In Case You Missed It: The Homily in the Context of Evangelii Gaudium

by Fr. Edward Foley

 

Introduction

Francis’ apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) has been widely discussed, analyzed, and alternately embraced or refuted since it first appeared in November of 2013. Even the secular press has given serious attention to this extensive and wide ranging exhortation, especially because of its blunt attention to hot button monetary issues such as trick-down economic theories and the dark side of globalization. Some have employed the document to denounce the Pope as a deluded Marxist (thank you, Rush Limbaugh),[i] others have more graciously considered him a holy simpleton whose dystopian view of the world is out of touch with reality,[ii] while the so called “left” has applauded his unvarnished Vatican II vision of the Church in the world.

The specific request for this contribution to the Pray Tell blog is to examine what Francis says about liturgical preaching in Evangelii Gaudium (hereafter EG). The specificity of that invitation could ostensibly absolve us from wandering into issues of social justice, confronting the challenges of contemporary cultures, or pursuing the political. The explicit material on the homily is well circumscribed in EG (nos. 135-144) with another fifteen sections (nos. 145-150) on homiletic preparation. Those twenty-five sections have a wealth of material on liturgical preaching, and could easily generate the prescribed word-count for fulfilling this writing assignment.

Limiting any discussion of the homily to a few of the 288 sections of this exhortation, however, seems both problematic and — even more — contradictory. Divorcing the explicitly homiletic sections of EG from the surrounding material on being a missional church, the crisis of communal commitment, and the social dimensions of evangelization metaphorically cuts the legs out from underneath the homiletic exercise and reduces it to some hermetically sealed ritual enterprise: one too often “obsessed with the disjointed transmission of a multitude of doctrines” (EG, no. 35). Furthermore, the pope is insistent that evangelization is a contextual event.[iii] Placing his discussion of the homily at the geographic heart of EG not only suggests that the homily is a most honored form of evangelization, but one that must be in dialogue with the wider evangelizing context. For us to ignore that broader context is tantamount to suggesting that homilists can ignore the broader context of their own preaching — something that unfortunately happens much too often.

Taking the rich framework of EG seriously in pondering the homiletic enterprise does not mean we can explore all of it in the depth that it deserves. That will take years. At the same time, it seems possible and more manageable to consider significant threads or flows within the document that position us to be attentive to its key trajectories and yet say something concise about homilizing that respects the spirit of EG. To that end we will begin by considering one key theological current in the exhortation, i.e., its quite positive theological anthropology. Next we will consider the strong ethical perspective of the document and the importance of the “virtues” of mercy and joy, so prominent in this writing. In a penultimate move, we will clarify the “audiences” of evangelization according to Pope Francis. Throughout this essay we will attempt to shape the analysis so that the significance of these elements for preaching and homilizing become clear. In a final brief section, we will attempt to draw some of these strands together to provide broader implications for the homiletic enterprise according to EG

 

Theological Anthropology

Reminiscent of a theologian such as Karl Rahner (d. 1984), Francis seems to embrace a quite positive theological anthropology as a primary dialogue partner in this exhortation. Even early works of Rahner have him asserting that one can only do theology by engaging in anthropology.[iv] In a parallel way, EG consistently emphasizes the nature, significance and even primacy of humanity (no. 55) for evangelization. While much of the reflection on the human condition here has strong ethical overtones — something we will consider more specifically below — Francis’ consideration of humanity reveals more than just a concern about ethics. Rather it stresses that the evangelizer, and by extension the homilist, must understand and even embrace the gift of humanity if they are to be effective in this mission. This requires a theology that is in dialogue with human experience (no. 133).

One could construe from this exhortation that humanity is the very beginning point for evangelization, and thus for preaching as well. In some ways, I find this beginning point consonant with that of another Holiness: the Dalai Lama. In a recent publication about shaping a world ethic, the Dalai Lama believes that any global ethic must forgo religion as a starting point and, instead, focus on our common humanity: for that is one of the very few things the six billion plus inhabitants of this planet have in common.[v] In a similar vein, speaking of interreligious dialogue, Francis notes that such a dialogue is first of all “a conversation about human existence” (no. 250). Furthermore, in treating the topic of “informal preaching,” the Pope notes that the first step in that venture is personal dialogue. This means listening to the joys, hopes, concerns and needs of the others.[vi] “Only afterward is it possible to bring up God’s word” (no. 128). When considering the homily itself, it is important for the preacher not only to contemplate the word but also “contemplate his people” (no 154). This requires keeping “an ear to the people” and developing the ability to link the “message of a biblical text to a human situation, to an experience which cries out for the light of God’s word” (no. 154). Preacher’s need to adapt their language to that of the people and even share in their lives (no. 158) if the preaching and evangelizing are to be effective and authentic. Moreover, the persistent and pervasive use of “heart” language — which in some form or another appears over 100 times in this document — suggest that the anthropological turn is a fundamental commitment in this evangelizing mission to that most human of sensitivities: empathy, which an honored colleague once defined as “my heart in your chest!”

