A Good Homily Sheds Light
One of the biggest changes that Vatican II made in the liturgy was replacing the sermon with the homily. Sometimes the words are used interchangeably, but they are very different. The sermon in the Tridentine or Pre-Vatican II liturgy was a time for teaching and making announcements. It was a presentation of some element of faith that may have tied in with the theme of the Sunday. The homily, on the other hand, is a more conversational approach to this pivotal part of the Mass that bridges the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Our response to the scripture and the homily should fill us with praise and thanksgiving for what God is doing in our lives. This leads us to enter into the mystery of praise and thanksgiving that is the Eucharist.
A Renewed focus on preaching
Over the last 30 years there has been a lot of emphasis on preaching. Most recently, Pope Francis has focused on the importance of the homily in his apostolic exhortation The Joy of the Gospel. The Pope has made it clear that good preaching is critically important to the life of the church. He writes, “the homily cannot be a form of entertainment like those presented by the media, yet it does need to give life and meaning to the celebration. It is a distinctive genre, since it is preaching situated within the framework of a liturgical celebration” (n. 138).
The disciples on the way to Emmaus were talking or conversing. They were engaging in homilia, as was the Stranger who accompanied them. The homilist, who can be a priest, a deacon, or an authorized lay person, listens to the needs and concerns of the assembly and discerns God’s message for the assembly. This role is similar to that of the prophets and the Ultimate Prophet, Christ. Although we tend to think of a prophet as someone who foretells the future, prophecy is much more about proclaiming, announcing, and forth-telling. That is why we refer to the scripture passages and the gospel as something that we proclaim.
The homilist may share something about his or her life if it is relevant to the message, but the homily is not about the homilist. The homily must follow the conventions of good public speaking, but it is more than public speaking. For the homily to shed light, the preacher cannot just re-tell the story in the gospel for that Mass.
Pope Francis notes that “the homily has special importance due to its eucharistic context: it surpasses all forms of catechesis as the supreme moment in the dialogue between God and his people, which leads up to sacramental Communion” (EG, n. 137). Given this context, the homily cannot be improvised or done extemporaneously. Preparing a homily takes many hours of prayerful reading of the text, reflection, study, drafting, and practicing. Being a good preacher is something that comes out of a broader lifestyle of prayer, reflection, and reading the signs of the times. Good homilists are very familiar with the lives of the people in their congregations. They are aware of all of the cultural influences, the centrality of mass media, and economic and social conditions.
Cardinal Agostino Vallini, vicar of Rome, expressed the challenge of preaching a good homily well when he said, “We want our words to set people’s hearts on fire” and want the faithful “to be enlightened and encouraged to live a new life and never be forced to suffer through our homilies.”
Shed light and set hearts on fire — the two-fold challenge of good preaching!
Image of Fr. Lee Acevo preaching – public domain