Do homilies work ‘ex opere operato’?

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
quantumtheology.blogspot.com

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16 comments

  1. I would agree that the homily and scriptures are important, dare I say it, but as important as Eucharist. The fullfillment of the incarnation, the Word to become flesh. Enflesh the scripture so that it can be burning in our hearts as on the day of Emmaus. The scripture and Christ’s revelation to the scripture were put together with the breaking of the bread and that both actions together were utilized in the conversion of the hearts of the disciples, so that they could go forth and share the good news. Together the scripture and eucharist brought a new revelation to the disciples and can our communities.

  2. I have had people thank me after Mass for something that for the life of me I don’t think I said, so in that regard, maybe ex opere operato worked. I don’t know. I’d like to rely on it, but know better. I wish I could move people better, other than moving them to sleep. I think most people would like practical advice or anecdotes on how to live the faith and to be inspired by our tradition especially by the greats of the past. I certainly believe that the homily should be well prepared and delivered and the art of rhetoric employed. I also applaud homilies, especially mini-ones at even daily Mass. And I agree that the “comfortable should be afflicted and the afflicted comforted.”

    1. I don’t mean to argue that the Spirit isn’t active in a homily, in either its delivery or preparation! I write a weekly column for my archdiocesan paper, and when what I’ve written for a particular week seems to me to be flat or tangled, I’m often surprised by the number of people who find it to be inspiring. It is a good reminder that this sort of preaching, like a homily, is not by any means solely my work.

      I find some help in St. Augustine who was similarly afflicted: “when I find that my powers of expression come short…I am sorely disappointed that my tongue has not been able to answer the demands of my mind.” His consolation? (as paraphrased by Walter Burghardt, SJ): (1) It’s never as bad as you think. (2) Endure for the sake of love. (3) As best we can, let God speak through us.

      And even if people are asleep, it’s not unheard of for God to work in dreams.

  3. Thank you so much for this perspective. Just yesterday, while preparing for a presentation on the Rite of Penance, I came across this paragraph in the RP having to do with Penitential Celebrations: “Before or after the readings from scripture, readings from the Fathers or other writers may be selected which will help the community and each person to a true awareness of sin and heartfelt sorrow, in other words, to bring about conversion of life.” When I read your comments about the Fathers, Dorothy Day, etc., I was reminded of this passage in the RP. I believe folding these “presences” into the Sunday homily would be refreshing and might be a helpful exercise for priests and deacons. Thanks again.

    1. Usually one of the first things I do when preparing a homily (after looking at the scriptures themselves) is to look at Aquinas’s Catena Aurea to see what the Fathers had to say. A lot of it is not terribly useful for homiletic purposes, but about one time in ten I’ll find a real gem that shapes the whole homily. One of the more progressive members of our parish will occasionally say to me, “You can find those old guys saying the most interesting things.”

  4. “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?”

    AMEN!

    Every now and then, while reading a sermon of the Church Fathers, I think to myself, “St. Augustine [or whoever] had some really eloquent things to say about John the Baptist [or whatever]. How many other Catholics today know about this?”

    I would absolutely love it if more priests (and deacons) would incorporate the wisdom of the Fathers, Doctors, and other spiritual writers of the Church in their homilies. Surely they have written something that must still be apropos to our lives today!

  5. That particular part of SC 52 would be one of the things I believe to be a huge mistake. I have some vague memory of a professor telling us, back at the seminary, that it has been subject to discussion ever since Vatican II.

    One must also concur that, especially with ‘ex opere operato’ in mind, most homilies are in essence completely different than the other parts of the liturgy. In my opinion the intention of Vatican II was to give the homily some sort of ‘upgrade’ by SC 52. However, some practical issues occur in real life/worship.

    My spiritual counselor once said that he kept on making the sign of the cross before and after the homily (together with the congregation) to show that – at least his – homily isn’t ‘a part of the homily itself’.

    I never understood how they came to formulate SC 52 like they did. Especially from the specific philosophical mindset they were in back then (and probably still are).

  6. About 95% of the time the homily seems to be an interruption in the Mass, even if it is about the readings, even if it says something.

    The most constructive idea about a homily is by Abraham Heschel as reported by Don Cozzens in the Changing Face of the Priesthood p.85, “Preach in order to pray. Preach in order to inspire others to pray. The test of a true sermon is that it can be converted to prayer.”

    The 5% of homilies that have not been interruptions to the Mass were all by one priest who not only was a fine homilist and great liturgist but integrated both with small (no longer than a sentence, often just a phrase) comments throughout the Mass.

    A decade or so ago, I grabbed my envelope and checkbook as I headed late for Mass, going up the aisle a few steps behind my pastor to an almost front row seat. I found myself writing my check during the homily and began to wander what the effect would be if we all sat there poised over our checkbooks during the homily.

    With Jeffrey and Fritz, I strongly echo the “plea to bring in, explicitly and regularly, voices from our long and rich Catholic tradition.” We have so much there of great value.

    If there are thousand people at Mass on weekends, and the average person earns just $10 an hour, that is $10,000 worth of time altogether or about $167 a minute. So find something to say that worth that much, e.g. $1167 for a seven minute sermon.

  7. The same way that I don’t prepare an original composition or an improvisation for the prelude/postlude/preparation times every week, but revert to Bach, Mendelssohn & Co., I think that homilists should draw more often and regularly from the archive of the Christian heritage. (One of the best homilies I ever heard on the Magnificat came from Martin Luther’s commentary on it.) A fair amount of the blame, I think lies with the “congregation as audience” mindset – thinking that they expect something original each and every week. It’s a daunting task, even for the most gifted of preachers.

    If we want to hear from Catherine of Siena, Hildegard of Bingen and Dorothy Day, aren’t we asking for lay preaching? I can’t quite grasp why the voices of the laity are only worthy after they’ve been given the seal of approval by proper authorities. Goodness knows that lots of what passes clerical lips wouldn’t pass muster if scrutinized.

    To use “ex opere operato” as an excuse for laziness in homiletic preparation leading to a grace-less text – if we’re still following sacramental analogy – would seem to be a defect in the “matter” of the homily.

    1. Though, it should be noted, that reliance on an archive means one must work hard in selection to take into account the particular needs of listeners, as is required of the homily in the Missal’s instructions.

    2. Alan, you bring up an interesting question – who is the homilist? The person who writes it or the person who proclaims it? If I (or Catherine of Siena or ePriest) were to write it and a priest read it – is that his homily or mine (or Catherine’s or….)?.)?

  8. “We are here because we long to encounter the living God.”

    I love this. The whole article was excellent. There’s even a deeper reason, I think, not to argue that because the homily doesn’t have an ex opere operato effect, it isn’t central and shouldn’t be a priority for the churchgoer. To use ex opere operato in this way of the sacraments that DO have such an effect – i.e., to say that because a liturgy works ex opere operato it’s ok that it be a bad liturgy – is a mistake from the outset. Actually, when we put it that directly it’s usually obvious that it must be a mistake. Baptism has an effect that works ex opere operato, but a good baptismal liturgy also works to refresh, inspire, and prepare the recipient and the whole assembly for the works of God, as the Church has always recognized. In that respect, then, a good homily isn’t necessarily too different from a good baptism.

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