Words Written on Ice and Wind

A Creative Writer Reflects on the Craft of Preaching

Detail, fresco of St. John Chrysostum, artist unknown (13th Century), Church of the Theotokos Peribleptos, Ohrid, Macedonia.

At the turn of the century, I graduated from the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier.  Armed with an MFA in creative writing, I set out to write the Great American Novel. I taught writing at the University of Central Florida in Orlando while continuing to labor in journalism (my first career), enjoying a modicum of success in the Catholic press before entering the seminary in August 2007.

During my discernment, I struggled with the idea of giving up a promising writing career. It was the death of Pope St. John Paul the Great in 2005 that spurred me to begin writing about the Church. I became a columnist and feature writer for The Florida Catholic, but in attempting to write a piece about the late pontiff’s influence on my life, I found that it was like trying to pour the ocean into a thimble. I realized that I felt called to do more than writing. There is more to the Word than the printed page.

Doubling up on apostolic work at my parish ate up much of my time at the keyboard, but it was fulfilling, and it changed my perspective on my life’s work. I realized that writing was no longer a job, but a calling. Each Sunday, I watched and listened carefully to the homilies delivered by the priests and the deacons and began to see myself in the pulpit where I could impart to the congregation the fruits of my labor, to contribute my words as living stones to help build up the Body of Christ.

As a seminarian, I took two courses on homiletics, one taught by the chaplain at Harvard University who emphasized detail, style, form, content, and structure. He forbade his students from including rhetorical questions in their sermons. I didn’t agree with that, but I got a good grade. The second class I took was taught by a priest who basically phoned in his lectures, for he wore many hats in the Archdiocese of Boston, and one of those was teaching homiletics. Maybe I learned more from him. I came away knowing that, once ordained, I was on my own to determine the type of homilist I wanted to become. Composing a weekly message for an assembly was always a work in progress. I was more than willing to do the work. It was paramount.

The purpose of a homily is simple: to break open the Word and explain the Scriptures to the assembly—to edify, catechize, and exhort, and to raise their consciousness to God. The homilist must be a statesman of sorts. Preaching isn’t theater, but it can be theatrical. John Paul the Great, an actor when he was a young man, and Archbishop Fulton Sheen, a televangelist with dark, arched eyebrows and caped in a cope, both displayed the craft of preaching with flair and aplomb. Sheen’s natural habitat was before a television camera. John Paul displayed his craft on the world stage. The achievements of both men, one, a saint, and the other, a servant of God, were substantial and inspired generations of Catholic preachers, including myself.

Every homilist, whether a bishop, a priest, or a deacon, is different. We bring our entire lives to the pulpit to reach and teach worshipers, to build a bridge between the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. As a priest, I believe that this is one of my primary tasks. More or less, I get 10 minutes a week per Sunday Mass to impress upon my congregation the urgency of knowing and loving the Word of God. This is precious little time, so it had better be worth it to my parishioners, to hold the assembly’s interest, to carry them through their busy weeks, and make them hungry to hear the Word of God on the following Sunday.

As a new priest, I was eager to preach. I felt confident that my career as a writer and a teacher of writing prepared me to one day become a competent homilist. Preaching, like writing, is a craft, and experience is the best teacher. Because I speak Spanish, my first assignment was at a Puerto Rican parish where parishioners held high standards for their clerics, and where all my gifts and skills, writing and speaking in English, suddenly became a liability. As a new preacher in Spanish, I basically had the conversational skills of a 10-year-old; preaching in my second language humbled me and reminded me every weekend that I didn’t have all the answers, that dramatic flair and syntactical surgery didn’t necessarily get the job done. I had to be open to the Spirit. I persevered. My Spanish improved. Though I no longer work in Hispanic ministry full-time, I consider the Spanish language skills I developed to be one of the sharpest tools in my spiritual tool box. Languages are different. The message is the same. Smile and tell them that God loves them.

In my present assignment—the largest parish in the Diocese of Lansing—I work with a pastor who believes that good music and good preaching are the keys to a vibrant assembly. The results are self-evident. Four priests and three deacons lend depth to the lineup. The music ministry, comprised of music majors and professors from Michigan State University, routinely draws applause after the recessional hymn. (Nobody applauds for the preacher, but that’s okay; we perform, but are not performers.) The spiritual clime of the parish pushes me to attain continuous improvement as a minister of the Gospel. Pope St. Gregory the Great wrote, “The preacher must dip his pen into the blood of his heart. Only then can he reach his hearer.” Ah-ha! There was the missing link: my sermons were more head than heart, so I began to write more anecdotally without making my preaching “all about me,” and included a rhetorical question now and again, when appropriate. I taped Gregory’s maxim on my computer and meditate on it before I begin to compose, and I pray the prayer to the Holy Spirit. Prayer must be the bedrock of homily preparation.  If we would be purveyors of the Word, we must be in the Word.

Sometimes I hear a parishioner say, “I like it so much better when Father doesn’t use notes, when he preaches from the heart.” I believe there is truth to that, but many new priests and deacons use notes until they gain confidence and find their voice. Influenced by the novelism that I had studied, I worked all week to craft word-perfect stories, but left the pages in the folder in my briefcase in the sacristy to “preach from the heart,” sine notes. Jesus said, “Do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say. You will be given what you are to say. For it will not be you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Mt 10:1-19).

