The Homiletic Directory

A Guide for Catholic Preaching

St. Paul Preaching in Athens, by Raphael (1515).

In response to a request made by the 2008 Synod of Bishops, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments recently published the Homiletic Directory. The Directory was commissioned to assist homilists in their vocation as preachers. In the context of Pope Benedict XVI’s post-synodal exhortation Verbum Domini and Pope Francis’s observations on preaching in the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, the Directory captures a pertinent theme in recent Magisterial thought. The document brings together in one document a synthesis of the Catholic Church’s understanding of preaching, in the light of the Second Vatican Council.

The Directory is not intended as a preaching handbook, neither is it a template for preaching, nor a collection of sample homilies. It is, at a very basic observation, a statement of fact of what preaching is in the life of the Catholic Church. Divided into three parts (two main sections and an extensive appendix), it clearly roots the mission of preaching in the Paschal Mystery, as a liturgical action in the context of sacred Scripture and the Tradition of the Church.

Part 1: The Homily and Its Liturgical Setting

The Directory opens with a brief, though comprehensive, assessment of the Catholic understanding of the homily. Quoting Sacrosanctum Concilium—the constitution of the Liturgy—the homily is “a proclamation of God’s wonderful works in the history of salvation, the mystery of Christ” (SC, 35). In the context of the public worship of the Church, preaching serves to open the Word of God to those who preach, and the faithful who share in it, so as to share more deeply in the mystery of Salvation. The homily serves to deepen the Church’s faith in Christ and spurs her members to bring the Good News to the whole world. The document sets out this teaching, highlighting four emphases: the place of the Word of God in the liturgical celebration, the principles of Catholic biblical interpretation, the spiritual consequences of preaching in the life of the preacher, and the needs of those to whom the homily is addressed.

1. The place of the word of God in liturgical celebration. The Directory indicates clearly that preaching is a liturgical action. One of the most significant developments of the liturgical renewal promoted by the Second Vatican Council is the centrality afforded to the homily. Sacrosanctum Concilium indicates the homily is part of the liturgical service, taking its content from scriptural and other texts in the Liturgy. Utilizing the pattern of the liturgical calendar, the reading of Scripture as laid down in the Lectionary, and the feasts and seasons that are celebrated, preaching makes use of the vast resources the Liturgy has at the preacher’s disposal.

The preacher is commissioned with the incredible vocation of looking at the world through the lens of the Word of God. God’s revelation in Jesus Christ gives the preacher the context of this mission. He proclaims the “wonderful works of God.” Through reading, contemplation, and prayer, the preacher crafts words to point out what God has done for humanity. More particularly, the preacher can indicate where God is working in the “here and now” of the community and the individual lives of believers.

This does not remain in the theoretical. The consequence of faith means a transformation in life. The homily also serves to encourage the believer to bring what is heard in Church into everyday life. The Directory observes “the homily must always lead the community of the faithful to celebrate the Eucharist actively so they hold fast in their lives to what they have grasped through faith.” (Homiletic Directory, 11.) This groundedness of thought and word brings the Word of God to life and helps the preacher avoid lofty and abstract preaching, in the words of Pope Francis, “we should never respond to questions that nobody asks” (EG, 155).

Due to the finite nature of the homily, as part of the larger liturgical drama, the homily does not provide a preacher with enough time to do all things he might like to. A homily cannot be an extended discourse on topical issues, nor can it be an in-depth exegesis of a biblical text or time of doctrinal instruction. These are, however, important elements of a given homily. The Directory uses a good image: “like fire, all these things make good servants, but poor masters” (HD, 7). Pope Francis observes, in Evangelii Gaudium, that if a homily is moralistic, doctrinaire, or a lecture in biblical exegesis, it loses the true sense of homiletic communication; cor ad cor loquitur—heart speaking unto heart (cf. EG 142). The homilist is encouraged to keep in mind the Church’s understanding of what preaching is supposed to be.

