Preaching the Homily and the New Evangelization

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, by James Tissot (1836-1902).

Preaching in all its forms is indispensable to the Church’s mission given to her by Jesus Christ: “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.”1 Preaching has been the action of evangelization from the beginning of the Church. St. Paul put it succinctly: “But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher?”2 Pope Paul VI forcefully reminded the clergy of this ancient and powerful truth in his 1964 encyclical, Ecclesiam Suam.

Preaching is the primary apostolate. Our ministry, Venerable Brethren, is before all else, the ministry of the Word. We are well aware of this, but it is good to remind ourselves of it at the present time so as to give the right orientation to our pastoral activities. We must return to the study, not of human eloquence of empty rhetoric, but of the genuine art of proclaiming the Word.3

Among the different types of preaching, the homily has special status. Much is needed for it, and much is required of it. Pope Paul explicitly tied preaching the homily to evangelization in Evangelii Nuntiandi, stating that the homily “has a particular role in evangelization” and that “the faithful assembled as a Paschal Church, celebrating the feast of the Lord present in their midst, expect much from this preaching. …”4 If preaching is the primary apostolate, then surely it follows that the faithful also have a right to expect much. Pope Paul’s successors clearly think so.

Both Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI consistently emphasized the importance of preaching homilies and evangelization. John Paul called for a new evangelization as the Church approached the millennium. He also stressed the importance of liturgical preaching as essential to that evangelization. “The Church is effectively and concretely at the service of the kingdom. This is seen especially in her preaching, which is a call to conversion. Preaching constitutes the Church’s first and fundamental way of serving the coming of the kingdom in individuals and in human society.”5 Preaching is instrumental to evangelization when properly understood as aimed at the conversion of the listener. This view of preaching has immediate consequences. It requires, at minimum, that preachers invest themselves both in their homilies and their listeners. John Paul II put it this way:

Much attention must be given the homily: it should be neither too long, nor too short; it should be carefully prepared, rich in substance, and adapted to the hearers, and reserved to ordained ministers.6

John Paul’s insistence on preparation, rich content, and the needs of the listener, speaks to a practice of preaching that had fallen short. Evangelization, in particular, requires clergy to give careful attention to both what and how they preach. In his address to the Pontifical Biblical Commission, the pope clarified that preaching from Scripture to contemporary listeners requires actualization and enculturation. “A constant process of actualization adapts the interpretation to the contemporary mentality and language.”7 The pope was careful to point out that actualization had to remain faithful to Scripture, so that the text is not forced to “accommodate an interpretation or an approach fashionable at a given time.”8 At the same time, adapting to, or being aware of, the hearer, for this pope, meant that the preacher needed to be adept at enculturation of the message.

In our day, a great effort is necessary, not only on the part of scholars and preachers, but also those who popularize biblical thought: they should use every means possible—and there are many today—so that the universal significance of the biblical message may be widely acknowledged, and its saving efficacy may be seen everywhere.9

Benedict XVI made a call for a new evangelization a critical part of his pontificate. It meant, not only a continuation of the evangelical commission given to the Church, but also a re-evangelization of people and cultures that had lost touch with their Christian roots. The homily has a key role in re-evangelization, as it is directed at the assembled faithful who share a Christian heritage, but are confused and adrift in relativism and post-modernism. This pope was more pointed than his predecessors, however, in his assessment of just how much his preachers were up to the task. “Given the importance of the word of God, the quality of homilies needs to be improved.”10 Benedict repeated this frank statement several years later. It begs the question: just what is the problem?

The 2008 General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church” addressed this issue. The Linementa raised two questions, in particular, on the homily, in preparation for the synod. “Does the Word of God have a genuine resonance in homilies? What needs to be done?”11 These questions provoked lively responses before and during the synod. Instrumentum Laboris included the following response to the Lineamenta.

A paradox is increasingly evident; the faithful’s hunger for the Word of God is not always receiving an adequate response in the preaching of the Church’s pastors, because of a deficiency in seminary preparation or pastoral practice.12

Two propositions stand out. The first is that homilies need to be improved, as Pope Benedict had written, because they do not fill the hunger and the expectations of the faithful. The second is that the root of this problem is inadequate seminary preparation. This assertion was reiterated by Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz during the synod. After quoting this passage from the Lineamenta, he gave it more substance.

The elementary problem lies in the fact that the Word needs fervent witnesses ready to share with others the truth that has changed their lives. The seminary formation period is a particular time for the preparation of such witnesses. But, sometimes, it seems that candidates to the priesthood treat the texts of the Sacred Scripture as an object of study without taking into account its spiritual dimension. For them, the Scripture does not become the Word of their life. The force of the Word, capable of changing man, converting him, is not unleashed by the Scripture.13

Cardinal Dziwisz’s address calls for two things. The first is that preaching is meant to be witness. In this, he echoes Pope Paul VI who declared, “…modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.”14 Preaching for Cardinal Dziwisz, and evangelization for Pope Paul VI, depend primarily on the experience of faith of the preacher rather than on scholarly expertise. The second thing in the cardinal’s address was the poetic image of preaching “unleashing” the force of the Word. This vision of the homily is not new, but has been neglected. One of the most memorable statements of this vision is read by clerics every year in the 30th week of Ordinary Time in the Office of Readings:

When this word is preached, in the very act of preaching, it gives to its own voice which is heard outwardly, a certain power which is perceived inwardly, so much so, that the dead are brought back to life, and by these praises the sons of Abraham are raised from the dead. This word, then, is alive in the heart of the Father, on the lips of the preacher, and in the hearts of those who believe and love him. Since this word is so truly alive, undoubtedly, it is full of power. It is powerful in creation, powerful in the government of the universe, powerful in the redemption of the world. For what is more powerful, more effective? Who shall speak of its power; who shall make all its praises heard? It is powerful in what it accomplishes, powerful when preached. It does not come back empty; it bears fruit in all to whom it is sent.15

Adopting this understanding of preaching could not help but have a dramatic and dynamic effect on homiletic practice.

