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Learning to preach, a joy and a challenge

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“Can anyone summarize Mike’s homily in one sentence?” So begins the round of “commendations and recommendations” on my just-delivered practice homily from three seminary classmates and a priest formator. Over the course of this academic year, my second here at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, our class is assigned to preach 12 practice homilies. In addition to preparing and delivering homilies for consecutive weeks of Advent and Lent, we receive specific pastoral scenarios, such as preaching in the gym of a Catholic high school on the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception.

I have thoroughly enjoyed beginning to learn to preach this year. Preaching is a skill, a grace and a solemn duty. It’s intellectual, spiritual and personal. It’s sometimes humbling, intimidating or frustrating — and it can be a huge adrenaline rush. To preach a homily is to make a gift of your entire self to the people of God. I get fired up thinking that, as a priest, I will be charged with declaiming publicly — every 23 or so hours until I die — on the most important topics in the universe: mercy, love, the cross, suffering, and the person of Jesus Christ.

To preach a homily is to make a gift of your entire self to the people of God.

Hearing my brother seminarians preach is a gift. Not only is it a window into their prayer life and the pastoral issues affecting the people in their dioceses, it’s often a chance to appreciate a different aspect of their personalities and upbringing. The endless depth of the Scriptures is apparent when, each week, we hear each other discuss three different points of focus in homilies on the same set of readings. 

The most important lesson I’ve learned so far from this class is that the homilist is merely a servant of the Word of God. Rhetorical skill, relevant spiritual insights, catchy introductions or a coherent structure can take the preacher only so far. God speaks to us, his beloved sons and daughters, every day through the Scriptures. The best homilies might be those where the preacher steps back and allows the immeasurable power of the Word of God to speak for itself: “Yet just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to the one who sows and bread to the one who eats, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but shall do what pleases me, achieving the end for which I sent it” (Is 55:10-11).

Nugent, who is from St. Agnes Church in Arlington, is in his second year of theology at the Pontifical North American College in Rome.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021