By JOANNE FOX
To ensure clergy remain healthy and vibrant, Ministry 2025 – pastoral planning for the Diocese of Sioux City – has proposed three Masses per priest per weekend.
However, on a typical weekend at the Iowa Great Lakes, Masses increase from three to five at St. Joseph Parish, Milford to accommodate the influx of visitors.
“I’ve heard it said that the Lakes area increases in population from about 10,000 throughout the year to 50,000 in the summer,” said Father Tom Flanagan, pastor since 2011. “It is not uncommon for us to have our church and balcony full and then an additional 100 to 350 people in our parish center who participate in Mass via closed circuit TV. This is generally at the 4 p.m. Mass on Saturday and the 9 a.m. Mass on Sunday.”
Include daily Masses, weddings, funerals, anniversaries and host of other occasions, and a pastor could be looking at presenting more than 500 fresh messages a year.
Add Father Flanagan’s 42 years of priesthood and – whether you call it a homily, sermon or conversation – that’s a lot of preaching.
The Milford pastor has assistance from a parochial vicar and retired area priests. That doesn’t take away the responsibility Father Flanagan has; because the typical Catholic sitting in the pew is looking to be enlightened, edified and/or educated by the words from the pulpit.
“I usually look for the message of the Gospel and try to relate that to our lives as Catholic people,” he said of his homily strategy. “My favorite themes revolve around social justice and peace issues and care for those in need; perhaps those come out of my previous missionary background.”
Father Flanagan spent time in Germany with the Opus Spiritus Sancti (Holy Spirit Community).
“When I was working in the missions and at that time living in Germany, I participated in a meeting which was quite heated and intense,” he recalled. “Immediately after the meeting I was expected to preside and preach at a special liturgy of the Holy Spirit Communities. People commented afterwards how good that homily was and admired how I could deliver it so calmly after the meeting I had just experienced.”
Effective preaching, Father Flanagan felt is not so much about fancy public speaking, but about communicating a message.
“I think four to six minutes is a good length of time,” he said. “I generally try to make one point that I think the people will be able to take with them and reflect on further throughout the week. It seems to me that people simply shut down and stop listening if the talking is too long and too many points are conveyed.”
Shorter and concise may be better, but often length is not an issue for the congregation, Father Flanagan added.
“If the content of the homily is rambling or confusing, two minutes might seem like 15 to the listeners,” he said. “On the other hand, a well-prepared and delivered homily of 15 minutes might only seem like five.”
Over more than four decades of preaching, Father Flanagan stays pretty consistent in his homily preparation.
“I prepare a homily a week ahead, first by reading the weekend scriptures every day and reflecting on dominate themes or messages they convey,” he said. “I’ve gone through several delivery methods from writing out and memorizing to spontaneous delivery after making a mental outline of what I wanted to say to sketching little pictures on a paper and talking from the pictures.”
When looking to exemplify someone as a preacher or public speaker, Father Flanagan noted a diocesan priest.
“I’ve always admired Father Tom Topf,” he said of the retired pastor. “I admired how he always had well thought-out homilies/talks with points that were easy to follow.”
Father Flanagan acknowledged preaching is a skill but one that brings great satisfaction.
“It is both humbling, and a joy, to think that in giving a homily I am trying to ‘unpack’ the Word of God to help transmit the message in a language that is understandable to people of today,” he said. “I especially enjoy homilies with young people where I can involve them in sharing the story.”