BY TONI CASHNELLI
Years ago, when he first began preaching, “A couple times my mind went blank,” says 86-year-old Fr. Hilarion Kistner. “No kidding, I was scared to death. I didn’t know where I was.”
At one time or another, most homilists experience an “Oh-my-God” moment and pray that a hole will open and swallow them up. But thanks to Hilarion, preachers are able to make points that make sense and leave congregations uplifted and informed.
Since 1986 he has edited Sunday Homily Helps, the weekly resource from Franciscan Media that provides a foundation upon which to build a sermon. Started in 1970 by St. Anthony Messenger Press and initially managed by Fr. Leonard Foley, this little publication has impacted homilists and listeners around the world.
Now, after producing 50-plus issues a year, Hilarion is turning it over to someone else. At this point, “I’ve commented 30 times on all these Scriptures.” And he thinks it’s time for a new perspective.
Tuesday, Franciscan Media threw a retirement party for Hilarion, one of its most popular employees. “He has a very pastoral sense, and that brought him many friends here,” says Fr. Pat McCloskey, Franciscan Editor for St. Anthony Messenger and Editor of Weekday Homily Helps.
Besides that, Hilarion is good at his job, “very knowledgeable about Scripture, sensitive to the exact wording to avoid misunderstanding, very patient with exegates and writers” who contribute to the Sunday mix, says Pat. Homily Helps is about explaining the readings in a way that’s relatable to audiences. As Leonard told Hilarion, “You want to make sure Aunt Maisie knows what you’re talking about.”
At the retirement party, Dan Kroger cites Hilarion’s contributions.PHOTO BY RAYMOND TAYLOR/ FRANCISCAN MEDIAEach issue leads with Exegesis, the critical interpretation of the text from the Old and New testaments. An outline offers a Purpose, a Summary, including a proposed Attention-Getter to pull people in, and an Application with a suggested homily. At Epiphany, for example, the Purpose was “To learn from each character in the Epiphany story.” The Attention-Getter involved a hippopotamus from a 1953 Christmas song. Who wouldn’t respond to that? And the Application: “Each person in the Epiphany story has something to teach us – even if it’s how not to be.”
It sounds simple. But consider the number of issues produced through the years and you wonder how anyone could give it a fresh spin. Think of Hilarion as the arranger and conductor of Sunday Homily Helps – choosing the players (the writers and exegates), setting the tone, adding his own take – and you understand how it all came together.
“The idea was to put something new out for every occasion,” says Hilarion,
asked how he dealt with repetition of readings. “Each year when you did this you had new insight, new experiences to spark a different idea.” Examine the letters of St. Paul, for example, “and each time you’re looking for something else” about the sender or the receiver. In doing research, “I wonder if that’s the best interpretation. I’ll start looking at other translations. And I’ll start thinking about it myself,” trying to keep an open mind, always considering “doctrinal and exegetical propriety.”
Also important is “helping people connect the Gospel to what is going on in the Mass,” helping them understand the “here” and “now” of the Bible’s message. Like the lepers known to Jesus, “We come with our flaws. Jesus was curing lepers back then and he’s coming into my life now, curing lepers. What the Gospel is, is happening now.”
The question Hilarion wrestled with weekly was, what makes a good homily? Pat McCloskey says Hilarion always went “over and beyond what was required.”
“The most important thing first is deciding the text you’re going to use.” When he finds an idea he likes, “I spend some time on it, pray over it and see what emerges.” Next, “Find a story if you can that will help people connect with you, and try to know your audience well enough so you can make a point that makes some sense.” If it feels right, tell a joke. “We [friars] have people like Jim Bok who do that well.”
That’s the key: knowing your audience. “I always tried to think in terms of who was going to receive the final product,” Hilarion says. “I’m careful not to write or compose anything that would mess people up.”
With weekly deadlines behind him, he’s looking ahead. “I don’t want to call it retirement. I won’t be doing Homily Helps, but I’ll still be over there [at the Franciscan Media building] sometimes”, probably working with St. Francis Seraph Ministries.
As a regular Sunday celebrant at St. Stephen’s, a laity-led parish with a canonical pastor, he faces the same pressures as other homilists. “I try toward the beginning of the week to be aware of Sunday readings. I try to let that sink in. I do a lot of thinking about the Gospel when I’m praying the rosary. Maybe every day at prayer I think about what those readings are going to be. I let that swirl around.” In the end, sometimes “you don’t know what’s going to finally click.”
Case in point: When Hilarion was ordained, “My first real sermon was given at our high school seminary” in Cincinnati. “I worked and worked and worked. I was halfway through preparing the sermon” when it was time to preach. Quaking with fear, “I got up [and spoke] without having a second section.” So he had to wing it.
Afterwards, “One of the kids told me the first part of my sermon was a little stiff.” That was the part he so carefully prepared. “Since then I have not tried to memorize a sermon.” Which goes to show that even with practice, even with help, the best homilies are divinely inspired.
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The stage takes shape in the new fine arts center.
Above, Algirdas Malakauskis, OFM; right, reunited: Bert tells the tale of the wandering walker.
Above, The novitiate in Uganda is also a working farm; right, here’s an idea: You can ride a bike to
PHOTO BY TIM LAMB, OFM
SJB is happy to welcome Korean friar Stephen Cho, who will be spending several Email To a FriendStephen Cho tries Graeter’s ice cream. PHOTO BY JEFF SCHEELER, OFMmonths living at St. Francis Seraph while working at Franciscan Media, learning about religious publishing. Welcome, Stephen! This past summer FM welcomed two Conventual Franciscans from Zambia,
Anthony Salangeta and Francis Kasenga, who lived at St. Anthony Friary while interning at Franciscan Media. We are grateful for these opportunities to welcome friars from other countries and other parts of the Franciscan family. Franciscan Media has much experience and expertise to share and we are proud that it is so respected locally and internationally.
After the Pope’s visit, Franciscan Media collaborated with the Vatican Publishing House, the USCCB, and the Catholic News Service in publishing the official memorial book on the papal visit. Did you get your copy? It’s beautiful! As we welcome Stephen this week, FM also celebrated Hilarion Kistner, who is stepping down from his role as theological consultant and editor of Sunday Homily Helps after 30 years. What a great treasure we have! Thanks to all those who have contributed over the years!
— Fr. Jeff Scheeler, OFM
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