Several bishops at the synod lamented that this had not happened. Bishop Kicanas of Tucson put it baldly: “Unfortunately, preaching in our day can lose its savor, become formulaic and uninspired, leaving the hearer empty.”16 The critique that emerged from these presentations was that instead of being powerful and inspired, preaching was all too often bland and insipid. If that were all, then it might be argued that although not inspiring, this kind of preaching was at least not doing any harm. Cardinal Marc Ouellet did not see it that way. He drew a clear line from poor preaching to serious consequences for the Church:

Despite the renewal that the homily was made a subject of at the Council, we still feel a great lack of satisfaction on the part of many faithful with regards to the ministry of preaching. In part, this lack of satisfaction explains why many Catholics turned towards other groups and religions.17

Simply put, Cardinal Ouellet claimed that, whereas, good preaching is a tool of evangelization, poor preaching facilitates its opposite, an exodus from the Church. He was not alone in this assessment. Bishop Rwoma of Tanzania also insisted:

If we speak of people being lukewarm concerning matters of the faith, and the phenomenon of religious sects which are spreading at an alarming rate in many parts of the world, the causes for this can possibly be traced back to lack of good and proper preaching from the part of ministers.”18

The faithful have to right to expect the unleashing of the power of the Word, and when they do not get it, these prelates insist, they look for it elsewhere.

Archbishop Coleridge suggested that the faithful were not getting what they needed from homilies because preachers had overlooked the kerygma and replaced it with moralism. Noting that preaching had fallen short of what was envisaged for it at the Second Vatican Council, he told the synod:

One reason for this is that preaching all too often takes the kerygma for granted, and this at a moment in Western culture when the kerygma cannot be taken for granted. If it is, there is the risk of a moralistic reduction of preaching which may evoke interest or admiration, but not the faith that saves. Preaching will not be an experience of Christ’s power.19

Thus, rather than Christocentric preaching, there is moralistic preaching that puts the emphasis on what the listener does, rather than on what Christ has done. That kind of preaching risks being either semi-pelagian, or reduced to social action. Cardinal Ouellet, seeing the same problem, asked the synod a question. “The homily must reach spiritual ‘depth,’ that is to say, the Christology of Holy Scriptures. How can we avoid the tendency towards moralism and cultivate the calling to a decision of faith?”20 Cultivating such a decision is surely what evangelization is all about.

Preaching is instrumental for evangelization that reaches out, and for the new evangelization that also reaches within. The 2012 Synod on the New Evangelization discussed “initial proclamation,” calling it “an explicit proposal” which is “a call to conversion.”21 Referencing the work done at the previous synod on the homily, this synod identified the homily, in particular, as a place for initial proclamation.

As regards preaching, the Sunday homily, above all, as well as the many extraordinary means of preaching (parish mission, novenas, and homilies at funerals, baptism, weddings, and festivals) are excellent occasions for initial proclamation. For this, the previous ordinary general assembly asked that homilies be carefully prepared, and due attention be given, to the core elements of the message to be transmitted, their essential Christological character, and the use of language which will inspire listeners and stir the assembly to conversion.22

The Sunday homily is a suitable place for initial proclamation because many of the hearers, although baptized, and perhaps infrequent churchgoers, have only tenuous connections to their faith. They need to hear a proposal, an invitation to the fullness of the Christian life. This passage picks up the clear themes from the Twelfth Ordinary General Assembly of careful preparation, due attention, and Christo-centricity, all with the goal of inspiration, unleashing the power of the Word, not to simply convey information, but to stir to conversion. Archbishop Shevchuk, head of the Synod of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, thought this so important that he called for a General Assembly just on the homily.

The proclamation of the Gospel through the Homily in the liturgical context is worth special attention and decisive renewal. The sermons in our churches often lost the kerygmatic characteristic, and, therefore, no longer have the Force of the Gospel (Rm 1:16) and the effectiveness of the Word of God. Perhaps this topic could also become the theme for a General Assembly of the Synod.23

That the renewal of homiletic practice deserves its own General Assembly focusing on kerygmatic proclamation underscores the role that the bishops see for the homily in the new evangelization. Another bishop raised a warning reminiscent of Cardinal Ouellet’s in the previous General Assembly, namely, that poor preaching results in many young people abandoning the Church for other faith communities. Abandonment of the Church starts with a hunger for the power of the Word that is unfulfilled.

There is a growing trend among young people and young adults to attend the Liturgy of the Eucharist on Sunday, but later go to listen to evangelical preachers at their gatherings, radio, or television with the reason that “our liturgy does not sufficiently articulate the Word of God.” Indeed, the faithful are longing for preachers and teachers who would present the Word of God to them as the voice of Christ speaking to them and to their life situation.”24

Both General Assemblies tied evangelization, and, specifically, the new evangelization, to a renewal of preaching, in general, and the homily, in particular. Both called for a homiletic that proposes the faith, invites hearers into a deeper relationship with Christ, and inspires conversion. Evangelization and preaching are so connected that one bishop at the Twelfth General Assembly defined one as the other. He put it this way: “Evangelization is the preaching of the word, which is the Word heard from God, and, therefore, it is a divine-human reality expressed in the form of an interpersonal dialogue.”25 With this importance, this weight of responsibility, put on homiletics, and with the general assessment that Catholic preaching needs to be improved because it is not accomplishing what the bishops call for, the question, then, becomes, what is to be done?

