When Deacon John Silberstein of St. Kilian’s Church in Mission Viejo began preparing his first official homily after his ordination, he tried to keep Pope Francis’s advice in mind.
The pope, Silbertstein recalls, says that sermons should be six minutes or less. “Pope Francis directs us to keep our homilies simple and as short as possible,” he recalls. “It’s not always an easy task to find the ‘pearl’ or key message in the Scripture readings, interpret it, and make the message relatable and still wrap things up in that time span.”
In the end, his first homily as an ordained deacon was well received. “My first homily was scheduled for the day after my ordination, and I was still raw from the emotions of that experience,” he remembers. “My whole family – my wife, our three sons, my brother, his wife and daughter, my sister and my parents – was in the front pew as I gave my sermon about how I answered the call to the diaconate. It was quite emotional.”
By the time most deacons – lay men, often married, who are called to serve side-by-side with priests at Mass and in the community after five years of preparation – give their first official sermons, they have already presented 40-50 ‘reflections’ at their parishes’ Sunday Masses. So, preparing and presenting homilies isn’t new.
As part of their training, they study many different topics, including Scriptures, the psalms, Catholic social teaching, and public speaking. Father Christopher Smith, rector and episcopal vicar of Christ Cathedral, presents a course in homiletics, or the application of the general principles of rhetoric to the specific art of public preaching.
“Every part of our training, every single inch, helps inform what I do to prepare a homily,” notes Deacon Anthony ‘Tom’ Caso of St. Boniface Church in Anaheim. Caso says he looks forward to presenting homilies and spends hours preparing and rehearsing his sermons.
“So far the feedback tells me that people are responsive,” he adds. His preparation begins with a review of that Sunday’s first and second readings from the old and new testaments and study of the gospel reading. Then he studies Bible commentaries on the readings.
“With that information bubbling around in my head, I ponder things in my heart and see what direction comes from that,” he explains. “I set about writing drafts, not to explain the gospel, but to tell people how it is relevant in their lives today. After a few drafts I give one to my wife Therese, who’s my sounding board.”
Once Therese offers her thoughts, he finalizes the draft and begins practicing his sermon in the days immediately before the designated Sunday Mass.
“Because I teach at a law school, I’m used to getting up and speaking in front of a crowd,” he notes. “I have had people tell me they remember things from my first sermon, which is special. I believe that the Holy Spirit was speaking through me.”
Deacon Richard ‘Rick’ Purpura of St. Norbert’s Church in Orange says deacons provide parishioners with slightly different perspectives than they receive from parish priests.
“Priests aren’t married and don’t have children, so they don’t have the day-to-day family experiences that deacons typically have,” Purpura says. “We can offer a family perspective that’s a little different.”
Like many deacons, he says he considered the priesthood when he was in high school, but ended up with a career as a systems engineer and a 35-year marriage to wife Karen, five children, two grandchildren and another on the way.
Several priests asked him to consider the diaconate but it wasn’t until the third request upon his retirement that he was able to commit to the required preparation.
Classes are presented to the deacons-in-training at the Diocese of Orange Pastoral Center. In addition, the men do significant practical work, including as detention ministers, doing social work in the community, and visiting various places, such as the Mexican border, to get a hands-on ministry education.
Deacon John Selig of St. Thomas More Church in Irvine says giving homilies is a lot of work, but that the preparation draws him closer to the word of God, deepening his relationship with Christ.
“Hopefully in presenting the homily it pulls others closer to God as well,” Selig says. “I hope there’s something in what I say where they feel touched by the Holy Spirit.”
His preparation includes developing a working draft by the Monday prior to the service and sending it to a small circle of advisers for their feedback. “I do that because I don’t have all the answers,” he notes.
“Giving my first official homily was a powerful experience,” he recalls. “Having the opportunity to share God’s message with the parishioners and impart His love for them is quite an honor.”