The reason for this attentive and even reverent view of humanity is because each human being is “God’s handiwork, his creation. God created each person in his image, and he or she reflects something of God’s Glory” (no. 274). The “stranger” or “other” is an encounter with “sacred ground” (no 169). Every human being — each of whom Francis calls our brothers and sisters — are the very “prolongation of the incarnation for each of us” (no. 179). Thus, Francis concludes that “every person is immensely holy and deserves our love” (no 274).

Unlike Rahner’s theological anthropology, however, which was often critiqued as being somewhat individualistic,[vii] the theological anthropology underlying EG should be considered more socio-centric than ego-centric. While there is great attention to the value of the individual in this document, there is — even more — a broad and overriding concern for communities. Such is especially obvious in the titles for chapters two and four, concerning “the crisis of communal commitment” and “the social dimension of evangelization” respectively. More specifically, Francis argues that “at the very heart of the Gospel is life in community and engagement with others” (no. 177). This communal frame provides the very context for preaching, as the homily itself is a dialogue between God and “his people” (no. 137). Thus the homilist needs to know “the heart of his community” (no. 137) and not simply that of some individuals in that community. Evangelization and that specific form of evangelization we call the homily are fundamentally ecclesial acts, and the sure sign of the “authenticity” of the homiletic or any other “charism is its ecclesial character” (no. 130).

 

The Ethical Turn

As I have publicly acknowledged on more than one occasion,[viii] as a longtime student of liturgy who accumulated well over 70 graduate credit hours in various aspects of the field, I only remember one course — a reconciliation course taught by Nathan Mitchell — in which ethics was a reoccurring theme. While pioneers of the 20th century liturgical movement in the U.S. such as Virgil Michel OSB were promoting the connection between liturgy and social justice since the 1930’s, this contribution was clearly (in the language of Keith Pecklers) an “unread vision” that virtually never surfaced in my almost two decades of formal liturgical education.[ix] Even though the literature on the connection between liturgy and ethics is growing (both among liturgists and ethicists), ethics is yet a topic that is seldom broached in the formal teaching of liturgics or preaching in seminaries and Roman Catholic graduate programs across the U.S.

Thus, it is both refreshing and inspiring to find Francis’ treatment of preaching in general — and the liturgical act of the homily in particular — embedded in a document with such a compelling ethical vision. Wed to the vision of theological anthropology we noted above, the foundation for the ethics in EG is the “infinite dignity” (no. 178) that God has bestowed upon all women and men, created in the very image of God. That dignity is rooted in the “boundless and unfailing love” (no. 3) that God lavishes upon every human being. This gift of “love” — a word that in various forms appears over 150 times in this document — is the content and practice of the ethical vision put forward in EG. It is not simply respect or honor, tolerance or patience that we are to practice in the evangelizing mission. Rather, it is to be “works of love directed to one’s neighbours” which Francis considers “the most perfect external manifestation of the interior grace of the Spirit” (no. 37).[x]

This love of neighbour has a decidedly liberative and justice trajectory in EG, spurred on by a “zeal for living the Gospel of fraternity and justice!” (no. 179). Especially pointed are the concerns expressed for the “vulnerable” (no. 209), the “homeless, addicted, refugees, indigenous peoples, the elderly …. [and] migrants” (no. 210), “women who endure situations of exclusion, mistreatment and violence” (no 212) and the “Unborn” (no. 213). While there is a specific and appropriate lament “at the lot of those who are victims of various kinds of human trafficking” (no. 211), there is an even broader and overarching concern about human beings who “are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded” (no. 53).

