The National Catholic Review
Rethinking the homily as a liturgical act
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The idea of preaching without Scripture may seem preposterous, but I suggest it just the same, as a way of drawing attention to a little known, much less accepted, mainline teaching of the Roman Catholic Church about preaching and Scripture. I offer these comments specifically about the homily at Mass, which is a particular and canonically defined genre of preaching, and which many Roman Catholic priests and deacons think must always be rooted in and focused upon the Scriptures. In fact, it need not always be so.

The Official Teaching

Let's start with the basics. The Second Vatican Council, in its first promulgated document, the "Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,” was adamant in its directives about the role of Scripture in the reforms of the Mass. It directed: "The treasures of the Bible are to be opened up more lavishly so that a richer fare may be provided for the faithful at the table of God's Word” (No. 51). This is not only a theme that is sounded on the surface of documents like the "Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” and the subsequent "Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation” it is a concern for the biblical foundations that lie at the heart of virtually every document of Vatican II. Whereas Vatican I was more inclined to cite church teaching in support of some conciliar assertion, Vatican II shifted into a more biblical mode:it persistently cited biblical text after biblical text in support of its dogmatic and pastoral directives. While some of this, unfortunately, was no more than proof-texting, the overriding message of the documents of Vatican II is that scriptural grounding is important, definitive and essential.

At the same time, nowhere do the documents of Vatican II teach or require that one must always preach about or from the Scriptures. While the "Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation” indicates that preaching must be "nourished” by Scripture (Nos. 21 and 24), that is not the same as saying one must explicitly preach about a particular biblical text. Direction here comes from the "Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,” which teaches: "By means of the homily, the mysteries of the faith and the guiding principles of the Christian life are expounded from the sacred text during the course of the liturgical year” (No. 52).

What Is This 'Sacred Text’?

Many are inclined instinctively to interpret "sacred text” to mean Scripture. But the Holy See, in its definitive interpretations of that phrase, did not come to the same conclusion. Even before the close of Vatican II in 1965, the Vatican began issuing definitive interpretations of the council's documents. There have been five of these to date. The first (the instruction Inter Oecumenici) was issued in Sept. 1964 by the Sacred Congregation of Rites. It offered a definitive interpretation of the phrase "sacred text”: "A homily on the sacred text means an explanation, pertinent to the mystery celebrated and the special needs of the listeners, of some point in either the readings from sacred Scripture or in another text from the Ordinary or Prayer of the day's Mass” (No. 54). Notice the word "or.” This definitive interpretation of Vatican II makes it clear that authentic liturgical preaching does not require (nor does it exclude) always preaching explicitly from the Scriptures. At the same time, it recognizes that "sacred text” has a broad meaning in the history and theology of Roman Catholic worship.

This basic understanding of the homily as related to the Scriptures or some other liturgical text has been repeated in subsequent, significant documentation. I cite four examples.

• The 1983 Code of Canon Law relies almost verbatim on this instruction when it notes that the homily "is a part of the liturgy itself...in the homily the mysteries of faith and the norms of Christian living are to be expounded from the sacred text throughout the course of the liturgical year” (Canon 767, 1).

• The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (2002) explains the homily in this way: "It should develop some point of the readings or of another text from the Ordinary or from the Proper of the Mass of the day, and take into account the mystery being celebrated and the needs proper to the listeners” (No. 65).

• The Introduction to the Lectionary presents the homily as based on the "sacred text” broadly defined. In particular, it notes: "Whether the homily explains the biblical word of God proclaimed in the reading or some other texts of the liturgy, it must always lead the community of the faithful to celebrate the Eucharist wholeheartedly” (No. 24).

• The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops goes further. In its 2003 Introduction to the Order of Mass, it not only repeats the instruction that in the homily "the mysteries of faith and the guiding principles of Christian living are expounded most often from the Scriptures proclaimed” but then adds "but also from other texts and rites of the liturgy” (No. 92). It is appropriate to preach not only about the eucharistic prayers and orations, but also about the central ritual actions, like the act of receiving Communion, the setting of the table or the act of being sent at the end of Mass.

Three Risks

From my perspective, one fundamental Roman Catholic principle and two critical pastoral realities are jeopardized whenever we lose sight of the broad invitation to preach the liturgy, not simply to preach the Scripture readings that are integral to the liturgy.

First at stake is an appreciation of a fundamental principle&ampampmdashit is the liturgy that determines the readings, not the readings that set the feast. History teaches us that it was the emergence of feasts and seasons that determined which readings were to be proclaimed at Mass it was not the other way around. This principle is still with us, which is why the General Instruction of the Roman Missal indicates that for a serious pastoral reason the readings may be changed (Nos. 359-60).

A telling example of this principle is played out in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. The rite indicates that the Cycle A readings are not only suitable for all three Lectionary cycles for the Sundays of Lent if one has candidates for Easter baptism, but that if the scrutiny rites are celebrated outside of Lent, the readings of Cycle A are still used (No. 146). Thus if a parish is celebrating adult initiation on the feast of Christ the King at the end of November, for example, the readings of Cycle A from Lent are proclaimed on preceding Sundays. This is what the liturgical writer Fritz West calls the "Catholic principle” (Scripture and Memory, Liturgical Press, 1997): the season and celebration set the text. This is why at every "occasional service” in the context of a Eucharist, such as a wedding or funeral, the event determines the readings, not the other way around. When texts are employed to determine the season or celebration, West deems it the "Protestant Principle.”