Both General Assemblies pointed to seminaries as the first place to address the problem. The Synod on the Word of God identified seminary preparation as key to a renewal in homiletics. The Synod on the New Evangelization also highlighted the role of the seminary by proposing that “Seminaries should take as their focus the New Evangelization so that it becomes the recurring and unifying theme in programs of human, spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral formation in the ars celebrandi, in homiletics, and in the celebration of the sacrament of Reconciliation, all very important parts of the New Evangelization.”26 Each conference of bishops needs to address this proposal in ways suited to its own situation. The U.S. bishops have long called for a stronger formation in homiletics at the seminary level. Since 1992, The Program for Priestly Formation has included the following:

Homiletics should occupy a prominent place in the core curriculum and be integrated into the entire course of studies. In addition to the principles of biblical interpretation, catechesis, and communications theory, seminarians should also learn the practical skills needed to communicate the Gospel, as proclaimed by the Church, in an effective and appropriate manner.27

This call by the American bishops before the General Assemblies on the Word and the New Evangelization is consistent with both synods’ focus on seminary preparation for homiletics and the new evangelization; however, according to the Catholic Association of the Teachers of Homiletics (CATH), this call still has not been implemented. CATH published a white paper, entitled “The State of Homiletics in Seminaries and Graduate Schools of Theology in the United States” to assess the situation. Citing research in the 1990s that showed that seminarians generally had 5.6 credits in homiletics in programs that required more than 100 credits of study, the white paper concluded, “it would be difficult to argue that homiletics occupies ‘a prominent place’ in most seminarians’ training. Regrettably, the lack of prominence first noted in 1992 persists.”28 A cursory look at the current situation shows that several North American seminaries have responded to the Church’s call for greater attention to homiletics. Many have introduced stronger homiletics curricula, but each in its own way. St. John’s seminary in Camarillo, California, offers several courses in homiletics. St. Vincent Seminary, in Pennsylvania, has committed to integrating homiletics across the curriculum in addition to three dedicated courses, and introducing regular symposiums on preaching. St. Meinrad’s Seminary in Indiana, has built preaching labs with a central television control room to record preaching for evaluation. St. Augustine’s Seminary in the archdiocese of Toronto, Ontario, introduced a series of courses on Catholic preaching, including introductory and advanced homiletics, and a practicum that builds on preaching experience in an internship. These are only a few examples of what is being done.

Several approaches are demonstrated in these arrangements for addressing homiletics at a seminary. The first approach is having discrete courses. Seminarians and diaconate candidates will benefit from dedicated class time to the theology and development of preaching that looks at what the Church is asking from its preachers, the issues of preaching and the new evangelization, and the implications of decisions made for preaching. Additional courses that build upon this foundation can give seminarians and diaconate candidates opportunities to put this theology of preaching into practice, in terms of the Sunday homily, as well as in the daily homily, special occasions, and in particularly challenging situations. This first approach can be enhanced by broad support across the curriculum through homiletic assignments in courses on systematic and moral theology. In addition, frequent opportunities to preach during the Divine Office, and give reflections at liturgies, both in the seminary and in other settings, will build a habit of preaching. This practice needs to be supported with feedback from listeners, and evaluation from experienced preachers. The seminary offers the opportunity for seminarians and candidates to the diaconate to think about how systematic and moral theology, Scripture studies, and other aspects of their formation, are integrated into their preaching.

Committing to giving homiletics a prominent place in the seminary curriculum to form accomplished preachers for the new evangelization is an important step in answering the call of the synod of bishops. It also requires a clear vision of just what accomplished preaching is, so that a homiletics curriculum fulfills the needs of the Church for preaching in the new evangelization.

Benedict XVI’s apostolic exhortation Verbum Domini, which followed the synod on the Word of God in the Life of the Church, provides a template for that vision. Verbum Domini emphasizes that preaching the homily is part of the liturgy, and meant to bring Scripture to life, so that the faithful can realize the active presence of God in their lives. “Consequently, those who have been charged with preaching by virtue of a specific ministry ought to take this task to heart.”29 Msgr. Lluis Clavell, president of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, uses this document as his guideline in “Homilies Relevant to the New Evangelization.” Msgr. Clavell shows how Verbum Domini identifies the marks of good preaching as a corrective to common practice.

In line with Benedict XVI’s encouragement of the new evangelization, it is important to reflect on the role of homilies for Sunday and feast day Masses, with a view to their improvement. Millions of disciples of Christ all over the world listen to them. Many of the faithful ask themselves about the quality of those homilies, particularly with respect to content: at times, they hear themes unrelated to the readings of the Mass, or they are exposed to what are strictly the personal opinions of the celebrant. On other occasions, they may receive a mere reiteration of those liturgical readings.30

This catalogue of deficiencies suggests what the preacher ought to be doing, that is, relating the homily closely to the Scriptures of the Mass, presenting the mind of the Church, and uncovering deeper meaning and applications. He continues with the important observation that even preaching that, at first, sounds pleasing, but it can, in fact, be unfocused and ultimately unfulfilling.