While few of these ethical reflections make explicit connections to the homiletic enterprise, the implications are legion. We will further echo some of these in the final section of this essay, yet one seems particularly important to note here, i.e., the homily as a potentially oppressive, even abuse act. As emerging ritual theories have stressed, especially the work of Catherine Bell, ritual by its very nature is an exercise of power.[xi] Some preachers wield that power with gentleness and respect, but others do not. Francis’ comment that the “confessional must not be a torture chamber” (no. 44) has homiletic analogues. Preaching in the vision of EG is not to be a “burden” on the people of God, but an encounter with beauty: “the church evangelizes and is herself evangelized through the beauty of the Liturgy” (no 24). “In the homily, truth goes hand in hand with beauty and goodness” (no. 142).

The beauty that Francis espouses is well served by his heartfelt emphasis on mercy throughout this exhortation. The language of mercy appears dozens of times in EG, initially as an approach to those who have “fallen away” from the community of faith (no. 24)but more compellingly as the “greatest of all the virtues” (no. 37) for the Christian life, and thus critical for the mission we call evangelization. It is a virtue that is overlooked “when we speak more about law than about grace, more about the Church than about Christ, more about the Pope than about God’s word” (no. 38). Just as the confessional is to be “an encounter with the Lord’s mercy which spurs us on to do our best” (no. 44), one could imagine the pulpit as a kind of “mercy seat,”[xii] where we encounter God’s own Spirit, “transforming us and enabling us to respond to his love by our lives” (no. 112).

 

With Joy

It is not often that one reads a papal document such as EG that is brimming with such a spirit of delight, even exuberance. On the other hand, what else might you expect of such an exhortation so clearly focused on Gaudium! Not only does the language of “joy” permeate this document — the word in various forms appearing over 100 times through the exhortation — but what could be considered a spirituality of Christian gladness is foundational for this evangelizing vision. The Church has traditionally understood joy to be one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit, a perfection “that the Holy Spirit forms in us as the first fruits of eternal glory.”[xiii] Francis seems to further suggest that this is a spirit that evangelizers must embrace and nurture.

The source of this joy is the gospel itself (no. 1). It is the promise of salvation, foretold in the Hebrew Scriptures (no. 4), and fulfilled in the redeeming cross of Christ (no. 5). The gift of joy for Christians is rooted in the dynamics of “encounter” — an encounter with the love of God in Jesus Christ (nos. 7-8). This joy is not a gift that is only or essentially imparted through the Church or its liturgy, but is experienced “daily, amid the little things of life” (no. 4). This parallels what Rahner calls the “liturgy of the world,” in which the paschal mystery is experienced in the mysticism of daily living.[xiv] For the evangelizer, nurturing such joyfulness requires a “deuteronomic” memory, a kind of living anamnesis of Christ’s dying and rising, which is the deep well of “grateful remembrance” from which “the joy of evangelizing always rises” (no. 13).

Unfortunately, many today no longer experience “the quiet joy of [God’s] love” (no. 2). This is prone to happen we are caught up in our own interests that can lead into a downward spiral of resentfulness, anger and listlessness (no. 2). Christians are not immune to this spiral, and in vivid language Francis admits that some Christians pursue lives that “seem like Lent without Easter” (no. 6). A lack of joy is also predicated of the Church and its ministers, as implied in Francis’ memorable lines that “an evangelizer must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral” (no. 10), nor contribute to transforming “Christians into mummies in a museum” (no. 83). The reality is that sometimes we do. More explicitly, he notes that pastoral workers are often prone to a kind of “defeatism which turns us into querulous and disillusioned pessimists [and] ‘sourpusses’” (no. 85). In a memorial passage specifically related to catechesis, the pope notes “Rather than experts in dire predictions, dour judges bent on rooting out every threat and deviation, we should appear as joyful messengers of challenging proposals, guardians of the goodness and beauty which shine forth in a life of fidelity to the Gospel” (no. 167). With particular reference to the homily, Francis notes that it must be positive, offering hope for the future, and cannot leave us “trapped in negativity” (no. 159).

There seems to be an intrinsic relationship between the underlying theological anthropology of this exhortation and its parallel stress on joy. The image of humanity in this text is very much that of a people embrace by Eternal love. Individuals and communities, in turn, are empowered and emboldened by that love and sent in mission to announce it to others. This process is not the imposing of “new obligations” (no. 15), but a liberating gift and an invitation into the “beauty of the gospel” (no. 195), the “beauty of the saving love of God” (no. 36). Evangelizers are graced individuals bearing gifts to people who at their core are not only good but “immensely holy” (no. 274). The evangelizing exchange between evangelizers and hearers is itself to be a thing of beauty, and consequently not only requires joy but itself must be a source of true joy.

