Jay's Blog 

NativityChristmas blessings! May the grace and kindness of our God illuminate your heart and home this holy season!

This edition of Jay’s Blog comes with best wishes for Christmas peace that blesses every day of the New Year.  For those of you recently “connected” to our Connections community or who are making your first visit to our site (welcome!), the Blog is our humble attempt to carry on an ongoing conversation on the ministry of proclamation and preaching.  We include information here on new homiletic resources, ideas and trends in preaching, wisdom gleaned from masters of the communications and preaching craft — and just “stuff” we find interesting and thought you might find interesting, too. 

So, thank you for taking a moment be part of the conversation — and, remember, please, that your comments and ideas are always welcome.

Preaching in “whispers”  

One Sunday in mid-August, the first reading was one of my favorite stories from the prophets: Elijah’s encounter with God at the cave on Mount Horeb.

Elijah is fleeing for his life from the murderous wrath of Ahab and Jezebel.  He has had enough of the burden and danger of being the Lord’s prophet and begs God to take his life.  Elijah falls asleep under a broom tree and, in a dream, an angel instructs him to go to Horeb, the mountain of God.  Dejected but ever obedient, Elijah walks 40 days and 40 nights to Horeb.  At Horeb, he takes shelter in a cave; there he has a second vision, telling him to wait, for the Lord will be “pass[ing] by.”  From the safety of the cave, Elijah experiences, first, a violent wind, then an earthquake, and finally a firestorm, but the Lord is not in any of them. 

Then Elijah hears a “tiny whispering sound” — and Elijah hides his face in his cloak at the presence of God.

I first heard this story (1 Kings 19: 9a, 11-13a in the lectionary) read at a friend’s monastic profession; since then, I have always heard it as a parable on seeking God in the quiet of one’s heart.  But this year (probably because a Connections deadline was looming at the time), I was struck by what Elijah’s encounter might say to us preachers. 

It seems counter-intuitive to suggest that preachers should speak in “whispers.”  But this is not about a speaker’s volume.

Many homilists approach the homily as a “powerful” storm thundering through the church, “crushing” the rocks of institutional and societal evil.  But in all the noise generated by the preacher, the love of God is not heard.  The community may well agree with the speaker’s condemnation of evil — but they don’t see or hear God “passing by” in the homilist’s words.

Then there is the homily that rumbles like an earthquake, turning our unjust and decadent world upside down.  But God is left forgotten, buried in the rubble.

And there is the homily that is all fire.  But little light.

The reality is that, for the most part, we live our lives in “whispers.”  Few of us experience the dramatic “fire” and devastating “earthquakes” often proclaimed from the pulpit; we do not deal with the conflagrations reported on the front pages of our newspaper or the endless stream of terrifying images on cable news.  No, our lives are more “whispers”: the less dramatic but no less important experiences of raising and protecting our kids, caring for aging parents, balancing precarious finances, figuring out the right thing to do without losing ground.  We struggle to make sense of a world that is filled with little definitive black-and-white but an overwhelming amount of complex gray; we stumble up the trails of our own Horebs trying to discern God’s presence outside our own dark caves. 

To be sure, there’s a place for the homily that shakes the ground beneath us, that rends the mountains of injustice and greed and arrogance around us.  But the challenge to us preachers and teachers is to reveal the goodness of God in those “tiny whispering sounds “of our small, every day, mostly hidden experiences of life and death, of crucifixion and resurrection.

So maybe we need to tone down both the tone and scope of our rhetoric: a little less doctrinal certainty and a few more shards of God’s light illuminating our homes and hearts.

Halloween was a real horror this year . . .

A harsh windstorm swept through our part of New England on Halloween, knocking out power and communications for a few days.  Our apologies if you tried to call or contact us that week. 

And the timing could not have been worse: we were in the middle of a technical upgrade on our website and could not update the site for the first half of November.

But we’re happy to report we’re back on line.  Again, our apologies for the inconvenience and our thanks for your understanding and patience. 

One nice thing to come out of our electronic desert experience: the surprising number of e-mails — from as far away as South Africa and Australia — asking if we were OK and if the site was still in operation.  It’s good (and quite humbling) to know how many use the resources at ConnectionsMediaWorks.com.

