Father Stephen Norton, the pastor of St. Benedict parish in the Bronx, was preaching a couple of weeks ago on the Sixth Sunday of Easter from John’s Gospel. (“I am the vine, you are the branches.”)
He spoke about the truism that April showers bring May flowers, an image to which most people can relate this rainy spring, calling his parishioners to summon thoughts of the flower boxes outside their windows and the spring cleanups they were undertaking in their yards. “The Easter season in our spiritual lives is time to do a little spring cleaning,” he said.
“We need to be rooted in the Mass Sunday after Sunday,” Father Norton said.
This homily drew a lot of reaction, with much of it coming not from his parishioners, but from a cohort of fellow preachers.
Father Norton is one of eight priests of the archdiocese who are completing a one-year Preaching Academy conducted by the Marten Program in Homiletics of the University of Notre Dame.
The eight priests are Msgr. Leslie Ivers, director of ongoing priestly formation in the archdiocese; Father Antonio Almonte, pastor of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs parish, Manhattan; Father Donald Baker, pastor of St. Monica-St. Elizabeth of Hungary and St. Stephen of Hungary, Manhattan; Father Vincent Druding, parochial vicar, Holy Cross, the Bronx; Father Richard Gill, pastor of St. Lawrence O’Toole, Brewster, and Sacred Heart, Patterson; Father Lino Gonsalves, parochial vicar, Our Lady of Victory and St. Andrew, Manhattan; Father Robert Norris, pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Elmsford; and Father Norton.
Six of the priests were present for the cohort’s most recent meeting, which took place at Maryknoll May 16. The group’s normal meeting spot was St. Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie.
Each month, the priests meet in person to review a Sunday homily of one or two of the members, which have been previously recorded on video and sent to Notre Dame, so that it can be viewed on a laptop computer during their meeting.
The critiques are thorough, raising issues of theme, form and delivery style, to name a few. The comments are a mix of positive and negative assessments, along with tips and personal anecdotes from the priests’ own experiences, all delivered to help their fellow priest improve his preaching.
Msgr. Ivers started by saying that he thought Father Norton “carried through his theme from beginning to end.” He gave him high marks for animation and his connection with parishioners.
Father Druding shared a thought about the “rootedness” expressed by Father Norton, saying that this time of year when religious education classes are ending and parish life is beginning to ebb before the summer is a good time to emphasize that point.
Father Almonte spoke about Father Norton’s attempt to balance his intellectual insights with his passion for the Gospel. He encouraged him “to go where people’s hearts are…Don’t lose the passion.”
Father Norris said Father Norton evoked “beautiful” images in the homily, which he called “theologically wonderful,” but felt that it was “less concrete than I was looking for.”
Near the end of the discussion, the priests chimed in with more general comments about the challenges of keeping passion and freshness in a homily, even at the late Mass on Sunday. “I try to remember that it’s my second or third Mass, but it’s not theirs,” Msgr. Ivers said of parishioners.
The homilists also receive a feedback form with specific comments from a coach on the Preaching Academy staff related to how the homilist moved the will and touched the heart of their listeners. The feedback also discusses delivery and ability to convey a single theme, among other things.
Two times during the year the priests had their homilies reviewed by a professional homiletician, forming the basis for an in-depth discussion.
Msgr. Ivers said he first learned about the Preaching Academy when its director, Father Michael Connors, C.S.C., spoke at the annual archdiocesan pastors’ convention in Spring Lake, N.J., two years ago.
The priests of the Archdiocese of New York were among the first participants in the program, which officially began this academic year. Two other groups from the Diocese of Kalamazoo, Mich., are also participating.
The remaining session will be conducted at the University of Notre Dame in June. The cohort groups also met for four days in Tampa, Fla., in January.
The program is free for individual priests, with Notre Dame picking up the costs of instruction with the backing of the Lilly Endowment. The travel costs of New York priests are covered by a grant from the archdiocese funded by a donor’s gift to Cardinal Dolan earmarked for improving homilies.
“They are a fairly diverse group, in personality and background, ” said Father Connors in describing the New York priests. “It adds to the richness of the process.”
The program is not remedial in nature, nor do participants have to be accomplished preachers, Father Connors said. The most important attribute is a sincere interest in preaching, and a desire for improvement, he added.
“I salute them. A priest’s life is busy,” Father Connors told CNY in a phone interview. “We’re also grateful for the archdiocese’s support.”
The priests themselves are grateful for the support from Notre Dame and their fellow priests and parishioners. Msgr. Ivers said he hopes that New York will be able to have another group participate in the Preaching Academy in the 2019-2020 year.
Father Gonsalves said his participation has helped him to concentrate more on the Scriptures with an eye toward making them “personal” for his parishioners. “I’ve put more energy into that part of it,” he said. The increased feedback he has received from them tells him that he is on the right track.
Father Druding said, “It’s good for people to know that priests are taking this seriously, to be better homilists.”