The Burden of the Homily

RECENTLY A PRIEST—not a fellow monk—lamented how hard he was finding it to “get anything” for a homily from this Sunday’s readings. The first reading covers an attempt to kill the prophet Jeremiah, the epistle is from Hebrews reminding us of the cloud of witnesses who urge us on in the race of Christian living, and the gospel shows Jesus revealing he has come to bring fire to the earth and division to society, an awkward gospel for purveyors of “gentle Jesus, meek and mild.”

The priestly lament is a reminder of how much a burden the homily has become to many a hearer, and perhaps even more to many a preacher, in the celebration of the ordinary form of the Mass. This is almost invariably the fruit of a misunderstanding of the homily that has taken on almost dogmatic status: the homily must always and only be about the readings of the day.

Since we celebrate a liturgy that professes to meet the mandate of the Council fathers, let us look at how the Council viewed the homily:

By means of the homily the mysteries of the faith and the guiding principles of the Christian life are expounded from the sacred text, during the course of the liturgical year; the homily, therefore, is to be highly esteemed as part of the liturgy itself…

Sacrosanctum Concilium, 52

The basic principles are clearly and simply set out. The homily is an integral part of the liturgy by which the faith and the norms of Christian living are taught and promoted, using the scriptures as its basis. Reduced even more, the homily is an integral part of the Liturgy of the Word and it is used to exposes what the scriptures teach about Christian life and faith.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal puts paid to what we might call the homiletic heresy, for it allows the homily to be based not only on the readings, but also on the words of the liturgical rite itself:

It should be an explanation of some aspect of the readings from Sacred Scripture or of another text from the Ordinary or the Proper of the Mass of the day and should take into account both the mystery being celebrated and the particular needs of the listeners.

GIRM (2010), 65

It is all something of a challenge, indeed, but it is far from a restrictive one. Any restriction is imposed by the homiletic heresy that the homily must always and only be about the readings. When taken seriously this ‘heresy’ imposes an undue burden and leads very often one of several outcomes: the homily that retells the content of the readings using even more words but shedding little if any light; or an evasion of the burden by using something in the readings as a pretext for an anecdote, even a joke, or a travelogue, or an autobiographical reminiscence which lead eventually to an obvious truism extracted from a reading (usually the gospel). It is difficult to determine who is the more tedious preacher: he who exhaustively retells the story or he who talks about himself. Either way, if you have the same preacher then every three years you will probably hear the same homily again.

Occasionally you might find a preacher who has read copious commentaries on the texts and regurgitates them in an unfocused, almost undigested form. This at least offers some opportunity for real context, though often it can turn into a biblical criticism class liberally laced with the latest theories. How often have you heard a preacher tell you that a Pauline letter was not written by St Paul at all? What positive purpose does that serve at all in a homily? Oftentimes, if one looks carefully, you will find that the scholarship employed is dated, stale and now vigorously refuted.

It seems to me that the old Anglican tradition offers a way to remove the burden on preacher and hearer. You can see it clearly in (soon-to-be-Saint) John Henry Newman’s Anglican sermons. He would take as his text a sentence, maybe two, of the scripture and craft a lengthy and rich sermon on the basis of it, and inspired by it. The scripture serves as a springboard for wider reflection on the scripture’s teaching, or the mysteries of the faith that find affirmation in it. It is, in a way, a homiletic variant of lectio divina.

Thus, for example, the gospel where Jesus states “I am the bread of life” could be the basis for a reflection on the divine nature of Jesus revealed in the series of “I am” teachings that echo and apply to himself the name by which God identified himself to Moses, “I am”. Or perhaps it spur a reflection on the Blessed Eucharist as the Bread of Life come down from heaven. The examples are endless.

Thus, for example, I find in this Sunday’s readings ample scope to talk about truth as the mark and validation of prophecy and the demands truth makes in individual lives and in society more generally, forcing us to make a choice in our life’s priorities, which implies the possibility of difference and thus division, and therefore suffering. In a nod to the second reading (which is chosen according to different principles and which only occasionally directly matches the first reading–gospel pairing) one might refer to the cloud of witnesses to the truth who cheer us on in our personal fidelity to the truth of Christ, reminders of the eternal reward that awaits the faithful.

The homily offers endless opportunities to explore the faith, Christian living, the liturgy. If the preacher has done his homework, and even more if he is himself clearly interested in what he is preaching, then most hearers will be drawn in too. Perhaps Pope Francis was right to exhort preachers never to exceed 10 minutes in a homily. Quality not quantity is thereby encouraged, and removes the need to be finding jokes or barely-relevant anecdotes with which to flesh out a homily. A good homily requires discipline, and as with most skills it requires practice and application. A little prayer helps too.

In short, a homily is integrally liturgical, and shares thereby in the liturgy’s dignity; and it is instructional, above all for a lived spirituality more than for merely intellectual formation. It is not to be penitential, for either the preacher or the preached-to. It need not be the burden it seems to be for so many.

Of course, one should practice what one preaches and I make no claims nor have any pretensions to being an expert homilist. However, I do take it seriously. There is a lot of teaching still to be done, and it falls to the clergy to lead the way. We will, I am told, be judged on it.

If you have a preacher who is perhaps not the most engaging in the ecclesiastical cosmos, but who is clearly trying to do justice to the homily, you might encourage him, especially by feeding back to him what things you found good, helpful, insightful or thought-provoking in his homily. It will encourage your own active listening and help him to identify what is effective in his preaching.

The Episcopalian bishop John Hines (not often I quote Episcopalians!) offers a guiding principle that could be useful for preachers, but perhaps also for the preached to:

Preaching is effective as long as the preacher expects something to happen—not because of the sermon, not even because of the preacher, but because of God.

6 thoughts on “The Burden of the Homily

  1. Yes. We should all be more like Newman. Though to make absolutely no reference to a day’s lections seems counterproductive: to read all this stuff out loud indicates its importance. Then to ignore it completely seems, well, counter-indicative; rude, even.

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  2. We’d all benefit if preachers made more use of the sermons of the Fathers. Since I started to say Matins in the traditional form, the exposure in that to homilies by Augustine, Ambrose, Jerome, Gregory the Great, John Chrysostom, and Bede, to name the most common authors, has been so helpful for my Catholic formation. And there need be no anxiety any more over preparing a homily: when there are thousands of superb examples to reuse!

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    1. And indeed the modern rubrics allow for precisely this. Occasionally I weave some aspect of the liturgy into a homily, but I confess only rarely have I preached on a liturgical text alone.

      The Fathers do offer great fare for the homiletic soundbite, though I never aim to be politically incorrect per se; the gospel, of course, is inevitably politically incorrect!

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