Redwoods ChristAnd suddenly, it’s off to the desert . . .

It’s one of those liturgical years:  No sooner do we take down the manger scene before we’re off to the Lenten desert.  In 2018, Easter falls on April 1, which means an early Lenten season this year: Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day, February 14.

We are now putting the finishing touches on our annual resource Connections for the Weekdays of Lent 2018.  We will be enclosing an order form with the February 2018 issue of Connections, which you should be receiving in early January. 

But if you’d like to get a head start on things, you will find an order form for the 2018 Lenten issue on the Special issues page of this site. 

The cost of the 2018 Lenten issue: $32 (Canadian: $34 US / overseas: $35 US) for the paper edition, $29 for the online (e-mail) edition.  Simply return the form with your check or money order, and pour yourself another glass of eggnog with peace of mind, assured that a critical part of your Lenten planning is done.

“Connect” with us anytime . . .

Thank you, one and all, for your notes and e-mails with your suggestions for Connections and your comments about the Sunday newsletter, The DAILY, new projects, and our website.  They are invaluable in our planning.  (We’re especially grateful by the kind notes many of you write on your renewal cards.)  Send your questions, comments and suggestions to the address below or e-mail us anytime at jaycormier@comcast.net.

And please visit our website regularly for additional resources, including exegetical notes we post each week on the Sunday Gospel and stories from our Connections archives.

A ‘well-trained tongue’ takes work

One of the highlights of the past year for me was leading a retreat at Saint Meinrad Archabbey for the deacon-candidates of the Diocese of Springfield, Illinois.  This time of year, we get calls asking for help in developing training programs and skills workshops in preaching in the new year.  Please contact us if you think we might be able to help your clergy/diaconate group put together a study day, workshop, conference or retreat on the ministry of preaching.  We’d welcome the opportunity to talk with you about the possibilities and offer suggestions for programs and leaders. 

“Have yourself a really little Christmas . . . ”

Christmas lightFinally, a Christmas blessing upon all things small and simple — this from the late William Sloane Coffin, from Credo, a collection of Coffin’s writings and sermons:

“All saving ideas are born small.  God comes to earth as a child so that we can finally grow up, which means we can stop blaming God for being absent when we ourselves were not present, stop blaming God for the ills of the world as if we had been laboring to cure them, and stop making God responsible for all the thinking and doing we should be undertaking on our own.  I’ve said it before and will probably say it many times again: God provides minimum protection, maximum support — support to help us grow up, to stretch our minds and hearts until they are as wide as God’s universe.  God doesn’t want us narrow-minded, priggish and subservient, but joyful and loving, as free for one another as God’s love was freely poured out for us at Christmas in that babe in the manger.”

May this Christmas season be one of joy and gratitude for the simple manifestations of the love of the Christ Child in your Bethlehems and Nazareths.

Jay Cormier

Spring branchSummer blessings! A cold, wet (thank you, Lord!) spring here in the Northeast is giving way to the promise of a warm and green summer.  Polos, shorts and deck shoes are now the order of the day (as God intended it to be).  We hope this installment of the blog, our every-now-and-then missive, finds you easing into the post-Pentecost season of peace, calm and enrichment.  Thank you for taking a moment to join in our ongoing conversation about the ministry of proclaiming the word of God that we all share.

Look up and listen, preachers . . .

No pope in my lifetime has better modeled effective preaching than Pope Francis.  The Holy Father offered a thoughtful reflection on homiletics in his landmark encyclical The Joy of the Gospel; his daily extemporaneous morning homilies in the chapel of St. Martha House where he resides are recorded by Vatican Radio and have been published in four books (and counting).

A new collection of Pope Francis’ major homilies and talks from his days as archbishop of Buenos Aires (published last fall under the title Nei Tuoi Occhi È La Mia Parola – “In Your Eyes Are My Word”) opens with a conversation between Pope Francis and one of his favorite interviewers, Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro.  In the exchange, Francis talks about the nuts-and-bolts of putting those daily homilies together.

