Preachers Hone their Homilies at the “Yes of God” Retreat
Preaching God’s “yes” was the central focus of The Institute for Homiletics summer retreat for preachers at Mundelein Seminary near Chicago. Pope Benedict XVI in his book, Dogma and Preaching, wrote “The ‘Yes’ of God is the central and universal content of preaching.”
Priests and deacons, a bishop and an abbot, came from the dioceses of Dallas, Victoria, TX and Green Bay, WI. They participated in presentations and workshops on preaching the kerygma, tying theology to lived experience, storytelling, and making preaching memorable or “sticky.” The retreat was part of the Institute’s two year Preaching for Encounter program, which is an ongoing formation program of learning, practice, support and coaching for Catholic preachers.
The first year of the program focused on the spirituality of the preacher and the “how-to” of homiletics.
As the preachers begin year two, the focus shifts to the interplay of liturgical preaching and
evangelization, with a special emphasis on how to reach young Catholics and those on the margins of
To reach young listeners, we have to understand them, Dr. Karla Bellinger, Executive Director of the
Institute, says. She shared a conversation that she had with a teenager who told her that the reason kids select their gender, hair color, and tattoo-type is that they are “creating a character,” not unlike building up from the neutral persona of a video game character. “What constitutes ‘reality’ is shifting,” Bellinger says, “and how do we speak to that?” God’s “yes” is eternal but the preaching task changes with each generation. “I was challenged by change in our culture,” noted Deacon Michael Bolesta from All Saints in Dallas, “that some of those to whom we preach create their own virtual reality.”
One of the challenges priests often face is being pressed for time. Father Wade Bass, Chaplain and
Director of the Catholic Campus Ministry at SMU in Dallas, noted that “not having a lot of time to
prepare to preach is not an ideal situation, but it is a situation altogether familiar to priests and deacons who daily labor under many pressures and responsibilities which involve preaching the Gospel.”
The workshop on preaching the kerygma addressed this time pressure by having the preachers spend eight minutes to create a theologically faithful homily. Inspired by the Sunday readings for the upcoming weekend, they focused on where they found God’s “Yes!” in those lectionary readings. From that focus, they created a 200-word text that reflected deeply on one significant theological point.
With that brief text and its single point in place, homiletician Dr. Deborah Wilhelm, taught how to use
concrete language to connect abstract theological concepts to listeners’ daily lives, while still staying
faithful to the central kerygma of the homily. Deacon Ben Rodriguez from St. Francis of Assisi parish in
Lancaster, TX, responded to this, saying, “Despite the dangers we face in this world, I learned at
Mundelein to preach about the beauty of this world and its goodness as well as the goodness of God.” The preacher’s words, as Dr. Wilhelm pointed out, help listeners orient themselves to God’s grace and
Dr. Wilhelm is one the Institute’s presenters and coaches, who all hold doctoral degrees in preaching.
They have taught, practiced, and published in the homiletics field. One of them, Rev. Dr. Edward
Griswold, retired vice-rector of St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, MD, says, “I’m thrilled to have the
chance to do this work. It’s meaningful for the men, for me, and for people everywhere who listen to
preaching.” Msgr. Steve Bosso, retired from St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary, showcased his
scriptural expertise in his homily about Job’s lament. Rev. Dr. Michael Kueber just published Preaching
Preachers enjoyed time with their coaches in small groups, "workshopping" their preaching for the upcoming weekend. They worked on expanding that main theological point through the preacher’s own experience, study, knowledge of Church teaching, and vocation. From there it was a natural step to incorporate words that linked the homily to the lives of the people gathered in their particular community in their specific time and space.
Dr. Suzanne Nawrocki focused the preachers on the skill of “noticing” as a foundation for effective
storytelling for preaching. In discussion, the group readily named what makes for a “bad story.” What
makes for an effective story? Nawrocki walked the participants through a series of exercises to help
them answer that question. She also connected creativity with the science of listening. “Preachers must have a listening heart,” Dr. Nawrocki stated, “following the example of the ultimate Christian storyteller, Christ himself.”
Referring back to the theme as he left the retreat, Father Richard Bediako from Cuero, Texas in the
Victoria diocese, commented “I still hear the resounding voice of the invitation to respond to the “Yes”
of God who has rescued us.”
The mission of the Institute for Homiletics, founded in 2021, is for the renewal and flourishing of
Catholic preachers, says Dr. Bellinger. She adds, “We’ve just begun to recruit the new 2024 cohort of
preachers for this program. We have seen that when our clergy thrive in their preaching ministry, God’s
people thrive as well. And this Institute exists to support the Church in that.”
The Institute for Homiletics at the University of Dallas is a collaboration of the University of Dallas and
the Catholic Foundation (Dallas) with the support of the Diocese of Dallas. The Institute offers
resources to help preachers flourish and thus bring people into an encounter with God. Funding from
the Lilly Endowment’s Compelling Preaching Initiative also supports the Institute’s work.