What Direction Does the Church Give to Homilists?

Every Catholic has an opinion about how homilies ought to be preached. And while such personal observations and insights can be helpful, they do not provide a solid foundation upon which to build a sound understanding of what the substance and style of homilies ought to be.

The Church’s law and doctrine regarding the homily provide an objective standard against which we can measure any priest’s homilies. Such a standard protects against arbitrary analysis, to which one is doomed when measuring homilies only against theories about homiletic preaching.Our focus will be on several important contemporary canonical, liturgical, and magisterial texts. Our purpose is straightforward and practical: understanding the nature of the homily and what the Church asks of her homilists. We begin with a consideration of Church law, and then move to some key magisterial sources, occasionally considering the insights of a few select theologians from the years preceding and following the Second Vatican Council.

Canon Law

We begin by examining what the Church legislates concerning preaching by looking at the 1983 Code of Canon Law,1 particularly canon 767 §1. Our analysis of this canon will include an examination of related canons in the 1983 Code, some canons on “sacred sermons” found in the 1917 Code, sources within the documents of the Second Vatican Council, and the current introduction to the Sunday Lectionary, which will serve as an example of the treatment of the homily in the current liturgical instructions. We must first consider the text of canon 767 §1 itself, as well as its context within the 1983 Code. We must recognize the distinctive way in which this immediate context shapes our understanding of the canon, in keeping with canon 17, which says, “Ecclesiastical laws must be understood in accord with the proper meaning of the words considered in their text and context.” Canon 767 states:

  • 1. Among the forms of preaching, the homily, which is part of the liturgy itself and is reserved to a priest or deacon, is preeminent; in the homily the mysteries of faith and the norms of Christian life are to be explained from the sacred text during the course of the liturgical year.

  • 2. A homily must be given at all Masses on Sundays and holy days of obligation which are celebrated with a congregation, and it cannot be omitted except for a grave cause.

  • 3. It is strongly recommended that if there is a sufficient congregation, a homily is to be given even at Masses celebrated during the week, especially during the time of Advent and Lent or on the occasion of some feast day or a sorrowful event.

  • 4. It is for the pastor or rector of a church to take care that these prescripts are observed conscientiously.

Based on the text of this canon, there are several points we can make about the homily, the first of which is that the homily is “preeminent” among the forms of preaching. The homily is part of the liturgy itself, and its only proper minister is a priest (sacerdos) or deacon; the content of the homily includes the “mysteries of faith” and the “norms of Christian life”; the source of the homily is the “sacred text”; and the presentation of the aforementioned content takes place “during the course of the liturgical year.” We will see that there is more to be said based on the context of canon 767 §1 in the 1983 Code, but here we are primarily interested in the content of the homily, and do not pursue the question of the proper minister of the homily, which has been a point of contention in recent decades.2

We have seen that the homily is the “preeminent” form of preaching. Preaching, in turn, is the subject of Chapter 1, Title I, “The Ministry of the Divine Word,” in Book III “The Teaching Office of the Church.” Homiletic preaching is an exercise of the teaching office or “function” (munus) of the Church. Canon 747, which introduces Book III, instructs that the Church is to “protect the revealed truth reverently, examine it more closely, and proclaim and expound it faithfully” and “to preach the gospel to all peoples” (§1), as well as “to announce moral principles . . . and to render judgment concerning any human affairs insofar as the fundamental rights of the human person or the salvation of souls requires it” (§2).3

The homily is part of the “Ministry of the Divine Word,” which can be concisely described as “proclaiming the gospel,” a phrase we find in canons 756 and 747 §1. And so the homily is an act of teaching that finds its basis in the proclamation of the Gospel. As a matter of structural analysis, it is worth noting the series of “firsts” here: first among the titles within Book IV is the ministry of the divine word; the first chapter of this title is dedicated to preaching; and among the forms of preaching the homily is first, or “preeminent.” This structure expresses, I suggest, the importance of the homily within the teaching function of the Church.

Because the homily is a form of preaching, we can look to the canonical norms on preaching in order to supplement our understanding of the content of the homily. Canon 768 states that the content of preaching is as follows:

  • 1. Those who proclaim the divine word are to propose first of all to the Christian faithful those things which one must believe and do for the glory of God and the salvation of humanity.

  • 2. They are also to impart to the faithful the doctrine which the magisterium of the Church sets forth concerning the dignity and freedom of the human person, the unity and stability of the family and its duties, the obligations which people have from being joined together in society, and the ordering of temporal affairs according to the plan established by God.