“I begin at midday, the day before.  I read the Scripture texts of the following day, and I choose one of the two.  I then read aloud the text I have chosen.  I need to hear the sound, to listen to the words.  And then I underline, in the notebook that I use, the words that struck me most.  I circle the words that hit me.  During the rest of the day, as I do what I have to do, the words and thoughts come and go.  I meditate, reflect, savor the things . . .”

Like all of us who preach, Francis admits, “there are days when I reach the evening and nothing has come to mind, and I have no idea what I will say the following day.”  On such occasions “I do what St. Ignatius said:  I sleep on it.  And then, suddenly, when I wake up, the inspiration comes.  The right things come, sometimes strong, other times weaker.  But it is this way, and I feel ready.”

But besides the text itself, a homily that is a “happy experience of the Spirit [and] a consoling encounter with God’s word” includes two essential elements:

First, Pope Francis says, “listen to the lives of people.  If you do not listen to people, how can you preach?  The closer you are to people, the better you will preach or bring the word of God nearer their lives.  In this way, you link the word of God to a human experience that has need of this word . . . [But] the more distant you are from people and their problems, the more you will take refuge in a theology that is framed as ‘You must,’ and ‘You must not,’ which communicates nothing, which is empty, abstract, lost in nothing, in thoughts.  At such times we respond with our words to questions that nobody is asking.”
And, if you don’t believe Francis, read the Gospels themselves:  “[Jesus] was in contact with people,” Francis points out Jesus’ preaching is “direct, concrete:  he spoke of things that the farmers and the shepherds knew well from experience. He did not use abstract concepts.”

And the second element of effective preaching is making a visual connection with the congregation. 
“To preach to people it is necessary to look at them, to know how to look and how to listen, to enter into the ebb and flow of their lives, to immerse oneself in them,” to be “in contact with them, touch them, caress them” or “in silence look into their eyes.”

It’s almost as if Pope Francis sits in on our Connections planning sessions . . .

Connect-ing every day . . .
With things slowing down a bit for the summer, maybe you’re finding yourself spending a little more time on opening up God’s word at weekday liturgies.  If so, our weekday resource might be worth a look.

Connections DAILY is our electronic newsletter of ideas and images designed to help you develop your own brief reflection on the daily Gospel readings.  For each weekday, Connections DAILY provides an idea for a one-to-two minute homily (we know — you have to keep it short at weekday liturgies), concluding with a brief prayer that summarizes the point.  The reflection and prayer usually center on the day’s Gospel, but are sometimes drawn from the first reading or the day’s feast or saint whose memorial is being observed.  Each DAILY reflection focuses on a single idea to help you develop your own concise, to-the-point homily.

Subscriptions to Connections DAILY are $50 a year.  The DAILY is delivered ONLY via e-mail.  We apologize to those of you who would prefer a “paper” version, but making this service an electronic newsletter is the only way we can make producing  The DAILY viable, timely budget-friendly.

A recent sampling of Connections DAILY reflections can be found on our website (see the “pull down menu,” above), or contact us and we’ll be happy to send you a week’s sampling.  An order form is also available on the next page.

Early June at Saint Meinrad . . .

The first weekend in June, your humble correspondent will be leading the annual retreat for the deacon-candidates of the Diocese of Springfield, Illinois.  The Gospel Christ in Every Season will be the theme of the retreat, to take place at Saint Meinrad Archabbey in Indiana.  The conferences will focus on the Scriptural themes and images of each of the seasons of the liturgical year and what that part of the Gospel story says to us in ministry.

If you’re considering a preaching retreat/study day or are in the planning stages of a homily training program for the priests and deacons of your diocese, region, community, etc., please let us know if we can be of assistance.  We’d be happy to help you develop themes and topics as well as put you in contact with speakers and facilitators.  Contact us anytime — at no cost or obligation — to talk about a program or workshop designed to meet your community’s specific needs.

New from Liturgical Press

We’d like to bring to your attention to two new Liturgical Press publications that, frankly, I have more than a passing interest in:

The Deacon’s Ministry of the Word offers both scriptural and theological resources, as well as strategies and approaches, for effectively communicating the word of God. The book focuses primarily on the homily — but the ideas and skills can be readily applied by deacons in any presentation in which the word of God is central, including RCIA meetings and retreat conferences.
(And, as stated in the book’s introduction, the ideas and strategies presented are not limited just to a “deacon’s homily” but apply to the work of every homilist, whether the homilist be priest, bishop minister or lay folk.