2. The principles of Catholic biblical interpretation. As part of the Liturgy, the homily is preached after the proclamation of the readings from Scripture. Preaching aims to explain the Scriptures with an eye to what is to come later in the Liturgy of the Eucharist. It builds bridges for an easy passage to Eucharist (cf. VD 54). While located in the Liturgy of the Word proper, the homily is inherently connected to the Liturgy of the Eucharist, since all preaching is rooted in the Paschal Mystery. The duty of the preacher is to reveal the Scriptures in such a way so as to create the conditions where “Christ can reveal his heart to them” (HD, 18). As the Eucharist is the heart of the Church, so too is the Paschal Mystery the heart of preaching.

According to Pope Benedict XVI, the primary setting for scriptural interpretation is in the life of the Church (VD, 29). This can be authentically done in three ways. Firstly, by being attentive to the content and unity of Scripture as a whole. The Bible tells the story of God’s relationship with humanity, making use of many different genres. There is, however, a unity in this story which has for its culmination the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus. In the Liturgy, the scriptural selection has an inner logic presented over the course of the Sunday and weekday cycles. Each year of the cycle has a distinctive emphasis unfolding the doctrine proper to each of the synoptic Gospels (cf HD, 142). Approaching the readings in their biblical context brings the bigger picture into view. A simple understanding of what comes before and after a selected reading can shed great light on what is being read on a given day: “awareness of the overall structure and distinctive features of each Gospel can deepen his understanding of the text” (HD, 142). The sacred Scripture is a composite whole, rather than a selection of vignettes.

The Church also maintains that Scripture be read within the living Tradition of the Church. Preaching transmits a sacred heritage that has been passed on uninterrupted since the time of the Apostles. The interpretation of Scripture in line with the teaching of the Church keeps the preacher from wandering into the realm of speculation and opinion. While a preacher can use his own life experience in the context of the homily, preaching is not an opportunity to constantly refer to one’s own experience of faith. Preaching is greater than the preacher; it is the mission of the entire Church.

The third approach is the “analogy of faith,” what the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls “the coherence of truths of faith among themselves and within the whole plan of Revelation” (CCC §114). Reading Scripture in church is done in the wider context of the deposit of the faith. The readings selected in the Lectionary are “a profound reflection on the meaning of Christ,” they are not arbitrary and serve to deepen the Church’s experience of life in the Risen Lord (cf HD, 142).

Reflecting on the Liturgy and the importance of the Word of God, the Directory gives a good foundation for understanding how and why the readings exist in the way they do. It indicates an explicit attempt to give as wide as possible a selection of readings. The Gospel is at the heart of the Liturgy of the Word. From the perspective of the Gospel reading, a relevant Old Testament reading has been chosen. The second reading, which is a semi-continuous reading of the epistles, may not have a connection with the two other readings; however, read in their mutual light, we can expand the meaning (cf. OLM 67). The second reading, coming from the early Church, indicates today’s issues are not a million miles from the struggles of that time. The life of the early Church and the current experience of faith are both lived in respect of the Gospel message and the Old Testament.

3. The spiritual consequences of preaching in the life of the preacher. The preacher is at the very heart of the preaching ministry. In the Catholic understanding of preaching, the Church is the preacher. In union with Christ, through the ministry of the bishops, the Church faithfully hands on to all generations the faith of the Apostles. Since the homily is part of the public Liturgy of the Church, it is reserved as the duty of bishops, priests, and deacons. The Directory does point out there are numerous ways for the non-ordained baptized to engage in public witness to the Gospel; however, the onerous task of the homily is directly linked to the sacrament of holy orders (HD, 5). The preacher acts as a servant of these mysteries. In the Liturgy, the preacher uses his own experience of faith, in his own life and in the life of the world, to make present the Word of Christ in a real and authentic way.

The document frankly states “every homilist wants to preach better,” but the limitations of personal skill and style can make the preacher feel inadequate (HD, 3). The strength of the preacher is not in oratory, but in his spiritual union with what he preaches. The message, while internalized, is not his own. The preacher needs to speak in a way that those who participate in the Sacred Assembly can relate to their own faith in the power of God (cf. HD, 7). However, the preacher is reminded that the duty of the homilist is not to expound on his own particular ideas and agenda, but the agenda of Christ: “he must not lower the standard of his message to the level of his own personal witness, fearing that he will be accused of not practicing what he preaches” (HD, 7). A preacher does not preach himself, he preaches Christ (cf. HD, 6). The document warmly notes that preachers, like all the baptized, can find the lofty ideals of the Gospel challenging. It observes, “sometimes a preacher can feel this inadequacy, because of his own weakness and sin, however, there is more going on than that. He preaches Christ, he calls to sanctity, even though, like everyone else, he is a pilgrim of faith”(HD, 7).