Here it will be helpful to note some important points of correlation between canon 747 and canon 768:

Canon 747                                           Canon 768

(§1) “deposit of faith”                         (§1) “those things which one must believe”

(§1) “preach the gospel”                     (§1) “proclaim the divine word”

(§2) “moral principles”                       (§1) “and do”

(§2) “the salvation of souls”               (§1) “the salvation of humanity”

(§2) “social order”                              (§2) “ordering of temporal affairs”

(§2) “fundamental rights of the          (§2) “dignity and freedom of the human person”

human person”

Taken together, these two canons supplement the two descriptive phrases that in canon 767 §1 summarize the content of the homily: “mysteries of faith” and “norms of Christian life.” Canon 769 is also relevant here, as it makes legal provision for the adaptation of the manner of preaching to particular hearers: “Christian doctrine is to be set forth in a way accommodated to the condition of the listeners and in a manner adapted to the needs of the times.” It is significant to note here that it is the “manner” of preaching that is to be accommodated according to this canon, not the doctrine itself. This canon illustrates the truth that canon law is an expression of pastoral theology.

Finally, canons 386 (Book II) and 836 (Book IV) mention “preaching” and “the ministry of the word,” respectively. These two canons illustrate the fact that homiletic preaching is connected to the other two munera Christi: the functions of governing and sanctifying. They tell us something about the way in which homiletic content is governed (can. 386) and its purpose (can. 836). Here are the two canons in full:

Canon 386. §1. A diocesan bishop, frequently preaching in person, is bound to propose and explain to the faithful the truths of the faith which are to be believed and applied to morals. He is also to take care that the prescripts of the canons on the ministry of the word, especially those on the homily and catechetical instruction, are carefully observed so that the whole Christian doctrine is handed on to all. §2. Through more suitable means, he is firmly to protect the integrity and unity of the faith to be believed, while nonetheless acknowledging a just freedom in further investigating its truths.

Canon 836. Since Christian worship, in which the common priesthood of the Christian faithful is carried out, is a work which proceeds from faith and is based on it, sacred ministers are to take care to arouse and enlighten this faith diligently, especially through the ministry of the word, which gives birth to and nourishes the faith.

The Coetus de Magisterio of the Pontifical Commission for the Interpretation of Legal Texts, in its seventh session (January, 1972), designated draft canon 19, which would later become canon 767 in the 1983 Code novus, or “new.”4 This does not mean that the concepts of the canon are necessarily new, but rather that the canon has no direct antecedent in the 1917 Code of Canon Law. The 1917 Code contains an entire chapter dedicated to “sacred sermons.” Included in this chapter are canons 1337–1348. Among these canons, the clearest antecedent to Canon 767 of the 1983 Code, conceptually speaking, is canon 1344 §1: “On [Sundays] and other feasts of precept throughout the year, it is the personal duty of the pastor to announce the word of God to the people, in the customary homily, especially at the Mass which the greater part of the people attend.”5, all English translations of the 1917 Code from Edward Peters, The 1917 or Pio-Benedictine Code of Canon Law in English Translation with Extensive Scholarly Apparatus (Ignatius Press, 2000).]

This is the only canon in this chapter that explicitly mentions the homily. It also connects the homily to the liturgy, particularly the Mass, and describes the homily as a form of preaching in which the pastor is to “announce the word of God to the people.” A related canon from the 1917 Code is canon 1347, which is an antecedent to canon 768 of the 1983 Code and describes the content of the sermon. Two sources for canon 1347 are the teaching of the Council of Trent (the earliest major source listed in the footnotes to this canon) and the 1917 encyclical Humani generis by Pope Benedict XV. The Council of Trent teaches, among other things, that “the preaching of the Gospel is no less necessary to the Christian commonwealth than the reading thereof,” and further directs:

Archpriests, priests and all who in any manner have charge of parochial and other churches to which is attached the cura animarum, shall at least on Sundays and solemn festivals, either personally or, if they are lawfully impeded, through others who are competent, feed the people committed to them with wholesome words in proportion to their own and their people’s mental capacity, by teaching them those things that are necessary for all to know in order to be saved, and by impressing upon them with briefness and plainness of speech the vices they must avoid and the virtues they must cultivate, in order that they may escape the eternal punishment and obtain the glory of heaven.6

In his encyclical Humani generis, Benedict XV instructs preachers to engage in Christocentric preaching, modeled on the preaching of St. Paul, unworldly and unafraid of the consequences of preaching the “stern truth” of the Gospel.7

But the most important antecedent text to canon 767 §1 comes from the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council, paragraph 52:

By means of the homily the mysteries of the faith and the guiding principles of the Christian life are expounded from the sacred text during the course of the liturgical year. The homily, therefore, is to be highly esteemed as part of the liturgy itself. In fact at those Masses which are celebrated on Sundays and holidays of obligation, with the people assisting, it should not be omitted except for a serious reason.8

