Questions Answered

  • What concerns should a priest have in the weekly homily?
  • “New Evangelization:” What does it mean, and what are its primary focuses?

 

Question: What concerns should a priest have in the weekly homily?

Answer: Priests know that the weekly homily is one of the most difficult tasks in the pastoral ministry. Preachers are different and have different characters. Sometimes, the Homiletics course in the seminary adopted the principle that one size fits all, or that one should always tell a personal story. It is very difficult to generalize on this subject, and the demands of laity in this media age are almost impossible to fulfill. Make it short; make it profound but not too profound; entertain me; teach me something; have variety, and do not just dryly read a text to me. One wonders if there is a person who can, with any consistency, provide such talks on a weekly basis to the same congregation without any repetition. There are, however, certain important points which should be observed.

First, Aristotle examined the passions in his Rhetoric. His reason for doing so was because even though the passions do not determine the truth, when one is trying to present the truth to another, one must open them to receiving the truth. People often set up an emotional wall to hearing an argument, and a good speaker will want to present the truth in such a way as to keep that wall from forming. Gilbert and Sullivan said: “One must gild the philosophic pill.” This means that since what is received is received according to the mode of the receiver, it is incumbent on the preacher to consider who he is speaking to, and tailor his presentation to his audience. There are ways of presenting the same truth in such a way that the listeners are made open to receiving it, or that they put up an emotional barrier to receiving it. A part of the art of preaching is to learn the difference and apply it.

Second, every talk should have a beginning, middle, and conclusion, and a logical point the speaker is making which the listeners can affirm or deny. One author said that the difference between the written word and the spoken word is that in a book, if the reader gets distracted in the argument, he can turn the page back and read it over again. One cannot do this with a homily. As a result, the preacher should have one basic point he is trying to make, and have several different ways of making it. If the listener misses one way, he is not lost, but can understand the point presented in another.

Third, the least used word in a homily should be “I.”  Though one is not forbidden to talk about oneself, there should be a reason for doing so, and it should be rare. The subject matter should be some doctrinal or moral point, preferably drawn from the Scripture readings. For this purpose, a good Catholic commentary on Scripture is essential. On this point, it should go without saying that the doctrine presented must be what the Church teaches—not what the preacher thinks. As a representative of the Church, the priest has a moral obligation not to make his own personal disagreements or problems with Church teaching a part of his presentation. He must understand Church teaching on doctrine and morals, and present it. Otherwise, he does the laity a disservice.  Fourth, preaching style depends on the person. Some may need to read, some to outline, some are good at extemporaneous speaking. Whatever helps is the key. However, if one is going to read the homily, one should practice it, so that it does not sound monotonous or impersonal. If one uses an outline, it should be clear. If one speaks extemporaneously, one should not ramble on and on.  Bishop Sheen used to say that it takes much longer to compose a short sermon than a long one.  Above all, if one does not have much to say, one should say it, and then end it.

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Question:  I have heard a lot about the “New Evangelization.” What does it mean, and what are its primary focuses?

Answer:  The term “New Evangelization” is much misunderstood. The last few popes have used it to express the fact that even traditionally Catholic countries are un-catechized today, and every country has become a mission country. This situation has been the occasion for a rethinking in the Church on the manner of presenting the Word of God. There are several characteristics one can emphasize.

First, or course, the New Evangelization must be doctrinal.  The whole purpose of evangelization is to impart knowledge of the truth.  In the last 50 years, many Catholics could not give a realistic explanation of the Creed they say every Sunday. Now that the Catechism of the Catholic Church has been out for about 25 years, steps must be formally taken to cure this defect. Both the clergy and the laity should study this catechism, and teach its doctrine on a regular basis. This may require that the clergy prepare themselves by reading the authoritative documents which come from Rome, or their episcopal conference, and take them to heart.

Second, the popes are also quite clear that a cornerstone of learning about the faith is not just academic, or done in study. Personal witness is as important. Since Vatican II, the Church has witnessed a phenomenal growth of new orders dedicated to the service of the poor, such as the Missionaries of Charity. The New Evangelization should encourage such movements. Also, there has been a new interest in lay groups, which are not necessarily associated with vows, such as Communion and Liberation, and the various expressions of the charismatic renewal in Catholicism. This is coupled with a renewed encouragement to see in the family the basic unit, not only of religious education, but a school of virtue. The popes are very committed to pointing out that, though the Church has been renewed in the past by new aspects of the consecrated life, and that this is still important, each Catholic must now implement his or her ongoing conversion.  After all, each Catholic has received communion with the Holy Trinity in baptism, and this is the cornerstone of what it means to be a human being. Practice is a very effective tool for teaching the faith in a secular age.

The 20th century was characterized, at its inception, by moral relativism, and a general tendency to abdicate personal responsibility in favor of external pressure. This completely undercut the Judeao-Christian ethic which had been the foundation of society for a millennium. This, coupled with rationalism, has led to a complete secularization of formerly Christian societies. The New Evangelization must encourage the Catholic faithful to recover moral absolutes, and personal responsibility, in action on the most intimate and smallest level. If the Catholic Church is to be a leaven in the world, then Catholics themselves must take the lead in prayer, and in being a moral force in society.

The final emphasis of the New Evangelization regards the means of transmission of the message.  Preaching, education, and the sacraments are still the most important, and the foundation. But today, the means must include the media. In former times, access to doctrine and morals was a slow process. It was hard to find documents of Rome, and access to many of the classical Christian sources, without access to a library. The Internet has opened up a vast new evangelical opportunity, and the Church must take advantage of it, not only through television and film, but also through the World Wide Web. Those who are responsible for Christian instruction must now learn how to use this new method of communication for the spread of the Word of God. Some pastors, for example, put their homilies online so that the faithful may hear them again, and consider them more deeply. This trend is encouraged.

The New Evangelization presents an exciting new attitude to ancient methods. Those still remain tried and true, but now new emphasis must be made on new techniques. The Church simply cannot rely on Christendom anymore as a concept of Catholic culture in Catholic countries, where social mores and conventions automatically inculcate and foster Christian values. Every country is a mission country, and the grass roots model of Catholics committed to a faith, which they cultivate by ever deeper learning and practice, should be the norm.

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avatar About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, "Questions Answered".

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Fr. Brian T. Mullady, O.P.
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Portland, OR 97232
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Comments

  1. A recent Fox news article, “Have Christians lost the culture war?” may be instructive to priests and deacons pondering the content of their homilies. Catholics – and all Christians – need to wake up to what is happening in this country. Godlessness and lawlessness are winning, and the churches are sleeping. Here is a part of that article:
    ————
    “Robert Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas, conceded that Christians are losing the culture war and they are losing ground every day.

    “The primary reason Christians are losing the culture wars is that pastors are AWOL when it comes to informing and energizing their congregations,” Jeffress told me.

    Unless Christians stand up and engage the political process, Jeffress said he fears there may come a day when religious liberty is extremely curtailed.

    “A religious leader once said, ‘My successor will see the tax-exempt status removed from churches and his successor will go to jail,’” Jeffress said. “That is probably on the horizon.””
    ————————–

    Articles could be and ought to be devoted to a similar theme for the instruction of Catholics. Pastors need to teach the people! The homily does not present enough time to do it well, and the homily has other priorities as well, but for many – for most – Catholics in the pews, the homily is the only time there is for the pastor to speak to them.

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