Monday, March 26, 2012


There are many types  and styles of writing, and most of us have a favorite genre: Fiction, non-fiction, mystery, horror, romance  or poetry. But there is also, script writing, letter writing, business writing, writing copy for  ad campaigns, and writing a homily. 

Paul Schwerdt is an ordained Deacon in the Catholic church who knows a lot about writing a homily,  he has been doing so for the past 17 years . I welcome Paul as guest blogger for Writing North Idaho, and  find   his process for writing a Sunday homily  not  much different  from any other type of writing , which is to  write and re-write.


I am delighted  to be a guest blogger on a website for writers. The closest I’ve come to being published is the acceptance of my letters by the editor of our local newspaper. But I preach in my role as a deacon in the Catholic Church, and I believe preachers should be writers. The output of a preacher doesn’t usually get published, but we do speak in public, which means we communicate with words.

My instructors who trained me may not think of their students as writers. They taught us that our congregations would get more from our homilies if we spoke them from our hearts, not from a piece of paper. But the words I spoke from my heart when we were being trained in homiletics (the art of preaching) were not my greatest masterpieces. I cannot choose my words carefully when speaking extemporaneously. 
Perhaps I should differentiate between homilies and sermons.

 The Random House Webster’s Dictionary program on my computer defines a sermon as “a discourse for the purpose of religious instruction or exhortation, usually delivered by a cleric during religious services.” It defines a homily as “a sermon typically on a scriptural topic.” I preach homilies. A homily’s purpose is to draw out some idea from that day’s bible readings and put it into practical terms that will help the listeners to live better lives. I see no reason why this cannot be accomplished from a printed text, provided the speaker looks at the congregation the majority of the time. 

When I prepare to preach I approach the task the same way as if I were writing a magazine article for a religious magazine. In the Catholic Mass, there are three bible readings on Sundays. The first is from the Old Testament, the second from the New Testament letters of Paul or another writer, and the third is from one of the four gospels.

To prepare to preach I begin by reading all three, letting them simmer in my mind for a day or two. Quite frequently I write down my ideas using the technique called clustering, a term coined by Gabriel Lusser Rico in her book Writing the Natural Way. I write down key words and try to find a pattern or an idea that I can develop. I almost always use some non-biblical story or movie scene to get my ideas across to my listeners. One powerful scene is the close of the movie Saving Private Ryan, where Captain John Miller, before he dies, says to Private James Ryan, “earn this,”  that is, live a life worthy of the sacrifice these men made to deliver you from this war.

Then I write my homily in words suitable for speaking. I give myself a page limit, going no more than four pages double-spaced. I don’t like to speak more than ten minutes. In the past I have observed congregations when long-winded preachers ramble on; they begin to move and shuffle in their seats, their body language saying, “You’ve made your point. Stop already”. I may go longer if I think I’m on a roll and will be able to hold their attention for the extra time.

I have gotten great ideas that I like but that don’t fit the particular direction I’m going. Then I resort to the term Stephen King uses in On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft: “kill your darlings.” Omit the cute story that just doesn’t seem to work. Sometimes that’s hard to do. But it’s a necessary ingredient in rewriting.
I finish the first draft, take a break and do something else, laundry, lunch, or playing my guitar. If this has been an easy homily to write, I might get lucky and finish on a Friday, not having to rewrite until Saturday. A fresh reading after a night’s sleep can uncover a multitude of glitches, faulty word order or a phrase that looks good on paper but will sound terrible when spoken. I pity the poor lector who has to read this tongue-twister from the Catholic bible translation of Isaiah: “A shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse.”

When I am satisfied, only then do I turn on my printer. I have to be extra diligent in my writing and rewriting, because what emerges from my printer will not be seen first by an editor or agent, but will be heard first by its intended audience. I see myself more as a homily writer than a preacher, choosing my words carefully. I take that role very seriously.

*** Paul Schwerdt graduated from St. John’s Seminary College in Camarillo, California with a degree in Philosophy, but did not become a priest. He is married, lives with his wife Nancy in Lancaster, California, and is  an ordained Roman Catholic deacon for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.  About twenty years ago, after the birth of his son,  he took the course “Writing for Children and Teenagers” from the Institute of Children’s Literature in West Redding, Connecticut  hoping to pursue a professional writing career, but as Paul states, " God had something else, another type of writing  in store for me ".     

His day job is as a computer helpdesk technician .  His  interests away from work are playing guitar, cooking, and  of course, writing - especially preparing, and writing  the Sunday homily


Anonymous said...

Thank You! So interesting....all the thought that goes into writing a homily. What a talent that is! I always feel I have learned something new from reading these articles and that is awesome.


Patty said...

This was really interesting! What a new perspective I'll take to Mass on Sunday knowing how much prep work goes into the homliy....thanks for sharing!

Paul Schwerdt said...

Thank you jm and Patty. Comments like yours help to make homily writing a labor of love.

Jennifer Lamont Leo said...

Thank you for this insightful "behind the scenes' look at homily writing. I've always wondered, do preachers hear much feedback from their congregations about their homilies and sermons?

Paul Schwerdt said...


After Mass the priest and I stand in the vestibule in back of church and greet people as they're leaving. If I've struck a resonant chord (meaning if I did well), I'll get a compliment or two, more if I did exceptionally well. They are always favorable; only if I've gotten a fact wrong will anyone say anything negative to me. In my experience only the priest who was with me at Mass will do an honest critique.

I haven't asked our priests if they receive compliments; I probably should.

Anonymous said...

I learned much of how to prepare Sunday sharing habits and some helpful techniques. Thanks Bother Paul.

Anonymous said...

I learned much of how to prepare Sunday sharing habits and some helpful techniques. Thanks Brother Paul.