Q: Archbishop J, so what is the purpose of the homily?
The homily is an integral part of the Liturgy of the Word. Through the homily, the preacher explores the Sacred Scripture given for the day. The intention is to make the sacred text clear and to give its meaning. This is both an art and a science.
In the book of Nehemiah (Chapter 8) we see this clearly stated: The Levites instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read (7,8).
The Bible is a library of books, each one having a different way of conveying its message. In your library you do not read the comics the way you read a history book or a novel. You know and understand the type of book (literary genre) you are reading. With the Bible it is important for the hearer of the Word to understand the genre to gain a clearer sense of the text.
Nehemiah speaks both of making it clear and giving the meaning, and so to reveal the sacred mystery. This is at the heart of the homily: to lay bare the sacred mystery and invite people to enter into an encounter with Christ.
Nurturing the Christian life
On the homily, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 65, says: The homily is part of the Liturgy and is highly recommended, for it is necessary for the nurturing of the Christian life. It should be an explanation of some aspect of the readings from Sacred Scripture or of another text from the Ordinary or the Proper of the Mass of the day and should take into account both the mystery being celebrated and the particular needs of the listeners.
This is a very rich text. The necessity of the homily is for “nurturing the Christian life”, a wonderfully loaded phrase. In Genesis 2:15, Adam is given the priestly mandate—to till and to guard. It is translated differently in some versions of the Bible, e.g., to subdue, which changes the clarity and the meaning. Till and guard is what a gardener does. To till is to nurture, to turn up the soil and make it ready to receive good seed. To guard is to protect from harm, both external (thieves) and internal by overgrowth of plants or weeds, thus weeding and pruning.
The homily needs to nurture, weed and prune to ensure Christ Life flourishes in the heart of the listeners. Christ Life is that life of grace that we received at baptism. It is the most precious gift that we have ever received which, if nurtured well, will lead to sanctity and eternal life. This is the purpose of the homily: to inspire the Christian to sanctity and to prune and weed, ensuring the conditions for growth (See 2 Timothy 3:16).
Focused on the Word
The next part of the text is important. There are only three things on which the preacher can focus: the Scripture read for that day, the feast, or text of the Liturgy. This is vital! We are a lectionary people. We are given the text of the day and we believe that God speaks through that text or feast to the people.
The homily is meant to explore the sacred text, making it clear and giving the meaning. The only alternative is on the occasion of a feast, when the Proper of the Mass can be the focus.
This is a sacred task, one that keeps me up at night and causes me more sweat and anguish than any other part of my ministry. The challenge for the preacher is to chew the Word till it speaks to him, till it comes alive in him and is no longer words but a portal to the Word who became flesh and dwells among us.
In Joy of the Gospel, Evangelii Gaudium (EG), Pope Francis says: “Whoever wants to preach must be the first to let the word of God move him deeply and become incarnate in his daily life. In this way preaching will consist in that activity, so intense and fruitful, which is ‘communicating to others what one has contemplated’” (EG,150).
This requires deep preparation both immediate and remote. Pope Francis says: “Preparation for preaching is so important a task that a prolonged time of study, prayer, reflection and pastoral creativity should be devoted to it” (EG, 145). It is a serious defect to turn up for the Sunday liturgy unprepared or under-prepared. It is the pivotal moment of the week for priest and people.
Francis Chan, an Evangelical megachurch pastor, said recently he never knew that for 1500 years all Christians believed the Eucharist was the real presence of Jesus. It was the Protestant reformation that moved the Eucharist (Jesus) from the centre, giving emphasis to the lectern and men’s ideas.
Catholic preaching is focused on the Scripture given to us through the lectionary. The preacher chews that Word till it penetrates him, then he can give it to the people. The homily is not about the ideas of the priest, or the latest book he read, or pet peeve he has. It is about Jesus Christ speaking to His people through the particular text. Our job is to make it clear and give the meaning.
When the preacher prepares well, the people are initiated into the sacred mysteries where they encounter Christ. The mystery and the needs of the people are paramount. Thus, the preacher needs to know his people, to know how to move them to the next step of the journey. He must also have experienced the mystery to lead his people to the sacred encounter.
By making the Scripture clear and giving the meaning of the text, the homily invites the people into the sacred mystery where they encounter Jesus Christ.
Action Step: Before you go to Mass, review the Readings, mull over them and pray with them.
Scripture Reading: 2 Tim 3:15–17