“Preaching the Mystery of Faith: The Sunday Homily”—
Key Perspectives as a Guide in
Rev. George M. Smiga, S.T.D.
St. Mary Seminary and Graduate School of Theology
In 2012 the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued, Preaching the Mystery of Faith: The Sunday Homily.1 Calling itself “a reflection on preaching,” this document (hereafter PMF) clearly intends to impact the crucial pastoral ministry of the Sunday homily. It will, therefore, be a touchstone for all who strive to prepare seminarians for homiletic competency. This essay draws attention to some key assertions of PMF to assist those on seminary preaching faculties as they continue to evaluate and enhance their programs.
Prelude—Fulfilled in Your Hearing: The Homily in the Sunday Assembly
Thirty years ago the former Committee on Priestly Life and Ministry issued the document, Fulfilled in Your Hearing: The Homily in the Sunday Assembly (hereafter FYH).2 This document has had a deep and positive influence upon homiletic preaching. Its greatest influence has been experienced in two areas.
First, FYH strongly asserted that the homily was a liturgical reality drawing its unique purpose from the setting of worship. FYH highlighted the nature of the homily by contrasting it to other kinds of preaching.
The homily is preaching of another kind, it may well include evangelization, catechesis, and exhortation, but its primary purpose is to be found in the fact that it is, in the words of the Second Vatican Council “a part of the liturgy itself” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, #52). The very meaning and function of the homily is determined by its relation to the liturgical action of which it is a part (FYH, p.17).
The apparent concern of FYH was the common practice of the time which filled the period devoted to the homily with abstract scriptural-theological presentations and catechetical instruction. FYH drew attention to the manner in which scholarly expositions of biblical research drawn from historical-critical commentaries were being offered as homilies.
Since the purpose of the homily is to enable the gathered congregation to celebrate the liturgy with faith, the preacher does not so much attempt to explain the Scriptures as to interpret the human situation through the Scriptures. In other words, the goal of the liturgical preacher is not to interpret a text of the Bible (as would be the case in teaching a Scripture class) as much as to draw on the texts of the Bible as they are presented in the lectionary to interpret peoples’ lives (FYH, p. 20).
FYH attempted to free the homily from abstract theological presentations and dry scriptural research. It did this by insisting that the very purpose of the homily was to connect scripture to the lived experience of those present for worship. Homiletic preaching could not claim validity unless it was successful in “interpreting peoples’ lives.”
A second influence of FYH was to suggest a means by which this connection to peoples’ lives could be accomplished. Drawing upon the symbolic nature of the liturgy itself, FYH recommended the use of artistic verbal forms.
Whatever its form, the function of the Eucharistic homily is to enable people to lift up their hearts, to praise and thank the Lord for his presence in their lives. It will do this more effectively if the language it uses is specific, graphic, and imaginative. The more we can turn to the picture language of the poet and the storyteller, the more we will be able to preach in a way that invites people to respond from the heart as well as from the mind (FYH, p. 25).
Largely because of the influence of FYH, Catholic homilies today are frequently characterized by stories and images which both capture the assembly’s attention and open the hearts of those present to thanksgiving and praise.
The Relationship Between Preaching the Mystery of Faith and Fulfilled in Your Hearing
PMF recognizes the importance of FYH, claiming it to have been “very helpful in the life and mission of the Church” (p. 3) and confirming that its practical wisdom “remains valid” (p. 5). But more important than these explicit references is the manner in which PMF enshrines the major accomplishments of FYH within its vision.
Citing the same paragraph of Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (#52) used in FYH, PMF reaffirms the connection of the homily to the liturgical action and its purpose to move peoples’ hearts in praise.
One of the most important teachings of Vatican II in regard to preaching is the insistence that the homily is an integral part of the Eucharist itself. As part of the entire liturgical act, the homily is meant to set hearts on fire with praise and thanksgiving. It is to be a feature of the intense and privileged encounter with Jesus Christ that takes place in the liturgy. One might even say that the homilist connects the two parts of the Eucharistic liturgy as he looks back at the Scripture readings and looks forward to the sacrificial meal (PMF, p. 17).
There is no part of PMF which denies or lessens the conviction of FYH that the purpose of the homily is determined by the liturgical action of which it is a part. As part of that action, PMF insists that the homily must both affect and interpret peoples’ lives.
The goal of the homily is to lead the hearer to the deep inner connection between God’s Word and the actual circumstances of one’s everyday life. . . . Pope Benedict XVI makes this very point: “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. . . . Consequently, those who have been charged with preaching by virtue of a specific ministry ought to take this task to heart” (PMF, p. 29).