Preaching and the consequences of preaching on everyday life are tangible. As faith is a challenge to put into practice, so, too, is the ideal expressed in the maxim, “practice what you preach.” The Directory’s constant referral to the Pascal Mystery reminds all who preach of the forgiveness of sin in Jesus Christ, and Christ’s perpetual support to all who seek to do his will.

4. The needs of those to whom the homily is directed. A homily is never preached in a vacuum; a person of faith delivers it to other people of faith, in the context of faith. In the broadest sense, the homily is “a discourse about the mysteries of faith and the standards of Christian life in a way suited to the particular needs of the listener” (HD, 11). Every community is unique, and the Directory points out that is not possible to proscribe homilies that will suit everyone. The needs of an urban parish in New York are different from a mission chapel in sub-Saharan Africa, or a homily for a vast congregation in St Peter’s Square will necessarily be different from that of a community of cloistered religious. While the circumstances and specific needs are different, every gathering of the faithful is invited by the words of the preacher to a deeper relationship with Christ, with the view to make this relationship active in daily life (cf. HD, 11). When interpreting the Scripture, keeping in mind the needs of those to whom the homily is directed, the preacher has specific terms of reference that ground the preached word in reality (cf. EG, 139). As an intrinsic part of the Mass, the homily serves to bring both preacher and hearer of the Word into the heart of the Paschal Mystery. As Pope Benedict points out, “Word and Eucharist are so deeply bound together that we cannot understand one without the other” (HD, 54).

Preparation

In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis clearly states, “preparation for preaching is so important a task that a prolonged time of study, prayer, and reflection, and pastoral creativity should be devoted to it” (EG, 145). While there are numerous ways of approaching study for preaching, the document revisits one of the most effective, lectio divina. The ancient practice is recommended for all preachers seeking “a profound dialogue with the Word of God” (HD, 27). Echoing recent contributions of Pope Francis, Pope Benedict XVI, and St. John Paul II, lectio divina is described as four moves: lectio, meditatio, oratio, and actio. Prayerful reading of the text leads to deeper contemplation of the Word, leading to prayer. The final move is action, “which moves the believer to make his or her life a gift for others in charity” (VD, 87). The process of lectio divina offers a “fruitful paradigm” to appreciate the homily’s role in the broader scheme of the Liturgy” (HD, 28). The words of the preacher are, not just hollow reflections, but deeply internalized truths that have a direct bearing on the life and ministry of preachers.

Part 2: Ars Praedicandi

The Directory is not a step-by-step guide to preaching. Cardinal Cañizares states clearly in the introduction, that this document is “indicative, and not exhaustive” (Decree Prot. N. 531/14). This section takes preachers through the liturgical year, Sunday by Sunday, and some other major feast days, providing some examples and suggestions, using “the sage pedagogy of the Church, which proclaims and listens to the sacred Scripture following the rhythm of the liturgical year” (HD, 38). There is also a brief reflection on weekdays, weddings, and funerals.

The journey begins with Easter and the 50 days of Eastertide. This starting point is very much in line with the core theme of the Directory: all preaching is rooted in the Paschal Mystery. Reminding preachers of the vast resources offered to preachers in the larger liturgical framework, significant emphasis is paid to the Easter Vigil. The Church is “plunged into the stream of salvation history” by means of Old Testament readings and prayers. The Easter Vigil is a “school of prayer” for the rest of the liturgical year (HD, 49). In the Easter season, especially meditating on the Acts of the Apostles, “the homilist has in his hand some of the strongest and most basic tools” for the proclamation of the Gospel” (HD, 53). Returning to Lent, then proceeding to Advent, Christmas, and the Epiphany, the Directory journeys through the mysteries of Christ in a systematic and clear fashion.

