ON THE SACRED LITURGY
SOLEMNLY PROMULGATED BY
POPE PAUL VI
ON DECEMBER 4, 1963
52. 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; the homily, therefore, is to be highly esteemed as part of the liturgy itself; in fact, at those Masses which are celebrated with the assistance of the people on Sundays and feasts of obligation, it should not be omitted except for a serious reason.
For years I have tried to track down the origins of a quote that has served me well for much of my adulthood, to the effect that the homily or sermon should rouse me to the point of expressing my desire to be baptized again in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I long suspected it might be the brilliant evangelical Biblical scholar Karl Barth (1886-1968), who did say: (1) “The theologian who labors without joy is not a theologian at all. Sulky faces, morose thoughts and boring ways of speaking are intolerable in this field; and (2) “Take your Bible and take your newspaper and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.”
I have not found the exact quote I was looking for in Barth, but the two cited above are pertinent to the Council’s teaching in Sacrosanctum Concilium on the liturgy, and specifically today on the homily. Barth understood the Scriptures as the fire of the Christian enterprise, and the New Testament; when Barth speaks of laboring without joy, sulky faces, morose thoughts, and boring ways of speaking, he is addressing not just the academic discipline of university theology but the preaching of the Word in any parish—including his own, a position he maintained through much of his life.
In reading SC 52, it is not evident that the Barthian theology of preaching had significant impact upon the liturgical thinking. The Council Fathers describe preaching in catechetical terms: “the mystery of faith and guiding principles…are to be expounded from the sacred text.” Para. 52’s insistence that preaching must be included in Sunday and holy day Masses is a window on the state of preaching well into the twentieth century, and it represents a significant step forward in the celebration of the Eucharist. All the same, the specifics of the reform remain elusive. It is remarkable that a half-century after para. 52 Pope Francis would feel compelled to write, “We know that the faithful attach great importance to [homilies], and that both they and their ordained ministers suffer because of homilies: the laity from having to listen to them and the clergy from having to preach them!” (2013, Evangelii Gaudium)
A 2012 essay from soon-to-be bishop Father Robert Barron in National Catholic Register cuts to the chase: “That said, homilists can make a great leap forward by being attentive to one fact: Sermons become boring in the measure that they don’t propose something like answers to real questions.” The Homiletic Directory, released by the Congregation for Divine Worship in 2015, is the current operative instruction on preaching. Paras. 157-162 of this Directory cite the homily as an opportunity to preach the doctrines of the Catechism and goes on to assign Catechism segments to the entire calendar of the Church year. The Homiletic Directory sees instruction as a critical aspect of preaching.
As a preacher for 25-years, I found that weekly preaching (in fact, daily) called forth many challenges. You begin with where you are in the Liturgical Calendar, which is more clearly defined during Lent, say, than on the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time. As I grew older I aligned my preaching to the running narrative of the year’s Gospel as I did in the first three years of Café blogging. I tried to be existential [i.e., in the moment] and included examples from civil culture; for example, the Cold War was in full force at that time; there was a strong peace movement in the country; and late in the 1980’s we had E. T., the Simpsons, and Ninja Turtles arrive upon the scene. I don’t remember talking about best-selling books in homilies, but I would do that more today were I still in the ministry. (Fifty Shades might be an exception.)
Preaching in the 1980’s to a regular congregation was a challenge because the church and the country were divided (John Paul II was pope, Ronald Reagan was president, two world leaders who commanded adulation or opposition.) Members of my congregation were sometimes upset with my homiletic observations, but I think they were more upset with the inclusion of allusions to any ugliness in the “real world” into the exercise of worship. It strikes me as true, probably more so today, and I doubt I would survive very long today when the nation is polarized in the extreme.
The Homiletic Directory—with its inclusion of the Catechism—seems to sanction the idea of “homily as answer;” this is a possible preaching strategy if done in a compelling and artistic way, but as Bishop Barron alluded to earlier, preaching is a response to “real questions.” One question sure to come up is why the Catechism declares homosexuality as “intrinsically disordered,” or why divorced persons are excluded from the Eucharist (which is true only if they enter a second marriage without an annulment, a distinction lost in an amazingly large number of Catholics.”)
In the thinking of Pope Francis, expressed in a number of formats, the heart of the sermon is the announcing of Good News; the struggle of the preacher is threefold: awakening the hope of Christ’s promises consistently—a hope which rises and wanes in every human heart, including the preacher’s; mastering the Revelation of both testaments, Hebrew and Christian; and developing a personal style with his people which is artistically pleasing within the confines of his charisma and inclusive to the hopes and needs of the worshipping assembly.
The Church in recent decades has been reluctant to recruit and ordain the original thinkers who would be capable of preaching in compelling ways to a broad spectrum of people and needs, meeting the three challenges of the previous paragraph. There is safety and survival in recruiting “sacramental administrators” who see themselves—perhaps consciously, perhaps subconsciously—as maintaining an even strain for the Church they are entrusted with. For these men the words of Pope Francis are unsettling: “In fidelity to the example of the Master, it is vitally important for the Church today to go forth and preach the Gospel to all: to all places, on all occasions, without hesitation, reluctance or fear. The joy of the Gospel is for all people: no one can be excluded (EG 23).” Christ was put to death because of fearless preaching.
Before we condemn the “administrator priest” and tepid sermons, honesty compels one further consideration. Parishes undertake good works, from feeding the hungry to operating large schools. The pastor/preacher is always aware of that, and his modus operandi is nearly always dictated by the financial necessity of retaining the support and loyalty of his people that the good works may continue. Deny it if you will, but this generally unspoken reality is possibly the biggest reason you will not hear a “fire-and-brimstone” sermon on any given Sunday no matter where you go to church. I was as guilty of this sentiment as anyone.
Now there is a homily begging to be preached from coast to coast.