The Renewal of Preaching in the Liturgical Homily for the New Evangelization

My purpose here is not to detail the content of a good homily, but to delineate the focus and attitudes of heart and mind of the homilist himself.

Outstanding Dominican preachers: Blessed Jordan of Saxony, St. Dominic, St. Vincent Ferrer, Father Henri–Dominique Lacordaire

As a Friar of the Order of Preachers founded in the 13th century, I like to think that I belong to a bloodline of famous preachers and teachers of the Catholic faith, starting with our founder St. Dominic, blessed Jordan of Saxony (his first successor), St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Vincent Ferrer, and  Father Henri–Dominique Lacordaire, to name a few. The conviction that was instilled to us as young Dominicans in formation, was that our founder had bequeathed, or better handed onto us, a gratia praedicationis, a special grace or charism of preaching, a kind of “spiritual gene” whose activation is necessary for the effective preaching of the Gospel, i.e. for evangelization. In that sense, Vatican II has “re-discovered” evangelization, and is a great proponent and beacon for the absolute need to evangelize. 1 It has indeed been affirmed that “the evangelical shift brought about by Vatican II, Paul VI, and John Paul II is one of the most dramatic developments in modern Catholicism”. 2

In my own teaching and pastoral experience, I have come to realize, more and more, that a great number of practising Catholics know little about the faith they profess, and whose Sunday Eucharist they more or less faithfully attend. Hence, the great responsibility for sound faith formation or catechesis (doctrinal and moral). I also quickly discovered that among practicing Catholics (including some clergy), few have developed a vital, intimate, and loving relationship with Jesus Christ; few have experienced a living and personal encounter with the Risen Lord in the Eucharist, in the sacraments, in their personal prayer, and their activities, choosing him as the true center, Saviour and Lord of their lives. The dearth and poverty of these two essential components in the life of many Catholics (knowledge of the faith and personal relationship with Christ) have led to a hemorrhaging out of the Church, especially in Europe and North America, and a lukewarmness combined with doctrinal and moral confusion in the lives of many practicing Catholics.

All this has made me firmly believe that, in our present age of indifference, increasing hostility towards Christianity (especially Catholicism) and rampant secularization, the Church urgently needs to rediscover the primacy of Kerygma, the fundamental proclamation of the Paschal Mystery 3, ad intra and ad extra.

As the new evangelization is mostly geared to those who still identify themselves as Catholics, I will deliberately restrict myself in this presentation to speaking about the liturgical homily during Sunday Mass. As far as large portions of the Catholic Church worldwide are concerned, the Sunday homily is still the best place for the proclamation of the Mystery of Christ.

My purpose here is not to detail the content of a good homily, but to delineate the focus and attitudes of heart and mind of the homilist himself.

It is my conviction, borne out of 25 years of experience, that the essential condition for a fruitful homily is the total surrender of the homilist to the grace and power of the Holy Spirit. He must have experienced a “personal Pentecost” and put his life and ministry under the lordship of Jesus Christ.

Despite the claims of the prophets of doom and obvious abuses, the reception and the proper interpretation of the Second Vatican Council 4 is ongoing. I am a firm believer that Vatican II was guided and led by the Holy Spirit who is the very dynamism of renewal and, therefore, of evangelization. Let us remember that, just as Pope Leo XIII prayed for a great outpouring of the Holy Spirit in 1901, Blessed John XXIII prayed in 1962 for “a new Pentecost.” In preparation for Vatican II, he prayed:

O God, renew your wonders in this our day, as by a new Pentecost. Grant to your Church that, being of one mind and steadfast in prayer with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and following the lead of blessed Peter, it may advance the reign of our Divine Savior, the reign of truth and justice, the reign of love and peace. Amen.

If Vatican II is the Council of renewal and continuity by the grace of the Holy Spirit, then, by the same token, the Sunday homily as an integral part of the Liturgy of the Word, can only be renewed and energized by the Holy Spirit. Kerygma or the proclamation of the Paschal Mystery should lead to metanoia 5, a progressive (or radical) conversion of the heart to the Gospel. But, it is the Holy Spirit who is the great “Converter” waiting to be “stirred up” or “fanned into flame” 6 in the hearts of the faithful, through the preaching of Christ crucified. As Pope Paul VI said in his very powerful apostolic exhortation “On Evangelisation”: “…the Holy Spirit is the principal agent of evangelization. It is he who inspires each individual to proclaim the Gospel, and it is he who causes the word of salvation to be understood and accepted. It was not by chance that the inauguration of evangelization took place on the morning of Pentecost under the inspiration of the Spirit”. 7 It is noteworthy that the greatest aspect of the renewal of the Eucharistic Liturgy that Vatican II has brought is the introduction of the epiclesis, 8 right before the words of consecration of the bread and wine.