The book is my contribution to the Liturgical Press’ three-volume The Deacon’s Ministry series.  Each book explores one of the three fundamental diaconal ministries identified by the Council Fathers at Vatican II: those of the liturgy, of the word, and of charity to the people of God (Lumen Gentium 29).  The series was written for deacons and those in diaconal formation, their families, the bishops and priests they work with, and the people they serve. 

In addition to my book on preaching, the series includes Fritz Bauerschmidt’s concise and accessible introduction to the liturgical aspects of the ministry of the diaconate, and Bill Dietwig’s insights on the Scriptural, historical, and theological foundation of the deacon’s practice of charity and justice.

This past year I worked Diana Macalintal and Brian Schmisek to put together the 2017-2018 edition of Living Liturgy, Liturgical Press’ annual planning resource (and related products) for celebrants, lectors, music ministers, prayer leaders, worship planners, RCIA teams, etc.  

More details and ordering information on both books are available from Liturgical Press at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minn.

Stay plugged into the conversation . . .

Thank you, one and all, for your notes and e-mails with your suggestions for Connections and comments about the Sunday newsletter, The DAILY, our new projects, and our website — they are invaluable in our planning.  We are especially gratified (and humbled) by the many kind and complimentary notes subscribers write on their renewal cards and forms.   

Send your questions, comments and suggestions to the address below or e-mail us anytime at jaycormier@comcast.netAnd please check out our website throughout the week for additional preaching and liturgical resources, including exegetical notes on the coming Sunday Gospel and stories from our Connections archives.

Rejects in the center

Finally, a flame of Pentecost wisdom from an essay by Samuel Wells in The Christian Century.  Wells was dean of the Duke University Chapel and professor of Christian Ethics at Duke Divinity School; in 2013, he returned his native England to serve as vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London.

“I worked in a community where a leader said to me, ‘You know, we’re a bunch of misfits who somehow fit together.’  He discovered that if we worked constructively with this reality, we could become something beautiful.  Inclusion isn’t really the right word.  It suggests there are those ‘in the center’ whose lives are normal and privileged that should jolly well open the doors, welcome people ‘from the periphery,’ and be kind and generous.  The problem is that this approach is patronizing and paternalistic.  The community leader wasn’t regarding himself as normal and secure and above it all: he saw himself as one of the misfits.  He was reframing the idea of a center and a periphery; the cost of that idea is that periphery feels humiliated and the center feels smug . . .

“That’s what ministry’s all about – not condescendingly making alienated strangers feel welcome, but seeking out the rejected because they are the energy and life force that will transform us all . . . If you’re looking for the future church, look at what church and society have so blithely rejected.  The life of the church is about constantly recognizing the sin of how much we have rejected, and celebrating that God gives us back what we once rejected to become the cornerstone of our lives.”

May the cornerstone of our Church be our brother and sister misfits in whom we see and hear Christ, the stone rejected by the “center” but whose love extends beyond the peripheries.

Jay Cormier

Easter myrrhbearers

Let us not stay imprisoned within ourselves,
but let us break open our sealed tombs to the Lord
so that he may enter and grant us life. 
Let us give him the stones of our rancor and the boulders of our past,
those heavy burdens of our weaknesses and falls. 
Christ wants to come and take us by the hand
to bring us out of our anguish.

This is the first stone to be moved aside this night:
the lack of hope which imprisons us within ourselves. 
May the Lord free us from this trap,
from being Christians without hope,
who live as if the Lord were not risen,
as if our problems were the center of our lives . . .

This is the foundation of our hope,
which is not mere optimism,
nor a psychological attitude or desire to be courageous. 
Christian hope is a gift that God gives us if we come out of ourselves
and open our hearts to him. 
This hope does not disappoint us
because the Holy Spirit has been poured into our hearts (cf. Rom 5:5). 
The Paraclete does not make everything look appealing. 
He does not remove evil with a magic wand. 
But he pours into us the vitality of life,
which is not the absence of problems,
but the certainty of being loved and always forgiven by Christ,
who for us has conquered sin, death and fear. 