 

Whose listening?

In some ways a papal exhortation such as EG could be considered an “in-house” communiqué, designed to inform and inspire Roman Catholic leadership, particularly those charged with the task of evangelization. To that end, there are multiple passages in this document that are directed toward church leadership. The official title of EG clearly notesthat it is directed to “bishops, clergy, consecrated persons and the lay faithful.” Besides generously quoting from conferences of bishops from around the world,[xv] Francis affirms the leadership role of bishops in the evangelizing mission (e.g., nos. 30 & 31). More broadly, in a rich gesture of collegiality, he notes that it is “not advisable for the Pope to take the place of local Bishops in the discernment of every issue which arises in their territory” in service of a needed and “sound ‘decentralization’” (no. 16). There is also support of the other ordained ministers, i.e., priests and deacons.

At the same time — especially regarding priests — there is no dearth of critique of ecclesial leadership that too often waits “passively and calmly … in our church buildings,” exercising a “ministry of mere conservation” (no. 15). While not the norm, the Pope also recognizes “the occasionally unwelcoming atmosphere of some of our parishes” (no. 63). In a spirit of “decentralization” the Pope urges evangelizers to “take on the smell of the sheep” (no. 24) and even get “bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets” (no. 49). This centrifugal instinct is matched with a strong vision of collegiality, as Francis readily acknowledges “that many women share pastoral responsibilities with priests” (no. 103); specific to the homiletic act he affirms the value of priests, deacons and the laity working together “to discover resources which can make preaching more attractive” (no. 159). The theological basis of such collaboration, according to Francis, is that the dignity of the ministerial priesthood “derives from baptism, which is accessible to all” (no. 104). Bishops are reminded that “a woman, Mary, is more important than” they are (no. 104), and that ministerial priesthood is not about more dignity or holiness, but “one means employed by Jesus for the service of his people (no. 104).

The implications for preaching in light of these assertions are multiple. One is the metaphorical displacement of the pulpit and homiletic act as an event from on high hovering over the people, and the replanting of that pulpit and the homiletic event in the midst of the assembly. An explicit strategy for this shift is the abandonment by the homilist of “his own language that he thinks everyone naturally understands” and, instead, taking up the language of the people (no. 158). The more daunting political-theological move is recognizing that it is not the preacher but God and the people who are at the heart of the proclamation of the word (no. 137). While important, the preacher is not the “subject” of the preaching but the “mediator” or “intermediary” (no. 143) who serves the dialogue between God and God’s people.

What I have characterized as a “centrifugal” vision, not only of evangelization but also of liturgical preaching, picks up momentum when the reader of EG perceives the many audiences outside of the Roman Catholic church who seem to be invited to “overhear” this apparently internal conversation. In narrative theory there is a distinction between the explicit and the “implied” hearer. For example, Roman Catholic Eucharistic prayers are directed toward God the Father, who according to literary analysis is the explicit addressee in those prayers. Yet, such prayers are translated into the vernacular and proclaimed aloud because the Eucharistic assembly is understood to be an implied “hearer” and even “enactor” of those texts. In a similar vein, one could argue credibly that Jews are an important and implicit audience for this document (nos. 247-49). The same is true for the “followers of Islam” (nos. 252-53). There are also gestures to “non-Christians … faithful to their own consciences” (no. 254) and even an admittal of “the respect due to the agnostic or non-believing minority” (nos. 255). Finally there is a quite gracious outreach to believers “who do not consider themselves part of any religious tradition” whom the Pope considers “precious allies” in multiple social endeavors (no. 257).

These particular groups positioned around religion outside the Roman Catholic Church are not the only — what we might characterizes as — “over-hearers of the word” in this document. Recall the Pope’s concern for the poor, the marginalized, and the unemployed noted above. More generally, Francis understands that evangelization is to and for the world as stressed in his direct concern “for the soundness of civil institutions …. [and] for the building of a better world” (no. 183). Evangelization, as a “path of dialogue” in pursuit of “the common good” is a “dialogue with states, [a] dialogue with society … [a] dialogue with cultures and the sciences” (no. 238). In a word, it is a definition of evangelization in general and the homily in particular as an act of public theology.