That is why preaching in the power of the Holy Spirit is essential. Hopefully, this kerygmatic preaching will elicit conversion which in turn awakens the desire in the believer for a deeper knowledge and understanding of the faith, which is catechesis.

However, what is sorely needed in our parishes, before faith formation or catechesis, which is, in itself, very important, is boldness in the kerygma, the proclamation of Christ crucified and risen.

A kerygmatic or evangelistic homily is characterized by the boldness of the delivery of the Gospel message as it comes directly from the work of the Holy Spirit, inspiring and empowering the homilist to preach. We see this clearly in the preaching of the early Church: especially in the Book of Acts, as well as in the letters of St. Paul and St. John, the frequent use of the word parrhèsia 9 which means “freedom in speech, confident frankness, assurance and boldness” is indicative of the Holy Spirit imparting to the praying Christian community, or to the preacher of the Gospel, the boldness of proclamation of the Kerygma. 10

Given that a Sunday homily must never exceed 12-15 minutes, the homilistbishop, priest or deaconhas to break open the Word of God for the faithful, and preach the Paschal Mystery to them in a simple language and in a passionate way, not only for the sake of keeping them alert and attentive, but most importantly to convey to them, through his own experience and witness of life, the infinite love of God.

This is where passion and enthusiasm 11 to communicate the Kerygma are absolutely necessary. However, it is very important that these be authenticated by what the New Testament and the Church Fathers call martyria, the witness of life of the homilist/preacher. Once again, we listen to Pope Paul VI:

…this century thirsts for authenticity. Do you really believe what you are proclaiming? Do you live what you believe? Do you preach what you live? The world expects from us simplicity of life, the spirit of prayer, obedience, humility, detachment and self-sacrifice”. 12

Enthusiasm and passion are summed up by St. Paul and some Church Fathers by another word: plèrophoria 13 which means “full certainty, assurance, conviction, persuasion,” an experiential manifestation of fullness that the Holy Spirit gives both to the listeners and to the preacher of the Gospel. This “pentecostal” experience of the power of God, working through the words of the homilist, may also be accompanied by a manifestation of the charisms of the Holy Spirit, leading to a deep conversion of life of the listeners.

Finally, we need to stress what Paul has so beautifully and powerfully said in his hymn about the agapè love of God:

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. 14

The life of the homilist is thus meant to be an expression of God’s infinite love for those he is evangelizing, a love that yearns to bring them to salvation, to fullness of life in Christ. The Greek Fathers called God “the Lover of humankind” (ho Philanthrôpos) 15 and went so far as to describe his love for wounded and sinful humanity, his creation, as “crazy, extravagant, scandalous love” (manikon erôs), so intense and total it is.

At the heart of an anointed and fruitful homily is the preaching of this madness of God’s love for each and everyone, who “loved the world so much that he gave his only Son”. 16

The homilist would have reached his goal when his listeners become true disciples of Christ, joyful witnesses and missionaries of Jesus as Lord, and the evangelical life offered to them by the Church. They definitely would be journeying on the road to holiness which is one of the greatest legacies of Vatican II that emphasised so powerfully the “universal call to holiness.”

 

