What Is the Purpose of a Catholic Homily?
The point of a homily is not just to give us something to think about, or to lead us to make a minor change in our life. It’s to form us to become more like Jesus Christ.
In my last column, I discussed the Pew Research Center’s recently-released study entitled, “The Digital Pulpit: A Nationwide Analysis of Online Sermons,” which examined the online audio or video sermons and homilies of more than 6,000 Christian churches, showing that Catholic homilies are considerably shorter, far less scriptural and uploaded much less frequently than those in mainline Protestant, evangelical Protestant or historically black Protestant denominations.
The article solicited a lot of feedback in the comment boxes of various online versions of the article, as well as on Facebook and Twitter. The deluge of comments reinforced how neuralgic a theme homilies are among Catholic faithful and clergy.
Insofar as the Church is preparing on Jan. 26 to celebrate for the first time the “Sunday of the Word of God,” in which Pope Francis wants the Church to ponder the treasure of sacred Scripture in itself and liturgically, and the importance of the homily to “enter more deeply into the word of God,” “grasp [its] beauty” and “see it applied to their daily lives,” it’s worthwhile to consider some of the many reactions, which made helpful distinctions, expressed common frustrations with Catholic preaching today, and revealed misunderstandings about the importance the Church gives to sacred Scripture and homily at Mass.
Various readers objected to Pew study’s findings that Catholic homilies, at a median length of 14 minutes, are considerably shorter than mainline Protestant (25 minutes), evangelical Protestant (39 minutes) and historical black Protestant churches (54 minutes), as well as to the findings with regard to the use of Scripture. They noted that Catholic homilies are part of the Liturgy of the Word, which contains four readings of sacred Scripture — something that should be factored into calculations of length and Scripture use. These are valid criticisms, but they would only moderate, not undermine, the Pew conclusions. And while the criticism would certainly apply to the comparison between Catholic parishes and evangelical and historically black Protestant churches, it wouldn’t apply to most mainline Protestant denominations, which also incorporate preaching within a similar — sometimes identical — liturgy of the Word.
Many commenters made the point that the emphasis should not be on length, but on quality of content and communication, saying that the goal should be “better” preaching. “If the priest preaches the fullness of the Gospel with no sugarcoating, I don’t care how long it is,” one commenter said. If it’s poor, however, “ten minutes feels like an hour at the dentist!”
Others insisted that the reason why Catholic homilies are shorter is not because Catholic attention spans are somehow inexplicably feeble compared to their Protestant counterparts’ but because Catholic homilies take place within a liturgy in which the greater focus must be on the encounter with Jesus in Holy Communion.
“Jesus told us to eat his flesh and drink his blood in memory of him,” one noted, not “preach great sermons.” “The desire for ‘better preaching,’” another charged, “is what gave us the Reformation.” Therefore, various people argued, we shouldn’t heed polls about what the “competition” is doing and “make the Mass something it is not” by increasing homily length to Protestant standards. Having a Bible study while “Christ is being crucified on Golgotha” is totally inappropriate, one insisted.
When some commentators rebutted that the homilies of many of the greatest priestly saints in Church history, from the Fathers of the Church to St. John Vianney, often lasted an hour, they were met with the prediction that if Catholic preachers lengthened their homilies, Mass attendance would inevitably drop, since, as one candidly quipped about himself and others, many faithful are simply “more concerned about getting home for the Sunday pot roast.”
While some readers said that they were blessed to be in parishes where the preaching was consistently excellent, many more expressed various commonly repeated frustrations about homilies that are poorly prepared and meandering, passionless and uninspired, shallow, somniferous and irrelevant to daily life — light on Scripture, God, prayer, the last things and difficult areas of Christian morality, and heavy on fundraising, movies, impertinent jokes, the preacher himself and his political opinions.
Some questioned whether the preachers they’ve heard really believe the faith they’re commissioned to preach and whether they pray at all about what they’re going to say. “Many times I feel that I could write a better homily,” someone exasperatingly confessed.
Such complaints are not new. The U.S. bishops in 2012 noted, “In survey after survey over the past years, the People of God have called for more powerful and inspiring preaching. A steady diet of tepid or poorly prepared homilies is often cited as a cause for discouragement on the part of laity and even leading some to turn away from the Church.”
Pope Benedict wrote in 2006, “Given the importance of the word of God, the quality of homilies needs to be improved.” Pope Francis in 2013 stated, “So many concerns have been expressed about this important ministry [of preaching] and we cannot simply ignore them.”
In order to improve homilies, however, there needs to be — in addition to infectious zeal on the part of preachers to share the Good News, coupled with holiness of life and the art of effective communication — a clear understanding of the goal of liturgical preaching. If the target is off, then even if preachers hit it, what the Church hopes will happen won’t.
There are various misconceptions about the purpose of preaching found in the comments. Some said it’s to “give a very brief thought or two on the readings,” to “provide the faithful a point to pray and meditate upon,” to leave people “with at least one resolution” to apply to their life. Others said it’s to “tie the readings together.” Others asserted it’s to teach the doctrine of the faith, and therefore homilies should be more catechetical. All of these have some element of what the Church is looking for, but are all seriously short of the mark.
The Second Vatican Council’s decree on the ministry and life of priests, Presbyterorum Ordinis, taught that the purpose of sacred preaching is “conversion and holiness.” Pope Benedict, in his post-synodal apostolic exhortation Verbum Domini, wrote:
The homily is a means of bringing the scriptural message to life in a way that helps the faithful to realize that God’s word is present and at work in their everyday lives. It should lead to an understanding of the mystery being celebrated, serve as a summons to mission, and prepare the assembly for the profession of faith, the universal prayer and the Eucharistic liturgy.
Pope Francis, in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, stressed that homilies are supposed to bring about the heart-to-heart dialogue between God and his people, proclaiming God’s work of salvation, restating the blessings and demands of the Covenant he has made with us, and guiding us to respond with faith and enter into a life-changing communion in the Eucharist. The homily is “part of the offering made to the Father and a mediation of the grace that Christ pours out” — meant to form, Francis said, evangelized evangelizers, missionary disciples, capable of living the word and sharing it.
Those are the lofty goals toward which homilies need to be prepared and on which they need to be evaluated. Do they convert preacher and faithful and strengthen them to become saints? Do they illumine daily life with the light of Scripture, inspiring people to greater faith, prayer, communion with God, and the capacity to share the Gospel effectively with others? Do they attune us to God’s voice, remind us of his grace and call, and strengthen us to align our life lovingly to his will?
In other words, the point of a homily is not just to give us something to chew on for the week, or lead us to make a minor course correction in our life. It’s ultimately to form us cumulatively to become Christ-like, so that we respond, like Mary, “Let it be done to me according to your word.”
Meeting such goals require a great deal of preparation. They, moreover, require some time in delivery, considering the fact that many listening have hardened, rocky and thorny soil, to use Christ’s image, and not just good soil ready to bear hundredfold fruit. Finally, to reach a supernatural goal requires a supernatural means, and that’s why preaching with sacred Scripture, inerrantly inspired by God, is so important.