The hallowed dictum ex opere operato says that sacraments work automatically, apart from the dispostion of the minister or recipient, if the rite is done validly, because grace comes from Christ and not from human effort. Does ex opere operato apply to the homily? Could it be that it doesn’t matter how well or poorly prepared or preached a homily is, since the homilist is acting not as himself but in persona Christi (“in the person of Christ”)? That like baptism, or transubstantiation, it works, no matter what state the homilist – or the homily - is in?
I recently came across an op-ed in a Catholic publication that just brushed the edge of this argument. The quality of a Mass doesn’t depend on the homily, the writer suggested, nor should we should expect it to. To yearn for good preaching, to seek it out, undervalues the true point of the Mass, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. I was left with the vague sense that my desire to have an effective “living commentary” [GIRM 29] on the Scriptures was at best something of an imposition on busy priests, and at worst, a sign of failing faith in the Eucharist. It is sufficient that there is a homily.
I don’t buy it. Sacrosanctum concilium called the homily a “part of the liturgy itself” [SC 52] - which implies that good liturgy entails good preaching.
In the midst of all the bustle around the introduction of the new translations of the Mass texts, and how they might affect our liturgical practice and experience, I want to make a plea for thinking deeply about the translation that is under local control: the homily. What is the quality of that translation – the moving of the Word out of the Lectionary and into our lives?
Add in that my parish is deep into a process of examination and renewal, where we have said (among other things) that we desire challenging and relevant homilies and I’ve found myself pondering what principles one might apply in crafting a good homily. What moves me?
I want to hear other voices. No, this is not a call for lay homilists at Mass. Instead it is a plea to bring in, explicitly and regularly, voices from our long and rich Catholic tradition. Tell us what John Chrysostom, Augustine, Karl Rahner, Catherine of Siena, Hildegard of Bingen and Dorothy Day thought. What advice did the desert fathers and mothers have that speaks to us now? How might the Rule of St. Benedict make a difference in the lives of those of us who live in the thick of the secular world? What was in that last papal encyclical that we might need to hear? Please, no generic platitudes or ferverinos.
Engage us in dialog. Ask us what we heard in your homily, or didn’t. Last week I asked my 16 year old son what he might have said about the Sunday pericopes (as a weekend sacristan at the parish, he hears 3 of the 4 homilies in a weekend!). His first response was disbelief, “are you asking me what I would have said if I were the priest?” His second was to say that what he heard was a tough challenge to follow Christ , “I would have hit hard on vocations.” None of the homilies sounded quite that note. How can you plant seeds unless you have a sense of the ground in which they might grow?
Be practical. What practices might help us deepen our sense of God at work in our lives? Talk about ways to engage the Scriptures, ways to pray. Lectio divina. The Examen. The Rosary. Silence. Talk about what we might try if we find prayer a rough go. We are here because we long to encounter the living God. Help us grow in the ways that lead us to find God in all things and at all times, not just in the hour we are offering now.
Whether or not we find the new translations a breath of air or a weighty yoke, perhaps we can commit to to thinking about the translations we undertake each time we preach, or hear, a homily. God’s people deserve more than a homily that is merely there, they deserve one that moves them.
Michelle Francl-Donnay, Ph.D.
Columnist, Catholic Standard & Times