Should homilies offer systematic instruction?

June 2013 Editorial

…there has been, in my view, a serious neglect of instruction of the faithful in the fundamentals of the Catholic faith in a systematic way in most of our parishes.

Recently a priest friend asked me, “How can we teach the faith during Sunday homilies?”  With that question, he put his finger on a problem that has been troubling me for some time: In the revised liturgy, how can the priest give a systematic, coherent presentation of Catholic teaching on the Creed, the Commandments, and the Sacraments within the course of the three-year cycle of scriptural readings?

You may recall that before Vatican II many bishops gave detailed directions on the subject of the sermon for each Sunday.  In this way, the basic tenets of Catholic faith and morals were covered over a period of years. Since Vatican II, this procedure seems to have been abandoned. There may be some bishops who still give such directives, but I have not seen them.

We have reason to rejoice at the revised, much more complete readings that we now have in the Lectionary over a three-year period. When Vatican II put great stress on the role of Scripture in the Mass, and both increased and lengthened the readings, we witnessed a move away from the traditional “sermon” to the “homily.” The sermon tended to concentrate on faith, morals, explaining the Creed, whereas the homily now tends to be an “explanation” of the scriptural readings for the day. The explanation usually is in the form of a rudimentary exegesis, or it moves into biblical theology, that is, a theme from the Bible is developed, suggested by the day’s readings.

Such procedures are good. We needed a return to Scripture, and that is what we have had for the past 40 years.  But in the meantime, there has been, in my view, a serious neglect of instruction of the faithful in the fundamentals of the Catholic faith in a systematic way in most of our parishes.  Also, there is little or no connection between the homilies from one Sunday to the next.  As a result, more and more Catholics simply do not know what their Church teaches on such basic questions as original sin, mortal and venial sin, the Incarnation, the Trinity, heaven, hell, purgatory, the Real Presence, bodily resurrection, and so forth.

Millions of Catholics are confused—and that confusion has led to division.  It seems to me that we have been witnessing a steady Protestantization of the Catholic Church, in the sense that each person, on the principles of sola scriptura and private interpretation, decides for himself/herself what the Bible and the Catholic faith mean. There are now about 20,000 different forms of Protestantism; and we now seem to have several different forms of Catholicism, not officially but de facto.

It seems to me that it would be a good idea for the bishops to work out a new, comprehensive program of systematic instruction on the Creed, the Commandments, and the Sacraments that would be keyed to the A, B, and C cycles of scriptural readings, spread out over three years.  We have been following such a program in our HPR homilies since 1980.  Such a systematic program was recommended by the Synod of Bishops in Rome in 2008, but so far nothing seems to have been done about it.  Homilies on Scripture are fine, but the Catholic faithful also need clear instruction on the fundamentals of the Catholic faith.

Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ About Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ

Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ, is editor emeritus of HPR, having served as editor for over 30 years. He is the author of the best selling Fundamentals of Catholicism (three volumes) and of the popular introduction to the Scripture, Inside the Bible.


  1. Avatar Father Michael McLain says:

    I absolutely agree with you on this one, Father Baker. It is one of the reasons that I enjoy HPR’s homily helpers because they include a reference to the Catechism of the Catholic Church for additional research and clarity.
    Most younger Catholics’catechesis has been abysmal, in my opinion. Our bishops need to need Religious Education classes to throw away the crayons and scissors and actually teach the basics.

  2. Avatar Father Peter J. DiMaria says:

    Fr. Baker’s observations are on target. Sensing the same problem I started a year long sermon series on the four pillars of the Catholic faith as part of our parish’s Year of Faith celebration. Catholic people, being who they are, have had little feedback but at least I know I am giving them the fundamentals of the faith which many are so sorely lacking.

  3. I like the advice given by Fr Robert Spiitzer and that is we should incorporate apologetics into the school catechesis.

  4. Avatar Ted Toner says:

    Fr. Baker hit the nail on the head. My wife and I had just finished a discussion on this very topic and as I opened up my email and read the headline, I laughed out loud. I read the article to my wife and she couldn’t have agreed more or felt more validated. I never knew the sermons were spoon-fed to the priests prior to Vatican II –that would explain the free-fall after they stopped doing this. As a workaround to this dilemma, I find myself listening to “The Lanky Guys” podcast a few days before Sunday to get their synopsis, connections, and insights of the 4 readings: OT, Psalms, NT, and Gospel. It doesn’t seem far-fetched to be able to connect the Scripture readings to themselves as well as to the Dogma/Catechism/Teachings of the Church, especially if our priests have philosophy and theology degrees. Kind of puts the whole “both/and” viewpoint into practice, doesn’t it?

  5. Of course you are right, Father, “more and more Catholics simply do not know what their Church teaches.” But I do not see how it is possible to do all that ought to be done in a Mass homily – even if the time were extended past the 10 minutes that many Catholics have become accustomed to. I believe that the most important challenge for the homilist is to present a bridge from the table of the written Word, to the table of the Word in the Eucharist. Faith comes through hearing – and thus the importance of the message – and faith should be stirred, strengthened and kindled into flame appropriate to the Gift about to be offered and received in the Sacrament. How else can the Eucharist bear needed fruit in us and among us and on into the world, if we who are sent out to the world, receive it (receive Him!) lacking right faith and right interior disposition?

