By Deacon Frank Agnoli
Looking through some old books on my shelf, I found this description of the sermon from 1955, less than a decade before promulgation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy on Dec. 4, 1963:
“The sermon is not part of the Mass, properly speaking, but instead is almost an interruption…. Today information concerning the Faith can be obtained in many ways — and hence the sermon is perhaps not as vital as it formerly was.”
In reviewing the 1962 Missal, I found that the Order of Mass does not even mention preaching. The rubrics in the front of the Missal simply state that after the Gospel on Sundays and holy days of obligation, there should be a brief sermon if it were “opportune” to preach one (#474).
Prior to the Council, therefore, the sermon was not always preached — and often had nothing to do with the readings or the liturgical feast or season being observed. The fact that it was considered more an interruption of the Mass than a part of it was shown by the priest making the Sign of the Cross before and after the sermon — as if he were leaving Mass and coming back in — and the practice at least in some places of the priest removing those vestments (such as the chasuble and maniples) proper to the Mass while preaching. How much changed with the Council! Paragraph 52 of the Constitution states:
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 with the assistance of the people on Sundays and feasts of obligation, it should not be omitted except for a serious reason.
Paragraph 35 fleshes out what “expounded” means:
The sermon, moreover, should draw its content mainly from scriptural and liturgical sources, and its character should be that of a proclamation of God’s wonderful works in the history of salvation, the mystery of Christ, ever made present and active within us, especially in the celebration of the liturgy.
So, to begin with, the homily is to be grounded in the Scriptures (and related texts) as proclaimed during the course of the liturgical year and within a particular liturgical rite: text and context are important. The homily is, in the words of the Council, part of the liturgy itself (see also #35.2); and this has enormous implications for what a homily is, and is not.
As part of the liturgy, and as part of the proclamation of the word (see my last column in this series), the purpose of the homily is to mediate an encounter with Christ. Having met Christ in the liturgy (including in the proclamation of the Scriptures), we are transformed. Transformed, we are moved to worship, to give thanks and praise to God (so the homily helps move us from the word proclaimed through the Scriptures to the word enacted in the sacraments).
But more than that: we are moved to service: in the liturgy and beyond the walls of the church.
The homily points us to the Universal Prayer or Prayer of the Faithful, where we intercede for those in need. We do so not to tell God what to do, as if God does not know our needs, but as a sign of our intimate connection with one another and as a reminder to ourselves of what we are called to do. In this encounter in the heart of God we are changed. This prayer, which expresses the priestly identity of all of God’s people, was also returned to us as part of the reforms called for by the Constitution (#53).
But the homily also points us beyond the Church; in fact, the homily is only “finished” by the way we live in response to the word that has been proclaimed. This dynamic is part of the “active participation” that the Council called for so insistently.
In other words, the homily is not just about transmitting information — as the quote from 1955 would indicate; it is about transformation.
It should be clear, then, what the homily is not. It is not Bible study, though it is rooted in the Scriptures. It is not a catechetical session, though it expresses what the Church teaches. It is not a moralistic harangue, though it helps listeners discern how God might be calling them to be. The homily is, in the words of the U.S. bishops, first in Fulfilled in Your Hearing and now reaffirmed in Preaching the Mystery of Faith, not an interpretation of Scripture but “a scriptural interpretation of human existence which enables a community to recognize God’s active presence, to respond to that presence through liturgical word and gesture, and beyond the liturgical assembly, through a life lived in conformity with the Gospel.” In other words, it is part of our dialogue with God — a theme that Pope Francis echoes in Evangelii Gaudium (#135-159).
The Constitution calls us to a challenging vision of what liturgical preaching ought to be; in this and in other areas of our liturgical life the reforms of the Council have just begun to take root and flourish.