On not preaching a homily...

I mentioned in an earlier post that because a visiting missionary priest will be preaching at all the Masses this weekend in my parish, I have no Sunday homily to prepare.  Some part of me appreciates this respite from homily preparation and preaching -- but overall I experience a kind of emptiness about this, knowing that my week and the weekend's worship are strikingly different for me when preaching isn't part of both.

On Sunday afternoon I print out the scriptures for the coming Lord's Day and put them in my pocket.  Yes, I can find them through an app on my iPhone, too, but there's something about my fingers finding those papers every time I reach into my pocket that's healthy for my preaching and my own prayer.  The hard copy also gives me a place to jot down notes, ideas and, when the Spirit is generous, real insights into the readings to share in those 8-10 precious minutes after the Gospel is proclaimed.

As those pages travel in my pocket and come up for air at different times through the week, I'm constantly reminded of the Word that's mine to preach come Sunday.  In ways tangible and spiritual, those scriptures steep in my imagination, my thoughts and my prayer through the week. I find often myself taking them out and reading them over as I settle in my car to take off for this or that destination.  (Over the years I've found that good homily ideas come most frequently in two places: behind the wheel and in the shower!)

I've been preaching since 1972 and over these nearly four decades preparing a homily and anticipating and experiencing preaching it have become a substantial part of my prayer life and the spiritual foundation of my ministry through the week.  It's no exaggeration to say that this work is a great joy in my life.

So, why don't I just go ahead and prepare a homily even if I won't be preaching it?  Well, that would be like preparing a dinner you knew you weren't going to serve to anyone.  A homily of its nature is a word for others, it's a word addressed to a community, it's a word intended to be spoken, to be heard, to be shared.  To write a homily that I wouldn't be preaching would be to write something of an essay -- but a homily is so much more than an essay.

In fact, a homily is an integral part of the liturgy and the only part of the liturgy which is not scripted for the priest or deacon by the Church.
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... (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, no. 52)
A part of the liturgy itself...  The American bishops in their document, Fulfilled in Your Hearing (FIYH), draw this point out:
The very meaning and function of the homily is determined by its relation to the liturgical action of which it is a part. It flows from the Scriptures which are read at that liturgical celebration, or more broadly, from the Scriptures which undergird its prayers and actions, and it enables the congregation to participate in the celebration with faith. (FIYH, no. 42)
Those of you who hear or read my homilies regularly know that they invariably end with a reference to the table, the altar, the cross of sacrifice and the prayer we are about to offer and the nourishment the Eucharist will give us.  Just so united are the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  The homily, rooted in the scriptures of the day, is meant to give us reason to go to the altar and, with praise and thanksgiving, to worship God who has done so many and such great things for us.  As the bishops put it:
In the Eucharistic celebration the homily points to the presence of God in people’s lives and then leads a congregation into the Eucharist, providing, as it were, the motive for celebrating the Eucharist in this time and place. 
This integral relation of the homily to the liturgy of the Eucharist which follows the liturgy of the Word has implications for the way in which the homily is composed and delivered. In the first place, the homily should flow quite naturally out of the readings and into the liturgical action that follows. (FIYH, nos. 60, 61)
As much as I appreciate the opportunity to preach the bridge between the tables of Word and Sacrament, when one of my deacons (or a visiting missionary) is assigned as homilist, it's an opportunity for me to sit back, listen and to hear in the homily what the Lord is speaking to his people and to me.  

But it's not only in others' homilies that I hear the Lord speaking to me.

When I preach, I record my homily for posting here on this page.  On Monday, then, I listen to that recording to hear what my parish heard.  It's a great way to grow as a preacher in terms of content and delivery.  While listening on Mondays, I often hear something in the message I preached that I did not hear when I wrote it or when I preached it.  It's said that "the preacher preaches what he himself needs to hear."  That's true.  Sometimes it's 24 hours or more later that I truly begin to hear what I preached, that I begin to hear what the Lord might be saying to me through my own homily.

Well, that's a little behind-the-scenes reflection from a preacher who, this weekend, has no homily and no one to preach to.  

I pray that I'll hear the Lord's voice in our visiting missionary's homily and wherever you are you'll hear the Lord's Word in the message of the one who breaks open the Scriptures and leads you to the table of the Supper, the altar of Sacrifice and the nourishment of Christ's Body and Blood in the gift of the Eucharist.

