiously avoided speaking about myself in the conviction that I should preach Christ, and not myself. I also still carried disgust at experience of an egoist who typically ended-up speaking about himself. When, however, I started sharing some of my experience that illustrated something in the scriptural text, I got waves of appreciation. What I discovered is that people appreciate the difference from “I know this” kind of speaking, compared with “I learned this in these circumstances” kind of speaking. People appreciate what they identify as “personal,” as the homilist allows himself to be known, and they distinguish this from self-proclamation.

Use Differing Manners of Thought and Speech to Meet Differing Dispositions of One’s Hearers
Because I am most interested in the concepts in the text (such as the deontic ethics of Pharisees and the virtue ethics of Jesus), I keep reminding myself that most people like “data,” rather than “concepts.” For example, an historical data sketch may provoke “Oh, how interesting!” remarks. Nowadays, I take care to include some “data” component in my homiletics. It’s a bit of  “something in it for everyone” (or “for everyone something”) that recognizes the differing psychologies of one’s hearers. Differing idioms and differing manners of thinking increase the reach of one’s preaching.

Flagging the Attention-Span Asked of Your Hearers
People also appreciate a time line. I do not subscribe to the 8-minute time line. If there is movement in the manner of expression and the context, attention spans can be extended. But a sense of coming closure extends attention. A homily should normally have only one closure, and hearers should be given signals of movement toward closure as an aid to maintaining attention.

Mobility and Restraint in Posture
Gesticulation should be used sparingly. But where it really serves the proclamation, a clap of hands, or a snap of fingers, appropriately draws attention to a point of the proclaimed text. The pulpit, or ambo, enhances the sense of authority in preaching. But selective mobility can warm one’s hearers: such as physically moving aside to make an aside remark, and then returning to the center to continue; or moving out of the pulpit to address a point with children. One gesticulation that should be recurrent is key: pointing to the sanctuary crucifix. Praedicamus Christum crucifixum should be fundamental to Catholic preaching, and the sanctuary should itself convey the heart of Catholic proclamation.

Keeping God’s Presence in Our Presence; Being at Ease in Preaching
The last thing is the homilist’s ease. A Sacred Minister needs to remember always: “This was God’s idea before it was mine”—that is, a vocation answers a prior call. What we do is because it’s what God wants us to do, and we have to “let go” so that we allow God’s grace—over the years  and in this moment working in us—to “do” God’s call in us. Renewing our conviction gives us an ease that increases focus on the text and on our hearers, and keeps God’s presence in our presence.

It’s God’s Presence and God’s Action That We Want to Convey
One of my favorite encouragements with young men whom I have influenced in the Sacred Ministry is, “Walk tall while walking on your knees.” It is a formula for Christ’s walking and speaking in our walking and speaking. That is our privilege and our joy in preaching: to proclaim the grace of God made present in Christ in his Church.

Fr. Paul Anthony McGavin About Fr. Paul Anthony McGavin

Fr. Paul Anthony McGavin holds a Masters in theology (TheolM) from the Catholic Theological College, Melbourne, and a PhD from the University of Melbourne. He is a priest of the Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn, Australia. Much of his ministerial life was spent as a university educator, and as a senior faculty member at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra. He continues his work in pastoral ministry and is now a Catholic chaplain at the University of Canberra.


  1. Avatar Martin B. Drew says:

    Thank you father McGavin for your paper on Homiletics and preaching. A priest does not need a licentiate or doctor of Scripture to preach to parishioners on Sunday. Yet the celebrant must have studied Scripture in the seminary and each Sunday must study the readings and prepare to give to the people a clear explanation of each of the readings especially the gospel. The persons in the pews are always searching for this divine knowledge. It is an art to look at the people and not constantly look down at the readings . Preparation is important. In seminaries there must be gifted instructors in Scripture and preaching. Here in Dallas at my parish and other parishes the deacons and priests give unique manners of homilies.