This language is very similar to that of canon 767 §1, including the two phrases describing the content of the homily, requiring that the homilist presents to his hearers both the truths of the faith and norms and guidance for moral living. Here also is the teaching that the homily is “part of the liturgy itself.” A source for this teaching is the liturgical encyclical Mediator Dei (1947) of Pope Pius XII, which demonstrates the Church’s long tradition of understanding the homily as part of the liturgy.9

The first schema underwent development over the next year, including the addition of a description of the content of the homily. This brought the draft text within one comma of that which would appear in the final schema two months later.10 There are two other references to the homily in Sacrosanctum Concilium, in paragraphs 24 and 35, as well as a reference in Dei Verbum 24.11 Sacrosanctum Concilium 35 is the most descriptive of the content of the homily, teaching that it “should draw its content mainly from scriptural and liturgical sources, for it is the proclamation of God’s wonderful works in the history of salvation, which is the mystery of Christ ever made present and active in us, especially in the celebration of the liturgy.”12 And so in the Second Vatican Council we see the clear connection between the homily and the liturgy, the sources for homiletic preaching, and some indicators of the content of that preaching. Now we will briefly look at how the Church’s norms on homiletic preaching are applied in one of the current ritual books, the Lectionary for Sunday Mass.

The Sunday Lectionary

In addition to the 1983 Code of Canon Law, there are other sources to which one could look to examine the conciliar-era and post-conciliar development of the Church’s norms and teaching regarding the homily. Perhaps the best way to approach the question of how the Church’s legal norms are applied practically, however, is to consider what the Church’s liturgical books have to say about homilies. The homily is part of the liturgy, and canon 2 points to the Church’s ritual books for authoritative direction with regard to the execution of the Church’s liturgical rites, including the preaching of homilies.13 The introduction to the Lectionary for Sunday Mass offers a good representative text in its description of the homily. This description of the homily begins with language similar to that found in canon 767 §1, yet there are elements not found in that canon:

Through the course of the liturgical year the homily sets forth the mysteries of faith and the standards of the Christian life on the basis of the sacred text . . . The purpose of the homily at Mass is that the spoken word of God and the liturgy of the Eucharist may together become “a proclamation of God’s wonderful works in the history of salvation, the mystery of Christ.” Through the readings and homily Christ’s paschal mystery is proclaimed; through the sacrifice of the Mass it becomes present. Moreover Christ himself is always present and active in the preaching of his Church.14

This paragraph begins with the familiar exhortation that comprehensive homiletic preaching take place “through the course of the liturgical year” and that it presents “the mysteries of faith and the standards of the Christian life.” That this is done “on the basis of the sacred text” also corresponds to what is found in both canon law and Sacrosanctum concilium. The Lectionary’s instruction begins to distinguish itself at this point, however, by linking the Liturgy of the Word with the Liturgy of the Eucharist. According to John Huels, “The homily is a unique form of preaching at liturgy that brings out the close relationship between the word of God and the mystery of the Eucharist.”15 This connection has roots in the liturgical renewal. Pius Parsch writes, “It is true to say that most of the Gospels for Sundays and Feastdays may be, and indeed should be, related to the Eucharist.”16 Parsch further asserts that Gospel pericopes “are figures and parables of the efficacy of the Holy Sacrifice,” and that “the liturgy is not so much concerned with giving instructions in these pericopes as with pointing a mystical parallel; with showing us how Christ works in the Eucharist.”17

The introduction to the Lectionary also emphasizes the centrality of Christ’s Paschal Mystery, which is “proclaimed” in the Liturgy of the Word and “becomes present” in the Eucharistic Sacrifice. The text makes clear that Christ is “present and active” in homiletic preaching. The Lectionary’s instruction then goes on to specify the identity of the “sacred text,” to indicate the purpose of the homily, and to instruct preachers regarding both the preparation of their homilies and their style:

Whether the homily explains the text of the Sacred Scriptures proclaimed in the readings or some other text of the Liturgy, it must always lead the community of the faithful to celebrate the Eucharist actively, so that they may hold fast in their lives to what they have grasped by faith. From this living explanation, the word of God proclaimed in the readings and the Church’s celebration of the day’s Liturgy will have greater impact. But this demands that the homily be truly the fruit of meditation, carefully prepared, neither too long nor too short, and suited to all those present, even children and the uneducated.18

While Sacred Scripture holds pride of place among the sources of homiletic preaching, one notes the Lectionary’s indication that the liturgical texts may also be used, and seems to imply that the liturgical text may sometimes be used instead of the scriptural readings, though it is possible the Lectionary’s instruction at this point does not refer to the homily as a whole, but only a given section of the homily. The Lectionary also specifies the aim of the homily in terms the congregation’s response to it. The homily “must always lead the community of the faithful to celebrate the Eucharist actively, so that they may hold fast in their lives to what they have grasped by faith.” The final sentence of this paragraph sets a high bar for the Church’s preachers, both with regard to their preparation and to the congregational sensitivity that characterizes both the length and the style of the homily.