Yet, it is only later, when the individual can quietly review the homily more deeply and critically, that he asks himself: It’s all well and good that the Lord accompanies and consoles me both in words and deeds, but does he save me, redeem me, and grant me a new life directed to the Life and to the Resurrection, after I die? Did I hear something in that homily about the crucified Jesus as the propitiatory victim for the sins of all men?31

The starting point for all this is a clearer understanding of what the homily actually is—an integral part of liturgy, an act of worship. Msgr. Clavell writes, “The homily is not as a lecture taught in a classroom or, for that matter, given in a house of worship outside of the Mass, or other liturgical ceremony. It forms part of the divine action, the celebration of the Eucharist, in which the one Sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary is made present once again. For that reason, the homily is of a unique character, as part of a larger entity.”32

Avoiding these two main failings—a focus on the person and opinion of the preacher, rather than on Scripture and the Magisterium, and an academic lecture style approach to preaching— are critical to understanding what Benedict has in mind for preaching in the new evangelization. In an earlier article before his election as pope, he reminded preachers that they do not preach on their own behalf. They preach from, and with, the Church. Unfortunately, he writes, “this point of view seems to have vanished to a great extent. …”33 He writes that preachers, all too often, preach from their own positions without recognizing that their faith cannot be without an ecclesial character. He also writes that some preachers present themselves as scholars, impoverishing the faith and the homily to an exercise in scholarship. In both cases, he argues, the Church has become an inconvenience to the preacher. “In the first case, the preacher’s legitimacy is derived from his personal decision of conscience, here it follows from his professional competence. …”34 Another way to put this critique is to say that the pope is warning his preachers not to put themselves at the center of the homily. Msgr. Clavell says it succinctly, “Christ is the center of every homily.”35 This is not to say that there is not a personal element in preaching. Indeed, Benedict also wrote in Verbum Domini, “The faithful should be able to perceive clearly that the preacher has a compelling desire to present Christ, who must stand at the center of every homily.”36 Msgr. Clavell reiterates this: “The faithful should be able to grasp the love of the homilist for Christ, as manifested in his tone, the expressions he employs, his joy, simplicity, and enthusiasm.”37 Thus, we have another characteristic for the homily in the new evangelization. Aside from being liturgical, scriptural, rich, and adapted to the hearer, it is also to be personal.

The Church has called for these qualities in preaching since the Second Vatican Council. Fr. Robert Waznak observes that to do this, the Council used patristic preaching practice, and Origen (185-254), in particular, as a model. Waznak notes that the use of the word “homily” refers directly to Origen’s homiliai which were liturgical, prophetic, scriptural, and conversational.38 Documents after the Council, and from the popes, have consistently upheld this view of the homily as most suitable to fulfilling the needs and demands of preaching in the modern world. The qualities of the homily described in documents during the pontificates of Paul VI and John Paul II are synthesized most effectively in the Introduction to the Lectionary.

The Introduction emphasizes that the homily is part of the liturgy.39 That is, it is not set apart from the liturgy, as if the Mass has been put on hold. It flows out of everything that precedes it, and flows into everything that follows it, reaching its fulfillment in the Eucharist. The implication for the preacher in preparation and delivery is to see the homily as integrated with the liturgy rather than as a discrete unit. The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments went so far as to discourage preachers from making the sign of the cross before or after preaching.

Generally speaking, it is inadvisable to continue such customs because they have their origin in preaching outside of Mass. The homily is part of the liturgy; the people have already blessed themselves and received the greeting at the beginning of Mass. It is better, then, not to have a repetition before or after the homily.40

Integrating the homily as part of the liturgy means that the preacher can refer to the collect, closing prayer, hymns sung at the Mass, and specific parts of the liturgy. He can also carefully connect the prayer of the faithful to what was preached so that the listener has an experience of preaching that ties everything together. In particular, it means that the homily must “lead the community of the faithful to celebrate the Eucharist actively.”41

The Introduction also stresses that the homily be Scriptural. It is to proclaim the sacred Scriptures as in the readings or some text in the liturgy.42 The preacher can make references to other sources, but these are always meant to be illustrative of the primary sources for that homily which are the readings at that Mass. Practically, it means that the preacher should focus on what has just been heard, rather than refer to other parts of Scripture. It means dealing with what the Church has put in front of him and the congregation, rather than avoiding it or using it as a springboard to speak about something else. The interesting phrase “or some other text of the Liturgy” refers to what is sometimes called “the Liturgical Bible.” That is, the preacher can preach on other texts heard at that Mass, the preface to the Eucharistic prayer, for example. This practice is another facet of making the homily liturgical. Accomplished preachers connect the Scriptures of the Mass with the “Liturgical Bible” making for a rich experience of the Word for the listeners.

That the homily is scriptural does not mean it is simply a commentary on history. It is also prophetic in the sense that Waznak uses the term to describe patristic preaching. “The patristic homilies proclaimed the saving grace of Jesus Christ in the midst of existential realities.”43 That means, Waznak continues, “the homily is an interpretation of life in light of the Good News.”44 The U.S. bishops called for preaching from, rather than on, the Scriptures as a lens to look at contemporary life. “In other words, the goal of the liturgical preacher is not to interpret a text of the Bible as he would in the case of teaching a Scripture class, as much as to draw on the texts of the Bible as they are presented in the lectionary, to interpret people’s lives.”45 The implication for the preacher is the need to be mindful of, not his particular interests, but the congregation’s particular questions. Benedict concluded that preaching was in crisis because it had ignored this critical point.