Second, too narrow a focus on the Scriptures puts at risk a homilist's ability to "preach the moment” for an assembly, deploying the full range of the liturgy's power to take into account what the General Instruction calls "needs proper to the listeners.” After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, America ran a story reporting that some clergy did not preach about the event because it was not in the Scriptures for the following Sunday (Don Heet, "Preaching From the Sacred Text,” 11/26/01). Even more striking was a deacon's letter to the editor in response to the article (2/4/02): "Our training is at least partially responsible for our good and bad performance. It is so ingrained in me to preach from the [scriptural] text and only from the text that I rarely consider the possibility of doing something else!”

When clergy are so tied to a scriptural text, where can they find the grounding to preach about crises confronting the people in the pews? Sometimes it can be found in the Scriptures of the day. In the face of 9/11, for example, Catholics could have prayed and preached on the church's second eucharistic prayer for reconciliation, with very powerful results: "Enemies begin to speak to one another, those who are estranged join hands in friendship, and nations seek the way of peace together. Your Spirit is at work when understanding puts an end to strife, when hatred is quenched by mercy, and vengeance gives way to forgiveness.” Preaching in the face of the current financial, housing and unemployment crises could also be enhanced if a homilist digs into the rest of the liturgy as a preaching resource.

Third, at risk from an exclusively scriptural foundation for preaching is the power of the Catholic imagination. If theologians like the Rev. David Tracy and Mary Catherine Hilkert, O.P., and social scientists like the Rev. Andrew Greeley and Robert Bellah are to be believed, Roman Catholics have a particular form of "analogical” or "sacramental” or "liturgical” imagination. Various studies and surveys have documented that the sacraments and sacramentals are a fundamental reason why Catholics stay in the church. These nourish the religious imagination that sustains belief. In his well-documented study of young adults, Dean Hoge found that participants rated the mediation of God's presence in the sacraments as the first essential element in their Catholic identity (Young Adult Catholics, Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 2001). This incarnational aspect of the Catholic imagination is so strong that pastoral ministers commonly comment on the number of people who show up when ashes or palms are given.

If such sacramentals are the instinctive center for the Catholic imagination, then it is most appropriately engaged by preaching that proclaims the whole liturgy. To do otherwise, and especially to preach only on the scriptural texts, is to preach to what Tracy and others would consider a "Protestant” imagination.

According to the "Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,” "the liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the church is directed it is also the source from which all its power flows” (No. 10). That statement is consonant with an understanding of Christianity in which the church was born around the Lord's table and the many tables of his followers after his death and resurrection. So Pope John Paul II, relying upon the insight of Henri de Lubac, S.J., could begin his final encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, by declaring, "The Church draws its life from the Eucharist.” Preaching should draw its life from the Eucharist as well. While the eucharistic liturgy is shot through with biblical imagery and language, the Eucharist is a distinctive source of Catholic doctrine, religious faith and sacramental imagination.

Preaching, particularly in the distinctive form of the homily, should both respect and engage the whole of the liturgical resource, including the Scriptures as they are mediated in the Lectionary. Such is authentic Roman Catholic preaching, an informed preaching that Catholics deserve and need.

Edward Foley, O.F.M.Cap., is director of the ecumenical doctor of ministry program and professor of liturgy and music at Catholic Theological Union, Chicago, Ill.

