By Edgardo C. De Vera
The Homily, which we sometimes refer to as sermon, is Greek in origin and means “explanation”. It is the oldest form of Church preaching, based on the synagogue practise of a rabbi explaining Sabbath readings from the Old Testament to an assembly. We see in the Gospel how Jesus gave a homily to the synagogue assembly after having read a passage from the prophet Isaiah (cf. Lk 4:15-21).
In the Infant Church, the first Christians were Jews who remained faithful to the observance of Sabbath rites in synagogues. There they listened to Scripture readings from the Torah and Prophets and sang the Psalms as their forbears had done. After the service was over they then trooped to a pre-designated house for the breaking of bread (Eucharist) where an Apostle or bishop-successor proclaimed the Good News and conformed the Old Testament Scriptures in light of the life, death and resurrection of Christ – a model Jesus himself set on the Road to Emmaus, before He sat with the two disciples for the breaking of bread.
Jewish Christians were eventually expelled from synagogues due to their belief in Jesus Christ as the Messiah. Thereafter the Primitive Church adopted the pattern of Sabbath readings as a prelude to the Eucharist in one liturgical celebration. The Word of God in the proclamation and homily was the appetizer for receiving the Word made flesh in Eucharist, foreshadowed in Sabbath services that served as weekly preparations for the annual Paschal Lamb offering in the Jerusalem Temple. It was in this liturgical setting that the orthodoxy of the Faith was preserved.
Much of the Kerygma and doctrinal teachings of the Church come from Apostles’ homilies and those of the Church Fathers. The structure of our Liturgy today differs little from the past except for expanded Scriptural prayers. We have the Liturgy of the Word and Liturgy of the Eucharist to comprise our Sacred Liturgy, and the Homily is an integral part. Moreover, then as now, only a member of clergy (or deacon) could give the homily, never the laity; this is a function of the sacerdotal ministry. Allowing laymen to deliver a homily constitutes grave liturgical abuse.
There was a time in the pre-Vatican II era when many churchgoers (mostly men) never took the homily seriously, viewing it as some sort of a break – a recess when they could go out for a smoke or chat with friends. Though this is a rare occurrence today, there is still prevalent disinterest in the homily leading to an inattentiveness and boredom at Mass. When this occurs, often it is not the homilist at fault. The Mass-goer may not be properly disposed for worship. Then again, the homilist himself might be the cause.
Homilies can be very moving or downright boring, thus the homilist must see to it that delivery of the Gospel message is not convoluted. A seven to ten minute discourse that sticks to the subject, connects the readings, and imparts orthodox catechesis for Christian life is ideal; otherwise the priest could lose the people. Some priests are adept at delivering concise homilies packed with insight and wisdom, while there are others who can keep a congregation glued for a lengthy 15-minute delivery.
Among our crop of priests are a number who can make the readings come alive in their exhortations. On the other hand, there are also many poor homilists who tend to be vague, who ramble incoherently, whose homilies are excessively lengthy and – unfortunately – bereft of any doctrinal content, unrelated to the Liturgy of the Word, and neither here nor there on Faith matters.
Sometimes a homily can be disturbing; when some priests take the occasion to advance liberation theology, or show their bias on political issues, or give revisionist interpretations of the Bible in rationalisations of Christ’s miracles instead of the Church’s orthodox teaching. To date, I have heard six deny the miracle of multiplication of loaves in the bread of life discourse (John 6); stressing rather that the real miracle that took place was a sharing of provisions brought by those who had followed Jesus. Delving on this novel exegesis from the critico-historical school never alludes to the multiplication as presaging the Eucharistic miracle that occurs daily in over 300,000 Masses all over the world. A rebuttal of this demythologised exegesis conjectured by new Biblical theorists influenced by 18th century Protestant biblical scholarship would be lengthy. Sufficient for now, in regard to the multiplication of loaves, is to refer to frequently-overlooked verses that put this rational explanation in question: John 6:25 and all the way to v. 71. Some if not many of the new interpretations are conjectures by modern scholars centuries removed from the Church’s early teachings and oblivious to Apostolic Tradition which the exegetical method does not subscribe to.
At times a homilist may fail miserably in trying to connect with his audience. And this, a friend of mine believes, is a cause why some leave the Church. Have you ever been to a Mass where the priest sang a secular love song instead of giving a homily? I have. How about priests who tend to agitate their flock with politically-laced rhetoric? It should be recalled from the Gospels that although the Jews were a conquered people under heavy Roman yoke, not once did Jesus ever hint of radical government change to his listeners. He exhorted them instead to focus on a change of heart and that is what the Gospels are all about.
A homilist must address every heart, inspire, exhort and give catechesis. His is a prophetic role as a spokesman for God – focusing hearts and minds on Christ; never an entertainer who fills up his homily with jokes or songs, who tries to “be cute”, who aspires to be a political analyst. Incendiary sermons do not convey love and peace.
Unfortunately some, in trying to be “relevant,” emulate stand-up comedians, talk-show hosts, or political analysts – thus trivializing their role as representatives in persona Christi – in the person of Christ. Wouldn’t it be great to hear a sermon that could make hearts burn, akin to a “road to Emmaus” experience leading us to hunger and thirst for the Eucharist? Such homilies are the fruit of prayer and good preparation.
Among the most gifted homilists of our time was the late Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen who championed a daily Holy Hour before the Blessed Sacrament as the best preparation. He said that one hour with the Lord would give the priest much insight into the Gospels that he’d be throwing darts from the pulpit and his congregation would love it. We wonder however at the number who have a Holy Hour devotion to meditate the liturgical readings before the awesome presence of our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.
Prayer and preparation make a good homily. Holy Mother Church has a treasure trove priests can mine to gain insight: we have two thousand years of Scriptural commentaries and Biblically-based doctrine from Church Fathers, Saints, and Popes; Church writings, encyclicals, apologetics and so on. They can also choose to give a complete Bible doctrine course over the three-year liturgical cycle.
One need not be a John Chrysostom, Augustine, Aquinas, John Henry Newman or Fulton Sheen. Though eloquence is definitely a plus, great homilies have also come from priests with bad grammar – types who’d make you wince every so often in the pews, yet still – like the terribly-inarticulate St. John Mary Vianney – consistently home in with sound Scriptural exegesis and solid doctrine.
Seated at the pews we can learn a good deal about our Faith by being attentive and praying for our priests as they convey God’s Word to us. As laymen we should ask the Holy Spirit to guide homilists to light up hearts with a burning desire for the Eucharist. And at the end of Mass, we would do well to take time to encourage a priest by commending him for a good homily.
Totus Tuus Maria Magazine, January-March 2008
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