The crisis in Christian preaching, which we have experienced in growing proportions for a century, is based, in no small part, on the fact that the Christian answers have ignored man’s questions: they were and remain right, but because they were not developed from and within the question, they remain ineffective.46

The prophetic preacher is called on to be aware of the questions and concerns of the listeners, and of the often perplexing events in the world, to which the preacher holds up the lens of Scripture and the teaching of the Church. In particular, the prophetic preacher is called on to preach in the present tense so that the congregation hears that God did not simply act in the past, but acts now, that the Word that was meant for people in ancient times is also meant for us now.

All of this is to be adapted to the listeners. Thus, the homily is also meant to be conversational. That does not mean chatty or unstructured. Far from it—the Church has asked its preachers for careful preparation. It does mean that the language of the homily engages the listener. It is, at once, understandable and attractive. The conversational preacher uses image, story, and questions, not to draw attention to his own eloquence, but to present a message that attracts and intrigues. The New Homiletic Movement, beginning with the work of Fred Craddock in the early 1970s, proposed an inductive method of preaching that leads the listener from question to question, point to point, as the main message is uncovered and discovered. This method was meant as an alternative to the deductive method which proposes a thesis or message, and then explains or supports it much as any academic essay does.

All of this seems like a tall order—but then, as Pope Paul observed, the faithful expect much from preaching. Several methods are available to prepare, structure, and deliver a homily. The U.S. bishops proposed a lectionary study group made up of parishioners to assist the preacher when preparing a homily. That group uses a modified Lectio Divina on the upcoming Sunday readings. In this way, the preacher learns how listeners in his congregation hear the readings and what concerns they have.47 Homiletics texts offer a variety of approaches all aimed at the same thing—a homily that is carefully prepared and fulfils what the Church asks of it preachers. Benedict XVI proposes an elegantly simple model in Verbum Domini. The preacher, he writes, should ask himself three questions: “What are the Scriptures being proclaimed saying? What do they say to me personally? What should I say to the community in the light of its concrete situation.”48 These three questions provide a guideline that keeps the preacher grounded in the Scriptures of that liturgy, personally invested, and focused on applying them in specific ways to daily life.

An important question remains. What is the role of catechesis in the homily for the new evangelization? To catechize, or not to catechize, has been a point of contention among Catholic preachers. On the one hand, the argument is that the renewal of the homily with a return to the patristic model of preaching was meant to remedy the heavily catechetical preaching before the Council. That preaching was largely separate from the Mass, to the point that the preacher removed his maniples and left the sanctuary to preach his sermon. Pre-conciliar preaching was also frequently disconnected from the readings of the Mass. Instead, it focused on points of the Creed or the Our Father, often in a series of sermons. Critics of the renewal in homiletics argue that the result has been the neglect of doctrine which has caused a shocking ignorance of the faith, even among those who attend Mass regularly. They observe that even if the homily is not an RCIA talk, the fact is the 10 minutes or so per week at Mass is the only opportunity that people will have to hear the teachings of the Church.

But surely, to catechize or not to catechize is a false dichotomy, a bogus question. The Church has never suggested that, in a return to the qualities of patristic preaching, doctrine be excluded from the homily. In fact, it is essential. Cardinal Ratzinger made the helpful observation that dogma “marks of the limit of preaching,” whereas Scripture “positively shows the way of preaching.”49 That is, the Scriptures of the Mass are central to preaching, and dogma provides the framework. When the preacher brings the teachings of the Church to the readings, he deepens and enriches them. He also is kept from preaching any personal agenda that is outside the mind of the Church. The Church calls its preachers neither to exclude catechesis, nor make it central, so that it replaces the centrality of Scripture. The U.S. bishops recently published “Preaching the Mystery of Faith” as a companion to their earlier directive on preaching “Fulfilled in Your Hearing.” This new document takes up the matter of catechesis and endorses its use, but is careful to point out “good homiletic preaching begins and ends with an engagement with the Word of God.”50 For the preacher, this means bringing the teachings of the Church to the readings proclaimed at Mass, rather than passing over the readings, or using them as a vehicle to speak about dogma. It means, as a general rule, to avoid preaching on a theme, or catechetical point, that does not grow out of what has just been proclaimed and heard. The preacher deepens the readings with questions, explanations, exegesis, and stories, all guided by, and bound with, dogma. It is not that catechesis is excluded from preaching, but rather that it supports, deepens, and illuminates the readings and prayers of the Mass. In this way, week after week, as questions and issues are suggested by Scripture, the preacher acquaints the congregation with the Church’s response.

A careful examination of Pope Francis’s homiletic practice, both at major liturgical events, and in his daily preaching in the chapel at Domus Sanctae Martha, where he has resided since his election, indicates a commitment to all of the characteristics of preaching for the new evangelization outlined above. His homily to seminarians and novices on July 7, 2013, is a good example.51 That homily is firmly built upon the readings of the Mass. In fact, as with many of his other homilies, the Holy Father spends time on each of the three readings. Other homilies, as on the July 28, 2013, World Youth Day Mass, also incorporate the responsorial psalm.52 Pope Francis moves beyond the historical situation of these readings to draw out contemporary applications that directly touch the specific congregation or group to whom he is preaching. His homilies are not lectures on a point of doctrine, but do bring in references to papal documents when it is useful to deepen the listener’s understanding of the readings. He cited Paul VI’s Evangelii Nuntiandi when preaching on the Feast of St. George,53 John Paul II’s Redemptoris Custos in his homily at the beginning of his Petrine ministry as the bishop of Rome,54 and Lumen Gentium on the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul.55 He has incorporated theologians, as in his homily on Divine Mercy Sunday.56 All of Pope Francis’s references bring in the teachings of the Church to clarify and illuminate the readings of the liturgy. He does all of this preaching in a familiar, conversational tone, often beginning with a question and then, in an inductive manner, taking the listener through the Scriptures to uncover what God has to say to them. The style is, at once, intimate and personal, always centered on Christ.