PMF is even stronger in its support of the artistic verbal forms which FYH encouraged. At the conclusion of a reflection upon Jesus’ use of parables, it states:
Jesus was not an abstract preacher but laced his preaching with rich images and provocative stories. The images and examples are drawn from the agrarian context in which his audiences in first-century Galilee lived and from the fishing industry that thrived around the Sea of Galilee, where most of Jesus’ ministry took place. As natural storytellers usually are, Jesus was a keen observer of human life, with all of its beauty and complexity. His metaphors and stories have a poetic and unforgettable spirit and have worked their way into the literature of every human generation since (PMF, p. 28).
The practice of Jesus leads PMF to promote the use of stories:
The special power of the parable is to engage the listener about its meaning. Artful human speech, especially in stories, can appear to veil truth for those who do not engage it and yet can reveal truth for those willing to listen and ponder its meaning. Some cultures in particular relish stories that bring home to them the practical wisdom of the Gospel. Jesus did not simply lecture his audiences but enticed them by evoking experiences they were invited to think about and try to understand. Being an effective storyteller may not be a gift that comes easily to everyone who must preach, but the lesson here is that the homilist must have empathy for human experience, observe it closely and sympathetically, and incorporate it into his preaching (PMF, pp. 28-29).
Biblical stories are not the only means suggested to engage the assembly. Both the homilist’s own experience and examples from contemporary culture are encouraged.
In some instances one’s own experience—told in an appropriate way without drawing too much attention to oneself—can also be effective, especially when this experience is one that resonates with similar experiences of those with whom it is shared (PMF, p. 29).
Preachers should be aware, in an appropriate way, of what their people are watching on television, what kind of music they are listening to, which websites they find appealing, and which films they find compelling. References to these more popular cultural expressions—which at times can be surprisingly replete with religious motifs—can be an effective way to engage the interest of those on the edge of faith (PMF, p. 36).
PMF has amplified the single reference in FYH to the power of artistic verbal forms. It encourages the use of stories, examples, metaphors, and human experience in homiletic preaching.
Enlarging the Vision
While respecting the contributions of FYH, PMF seeks to enlarge the homiletic ministry. It argues that catechesis and doctrine are fitting content for the homily. This conviction may have resulted from a desire to correct a common misunderstanding of FYH. Because FYH defined the homily in contrast to catechesis, theology, and academic scripture study, some may have concluded that these aspects of ecclesial life are incompatible with the homily. This was never the intention of FYH. A endnote in the document clearly excludes such an understanding.
While the homily is not the same as catechetical instruction, as Pope Paul VI makes clear in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii nuntiandi (#43 and 44), the homily can certainly be a means of catechesis for Christian communities (FYH, endnote 2, p. 45).
Nevertheless, PMF desires to forestall any suggestion that the only way to preach homiletically is to avoid catechetical and doctrinal matters. This conviction is expressed most clearly when it states:
Therefore, a wedge should not be driven between the proper content and style of the Sunday homily and the teaching of the Church’s doctrine. To encounter the living presence of the Risen Christ in the Word of the Scriptures and in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood is not incompatible with effective communication of what faith means for our lives (PMF, p. 24).
PMF undergirds the value of doctrine and catechesis within the homily by discussing the method of Paul in his letters (pp. 21-23) and the close connection between scripture and doctrine (pp. 25-26).
However, PMF’s desire to promote doctrinal and catechetical materials should not be seen as a call to return to the doctrinal and catechetical treatises which once substituted for the homily and which FYH sought to correct. Passages throughout PMF insist that when doctrine or catechesis is included in the homily, it must respect the homiletic context. Because the homily is a part of a liturgical action, doctrine and catechesis within the homily must speak to the lived experience of the assembly.
Certainly, doctrine is not meant to be propounded in a homily in the way that it might unfold in a theology classroom or a lecture for an academic audience or even a catechism lesson. The homily is integral to the liturgical act of the Eucharist, and the language and spirit of the homily should fit that context (PMF, p. 23).
The ultimate goal of proclaiming the Gospel is to lead people into a loving and intimate relationship with the Lord, a relationship that forms the character of their persons and guides them in living out their faith. A good homilist, for example, is able to articulate the mystery of the Incarnation—that the eternal Son of God came to dwell among us as man—in such a manner that his listeners are able to understand more deeply the beauty and truth of this mystery and to see its connections with daily life (PMF, p. 26).
Fidelity to the Church’s Magisterium does not mean, however, that the homily should be an abstract affirmation of doctrine. The purpose and spirit of the homily is to inspire and move those who hear it, to enable them to understand in heart and mind what the mysteries of our redemption mean for our lives and how they might call us to repentance and change (PMF, p. 30).
Lest there be any confusion, PMF offers some examples of how doctrine and catechesis can be properly presented within the homily.
Without being pedantic, overly abstract, or theoretical, the homilist can effectively spell out, for example, the connection between Jesus’ care for the poor and the Church’s social teaching and concern for the common good; or Jesus’ pronouncements on the prohibition of divorce and the Church’s teaching on the sacredness of the marriage bond; or Jesus’ confrontations with his opponents and the Church’s obligation to challenge contemporary culture about the values that should define our public life (PMF, p. 24).