  1. “Vatican II marks an important stage in this recovery. A simple word count indicates the profound shift in focus. Vatican I, which met from 1869 to 1879, used the term “gospel” (evangelium) only once and never used the terms “evangelize” and “evangelization.” Less than a century later, Vatican II mentioned the Gospel 157 times, and used the verb “evangelize” 18 times, and the noun “evangelization” 31 times. When it spoke of evangelization, Vatican II generally meant the proclamation of the basic Christian message of salvation through Jesus Christ”: Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., John Paul II and the New Evangelization: What does it Mean? In Ralph Martin and Peter Williamson, Editors, JP II and the New Evangelization, p. 4.
  2. Ibid., p. 9. We can certainly add to the list the name of Benedict XVI.
  3. The name, life, the truth, the words and teachings, the signs (healings, exorcisms and miracles), the salvation of Jesus of Nazareth, Son of Man and Son of God, his passion, death on the cross and his bodily resurrection and his return in glory to judge the living and the dead, heaven and hell. “There is no true evangelization if the name, the teaching, the life, the promises, the kingdom and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God are not proclaimed” in Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi 22.
  4. What Pope Benedict XVI has rightly coined as “hermeneutic of continuity.”
  5. Metanoia is conversion of the heart, the changing and transformation of the mind in order to place ourselves under the Lordship of Christ and the values of the Gospel.
  6. 2 Tim. 1:6
  7. Evangelii Nuntiandi, 75.
  8. “Calling down upon.” It is an “invocation” addressed to the Father that he would send his Holy Spirit on the Church’s offering so that this may be changed into the Body of Christ. The epiclèsis is the central moment in every sacramental anaphora (i.e. the eucharistic prayer); it is that which gives the Christian liturgy its new and distinctive efficacy. Ordained ministers are there primarily to serve the epiclèsis, for they are servants of the Spirit (according to Chrysostom), who acts with power (in Jean Corbon, The Wellness of Worship, p. 17).
  9. 37 occurrences.
  10. Mk 8:32; Jn 7:4, 13, 26; 10:24; 11:14; 54; 16:25; 29; 18:20; Acts 2:29; 4:13; 29; 31; 9:28; 13:46; 14:3; 18:26; 26:26; 28:31; 2Cor 3:12; 7:4; Eph 3:12; 6:19; 20; Phil 1:20; Col 2:15; 1Tim 3:13; Phil 8; 1Jn 2:28; 3:21; 4:17; 5:14.
  11. “Enthusiasm” comes from the Greek “en-theos” which means “in God,” connoting the joy, passion, and boldness the presence of God in the preacher brings.
  12. EN, 76.
  13. Col 2:2; 1Th 1:5; Heb 6:11, 10:22; Pseudo-Macarius hom. 9.5; Chrysostom hom.3.1 in 2Thess.;  1Clem. 42.3.
  14. 1 Corinthians 13:1-3.
  15. Justin, Dial. 47.5; Ad Diognetum, 8.7, 9.2; Clem. Prot. 9; Act. Thom. 170; Origen Comm. in Jn 2.26; Chrysostom hom. in Matt.18:23; Nicholas Cabasilas, in The Life in Christ.
  16. John 3 :16.
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avatar About Fr. Gabriel de Chadarévian, OP

Fr. Gabriel de Chadarévian, O.P., has taught patristic theology and anthropology at the Dominican University College of Philosophy and Theology in Ottawa (Canada). Having also been involved in university chaplaincy, he is presently the assistant pastor at St. Mary Parish in Vancouver, British Columbia. He holds a Licentiate in Theology and a D.E.A. in patristics (Strasbourg, France).

Comments

  1. Thank you, Fr. Gabriel, for this most encouraging and accurate article. You describe the problem precisely; you proclaim the right response plainly enough for any to understand. All that remains is the wide-spread doing of it – and that would be a glorious thing to behold. I pray that the day is coming, and soon, because darkness is spreading, and for now many in the Church continue asleep.

    • avatar Father Gabriel OP says:

      Thank you, Thomas Richards, for your kind words about my presentation. I am now reading Pope Francis’ “Evangelii Gaudium” and I am amazed at how much the Holy Father confirms in so many ways what I have written, especially about the Homily. This is one of many passages of his apostolic exhortation: “Trust in the Holy Spirit who is at work during the homily is not merely passive but active and creative. It demands that we offer ourselves and all our abilities as instruments (cf. Rom 12:1) which God can use. A preacher who does not prepare is not “spiritual”; he is dishonest and irresponsible with the gifts he has received.” Let us pray for our priests and deacons and all our faithful that they will become more and more “Spirit-filled evangelizers”.

      • Hello again Fr. Gabriel. I have not finished reading Pope Francis’ EG, but much that I have read does agree exactly with your observations and conclusions. I praise God that this message is being promulgated, and with the clarity and specificity that it needs if it is to be heard. We need true transparency to the Holy Spirit, and sincere openness to His direction – we need witnesses of Jesus and His life, not mere teachers who are not in truth witness (to paraphrase Paul VI).

        I don’t know the situation in Canada, but in the U.S. I see far too much of the “functional” approach to parish and diocesan “administration” (as in CEO-type management), and far too little true shepherding with the heart, concerns and mission of the Good Shepherd. Please pray for us.

  2. avatar PNP, OP says:

    Fr. Gabriel, I couldn’t agree with you more! It seems to me that the problem with Catholic preaching right now is Catholic homiletics. I’m not exactly sure what’s wrong with our homiletics, but something has gone awry. Preaching cannot be taught, so we’ve turned to homiletics as a substitute. . .maybe? I don’t know. . .yet!

    Fr Philip Neri, OP
    Director of Homiletics, Notre Dame Seminary

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