While there are other canonical and liturgical sources which could supplement our understanding of the legal definition and shape of the homily, we have seen sketch of the homily’s definition and content. To preach “the mysteries of faith and the norms of Christian living” may sound simple and open-ended, but understood in both their text and context, these descriptive phrases can do much to guide homilists as they preach to the Christian faithful. Homiletic preaching is not a task to be approached in an ad hoc way but rather with a strategy for presenting the Catholic faith and the norms of Christian living in a somewhat comprehensive fashion over the course of the liturgical year, or at least over the course of the three-year cycle of readings. There are obvious practical challenges inherent in this approach, two of them being limited time for preaching and a question about the degree to which a preacher might legitimately impose themes on Mass readings as he judges the occasion opportune. But acknowledging what the law asks of homilists is the first step toward overcoming these challenges.

Magisterial Sources

The Magisterium has said much in recent years to complement and amplify the definition of the homily given by canon law and the liturgical documents. In these texts one finds prescriptions, theological reflections upon the nature of preaching, and myriad pastoral concerns identified. Pope Francis, in his 2013 Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium, makes a tongue-in-cheek reference to the difficulties homilies sometimes cause: “We know that the faithful attach great importance to [the homily], and that both they and their ordained ministers suffer because of homilies: the laity from having to listen to them and the clergy from having to preach them!”19 In fact, homilies are not always prepared with the care they deserve, whether that lack of preparation is due to the clergy being overworked, inadequate formation for preaching, or some form of preparational neglect. It might also be the case that many clerics are simply unaware of what the Church teaches and legislates regarding the homily.

One of the most common themes in the recent magisterial texts on preaching is that the homily must be rooted in the word of God. The homilist himself, then, must first be rooted in God’s word, as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) points out in its 2012 Statement Preaching the Mystery of Faith: “As one whose duty is to proclaim the word of God, the homilist must necessarily be a person with a deep love of the Scriptures and one whose spirituality is profoundly shaped by God’s word.”20

According to Joseph Ratzinger, the Bible is “the basic form and basic norm of all preaching,”21 and the Church’s reliance upon Scripture for her preaching has an ancient pedigree, having been taught by the Church Fathers taught “quite emphatically.”22 While it is tempting for homilists to rely on “life experience” for source material, they must recognize the priority of God’s word over such experience: “The homily in its most effective form enables the hearer to understand the meaning of the Scriptures in a new way and, in turn, helps the message of the Scriptures, proclaimed in the context of the liturgy, to illumine the experience of the hearer.”23 Here we find the proper balance. The homily is a proclamation of God’s word aimed at enlightening the hearts of its hearers so that they might become more holy. It is not a Scripture study, yet a close study of the Scriptures by the homilist should yield richer preaching, preaching that teaches, challenges, consoles, edifies, and sanctifies.

While the homilist makes use of the Scriptures, “the Word of God can never be manipulated,” the Congregation for Clergy instructs in its 1999 Circular Letter The Priest and the Third Christian Millennium.24 One guard against such manipulation is found in honoring the necessary connection between the scriptures and other elements of the liturgy and of the Church’s life. There are even connections to make within the scriptures themselves. The American bishops in Preaching the Mystery of Faith note that the “preaching of the Sunday homily should typically involve the bringing together, in mutual illumination, of the Old Testament and the New Testament.”25 As Scriptures enlighten each other, so too do the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. “Virtually every homily preached during the liturgy should make some connection between the Scriptures just heard and the Eucharist about to be celebrated,” the U.S. bishops write. “When this connection is consistently made clear to the Christian people, they will understand the Scriptures and the mystery of the Eucharist ever more deeply.”26 Finally, the use of other sources for preaching can help to shape homiletic messages and keep them from becoming more idiosyncratic. Echoing the instruction of the Sunday Lectionary, the U.S. bishops describe the Lectionary readings as the “prime source” for homiletic preaching, but state that preachers may also make use of prayers, the Profession of Faith, Eucharistic Prayers, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.27

Just as Scripture is God’s word to his people, so the homily is meant to embody a dialogue between God and his people in the context of the Sacred Liturgy. Pope Francis writes, “The preacher has the wonderful but difficult task of joining loving hearts, the hearts of the Lord and his people.”28 Pope Saint John Paul II provided some context here, writing in his 1998 Apostolic Letter Dies Domini that the “liturgical proclamation of the word” in its entirety fosters this dialogue between covenant partners:

It should also be borne in mind that the liturgical proclamation of the word of God, especially in the Eucharistic assembly, is not so much a time for meditation and catechesis as a dialogue between God and his People, a dialogue in which the wonders of salvation are proclaimed and the demands of the Covenant are continually restated. On their part, the People of God are drawn to respond to this dialogue of love by giving thanks and praise, also by demonstrating their fidelity to the task of continual “conversion.” The Sunday assembly commits us therefore to an inner renewal of our baptismal promises, which are in a sense implicit in the recitation of the Creed, and are an explicit part of the liturgy of the Easter Vigil and whenever Baptism is celebrated during Mass. In this context, the proclamation of the word in the Sunday Eucharistic celebration takes on the solemn tone found in the Old Testament at moments when the Covenant was renewed, when the Law was proclaimed and the community of Israel was called — like the People in the desert at the foot of Sinai (cf. Ex 19:7-8; 24:3,7) — to repeats its “yes”, renewing its decision to be faithful to God and to obey his commandments. In speaking his word, God awaits our response: a response which Christ has already made for us with his “Amen” (cf. 2 Cor 1:20-22), and which echoes in us through the Holy Spirit so that what we hear may involve us at the deepest level.29

The American bishops capture the spirit of what John Paul taught in Dies Domini about the exchange of God’s self-communication and the response of his people, and apply it in a specific way to the homily: “The purpose and spirit of the homily is to inspire and move those who hear it, to enable them to understand in heart and mind what the mysteries of redemption mean for our lives and how they might call us to repentance and change.”30 The dialogue that occurs in the Sacred Liturgy has both a specific content and a specific aim. Its content, as we have seen, is drawn largely from Scripture and other liturgical and ecclesial texts, as well as from human experience. But John Paul II in Dies Domini makes clear that the dialogue also has a specific aim, particularly the response of faith. And this faith ought to be expressed in repentance and conversion to the Lord, which in turn sets the Christian on the path to holiness of life. Presented with the mystery of Christ in the context of the Sacred Liturgy, the Christian is called to marvel at the goodness of God, but is also called to respond by making an act of faith in the God who has shown him such love and mercy:

Given these different dimensions which set it apart, Sunday appears as the supreme day of faith. It is the day when, by the power of the Holy Spirit, who is the Church’s living “memory” (cf. Jn 14:26), the first appearance of the Risen Lord becomes an event renewed in the “today” of each of Christ’s disciples. Gathered in his presence in the Sunday assembly, believers sense themselves called like the Apostle Thomas: “Put your finger here, and see my hands. Put out your hand, and place it in my side. Doubt no longer, but believe” (Jn 20:27). Yes, Sunday is the day of faith. This is stressed by the fact that the Sunday Eucharistic liturgy, like the liturgy of other solemnities, includes the Profession of Faith. Recited or sung, the Creed declares the baptismal and Paschal character of Sunday, making it the day on which in a special way the baptized renew their adherence to Christ and his Gospel in a rekindled awareness of their baptismal promises. Listening to the word and receiving the Body of the Lord, the baptized contemplate the Risen Jesus present in the “holy signs” and confess with the Apostle Thomas: “My Lord and my God!” (Jn 20:28).31

Because the homily is meant to be not only informative, but also inspiring and persuasive, the Church’s preachers need to possess the sensitivity and pastoral skill required to appeal on behalf of God to the particular community he is called to serve: “The homilist must have empathy for human experience, observe it closely and sympathetically, and incorporate it into his preaching.”32 In order to maximize the opportunity of fostering faith, repentance, conversion, and holiness of life, the homilist must be attentive to the message God intends to communicate in his word. Pope Francis in Evangelii gaudium echoes the teaching of the Congregation for the Clergy, which we have seen earlier, forbidding the manipulation of God’s word. Pope Francis writes of the need for fidelity to the divine message:

If a text was written to console, it should not be used to correct errors; if it was written as an exhortation, it should not be employed to teach doctrine; if it was written to teach something about God, it should not be used to expound various theological opinions; if it was written as a summons to praise or missionary outreach, let us not use it to talk about the latest news.33

The preacher is called to connect his message to the lives of the people to whom he will be preaching. Pope Francis writes about this connection-making that the homilist “needs to be able to link the message of a biblical text to a human situation, to an experience which cries out for the light of God’s word.” Clearly wanting to warn against undue self-insertion of the homilist into the message he preaches, Pope Francis continues, “This interest has nothing to do with shrewdness or calculation; it is profoundly religious and pastoral.”34 The application of the homiletic message to the practicalities of the Christian life should not compromise the doctrinal aspect of liturgical preaching, however. The American bishops in Preaching the Mystery of Faith speak to the homilist’s duty to offer his congregation the full riches of the Church’s teaching: “Over time the homilist, while respecting the unique form and spirit of the Sunday homily, should communicate the full scope of this rich catechetical teaching to his congregation.”35 Here the bishops implicitly acknowledge the tension between the special character of the homily and the expectation that it serve as a vehicle for teaching the faith comprehensively. Among all the doctrines of the Church, the Paschal Mystery, the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus, as well as “its meaning for our lives,” deserve particular emphasis in homiletic preaching, according to the American bishops.36

In order to illustrate the homily’s message, the preacher does well to use not only examples from Scripture, but also from the lives of the saints. The Congregation for Clergy in The Priest and the Third Christian Millennium recommends this practice: “The lives of the saints, their struggles and heroism, have always produced positive effects in the hearts of the Christian faithful who, today, have special need of the heroic example of the saints in their self-dedication to the love of God and, through God, to others.” In order to foster holiness in the lives of his congregants, the homilist ought to point to those who have heeded the Gospel’s call in the varied circumstances of their lives. It may be that the witness of the saints is especially needed today, the Congregation states, since these holy men and women testify to the objective truth of the Catholic faith, the challenge the faith poses to each person, and the rewards promised to those who are faithful. “Reference to the lives of the saints has renewed significance in contemporary circumstances where the faithful are often assailed by equivocal values and doctrines,” the Congregation writes.37

Moving from the substance of the message to the style with which it is preached, the Magisterial texts are very much in harmony with canon 769: “Christian doctrine is to be proposed in a manner accommodated to the condition of its listeners and adapted to the needs of the times.” The American bishops cite the nature of the Mass as a basis for this kind of accommodation, writing, “The Eucharistic context of prayer and thanksgiving should encourage a tone of charity and respect in homilies even when using words of admonition or warning.”38 Pope Francis, who is himself known for his generous use of practical illustrations in his homilies, gives the practice his official endorsement in Evangelii gaudium: “An attractive image makes the message seem familiar, close to home, practical and related to everyday life. A successful image can make people savour the message, awaken a desire and move the will towards the Gospel.”39 Here it is worth noting that Pope Francis is not endorsing the indiscriminate use of images or stories, but endorses those which assist the homiletic message and arouse the will to move “towards the Gospel.”

Pope Francis also calls for “clear” homilies, free from unduly complex language or concepts. A homily must be well organized, logical, and focused in order to be effective:

The greatest risk for a preacher is that he becomes so accustomed to his own language that he thinks that everyone else naturally understands and uses it. If we wish to adapt to people’s language and to reach them with God’s word, we need to share in their lives and pay loving attention to them. Simplicity and clarity are two different things. Our language may be simple but our preaching not very clear. It can end up being incomprehensible because it is disorganized, lacks logical progression or tries to deal with too many things at one time. We need to ensure, then, that the homily has thematic unity, clear order and correlation between sentences, so that people can follow the preacher easily and grasp his line of argument.40

The Congregation for Clergy in The Priest and the Third Christian Millennium takes a somewhat different approach to the question of homiletic style. While the document certainly echoes the call for homilists to adapt their style to the capacities of their hearers, it nevertheless places a heavier emphasis than does Evangelii gaudium on rhetorical refinement: “Universities today have witnessed a resurgence of interest in rhetoric. A similar interest should be aroused among priests as well as a desire to acquire a noble and dignified self presentation and poise.”41 The Congregation adds, “Elegant accurate language, comprehensible to contemporary men and women of all social backgrounds, is always useful for preaching.”42 The Priest and the Third Christian Millennium also strikes a careful balance between adapting to one’s congregation and the critical importance of telling the truth, even those truths which one’s hearers will find challenging: “Hence every preacher should know his own flock well and use an attractive style which, rather than wounding people, strikes the conscience and is not afraid to call things for what they really are.”43

We have seen above that one important outcome of a homily is that it leads renewed adherence to Christ in faith. The American bishops teach that the homily has its finality in the worship of the congregation: “So the Sunday homily — involving inspiration, information, and moral instruction — is meant to lead finally to the right praise of God, to true ‘thanksgiving,’ which is at the heart of the Liturgy of the Eucharist.”44 The homily must assist the faithful in making this connection between the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, entering wholeheartedly into the Sacrifice of the Mass. The bishops hold up another goal with at least equal emphasis: fostering a “loving and intimate relationship with the Lord.” Insofar as the homily is an action of the Church’s munus docendi, the homily must teach so as to cultivate this relationship:

So, when all is said and done, why should the homilist preach doctrinally and catechetically? Because, as Paul and the Evangelists knew, the people are drawn to Jesus and his Gospel by the beauty and truth of the mysteries of our faith. The ultimate goal of proclaiming the Gospel is to lead people into a loving and intimate relationship with the Lord, a relationship that forms the character of their persons and guides them in living out their faith.45

  1. Codex Iuris Canonici auctoritate Ioannis Pauli PP. II promulgatus, Acta Apostolicae Sedis, 75/2 (1983) 1–320, as revised, (herein 1983 CIC), all English translations of the 1983 Code from Canon Law Society of America, Code of Canon Law, Latin-English Edition, New English Translation (Canon Law Society of America, 1999).
  2. This question has been treated in depth by Fr. Joseph Fox, O.P. in “The Homily and the Authentic Interpretation of Canon 767 §1,” Apollinaris 62 (1989) 123–169.
  3. Canon 747. §1. The Church, to whom Christ the Lord entrusted the deposit of faith so that, assisted by the Holy Spirit, it might more reverently safeguard revealed truth, more closely examine it, and faithfully proclaim and expound it, has the innate duty and right to preach the gospel to all nations, independent of any human power whatever, using the means of social communication proper to it. §2. To the Church belongs the right always and everywhere to announce moral principles, including those pertaining to the social order, and to make judgments on any human affairs to the extent that they are required by the fundamental rights of the human person or the salvation of souls.
  4. Coetus “De Magisterio ecclesiastico,” Sessio VIII, Communicationes 28 (1996) 262–302, at 270.
  5. Codex Iuris Canonici, Pii X Pontificis Maximi iussu digestus Benedicti Papae XV auctoritate promulgatus, Acta Apostolicae Sedis 9/2 (1917) 3–521, [herein 1917 CIC
  6. Council of Trent, Fifth Session, Chapter II. Rev. H.J. Schroeder, O.P., translator, Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent: Original Text with English Translation (St. Louis, Missouri: B. Herder Book Co., 1950), 26.
  7. Pope Benedict XV, Encyclical Letter Humani generis (June 15, 1917), AAS 9 (1917) 305-317, at n. 19. English translation from the Vatican web site www.vatican.va.
  8. Austin Flannery, O.P. Vatican Council II, Volume I: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents (Northport, New York: Costello Publishing Company, 1996), 17–18.
  9. “Schema Constitutionis De Sacra Liturgia”, Congregatio Generalis IV (22 October 1962), Acta Synodalia Sacrosancti Concilii Oecumenici Vaticani II, Volumen I: Periodus Prima, Pars I, Sessio Publica I, (Roma: Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis, 1970) 262–303, at 279 and 281. See also Pius XII, Encyclical Letter Mediator Dei (20 November 1947) AAS 39 (1947) 521–600, at n. 21. English translation from The Papal Encyclicals: 1939–1958, Claudia Carlen, I.H.M., editor (The Pierian Press, 1990). Here Pope Pius describes, “the homily or sermon in which the official head of the congregation recalls and explains the practical bearing of the commandments of the divine Master and the chief events of His life, combining instruction with appropriate exhortation and illustration of the benefit of all his listeners.”
  10. “Constitutio de sacra Liturgia,” Sessio Publica III (4 December 1963) Acta Synodalia Sacrosancti Concilii Oecumenici Vaticani II, Volumen II: Periodus Secunda, Pars VI (Roma: Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis, 1970), 409–422, at 421–422. See also Volumen II: Periodus Secunda, Pars II.
  11. Here we accept the argument of J. Fox that the use of “sermo” in SC 35, in fact, refers to the homily. Cf. Joseph Fox, “The Homily and the Authentic Interpretation of Canon 767 §1”, 138, footnote 26. The word “sermo” (as with the English “sermon”) has a wider meaning that includes but is not limited to the Church’s understanding of a homily, except where particular usage or context dictates that this more specific meaning is intended.
  12. Flannery, Vatican Council II, 17–18.
  13. Canon 2. For the most part the Code does not define the rites which are to be observed in celebrating liturgical actions. For this reason current liturgical norms retain their force unless a given liturgical norm is contrary to the canons of the Code.
  14. General Introduction to the Lectionary for Sunday Mass (1998), 24.
  15. John M. Huels, Disputed Questions in the Liturgy Today (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1988), 20.
  16. Pius Parsch, The Liturgy of the Mass (St. Louis, MO: B. Herder Book Co., 1941), 141.
  17. Parsch, The Liturgy of the Mass, 141.
  18. General Introduction to the Lectionary for Sunday Mass, 24. This passage sets a very high standard, indeed, especially when it is placed alongside other texts concerning homiletic content and style.
  19. Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium (24 November 2013), AAS 105 (2013) 1019–1137, at n. 135. English translation from the Vatican web site www.vatican.va.
  20. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Preaching the Mystery of Faith: The Sunday Homily (Washington, D.C.: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2012), 34.
  21. Joseph Ratzinger, Dogma and Preaching: Applying Christian Doctrine to Daily Life (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011), 22.
  22. Ratzinger, Dogma and Preaching, 27.
  23. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Preaching the Mystery of Faith, 29.
  24. Congregation for the Clergy, Circular Letter The Priest and the Third Christian Millennium: Teacher of the Word, Minister of the Sacraments, and Leader of the Community (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 1999), Chapter Two, 1.
  25. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Preaching the Mystery of Faith, 16.
  26. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Preaching the Mystery of Faith, 20. The bishops here use “liturgy” and “Eucharist,” i.e. the Mass, interchangeably. Of course, “liturgy” may also refer to any other kind of liturgical celebration, such as the Liturgy of the Hours, the celebration of other sacraments outside of Mass, and so on.
  27. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Preaching the Mystery of Faith, 18.
  28. Pope Francis, Evangelii gaudium, 143.
  29. John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Dies Domini (31 May 1998), AAS 90 (1998) 713–766, at n. 41. English translation from the Vatican web site www.vatican.va.
  30. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Preaching the Mystery of Faith, 30.
  31. John Paul II, Dies Domini, 29.
  32. John Paul II, Dies Domini, 29.
  33. Pope Francis, Evangelii gaudium, 147. While one could argue that the themes Pope Francis contrasts here might sometimes be compatible, for our purposes the point is to emphasize that the preacher should strive to receive and communicate God’s message, rather than manipulating Scripture to fit his own preexisting concerns or biases.
  34. Pope Francis, Evangelii gaudium, 154.
  35. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Preaching the Mystery of Faith, 23.
  36. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Preaching the Mystery of Faith, 19.
  37. Congregation for the Clergy, The Priest and the Third Christian Millennium, Chapter Two, 2.
  38. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Preaching the Mystery of Faith, 41.
  39. Pope Francis, Evangelii gaudium, 156.
  40. Pope Francis, Evangelii gaudium, 158.
  41. Congregation for the Clergy, The Priest and the Third Christian Millennium, Chapter Two, 2.
  42. Congregation for the Clergy, The Priest and the Third Christian Millennium, Chapter Two, 2.
  43. Congregation for the Clergy, The Priest and the Third Christian Millennium, Chapter Two, 2.
  44. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Preaching the Mystery of Faith, 31–32.
  45. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Preaching the Mystery of Faith, 26.
Fr. Charles Fox About Fr. Charles Fox

Rev. Charles Fox is an assistant professor of theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit. He holds an STD in dogmatic theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum), Rome.


  1. Avatar Francisco Gavrilides says:

    An excellent presentation on how and what the Church’s directives on preaching the homily are, Fr. Charles.
    Your clarity and thoroughness make reading this article not only instructive but also enjoyable.

    My only additional comment would be to express my personal conviction that due to the amount of confusion in how one practically should live out the moral teaching of the Gospel/Scriptures I believe that some homilies must include some actual practical steps, general though may be, in order for the congregation to do the word and not hear it only.
    I truly appreciate your charism for writing.

    In Christ,

    Paco Gavrilides

    • Avatar Fr. Charles Fox says:

      Hello Paco,
      You are absolutely correct, thank you. I would pair your suggestion with one a priest offered from Evangelii Gaudium about the importance of listening to the people and understanding them with a pastor’s heart. Both of those truths are important for a full understanding of what I have tried to communicate in this article. God bless!
      Fr. Charlie

  2. Avatar Gary Kirsch says:

    Homily and Holy Spirit. The Church lays out certain requirements for the homilist. By definition a homily is “prepared.” How do we prepare. First let us look at “the job” of the priest, – saving souls. This has to be a thirst and hunger for all priests. Therefore, the only true preparation for a homily has to be a close, intimate union with Christ away from this earth. Through the priest’s “other Christ” self, he is to possess Calvary “thirst” for souls. He has to possess Calvary love for all souls. He has to see each soul with Christ’s Calvary eyes. Then, because this is a true relationship of holy profundity, the priest eagerly desires to share God’s Truth from the vision of his union with Christ and Mother Mary. Preparation then is a holy union with Jesus and Mary. Then we witness holy homilies. Preparing outside of the union with Jesus and Mary, preparing what you, the priest, wants to say, is not preparation, it is planning outside God’s will. God knows the need of every attendee at each Mass. He alone knows best what is to be heard, what is needed to be heard. As the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit, that Person of love, so too the priest in his homilies must be guided singularly by the Holy Spirit so the Father can reach each soul present. The “in persona Christi” must be the preacher.

  3. Avatar Tom Showerman says:

    Dear Father Fox, As a member of the laity that has spoken up about liturgical abuse, 16 Sunday’s in a row with video explaining the mass during the homily time, with members of the laity explaining various points during the show, I was extremely troubled. My meeting with the diocesan liturgy person around week 6 did not get the Bishop to reply to the Priest to stop it until week 16. The last video was then shown at the end of mass, but before the dismissal. I pray that all clergy will do their duty to preach the homily as Christ and his holy church deserves. Sincerely, Tom Showerman