Preaching and the Liturgy: Notes from Pope Francis
The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis’ most recent Apostolic Exhortation, contains many wonderful and important topics for Christian living. One of the great advantages of the Pope’s exhortation is that it is easy to read and understand by the average reader. It is written in a clear, friendly, and non-technical manner. The only word that might need some explanation is “exhortation”. In Latin this is a type of speech given at a pep rally. It is a pep talk.
In The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis takes thoughts and ideas that can be complex and presents them in a clear way without watering them down. This review is the first in a series. We begin with the homily because it’s role is one of the least understood aspects of Catholic Christian life and liturgy.
In sections 135 to 139 of The Joy of the Gospel, the Pope focuses on the homily. Technically, the homily is given by those to whom the Church has given the ministry of preaching — bishops, priests, and deacons. However, many lay people today give reflections on the scripture at prayer, scripture, and communion services in hospitals, jails, and labor camps. Some parishes have lay presiders for authorized communion services if priests are not available for Mass. Consequently, proclaiming the Gospel and preaching can happen, with the approval of the local bishop, in different situations outside the Mass by a wide variety of men and women who have been trained and approved. Sometimes, reflecting on the scriptures also happens in faith sharing groups and individual families.
So what does the Pope encourage us to do about homilies at Mass?
137. It is worth remembering that “the liturgical proclamation of the word of God, especially in the eucharistic assembly, is not so much a time for meditation and catechesis as a dialogue between God and his people, a dialogue in which the great deeds of salvation are proclaimed and the demands of the covenant are continually restated”. 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.
Pope Francis underscores the sacred sacramental nature of the homily as a “dialog between God and his people.” The homily is not entertainment, but it needs to give life and meaning to the celebration. In the context of the Mass the homily has to be short, according to Pope Francis, since it’s length can upset the “balance and rhythm” of the Eucharist. Preaching in the context of the liturgy becomes part of the offering to the Father and mediates the grace Christ pours out in the Mass. “This context demands that preaching should guide the assembly, and the preacher, to a life-changing communion with Christ in the Eucharist. This means that the words of the preacher must be measured, so that the Lord, more than his minister, will be the center of attention.”
“A life-changing communion with Christ in the Eucharist” seems like an impossible challenge. While the Pope makes it clear that this “life-changing communion” happens through the grace of God, how do we prepare ourselves to be open to such an experience as preachers and members of the assembly? Pope Francis recommends that preachers take a loving and maternal tone. Mothers are keenly aware of their children’s challenges, their strengths and weaknesses. The Pope assumes the ideal mother-child relationship of trust, happiness, and deep mutual love. Pope Francis characterizes the Lord’s teaching as a dialog. He defines dialog as “much more than the communication of a truth”. Dialog arises from the enjoyment of speaking and enriches people by the sharing of love for each other through conversation. In dialog persons share themselves. Talking with his people is something that the Lord enjoys. The Pope reminds preachers that their words and interaction should be focused on leading them to this same enjoyment of God’s people.
These few points do not even begin to scratch the surface of the Pope’s complete pep talk on preaching. What is remarkable are the themes of joy, enjoyment, and dialog. Very often the popular connotation of “preaching” is a negative, judgmental, and humiliating experience. Many times in the context of the Mass people are looking for a well articulated lesson about morality or Christian doctrine. The Pope and the Church, from the time of the Apostles, are calling us to something deeper, more radical, and very challenging. We are being called to enter the Divine conversation of the life of the Trinity, to hear the Divine Word and to be transformed both as speaker and recipient in the Holy Spirit’s dialog. Pope Francis urges us to take God at His Word.
The Joy of the Gospel – Apostolic Exhortation by Pope Francis,
United States Catholic Conference of Bishops, Washington, DC,
December 2013, also available at the Vatican web site.
Photo by CNS/Paul Haring