 

Weaving threads for preaching

Now that we have identified some key threads in EG that provide a wider context for preaching and homilizing, it is time for us to extract from these a few broader methodological learnings, performative presumptions and practical implications for the homiletic task and those who undertake it. In this modest conclusion I would like to suggest a quartet of such overarching learnings, presumptions and implications.

Pope Francis is clear that preaching is not just an exercise of office but an ecclesial mission (no. 15). He is amazingly brave and somewhat encyclopedic about what preaching and the homily is and is not to be , i.e., it is not: dull (no. 11), doctrinal (no. 35), confined (no. 49), abstract (nos. 142 & 157), ugly (cf. nos. 36 and 142), obsessive (no. 49), out of contact with the local context (nos. 29, 45 &143), heartless (no. 139), essentially entertaining (no. 138), judgmental (no. 172), tortured (cf. no. 44), bureaucratic and inhospitable (no. 63), pessimistic (cf. no. 85), ostentatious (no. 95), rigid (no. 45), avuncular (cf. no. 139), self-centered (cf. no. 158), monologic (no. 137), long (no. 138), heartless (no 138), disconnected from God’s Word (no. 146), inauthentic (no. 150), negative (no. 159), oppressive (nos. 187ff), and disengaged from society (nos. 238ff).

On the other hand, while Francis does provide a somewhat practical process for homily preparation, he does not explicate a theological frame for homily preparation and delivery. His emphasis on missiology is well taken, but as I have learned from my colleagues: missiology does not have a single methodology. Nor does contextual theology,[xvi] despite Francis’ clear emphasis on preaching as a contextual act. Acknowledging my own biases in this endeavor, I believe EG allows one to fruitfully consider the homiletic event and its preparation as framed by EG as an act of practical theology.

Practical theology, as it has emerged at the end of the twentieth century, is a style of doing theology (with multiple methods) that takes both theory and practice seriously. In many forms of practical theology priority is given to human experience — especially shared human experience — that needs to be put in dialogue with the tenets of one’s religion and the realities of the wider cultural context.[xvii] Francis’ emphasis on our shared humanity, the importance of human experience, and particularly the need for preachers to keep their ear to the people (no. 154) is analogous to the practical theologians “empirical” task[xviii] of attending to some slice of shared experience. This means, to use Francis’ language, that the homily must have the aroma of the sheep (no. 24) and reflect a honed engagement with “the streets” (no. 49). I have often suggested that if a preacher is truly attentive to the context of his people, he should be able to give six months of his homilies to a sociologist, from which the sociologists should be able to construct a credible overview of the demographics, economic, and social profile of that community.

There are many other analogues between Francis’ view of preaching and practical theology. These include the need to put people’s experience in dialogue with the Word of God (no. 166): what practical theology would consider a critical correlation between experience and religious tradition. Francis also views evangelizing in general — and thus the homily by implication — as contributing to the liberation of people (e.g., nos. 24 & 178), a quite strong theme throughout much of contemporary practical theology.[xix] There is also the explicit concern to stress the “ideal of a life of wisdom” (no. 168) and “practical wisdom” (no. 254). Practical wisdom or phronesis is a defining tenet of practical theology as it reemerged in the 20th century, especially as explicated in the writings of Don Browning, whom many consider the contemporary father of practical theology.[xx] Finally, practical theology is a theology for and in action,[xxi] not some speculative or theoretical musing. Similarly, the homily itself is theology in action, as is the whole of the liturgy — our enacted theologia prima.

In terms of defining the preacher, EG offers the important practical redefinition of the preacher as mediator rather than as the instigator or guardian of the word. Often preachers imagine themselves as the “subject” of the preaching event, and the assembly as the “object” of that event. On the other hand, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy notes that all liturgy is an action of Christ: head and members (no. 7). Since the homily is not simply “in” the liturgy but is itself a liturgical event and integral to Sunday Eucharist, it follows that the homily is also an action of Christ: head and members.

Francis’s words well reflects this inversion, and EG disables homilists from holding evangelical court over some captive audience. Recalling his many exhortations to keep clergy focused on service and not on any high honor they think their ordination bestows, Francis defines the preacher as a mediator (no. 143). He invokes the language of John Paul II that the liturgical proclamation of the word is “a dialogue between God and his people” (no. 137; cf. no. 140).[xxii] As a catalyst for this dialogue, the preacher is expected to be in touch with the language, concerns and contexts of the people and not simply be caught up in his own little world. Rather he has been on the street with the baptized and in their homes, not barricaded in church or rectory and thus immune to picking up the smell of the sheep. It is only in such a way that this mediator can “properly accompany [not lead!] the poor on their path to liberation” (no. 199).