PMF directs homilists to address the profound doctrines of our faith and thereby catechize the assembly. It insists, however, that the treatment of those doctrines must respect the liturgical nature of the homily which is directed to thanksgiving and praise. PMF agrees, therefore, with the statement of FYH, “The liturgical gathering is not primarily an educational assembly” (p. 18). The language and spirit in which doctrine is offered must coincide with the homily’s liturgical purpose. In a sense PMF does for doctrine what FYH accomplished for scripture. Both scripture and doctrine must be presented within the homily in a way which connects to peoples’ lived experience of faith and serves the act of worship. Allow me to adapt a key passage of FYH which refers to scripture so that it can illustrate PMF’s homiletic approach to doctrine:
Since the purpose of the homily is to enable the gathered congregation to celebrate the liturgy with faith, the preacher does not so much attempt to explain doctrines of the Church as to interpret the human situation through the doctrines. In other words, the goal of the liturgical preacher is not to interpret a doctrine (as would be the case in teaching a theology class) as much as to draw on the doctrines of the tradition to interpret peoples’ lives (FYH, p. 20, adapted).
PMF has clarified and enlarged the task of homiletic preaching. While fully respecting the homily’s liturgical nature, it challenges homilists to present doctrines and catechize the assembly in a way which interprets their lives. Homiletics therefore becomes a profound integration of the Catholic tradition (scripture, doctrine, and catechesis) in service of a community’s worship and praise.
The challenge for seminary faculties is to assist seminarians in appropriating both scripture and the doctrines of the faith in a manner which allows them to serve the homiletic enterprise. In the vision of PMF the mere repetition of seminary theology classes or catechetical procedures during the homily time is not acceptable. Rather seminarians must develop the skill of unpacking scripture passages and classic doctrines in a manner which allows them to speak to the lived experience of the assembly. They must, for example, not only understand the doctrinal content of the Virgin Birth, but develop the ability to open the content to relevance and present significance. By suggesting how the truth of the Virgin Birth can illumine the believer’s relationship with God, the homilist can employ the doctrine as a means to lead the assembly to thanksgiving and praise.
Such an approach demands more of the preacher and more of seminary programs. PMF appreciates this challenge. It calls the homilist to be a “man of scripture”—not in a strictly academic sense but in the ability to see the world through the perspective of the scriptures.
The whole point of these methods and practices is that the preacher learns to see the world through biblical eyes. He should become adept at noticing the analogies between the Bible and ordinary experience so that he can illumine the latter through recourse to the former. The birth of a child today is an echo of the Birth of Christ; a time of suffering in the hospital right now is in some way connected to the suffering of Jesus on the Cross; a summons to a vocation heard by a young woman in a parish is not unlike the call heard by Mary of Nazareth from the angel Gabriel; a failure of integrity by a business executive is reminiscent of the Israelites’ failure in the desert; a struggle for justice in our society is supported by Amos’s cry of protest on behalf of the poor, and so on. Thereby the Scriptures give voice to our deepest longings and aspirations (PMF, pp. 34-35).
PMF also calls the homilist to be “a man of tradition.”
Along with a profound love of the Scriptures the homilist should also have knowledge of and religious adherence to the Church’s Sacred Tradition and its essential link to Scripture. From the perspective of Catholic faith, the one Word of God is expressed both in Scripture and in the Church’s Tradition (PMF, p. 35).
Seminary programs must therefore approach the teaching of scripture, theology, and catechetics with these goals in mind. The teaching of scripture and doctrine should not be limited to abstract concepts and categories but presented in a manner which makes them serviceable to the homiletic effort. Seminary faculties will need to gather and reflect on their overall programs in light of PMF’s vision.
It is, of course, of extreme importance that the homilies offered at seminary liturgies actualize the full challenge of PMF. Seminary faculty members, whose knowledge of scripture and the doctrines of the church is extensive, should approach preaching with the desire to enact the vision of PMF. Scriptural passages should not merely be analyzed but celebrated. Doctrines should be included, yet not in a manner which extends the classroom setting. Both scripture and doctrine should be used within the homily to interpret the lives of seminarians and all who worship with them.
The US bishops have challenged all homilists to approach their preaching in a deeper way. It is incumbent that our seminary programs implement this vision in their programs of formation. Such efforts will serve as a catalyst to inspire every presbyterate to devote new energy to homiletics and more effectively preach the Mystery of Faith.
1 Preaching the Mystery of Faith: The Sunday Homily. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2013. [ISBN 978-1-55744-494-6]
2 Fulfilled in Your Hearing: The Homily in the Sunday Assembly. Bishops’ Committee on Priestly Life and Ministry, 1982. [ISBN 1-55586-850-9]