Pope Francis explicitly lays out his vision of the homily in the extraordinary document Evangelii Gaudium, the apostolic exhortation issued in 2013 after the synod on the new evangelization. He devotes 24 sections to what he is looking for from his preachers. Above all, he calls for preachers to take the task seriously by devoting significant time to the task. He does not temper his words.

Some pastors argue that such preparation is not possible, given the vast number of tasks which they must perform; nonetheless, I presume to ask that each week a sufficient portion of personal and community time be dedicated to this task, even if less time has to be given to other important activities. Trust that 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.57

This vision of preaching, consistent with, but clarifying, the vision of his predecessors since the Second Vatican Council, calls for preachers to know the heart of the community (n. 137), preach homilies that are neither entertainment nor a lecture (n. 138), prefer images to the use of examples (n. 157), give full attention to the biblical texts, beginning with a literal reading (n. 146, n. 152), and relate the texts to the lived experienced of the listeners (n. 154). He also calls his preachers to develop good delivery skills, calling that “a profoundly spiritual concern.”58 For this Pope, attention to the dynamics of speaking, including volume, rate, voice color, eye contact, and gesture is more than just simply the finer points of public speaking. It has to do with fulfilling the mission of preaching by giving our best to God and to his people.

It entails responding to the love of God by putting all our talents and creativity at the service of the mission which he has given us; at the same time, it shows a fine, active love of neighbor by refusing to offer others a product of poor quality.59

Perhaps, the most significant contribution Francis makes to the Church’s vision for preaching in the modern world is in the image he supplies us. The Church has traditionally used images like Teacher, Witness, or Herald. The last one, in particular, is highlighted in the ordination rite for deacons. Francis, however, adds a new one that is both poignant and striking. Writing about the Church, he observes that it points out a model of preaching.

It reminds us that the Church is a mother, and that she preaches in the same way that a mother speaks to her child, knowing that the child trusts that which she is teaching is for his or her benefit, for children know that they are loved. Moreover, a good mother can recognize everything that God is bringing about in her children, she listens to their concerns, and learns from them.60

There is the heart of it. The preacher preaches with love in an intimate way, based on trust, so that even the hard things are received by listeners who know that the preacher is concerned for their well-being. These qualities are what the Church has called for in a renewal of the homily. They are a response to Pope Benedict’s call for an improvement in preaching, and they are what the Church asks of its preachers. Careful attention to these qualities, to the theology of preaching, to the needs of the listeners, and faithfulness to the Church are essential for preachers in their primary apostolate in the new evangelization.

The Homiletic Directory, released in February, 2015, has articulated all of this as a guide for the Church’s preachers. It notes that, at one time, preaching was “a moral or doctrinal instruction delivered at Mass on Sundays and holy days, not necessarily integrated into the celebration itself”61 The Church now requires a different vision. That vision is that the homily be “an integral part of the liturgy” which is, thus, “an act of worship” and “a hymn of gratitude for the Magnalia Dei, which, not only tells those assembled that God’s Word is fulfilled in their hearing, but praises God for this fulfillment.”62 The directory reminds preachers that the homily is a sacramental moment because Christ is present in the preaching of his minister.63 It points out that the homily is not abstract, purely an exercise in exegesis, a catechetical instruction, or even a personal witness.64 It is not that the homily cannot have these elements in it, but that the homily is not to primarily be these things. Preachers who see their dominant preaching image as witness may be surprised that the directory pointedly declares that “the homily should not be taken up with the preacher’s personal witness” because “the homily should express the faith of the Church, and not simply the preacher’s own story.”65 The point is not that personal elements are ruled out from the homily. In fact, the directory is clear that “the preacher needs to speak in such a way that the hearers can sense his belief in the power of God.”66 At the same time:

He must not lower the standards of his message to the level of his own personal witness, fearing that he will be accused of not practicing what he preaches. Since he is preaching, not himself, but Christ, he can, without hypocrisy, point out the heights of sanctity, to which, like every other individual, in his pilgrim faith, he is aspiring.67

In this way, the preacher is preaching to himself as much as he is preaching to the congregation. It is not a top-down didactic approach, preaching to “you,” but rather a conversation that preaches to “us.”

The renewal of the homily and its place in the new evangelization requires a clear theology to go with it. The Church has given its preachers that theology, and calls them to live up to this vision through careful preparation and, above all, a commitment to making this ministry their priority. It is both a challenge and a moment of extraordinary grace.