Today is the celebration of our hope,
the celebration of this truth . . .
As joyful servants of hope,
we must announce the Risen One by our lives and by our love;
otherwise we will be only an international organization
 full of followers and good rules,
yet incapable of offering the hope for which the world longs. 

Pope Francis
Homily for the Easter Vigil, Easter 2016

May this Easter season be a time of grace to “roll back the stone” of fear, cynicism and despair and walk in the transforming light of Easter hope. 

Easter blessings to you and those you serve and minister to.

Jay Cormier

Lenten blessings! Another long New England winter has peaked and the earth has begun its turn toward Easter spring.  The smudges of ash on our foreheads are signs of a similar “turning” that we seek within our winter spirits.  We post this installment of the blog with the prayer that this season of turning may take hold in your heart and spirit this Lent.  Thank you for taking a moment during these busy days to join in our ongoing conversation on the ministry of preaching and proclaiming the Word of God, the Risen One in our midst.

“What NOT to do at Mass”

Father William J. Bausch is one of our great pastors and preachers.  The New Jersey priest has authored several books on preaching that emphasize the power of story in proclaiming the Gospel.  Father Bausch’s work inspired in no small way the beginnings of Connections.

Now 87, Father Bausch assists weekends at Garden State parishes.  In a recent essay in Commonweal (December 16, 2016), Father Bausch offers “a torrent of liturgical annoyances that have always bothered me” after sixty years as a preacher-celebrant.  Father Bausch’s essay, “What Not to Do at Mass,” is much more than one veteran priest’s list of “annoyances” — he offers some insightful suggestions on making the Sunday Eucharist a more meaningful and nourishing experience for the worshiping community.

Some basics we miss, Father Bausch says: bad microphone systems and music that trivializes the Word and sacrament we celebrate. 

Questionable trends that have to end: announcements at the end of Mass (“close off the liturgy with a song, not commercials), soliciting and recruiting at Mass, and missalettes (get rid of them, Father Bausch argues: “Can you imagine going to a Broadway play with the script in hand and having your head buried in the pages during the performance?”)

Work to be done: train and re-train lectors to proclaim the Word with “clarity, meaning and intelligence.” 
In this space we’d like to highlight two specific suggestions Father Bausch makes that you might consider for your parish.        

First, take on the cell phones that distract and isolate us from one another.  For the “strong of heart,” Father Bausch proposes, “’let’s make an effort — yes, a Lenten effort if that helps the motivation — to leave our phones and gadgets in the car.  Let’s be known as the parish that does that . . . Leave your cell phone in the car.  Just as some families have rightfully banned all cell phones from the dinner table, we will ban them from church.  Leave them in your car.  Give them a rest.  Give yourselves over to sacred space with receptive minds and hearts.”

And please, Father Bausch urges, improve the preaching.

“The most common faults I find are too little preparation, too many points, and material of interest to scholars and Egyptologists, but not to where people are on their spiritual journey.  If you build words that speak to their world, they will come — but the fact is, in spite of the grandiose official words of general councils and episcopal statements, no one really cares.  No one monitors parish preaching, replacing preachers (no matter how nice they are) whose second-language English is difficult to understand or removing those who belittle or offend or simply preach non-nourishing platitudes.  After all, there’s a priest shortage and bishops, happy to have warm bodies, are not going to scrutinize preaching too closely even if it ranks as almost the number-one reason why people leave.

“The Mass should be a whole.  From the greeting at the beginning to the closing hymn to the end.  No detours, however interesting or entertaining.”

A provocative list of suggestions from a pastor with the wisdom and experience to back them up.  Want to kindle a spark at your parish’s next meeting of the liturgy committee?  Distribute Father Bausch’s article and let them all have at it.

And let us know how it goes.

Preaching skills NOT just for deacons . . .

This humble scribe’s latest offering from Liturgical Press is now available.

The Deacon’s Ministry of the Word offers both scriptural and theological resources, as well as strategies and approaches, for effectively communicating the Word of God. The book is the result of a series of workshops I have led over the years for priests and deacons.  While the book is “targeted” to deacons, anyone engaged in the ministry of proclamation and preaching will find the material helpful.  (As I try to make clear in the book’s introduction, there’s not a “priest’s way of preaching” and a “deacon’s way of preaching.)

