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How Important is the Homily?

St. John Chrysostom, the Patron Saint of Preachers St. John Chrysostom, the Patron Saint of Preachers

Not too long ago, my dad visited a Carmelite monastery in the Midwest to voice its organ.  If you aren’t familiar with voicing organs, it’s the equivalent of tuning a piano.  The nuns who live at the monastery are friendly and fantastic women—torch-bearers of the legacy of Saint Therese of Lisieux—and they love it when my dad, a committed Protestant, plays Ave Maria for them.   They’ll listen to him perform that beautiful Catholic music and just smile with delight, full of wonder.

But the last time my dad went to the monastery, it was he who was full of wonder.  Why?  Because the nuns were listening to David Jeremiah on AM 1320.  AM 1320 is part of the evangelical Bott Radio Network.  And David Jeremiah is a committed Protestant preacher.

“Well, sisters, this is a surprise,” my dad said.  “You’re listening to a Protestant preacher?”

The sisters’ response was compelling.

“We love our Catholic faith,” they said.  “But we wish we had these kinds of preachers in the Church:  dynamic communicators who really taught the Sacred Scriptures.”

Now, I have to confess:  I loved hearing that story.  I love it when good Catholics recognize the value of good preaching.

As a former evangelical Protestant pastor, I dreamed of becoming a great preacher.  I’m not ashamed to say I love a good sermon — one that faithfully explains and applies Sacred Scripture in a creative and compelling way.  And even as a Catholic, I like to point out to my brothers and sisters in Christ that as important as it is for a priest to celebrate the Mass and hear confessions, it is also vitally important that he takes seriously his call to preach.

How important is the homily?  Very.

This isn’t just the opinion of a former Baptist pastor.  Consider the following:

1. The Sacred Scriptures emphasize the central importance of preaching to the overall ministry of Church.  In an apostolic exhortation from St. Paul to St. Timothy, the Apostle to the Gentiles writes:

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge…(2 Timothy 4:2a)

Let’s stop there for a moment.  St. Paul really piles the words on top of one another, doesn’t he?  “In the presence of God … and of Christ Jesus … who will judge the living and the dead.”  Rhetorically, he’s building up to something.  What he’s about to say is important.  So, what is it?

Preach the word.

This is what he writes:

Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage —with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. 4 They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. 5 But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry (2 Timothy 4:2b-5).

Preaching is important—vitally important.  According to this passage, good preaching helps prevent apostasy.  It is central to faithful ministry and evangelization.

There are many other passages in Sacred Scripture that testify to the importance of preaching.  These include, but are not limited to: Mark 16:15; 1 Corinthians 1:17, 21, 23; 14:1-20; 1 Timothy 4:13; Titus 1:3; Acts 9:20.

2. Bad preaching is a main cause of spiritual dullness and leads people away from the Church.  In a recent article in the National Catholic Register, Fr. Robert Barron identified bad preaching as a main reason that people leave the Catholic Church:

A second major concern that can and should be addressed is that of bad preaching. Again and again, people said that they left the Church because homilies were “boring, irrelevant, poorly prepared” or “delivered in an impenetrable accent.” Again, speaking as someone who is called upon to give sermons all the time, I realize how terribly difficult it is to preach, how it involves skill in public speaking, attention to the culture, expertise in biblical interpretation and sensitivity to the needs and interests of an incredibly diverse audience. That said, homilists can make a great leap forward by being attentive to one fact: Sermons become boring in the measure that they don’t propose something like answers to real questions.

All of the biblical exegesis and oratorical skill in the world will be met with a massive “So what?” if the preacher has not endeavored to correlate the “answers” he provides with the “questions” that beguile the hearts of the people to whom he speaks.  Practically every Gospel involves an encounter between Jesus and a person — Peter, Mary Magdalene, Nicodemus, Zacchaeus, etc. — who is questioning, wondering, suffering or seeking. An interesting homily identifies that longing and demonstrates, concretely, how Jesus fulfills it. When the homily both reminds people how thirsty they are and provides water to quench the thirst, people will listen.

As a former Protestant who has benefitted from a lifetime of listening to solid, compelling, passionate sermons, I know first-hand what a blessing it is.  I can’t imagine what it would be like to listen to week after week of homiletical drudgery.  So, I can understand why Catholic people who are hungry to hear good preaching are tempted to leave the Church.  But of course, as a convert, I now realize that means leaving behind the fullness of the faith and the real presence of Christ.  What a tragedy!

But imagine another scenario:  imagine a Mass where a hungry soul not only received the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus, but was also educated and motivated by a Scripturally-sound, profoundly relevant, Christ-exalting homily.  What an experience that would be!  The Church would be transformed—and would go forth to transform the world.

That is exactly what our Holy Father wants.

3.  Pope Benedict XVI has called for a revitalization of Catholic preaching—and has linked its importance to the Eucharist itself.  In his post-Synod Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini, he writes:

…[Given] the importance of the word of God, the quality of homilies needs to be improved … The homily is a means of bringing the scriptural message to life in a way that helps the faithful to realize that God’s word is present and at work in their everyday lives. It should lead to an understanding of the mystery being celebrated, serve as a summons to mission, and prepare the assembly for the profession of faith, the universal prayer and the Eucharistic liturgy. Consequently, those who have been charged with preaching by virtue of a specific ministry ought to take this task to heart … The faithful should be able to perceive clearly that the preacher has a compelling desire to present Christ, who must stand at the centre of every homily. For this reason preachers need to be in close and constant contact with the sacred text; they should prepare for the homily by meditation and prayer, so as to preach with conviction and passion. [59]

Pope Benedict XVI goes on to state something quite extraordinary about the nature of the Word of God, preaching, and the homily:

[Scripture] itself points us towards an appreciation of its own unbreakable bond with the Eucharist…Word and Eucharist are so deeply bound together that we cannot understand one without the other: the word of God sacramentally takes flesh in the event of the Eucharist. The Eucharist opens us to an understanding of Scripture, just as Scripture for its part illumines and explains the mystery of the Eucharist …. For this reason “the Church has honored the word of God and the Eucharistic mystery with the same reverence, although not with the same worship, and has always and everywhere insisted upon and sanctioned such honor” [54-55].

Sometimes good Catholics justify or excuse bad preaching because “at least we’re still getting the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.  That’s what is really important.”  But we are members of the one, holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.  We are supposed to be the beneficiaries of the fullness of the faith.  The Mass is a sacrament of the Word and the Eucharist.  It is not either/or.  It is both/and.

The Holy Father understands this.  We should, too.

So, the value of preaching is emphasized by the Sacred Scriptures.  Bad preaching is the cause of much harm to the Church.  And the Holy Father himself has called for a renewal in preaching based on its connection to the Eucharist.

If you are priest, deacon or authorized lay preacher, you can prioritize your study of the Scriptures and improve the quality of your homilies.  But what about the rest of us?  What can we do?

Tomorrow: Preaching, Part Two: “How Can We Help the Homily?”

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