  1. Matthew 28:16-20 RSVCE.
  2. Romans 10:14 RSVCE.
  3. Paul VI, Ecclesiam Suam (August 6, 1964), n. 90.
  4. Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi (December 8, 1975), n. 43.
  5. John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio (1990), n. 20.
  6. John Paul II, Catechesi Tradendae (1979), n. 48.
  7. John Paul II, Address to the Pontifical Biblical Commission (April 23, 1993), n.15.
  8. Ibid., n. 15.
  9. Ibid., n. 15.
  10. Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis (2007), n. 46.
  11. Linementa, The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church (2007), Questions, Chapter II.
  12. Instrumentum Laboris, The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church (2008), n. 27.
  13. H. Em. Card. Stanislaw Dziwisz, Archbishop of Krakow, Intervention at the Sixth General Congregation (Thursday, October 9, 2008). 
  14. Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi (December 8, 1975), n. 41.
  15. Baldwin of Canterbury, Bishop, Friday, 30th Week in Ordinary Time.
  16. H.E. Most Rev. Gerald Frederick Kicanas, Bishop of Tucson, Intervention at the Third General Congregation (Tuesday, October 7, 2008).
  17. H.EM. Card. Marc Ouellet, Archbishop of Quebec, Report before the Discussion of the General Reporter (October, 2008). 2.A.b.
  18. H.E. Most Rev. Desiderius Rwoma, Bishop of Tanzania, Intervention at the Fourth General Congregation (Tuesday, October 7, 2008).
  19. H. E. Most. Rev. Mark Benedict Coleridge, Archbishop of Canberra-Goulburn (Australia), Intervention at the Third General Congregation (Tuesday, October 7, 2008).
  20. H.EM. Card. Marc Ouellet, Archbishop of Quebec, Report before the Discussion of the General Reporter (October, 2008). 2A.
  21. Instrumentum Laboris, New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith (June 19, 2012), n. 139.
  22. Ibid., n. 143.
  23. H. B. Sviatoslav Schevchu, Archbishop Major of Kyiv-Halyc, Head of the Synod of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Intervention at the Seventh General Congregation (Friday, October 10, 2012).
  24. H. Exc. Rev. Mons. Sanctus Lino Wanok, Bishop of Nebbi (Uganda), Intervention at the 12th General Congregation (October 15, 2012).
  25. H. Exc. Rev. Mons Tara Senkiv, O.M., Titular Bishop of Siccena, Auxiliary Bishop, Protocyncellus and Apostolic Administration “Ad Nutum Sanctae Sedis” of Stryj of Ukrainians (Ukraine), Intervention at the 11th General Congregation (October 15, 2012).
  26. Final List of Propositions, XII Ordinary General Assembly, the New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith (October 27, 2012), proposition 49.
  27. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Program for Priestly Formation, fifth edition (Washington, DC: 2006), n. 215.
  28. Catholic Association of Teachers of Homiletics, “The State of Homiletics in the Seminaries and Graduate Schools of Theology in the United States” (2002), 1.A., available at cathomiletics.org/whitepaper.htm
  29. Benedict XVI, Verbum Domini (September 30, 2010), n. 59.
  30. Msgr. Lluis Clavell, “Homilies Relevant to the New Evangelization,” published in Spanish in Temes D’Avui, no. 39 (January-April 2011), available in English translation at collationes.org/component/k2/item/823-homilies-relevant-to-the-new-evangelization-llu%C3%ADs-clavell
  31. Ibid.
  32. Msgr. Lluis Clavell, “Homilies Relevant to the New Evangelization.”
  33. Joseph Ratzinger-Benedict XVI, “Church As the Place of Preaching,” in Dogma and Preaching, ed. Michael Miller (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011), p.21.
  34. Ibid, p. 22.
  35. Msgr. Lluis Clavell, “Homilies Relevant to the New Evangelization.”
  36. Benedict XVI, Verbum Domini (September 30, 2010), n. 59.
  37. Msgr. Lluis Clavell, “Homilies Relevant to the New Evangelization.”
  38. Robert Waznak, An Introduction to the Homily (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1998), p. 4.
  39. Introduction to the Lectionary (1981), n. 24.
  40. Notitiae, v.9 (1973), 178, DOL-1423, n. R 8.
  41. Introduction to the Lectionary (1981), n. 24.
  42. Ibid., n 24.
  43. Robert Waznak, An Introduction to the Homily (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1998), p. 25.
  44. Ibid., p. 26.
  45. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Fulfilled in Your Hearing (Washington, DC, 1982), p. 20.
  46. Joseph Ratzinger-Benedict XVI, “Contemporary Man Facing the Question of God,” in Dogma and Preaching, ed. Michael Miller (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011), p.77.
  47. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Fulfilled in Your Hearing (1982), p. 36-38.
  48. Benedict XVI, Verbum Domini (September 30, 2010), n. 59.
  49. Joseph Ratzinger-Benedict XVI, “Christocentrism in Preaching,” in Dogma and Preaching, ed. Michael Miller (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011), p. 52.
  50. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Preaching the Mystery of Faith (Washington, DC, 2013), p. 44.
  51. Pope Francis, Homily at Holy Mass with Seminarians and Novices, July 7, 2013. Available at vatican.va/holy_father/francesco/homilies/2013/documents/papa-francesco_20130707_omelia-seminaristi-novizie_en.html
  52. Pope Francis, Homily at the Holy Mass on the Occasion of the 28th World Youth Day, July 28, 2013. Available at: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/francesco/homilies/2013/documents/papa-francesco_20130728_celebrazione-xxviii-gmg_en.html 
  53. Pope Francis, Homily at the Eucharistic Concelebration with the Eminent Cardinals Resident in Rome on the Occasion of the Feast of St. George, April 28, 2013. Available at vatican.va/holy_father/francesco/homilies/2013/documents/papa-francesco_20130423_omelia-san-giorgio_en.html
  54. Pope Francis, Homily at the Mass for the Inauguration of the Pontificate, March 17, 2013. Available at vatican.va/holy_father/francesco/homilies/2013/documents/papa-francesco_20130319_omelia-inizio-pontificato_en.html
  55. Pope Francis, Homily at the Papal Mass of the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, June 29, 2013. Available at vatican.va/holy_father/francesco/homilies/2013/documents/papa-francesco_20130629_omelia-pallio_en.html
  56. Pope Francis, Homily at Mass for the Possession of the Chair of the Bishop of Rome, Divine Mercy Sunday, April 7, 2013, vatican.va/holy_father/francesco/homilies/2013/documents/papa-francesco_20130407_omelia-possesso-cattedra-laterano_en.html
  57. Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (November 24, 2013), n. 145.
  58. Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (November 24, 2013), n. 156.
  59. Ibid., n. 156.
  60. Ibid., n. 139.
  61. Homiletic Directory (February 10, 2015), n. 1.
  62. Ibid., n. 4.
  63. Ibid., n. 4.
  64. Ibid., n. 6.
  65. Ibid., n. 6.
  66. Ibid., n. 7.
  67. Ibid., n. 7.
Deacon Peter Lovrick About Deacon Peter Lovrick

