Sunday, 30 December 2012

Preaching in the Year of Faith (or "is anyone listening?")

In the last few weeks, I have had two quite contrasting experiences of the homily at Mass. On one occasion I just wondered whether the priest preaching the homily actually believed anyone present was listening; body language in the congregation gave absolutely no confidence that anyone was, and I had long ago exhausted the possibilities of the "Meditations of the Day" in Magnificat, so I certainly wasn't (mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa). On another occasion, with a much larger congregation, the attentiveness to the homily was almost tangible; it felt as if you could almost touch it. Clearly, factors of place and circumstance will go some way to explaining why these two experiences were so radically different, but, equally clearly, in one the homily "wasn't working" and in the other it was.

In the context of the Year of Faith, the homily at Mass takes on a particular significance. For most Catholics, it is the "ordinary" way in which they receive an ongoing teaching about the content of the Catholic faith and about how that content is to be lived out in daily life. The Year of Faith asks us, if it isn't working, to look at the homily and ask why it isn't working.

It is some time now since I stopped feeling obliged to listen to homilies that lack substantial content or preparation, or are just a pedestrian re-statement of the Scripture readings; I will read a meditation from Magnificat instead or, if in an unfamiliar Church, reflect on the religious art portrayed in windows or images of the Church. Just looked at from a human point of view, if someone is going to stand up and speak to a congregation of which I am a part, I expect them to have something to say and I expect them to say it in a reasonably organised way. If they haven't got anything to say, be they a priest or not, they should not presume on my attentiveness. The privileging of the priest in this regard is an innate clericalism that I don't share.

The homily is a privileged occasion for the bishop or priest in that it is a most solemn exercise of their office as a teacher of the faith to those entrusted to their pastoral care. The liturgy does, after all, reserve the homily to the ordained ministry, and perhaps particularly to the designated pastor in a particular place. In that sense, the homily is not open to the critique that might be offered to an article in an academic journal, for example, or in a public debate. It is not a question of liking or disliking what one hears. But that does not absolve the priest from the obligation to bring to bear his purely human skills in preparing the homily, and failing to do so only undermines his exercise of his office.

According to n.65 of the General Instruction on the Roman Missal, in the revised English translation:
The homily is part of the Liturgy and is highly recommended for it is necessary for the nurturing of the Christian life. It should be an explanation of some aspect of the readings from Sacred Scripture or of another text from the Ordinary or the Proper of the Mass of the day and should take into account both the mystery being celebrated and the particular needs of the listeners.
I have added italics to indicate that n.65 suggests some five different sources on which the content of a homily might be based (though arguably some of them inter-relate strongly enough to say that they do not really constitute different sources). One of the major practical barriers to substance in homilies is the assumption that "the homily must be about the Readings" and the resulting rather pedestrian re-statement of the reading (though Pope Benedict XVI exemplifies time and again how a homily based on the Scripture Readings can both have substance and be more than just a re-stating of the reading, often doing this by making a connection between the reading and other parts in Scripture).
So, in the Year of Faith, I think it would be quite in order for a parish priest to:
preach week-by-week on the different articles of the Nicene Creed, or on the text of the Sanctus, etc
preach on the life and mission of the saint when celebrating the feast day of a saint
relate the Readings to how they are used in the Catechism (using the Scripture index of the Catechism to enable this)
teach on key Catholic doctrines (eg the office of the Successor St Peter, heaven) when the Liturgical occasion presents itself
make use of a source such as Magnificat for short meditations if preaching on a week day
be willing to look at Pope Benedict's homilies, or his volumes Jesus of Nazareth, for ideas
A final thought:

I wonder, do the clergy really recognise when their congregation are listening and when they are not?

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