Pope Francis offers preaching 101 tip -- don't bore the sheep

It was another ordination rite in St. Peter's Basilica and the pope was expected to stay close to the ritual book during the homily.

Then again, Pope Francis has a way of expanding the script. Off the cuff, he offered the new shepherds some blunt advice about preaching -- do not bore the sheep.

"Let this be the nourishment of the People of God, that your sermons are not boring, that your homilies reach people's hearts because they come from your heart, because what you say to them is what you carry in your heart," he said, in one translation of remarks on the World Day of Prayer for Vocations.

But if priests share from their own experiences, added Francis, their actions must match their words, because "examples edify, but words without examples are empty words, they are just ideas that never reach the heart and, in fact, they can harm. They are no good!"

Pope Francis has, on a number of occasions, discussed how Catholic priests can become more effective communicators. Before becoming pope, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglia of Argentina was already concerned about the effectiveness of his priests -- during an era in which charismatic evangelical preachers radically changed Latin America.

During another recent Vatican rite -- marking the release of an official Homiletic Directory offering guidance for clergy -- Archbishop Arthur Roche urged priests to grasp the importance of the sermon's strategic location in the center of the Mass.

The homily "plays an important role in fostering the devout, active and conscious participation of the people of God. The homily is not an intermission in the middle of Mass -- it is, rather, something intimately connected with the Word of God and with the specific group of people gathered to celebrate the Eucharist," said Roche.

"For the bishop and the priest -- especially the parish priest -- the preaching of the homily is one of the principal ways in which he carries out his ministry of teaching. It is his privilege and duty, received in a special way in Holy Orders, to … help his hearers embrace in their hearts the word that transforms the lives of those who put it into practice."

The sermon is far too important, he added, for priests to simply step into the pulpit after a busy week's work and make some off-the-cuff remarks.

"As a general rule, the homily should not be improvised," said Archbishop Roche, secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. "The church expects the preacher to continually rekindle in his mind and heart those things that are necessary for this task. He must have a solid understanding of Catholic doctrine; he must be familiar with the liturgical books and the context of the liturgical season; he must cultivate the skills necessary for good communication; he must strive to understand the needs of this particular community that is gathered in prayer."

Clearly the stakes are high, with the modern priest being urged to be intellectually solid, while also delivering words that are personal, heartfelt and never boring. He must speak "from the heart," yet without resorting to casual improvisation. In his encyclical Evangelii Gaudium ("The Joy of the Gospel"), Pope Francis also noted that the "homily cannot be a form of entertainment like those presented by the media."

This is a challenge. Nevertheless, it's crucial that priests use this strategic opportunity to help the faithful connect the Bible with their daily lives, stressed Father James Martin, author of "Jesus: A Pilgrimage" and known as the "official chaplain" who helps with the work of comedian Stephen Colbert.

"I've heard my fair share of dull homilies and they not only bore me, but anger me," said Martin. "Most people have only one chance to hear about scripture during the week and the preacher has only one chance to reach them. So boring should never be an option. Boring is, frankly, inexcusable."

 At the same time, the pope's insistence that priests not be boring is not the same thing as saying, "Be a comedian," he stressed. "Rather, it means that Jesus's words and deeds are never, ever boring. So when we talk about the Gospels we need to convey the same urgency and excitement that the disciples felt when they were around Jesus."