Comments

Craig McKee | 5/30/2009 - 6:09am
You lost me at the "ampampmdashit" in paragraph 11.
TIMOTHY TILGHMAN | 5/25/2009 - 11:35am
The homily is the great moment for catechesis in our Catholic faith. It is good to be reminded that Sacred texts goes beyond scripture. I think it safe to say that sacred text is rooted in scripture. The imperative that goes along with looking beyond scripture at the great moment for catechesis is speaking to the moral questions of the day, as was the case in relating the day's scripture to our common experience of 9/11. In my experience, there are far too many current moral questions that scripture and sacred texts address that never make it to the great moment for catechesis in the homily.
Christopher Mulcahy | 5/21/2009 - 12:14pm
The Catholic Church is one, holy, catholic and apostolic. The priest/homilist represents a direct link with Jesus,not only by the authority conferred by the Church, but because he communicates the wisdom, and hopefully the virtue, of its many saints and teachers. He is a full-time churchman. He has degree/s in philosophy and theology, from orthodox (we hope) institutions. For these reasons, if not others, his homilies should edify in the extreme. They should exhibit profound wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord. Each sentence should both inspire and teach. Rare is the layman who can keep up with the professional in any line of work. This certainly should be true at Mass, even though it is also true, as indicated by Ms. Ionescu above, that the Catholic imagination is primarily sacramental. A good homily will remind us of that.
JOANNA IONESCU MS | 5/21/2009 - 1:31am
This is the heart of the matter. Catholic imagination is primarily sacramental. This fixation of so many preachers with 'explaining' the Bible readings is indeed detrimental to Catholic identity. When my teen sons ask me to do the 'explaining' of the readings, convinced that I can do a better job, implying at the same time that this way we can skip Mass altogether, there is clearly a problem. The NT came to light as the fruit of the double folded experience of the community: the resurrection of Jesus Christ and consequently the liturgical worship. Many preachers loose sight of this fundamental truth. Perhaps not only the training in the seminary but also ongoing mandatory training, as is the case with any professional training that we can think of, could be helpful.
NICHOLAS CLIFFORD | 5/18/2009 - 8:55pm
I'd agree with Mr. Talbot that the problem has less to do with the question of texts than with the use the preacher makes of them. ". . . a good homilist [he says] can uncork the senses of Scripture and the Holy Spirit may take a 'non-9/11' text to meet a '9/11' need." But how often does this happen? The quality of preaching can be, and frankly often is, quite dreadful. How often have we suffered through homilies in which the homilist's idea of preaching is to take the story of the day's gospel, which we have just heard in the dignified, powerful, and often austere language of the evangelist, and re-tell it in an embroidered and fanciful form so that it fills the required space of time allotted to the homily? At best it adds nothing; at worst it detracts from the Scriptural message. And indeed, why does it have to be the priest who preaches? Why not allow laymen and laywomen to do it? They may have much more to offer the congregation, and might be far better at having the congregation sit up and take notice? (Three or four years ago, in a church in Europe, I heard a woman preach, while the priest sat benignly behind the altar, attentive to her as was the congregation, and she did it very well - though admittedly in a language in which I am not entirely fluent, but whose meaning I can grasp). Ordination, whatever else its qualities, does not, after all, confer the gift of a silver tongue.
THOMAS EXTEJT REV | 5/18/2009 - 8:29pm
I preached on the lectionary texts on the Sunday after 9/11, and found that they bore a powerful witness concerning the horrible events that our nation had been through. I believe in sticking to the Lectionary (though not slavishly) because it forces us not to repeat a few favorite texts over and over, but to plumb the full depth of Scripture for a divine message that reveals the meaning of life today.
David Jackson | 5/18/2009 - 7:56pm
There isn't much to quibble about in this article. But preaching in the Catholic Church is in such a sad state I believe because: 1) Priests don't put sufficient time and preparation into their homilies. 2) Biblical education of most priests ends with ordination. Sadly much biblical education of many priests is woeful. Ordained in 1966 my scripture classes were pitiful, M.A. studies in 1980-82 at Catholic Theological union opened up new worlds of inspiration, excitement, passion. This encouraged contuing updating and study. 3) Continuing education courses and classes in Biblical studies are more attended by lay people than clergy.
Bruce Byrolly | 5/18/2009 - 7:48pm
Fr. Foley, You give irrefutable documentation as to why the preacher is free to speak in the homily on other sources than the appointed Scriptures. I am apprehensive, however, because our priests and deacons need so much to try to understand, revere, and pray the Scriptures, and to help the people see that the Scriptures are relevant to our life today and to our world today. I am afraid of seeming to give leeway to preachers to pursue their own hobbies and particular biases. Yes, I have many biases, but I try to keep them out of the homily, sometimes with little success. Please keep on talking and writing, and all glory and honor to Catholic Theological Union, Chicago. I assume CTU is as wonderful as Washington Theological Union. Respectfully, Bruce Byrolly Retired pastor who delights to preach
jon talbot | 5/18/2009 - 5:03pm
First, although good points are made to broaden the homily to other texts than sacred scripture, I think a more important aspect is to focus on the homilist. Not to disparage any sacred texts that are used, but won't those texts proclaimed have less effect on the hearers if the homilist doesn't embody a lived theology of the Paschal mystery, that is, a cruciform spirituality? Doesn't good exegesis of a text (and the audience too!), coupled with the faith of Christ exemplified in the homilist, find swifter passage into the hearers? And wouldn't such an embodiement seem better equipped to choose appropriate texts? Secondly,regarding the main point of the article, I don't think we lose much if the homily is based on the Liturgy of the Word. Basing a homily on sacred Scripture may help the hearers digest more fully what was just proclaimed. When that doesn't happen, as when the homily is substitued for a pressing need, it always seems to be an awkward moment for me, as if the Liturgy of the Word was sort of a filler, yet I know that just the hearing of the Word is sufficent and potent in itself and cause for thanksgiving. Futher, a good homilist can uncork the senses of Scripture and the Holy Spirit may take a 'non-9/11' text to meet a '9/11' need.
John McShane | 5/18/2009 - 3:52pm
Well ... I couldn't muster the patience to master this epistle .. probably for the same reason my attention wanders off to more pressing moral issue during a sermon elaborating scripture. I remember 'talks' from the pulpit when as a teenager, a Carmilite drew a full church to reflect over moral issues that confront teenagers among peers. It wasn't scripture but it was morality in current terms. It had impact. It held attention of the young and old. I do not hear anything like it today. But then, there are not many teenages in church, either. What is to draw them of they are not included in the interest of the "sermons"?