    It is a grave and tragic crisis – that so many Catholics do not know the Faith. We need catechesis: systematic, ordered, comprehensive and at an adult level. We need to learn the Faith so that we can love the Faith, the whole Catholic Faith, in Truth – so that we can live in Him and He is us – so that we can be Church in the world. But I think it is an error to believe that adequate catechesis can be provided in some part of a homily already compressed by time constraints, and already obligated to other demands as well.

    I think the solution is obvious: we need to build an expectation (that does not presently exist) among Catholics that being a Christian means being a disciple – a learner – in life-long formation in the Faith. It should be that every parish has an active, promoted and supported program of continuing adult formation in addition to the childhood catechesis that we presently expect. It should be that every diocese has well-formed staff whose mission it is to see that every parish has this. It should be that such adult faith formation is an urgent priority, of the highest importance to all pastors at all levels in the Church. How else can the mission of the Church be realized: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you”?

    My previous articles on this subject:
    A Plea for Really Committing to Adult Faith Formation:
    Prior to Adult Faith Formation, One Thing Is Necessary:

  6. Avatar Marlene says:

    Speaking from a layperson’s point of view, I completely agree with the article. I have been blessed with the desire to read and learn about our faith and have a MA in Sacred Scripture. If I didn’t pursue the Faith on my own, then I wouldn’t know it. Sunday catechsis is all but non-existent in our parishes. I’ve found that even the homilies based on scripture are usually inaccurate and full of modernist interpretations. The faithful need to be taught and need it from our priests. I will pray that your idea be implemented in every parish. Without instruction many souls continue to be lost.

    • Hello Marlene – After reading your post, I hope that you are already helping provide adult Catholic catechesis in your parish or in your diocese. If you are not, please do! As you say, the faithful need it. Many do not know that they need it, but that is a very big part of the problem – even when it is provided, most (in my experience) will not come to receive it. But those that do are deeply grateful, and become more active and fruitful in the works of the Church. Blessings to you.

  7. Avatar Bob Greene says:

    I was having a conversation a few years ago with three other men, all cradle Catholics, all weekly Mass goers, all college educated, and all over 50 years old, when I made the statement “Well, the best way to learn the Faith is to read the Catechism of the Catholic Church.” One of the men asked me if the Catechism had the imprimatur. I went into shock for about 5 seconds and then broke into hysterical laughter. He wasn’t joking and in fact became quite offended at my laughter. Apparently he has never read the Catechism and has no intention of doing so. Yet every week he’s there at Mass. The other two men seemed puzzled by the whole thing. Let’s get back to the sermon and teach the Faith for Catholics who don’t read.

  8. I am frequently disappointed that the homily is not an apologetic presentation of the Mass readings. Learning apologetics is a good way to learn Catholicism. The priests and deacons must learn the non-Catholic interpretation of the readings for the homily to be effective — contrasting Catholic and non-Catholic interpretations.

  9. Avatar Ed Hummel; says:

    “The Catechism of the Council of Trent” was written specifically for this purpose. I can think of no more foundational material for sermons, especially in this Year of Faith.

  10. Avatar john isola says:

    Priest and deacons generally miss the opportunity to advance Catholic teaching in their homilies…they lack the zeal to speak out on abortion issues.Very few offer a prayer for the unborn at Mass. My question is why did so many clergy and deacons vote for pro-abortion political leaders? I submit that when there is a united effort by all clergy with a strong zeal effort to teach Catholic catechism in their homilies the abortion issue will stop plaguing America. Also, why do the bishops divide the view on not giving communion to Cuomo or Pelosi, or any Catholic who supports abortion?

  11. Avatar Deacon Pat says:

    As a convert it has been obvious to me how little many Catholics really know about their faith. So, I make every effort in my homilies to include additional scriptures (Gospel & Epistles), quotes from the Catechism, and finally a quote from a Pope. Even tho I don’t always include all these sources I start with that intention. This helps me to include “meat” with the “milk” in sharing the Word.

  12. Avatar k.c.thomas says:

    I feel that the Sunday homily should explain the faith and teachings. It can be done along with the subject in the readings. As no teaching is there, Catholics are forced to think and follow secular ways; thus, some think abortion, premarital sex, and divorce can be resorted to. The question of sin never crosses the mind. Please do something urgently to help the faithful.

  13. Absolutely. 100% right. The worst of the present “homilies” do nothing more than repeat the Gospel in paraphrase—and sometimes not in paraphrase, but just repeat it with pauses for emphasis. Usually, a priest ruminates for a few—or not a few—minutes and moves on. What Fr. Baker is asking is that fewer Catholics should believe that the Eucharist is a symbol, that abortion may be OK in cases of rape or incest, that it’s OK to go to Mass on Sunday if your tee time doesn’t interfere, and that sodomy is swell.