While the seasons receive more detailed treatment, an overview is provided for the Sundays of Ordinary Time. Succinctly, it gives a broad outline of the time of the Sundays of the year indicating a common pattern in all three cycles: the early weeks deal with the beginning of Christ’s public ministry, the concluding weeks look towards the things to come, and the intervening period takes in sequence various events and teachings from the life of Jesus (cf. HD, 141). It does not answer every question the Liturgy presents; it does, however, give ample scope for exploration and further study.

The Homily and the Catechism of the Catholic Church

The third major part of the Directory, which is given as a detailed appendix, examines the Liturgy of the Word through the prism of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The homilist is encouraged to invite the faithful “to ponder the faith of the Church as it emerges naturally from the Scriptures in the context of the liturgical celebration” (HD, 159). Systematically, the Appendix indicates relevant paragraphs in the Catechism in reference to the readings in the three-year cycle (Sundays and Solemnities.) The preacher is, not just to quickly check them, but meditate on them, seeing how best they can help serve those who listen, and grow in faith and active service of the Gospel.

While the homily is not primarily defined as doctrinal instruction, preaching can be an occasion to deepen the community’s understanding of the faith. This is not to be done in isolation from the larger liturgical celebration. The Eucharist is not the occasion to address topics that have no bearing on what is in the Missal and the Lectionary at any given celebration. It cautions preachers not “to do violence to the texts provided by the Church by twisting them to fit some preconceived idea” (HD, 6). Nevertheless, in the course of the liturgical year, there is ample opportunity to expound on the dogmatic and moral teaching of the Church within the parameters of the Liturgy.

The Homiletic Directory is a very valuable resource for preachers. In a clear and accessible way, it brings together in one document the main facets of Catholic preaching. Rooted in the Second Vatican Council and the pastoral reflections of recent Magisterial teaching, the Directory is a good reference point for all engaged in the ministry of preaching. Centring on preaching’s place in the Liturgy, it helps homilists focus on the primary intention of preaching—proclaiming the Paschal Mystery as a transformative force in the world.

Fr. Shane Crombie, CC About Fr. Shane Crombie, CC

Fr. Shane Crombie is a priest of the Diocese of Meath in Ireland, where he is assistant pastor in Tullamore Parish. Fr. Shane is a D.Min graduate in homiletics from the Aquinas Institute of Theology, St. Louis, Missouri.

Comments

  1. where do you buy book-Homiletic Review

    • Elenor K. Schoen Elenor K. Schoen says:

      Homiletic Directory is published by the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments… not sure exactly where it can be purchased however…!?
      Check various Catholic publishers, I suppose?!
      -Elenor K. Schoen
      HPR Managing Editor

  2. This might help, for those wishing to purchase a hardcopy: http://www.ctsbooks.org/homiletic-directory/

    For free online pdf access: http://onlineministries.creighton.edu/CollaborativeMinistry/HomileticDirectory.pdf

  3. Martin Drew says:

    Father Crombie, your paper on preaching and homiletics is excellent and a clear guide for presenting a meditation on the Scripture and the correct technique to do it.

  4. Thanks for this excellent summary of the Homiletic Directory. I have now linked my own website, Doctrinal Homily Outlines (http://www.doctrinalhomilyoutlines.com), to this piece. I hope lots of homilists read your summary and then delve into the HD itself.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Written as an aid for homilists and a resource for the faithful, this doctrinal homily outline (1) provides insights into the Lectionary readings, (2) explicates a doctrine of Catholic Faith or morals from them, and (3) shows specific ways lay persons can live these truths. (To read more about this approach, click here.) This outline is written to be in accord with the Homiletic Directory issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (2014). (To read an excellent summary of the Homiletic Directory, click here.) […]

  2. […] Written as an aid for homilists and a resource for the faithful, this doctrinal homily outline (1) provides insights into the Lectionary readings, (2) explicates a doctrine of Catholic Faith or morals from them, and (3) shows specific ways lay persons can live these truths. (To read more about this approach, click here.) This outline is written to be in accord with the Homiletic Directory issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (2014). (To read an excellent summary of the Homiletic Directory, click here.) […]