By Deacon Frank Agnoli
(Editor’s note: The publication of the third edition of the Roman Missal provides a great opportunity for each diocese, parish and individual Catholic to grow in their love for — and knowledge of — the liturgy. In this series Deacon Frank Agnoli, the Davenport Diocese’s director of liturgy, reflects on the parts of the Mass.)
There are probably some of you who remember that when the priest mounted the pulpit to preach a sermon, he made the Sign of the Cross before beginning, and then again at the end; in some cases he even took his chasuble off before preaching. The message was clear: this isn’t part of the Mass; it’s an interruption.
First the good news: Thanks to the Second Vatican Council, those days are over! No longer should we have to endure a sermon that has nothing to do with the liturgy or the readings, but the ancient tradition of preaching a homily has been recovered. A homily (as opposed to a sermon) is part of the liturgy: it flows from the texts, the season, the feast being observed, the rite being celebrated. The homily is also liturgy itself; it is intended as its own act of praise, thanksgiving and worship. Now the bad news: almost every survey of Catholic life suggests that people come hungry to hear what the priest or deacon has to say, but these preachers often fall short in feeding them.
Maybe, for both preachers and listeners alike, it would be good to recall what a homily isn’t. A homily is not a lecture or catechetical session, though it does teach. A homily is not an exercise in moral exhortation, a list of do’s and don’ts, though it may inspire us to live more Christ-like lives. A homily is not a stand-up routine, though it may contain humor. A homily is certainly not a commercial for a church project or a fundraising appeal.
Rather, a homily is intended to help us connect liturgy and life, to interpret life through the lens of the Scriptures (the readings themselves or the Scriptures that provide the basis for our liturgical prayers), to move us from word to sacrament, to help us make meaning. It may comfort as well as challenge. It ought to lead us more deeply into the mystery that we are celebrating, to move from the table of the word to the table of the sacrament.
Therefore, a homily must be particular. A good homilist takes into account the specific community he is addressing as well as the liturgical feast, day, season or rite in which the preaching is taking place, not to mention the wider social and cultural contexts of our lives. There is no place in Catholic liturgy for a canned sermon pulled off a website or out of a book.
In my own preaching ministry in Kentucky, I found the use of a homily preparation (and feedback) group to be invaluable. We would gather for lectio divina — a prayerful reading of the Scriptures and sharing of our insights. These insights informed my preaching as much as my studies did, and helped ensure that my preaching was grounded in the particularity of the community I was serving.
Entering the Mystery
Am I looking to be entertained by the homily, or to have my political views confirmed? Or am I honestly listening for what God might have to say to me through the preacher? Am I willing to be challenged to live my faith more deeply, or do I “check out” and not even bother?
Am I overly critical of those who preach at my parish? When offering feedback, am I truthful, constructive and concrete?
The Ars Celebrandi
As a preacher, do I give this part of my ministry its due? Do I schedule time to study the Scriptures, to learn more about homiletics, and to prepare to preach?
When I prepare my homily, do I practice the liturgical virtue of authenticity, which requires that I preach to this community, in this time and place, for this occasion?
Does my preaching reflect the words spoken by the bishop during the ordination of deacons? “Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you have become. Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach”?
How willing am I to receive feedback on my preaching? Have I considered forming a homily preparation/feedback group, as mentioned in the U.S. bishops’ Fulfilled in Your Hearing?