  14. Clearly I am in the minority here on this issue. I want to see separate and additional programs of adult formation supported and offered in our parishes. We need Bible Studies and Catechism Studies, for example, as a minimum – and as the norm for our adults.

    We all agree that Catholic understanding of and obedience to Catholic teachings are abysmal, and humiliating, and shameful. But I ask you to see that this dumbing-down in knowledge of the Faith has been exactly parallel to a dumbing-down in our life of devotion and worship as Catholics also – expressed in the way we celebrate the Holy Mass. To turn the homily into a classroom lecture, to take this to the extreme, would further desacralize the Mass for the people – and we have already taken too much away that is due to our Lord, in our time of worship.

    Look at the poverty of our devotional life already! The chatting and socializing before Mass, ignoring the need to pray and prepare for our sacred meeting with God! The chatting and watch-watching during the Mass, and the jokes and shallowness so unworthy of what is due in a homily, so unworthy of our universal call to holiness! The chatting and socializing and back-slapping after the Mass, sometimes beginning even before the priest can exit the sanctuary – making real prayer and thanksgiving to the Lord for His Gift almost impossible. The short shorts! The flip flops! The low-cut blouses and too-short skirts! All in the sacred Presence of the Lord in the Tabernacle, all in the context of our public worship, all taken in by our children and visitors and the watching angels in heaven. All seen by our Lord, who gave His life that we might have His life, in abundance.

    We do not need to weaken further the movement of the Mass in the Liturgy of the Word, moving us toward the perfect worship of the Liturgy of the Eucharist. This is not to say that a homily cannot touch on doctrines and dogmas of the Faith! Of course it can, and when appropriate to the Readings, it should! But the people need much more than a few minutes a week of adult catechesis, compressed into an already-brief homily! We need a systematic and comprehensive program of adult formation. And we need one that adds to – not subtracts from – our already weakened public worship. We need strong and deep formation in the Faith, and we need personal and profound lives of prayer – of devotion and of authentic worship. We need it all.

    Surely we all can see what is happening to our culture, and our nation. These are darkening times! The Church is being called to great fidelity – not to increasing mediocrity. We are being called to perhaps even heroic virtue, for the sake of Truth. While we still can, we ought to be strengthening one another – and that may call for commitment and sacrifices we are not used to, in America.

  15. Avatar Edmund Chavez says:

    We need to remember here that the current official Catechism is not like the Baltimore Catechism; it is not a series of questions and succinct answers for young students to memorize. It is rather a systematic exposition of Catholic doctrine, including its Scriptural roots as well as the Patristic and other contributions which have shaped its formulation and expression. Hence reading the Catechism is a far richer experience than many of us imagine when we think of “catechisms”.

  16. I agree with the article. However, a good homilist can take any reading from the Mass of the day and extrapolate it into an area of catechesis that might not seem direct at first. So the current emphasis on Scriptural exegesis need not be so strict that the priest is handcuffed from teaching doctrinal points or apologetics.

    • Avatar Fr Laurence J Mayne (aged 84 - 57 years ordained) says:

      HARVEY is absolutely correct – any Scripture reading from the Mass can be linked to the Catechism.
      For example, the Gospel reading (Luke 10) for the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, about lambs and wolves, lends itself to the need for teaching doctrinal points and especially apologetics. The secret is for the priest to prepare the homily/sermon for each Sunday – and the preparation must begin at the beginning of the previous week! Despite being “hated by all men on account of MY name” Jesus tells us “your endurance will win you your lives” (i.e., eternal lives). “Success” for followers of Christ is not in this world. We must not rejoice inordinately because of any occasional fleeting worldly “success”. We are to rejoice “rather because our names are written in heaven.”

  17. Avatar Kelly X. Kirby says:

    In his Apostolic Letter announcing the Year of Faith, the Holy Father gurther has highlighted the fact that “to rediscover the content of the faith that is professed, celebrated, lived and prayed, and to reflect on the act of faith, is a task that every believer must make his own” ( Porta Fidei 9 ). We are all in need of growing in faith. No one is exempt from this call. In order to accomplish this, he encourages us to “rediscover and study the fundamental content of the faith that receives its systematic and organic synthesis in the Catechism of the Catholic Church” ( Porta Fidei 11 ).

  18. Avatar Mauricio N. Bowen says:

    Whoever teaches must become “all things to all men” (1 Cor 9:22), to win everyone to Christ. . . . Above all, teachers must not imagine that a single kind of soul has been entrusted to them, and that consequently it is lawful to teach and form equally all the faithful in true piety with one and the same method! Let them realize that some are in Christ as newborn babes, others as adolescents, and still others as adults in full command of their powers. . . . Those who are called to the ministry of preaching must suit their words to the maturity and understanding of their hearers, as they hand on the teaching of the mysteries of faith and the rules of moral conduct.