The book focuses primarily on the homily — but the ideas and skills can be readily applied by deacons (and others) in any presentation in which the Word of God is central, including RCIA meetings and retreat conferences.

You can order The Deacon’s Ministry of the Word from Liturgical Press or from your favorite book store.

A “thank you” gift to our best marketers — you . . . !

Our most effective marketing tool for Connections is you.

New subscribers tell us again and again that they discovered Connections because of a friend or colleague who shared Connections with them.  As our way of saying thanks to those of you who have recommended Connections to your friends and coworkers, we invite you to take advantage of our 33/3 Plan:  Enter a one-year subscription for a friend at the first-time subscription rate of $33 (a savings of more than a third off the current subscription rate of $52) and we’ll ADD THREE ISSUES to YOUR current subscription.

Simply send your check or money order for $33 (payment must be enclosed), with the name and address of the new subscriber (and his/her e-mail address if they want to receive Connections electronically) and your own name and address to our office: 7 Lantern Lane, Londonderry, N.H. 03053-3905. 

Two ground rules: This is for NEW subscriptions ONLY (NOT for renewals) and this offer ends on April 30, 2107.

Thank you for “connecting” with us — and for helping us make Connections with your colleagues and coworkers.

“Connecting” the other six days of the week

More and more priests and ministers are making connections with their worshiping communities of weekdays, as well as Sundays. 

Our weekday resource Connections DAILY provides an image or idea for a short, one-to-two minute homily based on the day’s readings, ending with a brief prayer summarizing the theme.  The reflection/prayer usually centers on the day’s Gospel, but can also be centered in the first reading or the feast or saint being celebrated.  We keep it brief and to the point — we know the clock is ticking at weekday liturgies.  

The DAILY is only available via e-mail; subscriptions are $50 per year.  A sampler of Connections DAILY reflections can be found by clicking on THE DAILY on the menu bar above.

A resource for your Lenten preaching

Copies of the 2017 edition of Connections for the Weekdays of Lent are still available.  This popular resource includes reflections and meditations for every weekday of the Lenten season and the Easter Triduum.  The Lenten issue is available in two formats: the “paper” version, sent via overland mail, for $32 ($33 for Canadian subscribers; $34 for overseas orders — U.S. funds, please).  An e-mail version, sent directing to your computer’s inbox, is also available for $29.  Contact us and we’ll get a copy to you immediately.

Join in the conversation . . .

Thank you for your notes and e-mails about Connections, The DAILY, and our website — we’re especially humbled and grateful for the kind notes many of you have been including on your renewal cards. Your suggestions, ideas and criticisms direct our planning, writing, and editing. We appreciate, too, your sharing your own war stories that help all of us learn more about the ministry of preaching. The e-mail address: jaycormier@comcast.net.

We hope you’ll bookmark our website or add it to your Favorites list. We regularly post new resources for homilists — and, as we’ve happily discovered of late, many catechists and RCIA teams have found our site helpful, as well. The site includes exegetical notes for each Sunday’s Gospel and stories and reflections we post from past issues Connections and Connections DAILY. You’ll also find a listing of our special issues series, information on workshop and retreat programs, and practical advice for effectively communicating the Word in your homily. 

Drop by our site anytime, and let us know what you like about the site and how we can make it more helpful to you.

Light up your preaching this Lent . . .

The Amen! to this Lenten edition of the blog comes from the late Archbishop Oscar Romero, from The Violence of Love, a collection of his homilies and writings:

“Above all, what I want in my preaching is to place within reach of everyone, even the simplest, the grand message of the Gospel, which I serve with all my heart and would not want to be distorted . . .

“The principal thing that I would like you to take away with you from my preaching is the light of the Gospel. 

“With that light you yourselves can illuminate, not the events that I point out, but concrete events of your own, those of your families, those in your lives, among your friends, in your job.

“Preaching is done so that all Christians who ponder the Gospel can, in enlightening their own lives, illuminate with the principles of Christ the events that surround them.”

May your preaching this Lent and Easter season spark the light of the Risen One in the hearts of your hearers, enabling them to recognize his presence in their everyday lives and loves.       

Jay Cormier