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  1. I've often wondered if priests are taught to preach certain methods for homilies. For example, the Xaverian Missionaries from Fatima Shrine in Holliston help our parish. Every single one of them approaches the homily the same way, i.e., they explain the First Reading, then the Second Reading, and lastly, the Gospel. Most of the time I appreciate this because I wonder why these Readings are together. However, it seems that our parish priests always give homilies on the theme of the Gospel.
    One time during a church meeting, I happen to express the thought that I wish the priest would give some catechesis. Another parishioner snapped at me, "That's not what a homily is for!"
    Since then, I've wondered about the purpose of a homily. This came to mind last night while discussing the "gay marriage" vote in NY. There were about six of us, and we had to confess that we were unable to defend the church position on it. We know that the Church is against "gay marriage," but we're unable to articulate in an intelligent manner why. In fact, what little we do know about it, we've garnered from the anti-Catholic sound bites. That's our catechesis. That's our adult Catholic education--the anti-Catholic venom. That's how we know the Church's stance on current issues.
    Once in awhile, we do get a message from the pulpit, that the church is against this or that, but we're not told why. It's not explained thoroughly.
    Anyway, what is appropriate for homilies? I guess that's my question.

  2. Good questions, Faith! Here are some quick answers. To know more about the purpose and function of homilies, you should read "Fulfilled In Your Hearing" from the USCCB. You'll find a fine series of commentaries on this at Todd Flowerday's "Catholic Sensibility," here: http://tinyurl.com/63qa8nt

    Rather than my offering a critique of what's happening in your parish, you might compare your experience with FIYH.

    In a nutshell: the Church teaches that genital sexual activity is a gift from God to a man and woman in marriage for the purposes of developing mutual affection and unity in the couple and for the procreation of children. The Church teaches that any genital sexual activity outside such a marriage is morally wrong. Since same sex unions or cohabitational sex or pre-marital sex or extra-marital sex, one-night-stands or masturbation fall outside the marriage of a man and a woman, all of these are judged to be morally wrong by the Church. A quick response in a combox hardly says it all so I'd refer you to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (see my sidebar) for further reading. Does your diocese have a Family Life Office? a diocesan newspaper? I'd guess that both would be sources for more information.

    I hope that's helpful.

  3. On the topic of playing back one's own homilies I thought you might appreciate the humour in these :-)))
    (They would never apply in your case)



  4. Faith, these paragraphs from FIYH might offer a good response to your question about the purpose of the homily:

    The fact that the homily is addressed to a congregation of believers who have gathered to worship indicates that its purpose is not conversion from radical unbelief to belief. A homily presupposes faith. Nor does the homily primarily concern itself with a systematic theological understanding of the faith. The liturgical gathering is not primarily an educational assembly. Rather the homily is preached in order that a community of believers who have gathered to celebrate the liturgy may do so more deeply and more fully – more faithfully -and thus be formed for Christian witness in the world. (No. 43)

    It is to these given texts that the preacher turns to prepare the homily for a community that will gather for the Sunday liturgy. Since the purpose of the homily is to enable the gathered congregation to celebrate the liturgy with faith, the preacher does not so much attempt to explain the Scriptures as to interpret the human situation through the Scriptures. In other words, the goal of the liturgical preacher is not to interpret a text of the Bible (as would be the case in teaching a Scripture class) as much as to draw on the texts of the Bible as they are presented in the lectionary to interpret peoples’ lives. To be even more precise, the preacher’s purpose will be to turn to these Scriptures to interpret peoples’ lives in such a way that they will be able to celebrate Eucharist-or be reconciled with God and one another, or be baptized into the Body of Christ, depending on the particular liturgy that is being celebrated. (No. 52)

  5. Faith, I just came across this article which includes more response to your question regarding the what the Church teaches regards sexuality:


  6. Wow. Thanks for the lesson. In particular, "...the homily is to enable the gathered congregation to celebrate the liturgy with faith, the preacher does not so much attempt to explain the Scriptures as to interpret the human situation through the Scriptures."
    I understand this. And I understand the lesson on sinful sex. I'm glad I asked.


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