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Post by Guest on Mon Mar 30, 2009 1:23 pm

What is a Homily?

Broadly speaking,
a homily attempts to apply the message of the Sunday Scripture readings to
lives of the people. But what are its specific goals? I've been giving homilies
for 28 years, sometimes stumbling, sometimes connecting. And sometimes I ask
myself, "Why am I doing this? What do I hope to accomplish when I stand up
in front of these people?"
From talking with
priest friends I know that even the most brilliant homilists get discouraged.
Sure, they receive compliments, words of praise, even favorable comparisons to
other priests, but inside they are not certain what their goals are. They may
resort to gimmicks or worse, just slack off, even give up completely. We have
some perfectly competent priests sitting on the benchs. By way of encouragement
I have tried to identify the basic goals of the homily. I came up with four
purposes. Here they are in order of importance.
Odd as it may sound,
the primary purpose of a homily is worship. Our main reason for going to church
is to fulfill the Third Commandment--keep holy the Day of the
Lord. As creatures and as redeemed sinners, our first duty is worship. It is
what we are made for. Altho the homily is not the most important part of Sunday
worship, it has a crucial role in drawing people into the overall act. For that
reason the homily should always in some way speak of God's sovereignty,
transcendence and mercy.
The problem is that we
are constantly being drawn into the old error of Pelagianism. Pelagius was a fourth century
British monk who taught that Christ came to give us an example and that our
salvation consists in simply following him. This view seems noble and
reasonable, but St. Augustine saw where it would lead: self-exaltation and separation from God. Unfortunately
the temptation of Pelagianism is very great (its latest version is the
"self-esteem" movement).
A priest once told me
I was too negative, that Jesus came to tell us how good we are. I wanted to
respond that Jesus was not like the prophets who cried "Peace, Peace, when
there is no peace,"* but I kept my mouth shut. I did not want to hurt his
self-esteem. But more to the point did not want him to attack mine. Even tho he
might feel people in general were good, he knew I wasn't so hot--and had a
tongue which could make me painfully aware of the fact. In my better moments I
can glimpse that truth--not just about Slobodan Milosevic--but about myself.
The point here is not so much to hit people with how sinful they are (true
enough) but to show them God's free and unmerited gift. It cannot be otherwise
since we are talking about his very Self. He is holy, we are not, but he calls
us into his own holiness. The homily can help invite people into that awe and
joy. And there is no greater human joy than worship.
Closely connected with
worship is the call to repentance. In his first "homily" Jesus said:
"The time has come; the kingdom of God is upon you; repent and believe the Gospel." (Mk 1: 15) The word for repent is metanoia.
It literally means to change ones mind. We are surround by a secular
culture which doesn't exactly deny God's existence but implies that
if he does exist, he is unimportant to human affairs. That viewpoint deeply
affects our Sunday congregation and, let's be honest, the preacher himself.
Before we can come to God, we have to change our minds.
Repentance is more than
a "head trip." A military metaphor is apt. Repentance allows God to
establish a beachhead from which he makes raids to capture more and more
territory. But there are some areas we are afraid to surrender and so the
battle constantly seesaws. God accepts even the smallest act of repentance, but
will not be satisfied until we have given ourselves totally to him.
In preaching
repentance we should not ignore the fact that members of our congregation may
have fallen into serious sin--the kind which completely excludes God (Mortal Sin). For example they may be
carrying unrepented sins of adultery, abortion, drunkenness, occultism, etc.
John Wesley was quite direct in preaching against marital infidelity, drinking
and gambling. He not only saved many souls, but in the process transformed
English society. One of the big reasons Catholics, especially the poor, join
evangelical churches is because the pastor preaches against the vices which destroy
Besides calling people
to repentance, we must give them solid teaching. Catechesis is the third
purpose of the homily. Those of us who pray the daily Office of Readings are
aware how much patristic preaching involved catechesis: explaining the
doctrines of the Trinity, Incarnation, soteriology, etc. They were preaching to
people who had only a rudimentary knowledge of the faith. So are we but with a
crucial difference. The culture surrounding them was pagan; ours is
post-Christian. As C.S. Lewis said, it is the difference between a virgin and a
divorceÚ. No one in our culture, even the follower of Wicca, is pagan in the
sense of wanting to sacrifice a bull to the gods. At the same time everyone
assumes they know all about Christianity, including of course the folks at
Sunday Mass. The challenge is to (re)introduce them to the mysteries which our doctrines
The final purpose of
preaching is perhaps surprising: to entertain. What I mean is not to compete
with Jay Leno. But if people are not in some way drawn in by what we say, there
is no point in saying it. Cardinal Newman's motto was cor ad cor loquitur. Heart speaks to heart. Our first
job is to get the message in our own hearts, then to figure out how to deliver
it to people's hearts. By saying this I am opening myself up to judgment. I am
often aware of going over folk's heads, losing and confusing them. But I have
sincerely tried to avoid the temptation to put the blame on them. I need to
work to understand and clearly express Jesus' teaching, to use images and
examples which will help people grasp it and to bring appropriate emotion and
emphasis to the delivery. The task is daunting, but it can also be a lot of
fun. The people are with us. Otherwise, they would not be there. Our challenge
is to love them enough to give them the best we can. We should not be too proud
to read homiletic manuals. One I recommend is Homiletic Moves and Structures by David G.
Phil Bloom
27, 1999
*See Jeremiah 6:14
They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. `Peace,
peace,' they say, when there is no peace. (cf. Ezekiel 13:10 & 13:16)

Joined : 2008-03-02
Location : Canada


Post by bobcat on Tue Mar 31, 2009 9:40 am


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