I believed Jesus, but I seemed to get in the way of the Spirit. I was always well-prepared, but my sermons appeared to be one-dimensional. I stalled, stammered, and lost my place, but it wasn’t from lack of preparation. By choosing to forego my words, I deprived the congregation of who I am, left most of myself in the sacristy. I felt compelled to focus on performance instead of the message. Bad idea. That wasn’t really me. Like Merton, I am bi-vocational, a writer who became a priest, a priest who is a writer.

In my homiletics studies over the years, I came across the “Barth Method” of sermonizing, developed by the Swiss Reform theologian Karl Barth. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a practitioner of the Barth Method, and he left little to be desired in the delivery of his sermons. Barth taught that there was no need to devise an opening anecdote; the Scripture passage provided it. All the preacher need do, after considerable study, was tick off a line-item exegesis, and when he reached the end of the periscope, the homily concluded. The length of the Scripture passage determined the length of the homily. For example, a short Gospel, (i.e., Mk 1:14-14, “the Beginning of the Galilean Ministry”) would only require a short sermon.  But for a long Gospel, (say, Mt 25:31-46, “the Judgment of the Nations”)—it’s a good thing parishioners are sitting down. At the least, Barth’s method ensures simplicity and variety. The depth, imagery, and language are up to the exegete. The preacher determines how much of himself to put into the homily, hopefully a sufficient amount, so that the assembly can identify with the message, which is paramount, without making it about him.

That sounded simple, and I often employ Barth’s technique in my daily homilies. And should things get crazy during the week so that I can’t produce a written sermon suitable to my standards, Barth’s approach works well in a pinch. But a wise nun once told me that no homily is better than an ill-prepared one. Her counsel stuck with me. My primary rule in homily preparation has always been “don’t embarrass yourself,” or, like the Boy Scouts motto, “Be prepared.”

My parish records Sunday homilies and posts them on our website as podcasts.  Listening to myself can be painful, but it is a great way to learn and to grow, and it helps me to determine my strengths and weaknesses. I noticed that, unscripted, I tended to be nebulous, nervous, repeat myself, and launch into tangential sidebars, searching moment to moment for the right rabbit hole to enter, only to blank out. Ouch!

Then on All Soul’s Day, I delivered a personal witness about carrying the torch for my deceased loved ones. Never had I delivered such personal material, but I discerned it to be appropriate because I wanted my assembly to identify with living without dearly departed love ones. Who could not relate to the truth of human death and the hope of the immortality of the soul? People sat up. I held their attention. I wrote the homily out and used my IPad—the Gospel according to Steve Jobs—to guide me through challenging material, my words charged with imagery, energy, concrete language, and relevant anecdotes, committed first to paper and set before me, as I preached the faith with love from the heart in accordance with the truth, true to myself and guided by the Spirit. “You found your voice,” the deacon told me after Mass. Like Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley, Jr., I do my best thinking with a pen in my hand.

Everything changed. Liberation. Coming home. Like Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, two great tastes—writing and preaching—came together. I combined my love of writing with the thrill of proclaiming the Word of God. No need to look back; now I only move forward. A preacher is as good as his last homily. More is always expected as we journey further with the Word.

An interviewer once asked Buckley, an uncannily prolific writer, how he approached the delivery of his speeches. He responded that he used a prepared text to guide him, to stay on target. “Some people have the ability to speak using a prepared text without seeming like they’re reading. I have that ability,” Buckley said.

As a novelist, I turned out to be a competent preacher. After All Souls Day, I listened to the podcast.  What I heard was a steady, balanced, confident preacher delivering word for word—from the heart of his heart—what the Holy Spirit inspired him to write. Once I decided to rely on words carved on ice and wind, that is, hand-crafted homilies written with all my skill and know-how as a professionally trained writer, my preaching improved 1000 percent. No more debate. Write from the heart. Speak from the heart. The message of the Gospel speaks for itself. I am only the herald.

The reason the Church possesses so many sermons and homilies extant from the Fathers Augustine, Jerome, John Chrysostom, and Peter Chrysologus, et al, even Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Avila, is because they wrote for posterity. As a bishop, Augustine (a former professor of rhetoric, which I was) sat in his cathedra with a scroll open on his lap and delivered the words that God inspired him to write. The Old Testament prophets preached in the Temple courts with scribes nearby busily transcribing every word. Their poetry is among the most sublime in the ancient world, held in the hearts of today’s worshipers as paragons of love, hope, faith, and truth.

As with the practice of medicine and law, the homilist’s apprenticeship doesn’t end with graduation from the seminary. The pulpit is a sacred space, like the altar, and the homily serves to open up the Liturgy of the Word in preparation for the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Whether the preacher goes “without a net” or glances up and back from prepared remarks, his homily, constructed of words, like the bricks, mortar, and cables of a bridge, stretches over the waters between the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist and transports pilgrims from one to the other. The homily, inspired by the Spirit, is the bridge between.

Fr. Raymond Tucker Cordani About Fr. Raymond Tucker Cordani

Fr. Raymond Tucker Cordani was ordained to the priesthood in 2011. He earned an MFA in writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and an MDiv from Pope St. John XXIII National Seminary. He has written for Our Sunday Visitor, the National Catholic Register, and Columbia Magazine. Follow him on his blog "Gonzo Homiletics" and on Facebook and on Twitter, @tuckercordani.


  1. Avatar Kathy Hopkins says:

    Amen! Alleluia! De Colored!

  2. Avatar Melissa Long says:

    Very insightful! Great read. Thank you.

  3. Avatar Bill Siarny says: