Hungry for the Homily
Preaching the Word of God has been an essential responsibility of the Church since the time of Saint Paul and the establishment of the first Christian communities. For Catholics today, the homily during Sunday liturgy remains a central moment of encounter with the Word of God. A good homily can be a source of insight and inspiration that can deepen the spiritual life of a congregation. Benedict XVI noted recently that good homilies help to “foster a deeper understanding of the word of God so that it can bear fruit in the lives of the faithful” (Sacramentum Caritatis).
In the same address, Benedict XVI was also quite frank in pointing out that the “quality of homilies needs to be improved.” Views from vowed Church leadership and listening to the experiences and perspectives of laypeople suggest a hunger among faithful Catholics for the Word of God that is not always satisfied by the preaching of their pastors. Those in the pews might wonder by what standards they should judge a homily, why they often hear homilies of such varying quality, and how they might assist in improving the quality of preaching in their parishes.
Guidelines for pastors
We all know when we’ve heard a good homily. But what makes a homily “good”? Research into official Church documents on preaching reveals eight essential guidelines that can help us in evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of a homily.
1. The homily is an essential part of the liturgy.
In a document entitled Leading the Prayer of God’s People, the Association of National Liturgy Secretaries of Europe says the homily must be considered “an authentic liturgical act.” This means that the content and style of the homily should reflect the fact that it is part of the eucharistic celebration and not be in the form of a lecture, lesson, or talk that is separate or distinct from the rest of the Mass. For example, the homily should not begin or end with the Sign of the Cross because, according to the bishops in Fulfilled in Your Hearing: The Homily in the Sunday Assembly, the “very meaning and function of the homily is determined by its relation to the liturgical event of which it is a part” (© 1982, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Inc., Washington, DC. All rights reserved). A good homily is meant to prepare the faithful spiritually for the reception of the sacraments that follow. In the words of Pope John Paul II, “preaching must precede, accompany, and crown the administration of the sacraments.”
2. A good homily draws its content from Scripture (or from another text of the Mass of the day) and is nourished by it.
The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) makes it clear that sacred Scripture is to regulate and nourish all preaching (21). A homily should explain the central points of the texts in a manner that enlightens and stimulates Christian faith and life. Although it is not possible or even desirable for a preacher to offer extensive exegesis of the biblical texts in his homily, he should be able to faithfully convey the central message of the texts of the Mass in a clear and accessible manner.
3. The homily should attend to the needs of the assembly.
Not only must the homily be faithful to the Scriptures, but it must be faithful to the congregation as well because, by definition, the homily is meant for the benefit of the community. Good homilies have the ability to strike a chord within individuals as well as to speak to the needs of the congregation as a whole. To do this, the preacher must be in touch with the realities of people’s lives and aware of contemporary culture and pertinent local and national events. It should be evident that the preacher is listening to the people and is open to the Spirit working through the congregation.
4. An effective homily strengthens the faith of the congregation.
The homilist can play a decisive role in deepening the faith and strengthening the commitment of the congregation by preaching in a manner that enlightens and inspires a deeper love of God. While he should encourage the faithful to embrace the demands of the Christian life, he must not be content simply to moralize. Rather, the homilist’s role is to voice the concerns of the community while pointing to real signs of God’s presence among them. In this way, he helps facilitate a greater familiarity with and understanding of the shared faith of the congregation.
5. The homily should be encouraging and hopeful, leading to prayer and praise.
The principal characteristic of the Scriptures is that they proclaim the “Good News” of salvation freely offered by God. For this reason, homilies should always be preached in a positive, captivating, and attractive manner. Above all, the homily is meant to draw people into a greater appreciation of the presence and love of God and so elicit a response of praise, thanksgiving, and service to others. A homily that contains no “Good News” but rebukes, lectures, or criticizes fails to satisfy this central aim.
6. The message of the homily must be consistent with the faith of the Church.
An important aspect of good preaching is that it faithfully interprets the texts of the Mass according to the tradition and tenets of the Catholic faith. For this reason, a preacher’s own thoughts, opinions, or personal experiences should not take priority. The homily should never be used as a vehicle to mount polemical attacks nor should the priest use the pulpit to promote a personal cause.
7. Effective homilies do not shy away from addressing challenging or potentially controversial issues.
Preachers are expected to be vigilant defenders and devoted preachers of the truth. Consequently, they must avoid the temptation to betray or hide the truth out of a desire for popularity, material gain, or avoidance of suffering. The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church, a Vatican document addressed to bishops in 2007, noted that effective preaching “requires boldness, courage, a spirit of poverty and humility, and coherence of life” (25). This mandate not only requires courage on the part of the homilist but also a close connection with his congregation. Fulfilled in Your Hearing contends, “Only when preachers know what their congregations want to hear will they be able to communicate what they need to hear.”
8. The homilist should be cognizant of his preaching style and forms of nonverbal communication.
Communication experts estimate that 55 percent of audience perception is communicated by nonverbal means. For this reason, good homilists are cognizant of how their appearance, posture, facial expressions, tone of voice, and various aspects of body language affect the transmission of their message. Attention to the overall approach and style of preaching is also important. As noted in Fulfilled in Your Hearing, “The homily should sound more like a personal conversation…than like a speech or classroom lecture” (25). Homilies that are invitational and dialogical in style tend to be more effective and transformative than those that are simply directive or dictatorial.