Deacon Peter Lovrick holds a doctorate in homiletics from Aquinas Institute of Theology (St. Louis University), is professor of homiletics at St. Augustine's Seminary in Toronto, Canada, and is director of the diaconate formation program for the Archdiocese of Toronto. His publications include two books on Chinese opera, three books on English dealing with writing, presentations, and editing, and one book on homiletics entitled: Preaching in a New Season, which will be available in 2016.

Comments

  1. Thank you, Deacon Lovrick, for your thoughtful reflection on a profoundly important matter for the Church today. You have included many helpful comments, suggestions and observations. I especially am grateful that you included this from Archbishop Coleridge concerning the kerygma, a factor I believe to be the core issue to be dealt with. You cited (footnote 19), and he wrote:

    “One reason for this is that preaching all too often takes the kerygma for granted, and this at a moment in Western culture when the kerygma cannot be taken for granted. If it is, there is the risk of a moralistic reduction of preaching which may evoke interest or admiration, but not the faith that saves. Preaching will not be an experience of Christ’s power.”

    This brief comment presents what I believe is the one crucial, irreplaceable, absolutely essential factor in your analysis of the problems and the solutions in the matter of Catholic preaching. The foundations of the faith are commonly assumed, and so the preacher or catechist can go immediately to matters easier to deal with: moralisms or even platitudes. The necessity of having heard the saving truth of the work of Christ, so as to “believe into Him” (as John’s Gospel prefers: pisteuein eis) so as to be empowered to live His truth, is all assumed to be “in place” in the congregation. We are, after all, “all Catholics here – right?”

    No, this assumption is not right; the Archbishop was right: “the kerygma cannot be taken for granted.” I tremble to suggest that this assumption pervades the Church today, extending beyond parishes even to formation programs preparing men to become deacons and priests, preachers and teachers of others. Surely these men, it seems to have been assumed, discerning or having discerned a vocation to Holy Orders, have heard the Gospel of Christ and His saving Passion! I don’t doubt that they – like the lay members of the parishes they will be sent to – have heard the words. But have they heard the Word? Have they heard the living eternal Word in the words? Are these preachers or future preachers alive in the personal, life-changing “experience of Christ’s power,” again to borrow the Archbishop’s succinct expression.

    A life-transforming encounter with the living Christ – meant to last a lifetime – cannot be assumed in the hearts of seminarians. But without this credential, how can he be a “witness” of the life he would proclaim? Have our preachers and heard the kerygma – have they really, deeply heard Him call them, not only to service in the Church, but first of all into LIFE in Him – to repentance, to conversion, to discipleship, to the Cross?

    I stress this because nothing can replace the foundation of the house, or the roots of the plant. No renewal of sacramentalizing can replace catechizing, no renewal of catechizing can replace the initial foundation of conversion. No renewal of “continuing conversion” can replace an essential “first conversion” of death to the world and immersion into a new life in Christ. A personal saving encounter with Him is crucial. And as Paul wrote, “And how can people preach unless they are sent?” (Rom 10:15) The “sent ones” by virtue of Holy Orders, for them to be fruitful in their preaching, to be truly a “witness,” must also have the interior authenticity that makes their words credible and life-giving.

    • Dcn Peter Lovrick Dcn Peter Lovrick says:

      Thank you, Thomas, for posting. I think you are on to something here. It is not that knowing the dogmas and how to live a Christian life, and then doing it, are unimportant. They are very important. It is rather that we do these things as a response to the experience of what God has done first. The Church has strongly asked for Christocentric preaching for just this reason — to focus on what Christ has done, is doing, and will do for us. Without that, preaching can too easily slip into Pelagianism — and like the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son, we can become stuffy, prideful, and full of a sense of entitlement because we have done the chores and now God owes us. The kerygma takes us out of that — not out of a response to get as close to God as we can, which is personal holiness — but out of a focus on me first, and out of a joyless, grim, determined life focused on checking off all the boxes on a report card.

    • Tom McGuire says:

      Thomas I agree, in my own experience, I had excellent homiletics in seminary. It was not till after seminary that I had a personal experience of Christ in my life that sharing the Word of God became more than an academic exercise. I travel a lot in my retirement, which means I hear homilies in many different Catholic Churches throughout the United States. Unfortunately, very few take kerygma seriously. Most often the homily is little more than a moralistic commentary.

      Francis, Bishop of Rome, is a dramatic example of great preaching. The proof is in the response of the “crowds”. Like Jesus, he appeals to the many, the hard work of evangelization requires much from missionary disciples, that is all of us. As members of the Church, we all have responsibility to help the homilist become better. We do not do that sitting back in silence when we hear a great homily or a terrible homily.