Francis’ image of the homily, as noted above, also emphasis preaching and the liturgy as exercises in beauty. In the incredibly diverse US context, the nature of the beautiful is highly contested. Is it defined by the elite who throng to the Kennedy Center in Washington DC and Symphony Hall in Chicago, or is it what garners the broadest hip-hop audience as charted by billboard.com? There was a highly controversial document on the liturgy issued by a small think-tank entitled the “Snowbird Statement on Catholic Liturgical Music” (1995).[xxiii] That statement rightly insistently argued for the importance of “beauty” in liturgical music, yet its circuitous discussions of beauty were markedly non-contextual, universalist, and arguable anchored in western musical conservatory definitions of beauty that took Bach, Beethoven and Brahms as the universal litmus tests of the beautiful. On the other hand, it seemed to overlook and implicitly reject any standard of “beauty” enacted by the masses. In that vein, I am always reminded of the poignant reflection by mentor Nathan Mitchell, who suggested that “Secretly we believe that God loves the poor, but hates their music; surely God loves Mozart more than Randy Travis.”[xxiv]

Francis writings seem to embrace what could be considered a Marian aesthetic, or beauty as refracted through the anawim hymn Mary voices in Luke 1:45-66. In his exploration of theological aesthetics, Alejandro García-Rivera argues that a true aesthetic — even a liturgical aesthetic — must embrace the lowly. This lifting up the lowly, according to García-Rivera, takes place “in the biblical heart” where good and evil must be discerned.[xxv] Francis’ continued emphasis heart, but one that is tuned to the poor and marginalized, seems to cry out for a very particular aesthetic: one not defined by some music conservatory or philosopher, but in the heart of Mary the very “Mother of Evangelization” (no. 284).

Finally I believe that Francis’ vision of the homily and preaching in general is well served by the framework of public theology. The brilliant Lutheran theologian Martin Marty is often cited as the term’s progenitor. Already in 1974 he was speaking about “public theologians.”[xxvi] Later, Marty turned to the writings of the US statesman Benjamin Franklin (d. 1790) who in 1749 anonymously penned a pamphlet in which he argued for the necessary of “public religion” in education and its usefulness to society.”[xxvii] Marty borrowed and adapted Franklin’s term, suggesting that it was more helpful in the current discussion to speak about public church than civil religion.[xxviii] Marty defines “the public church” as “a family of apostolic churches with Jesus Christ at the center … that are especially sensitive to the res publica, the public order that surrounds and includes people of faith.”[xxix] According to Marty, this public church engages in “public theology” which he defines as an effort “to interpret the life of a people in the light of a transcendent reference.”[xxx] Thus, for Marty, the public church is not so much concerned with “’saving faith,’ which refers to the ways in which a person is finally grounded in or reconciled to God … [but] focuses on ‘ordering faith,’ which helps constitute civil, social and political life from a theological point of view.”

While Francis does not use the language of public theology, his own language about preaching and evangelizing sounds very much like Marty, i.e., disallowing one to claim “that religion … exists only to prepare souls for heaven” (no. 182). Rather, religion — and the preaching and homilizing that marks the Roman Catholic religion — needs to be concerned about “the soundness of civil institutions … [and] events affecting society” (no. 183). Evangelizing, and by definition homilizing, needs to show concern for the “building of a better world” (no. 182). Francis wants — actually seems to demand — a “dialogue with society” (no. 238). One could interpret all of his language about dialogue with Jews, Muslims, people from other religious traditions, the “nones”[xxxi] and even agnostics as predicated upon a believe that evangelizing in all of its forms has something significant to say to the billions of human beings outside the Roman Catholic Church or even Christianity. This vision shatters the myopia of homilists who believe their primary job is speak about church law, focus on the church and quote the pope (cf. no. 38). Rather preaching, and even the homily, is to be a centrifugal act that resounds — like God’s word itself — through the whole of creation. Yet, that centrifugal act is not an exercise in correcting or “finger wagging,” but must proclaim the hope, mercy and joy that permeate this document.

There are undoubtedly other threads and weavings around preaching and the homiletic enterprise that one could discern from this amazing exhortation. I have only touched upon a few from my own perspective as a dominant culture cleric and academic, who self-identifies as a practical theologian. My hope is these musings send you back to this life-giving document, so that your own context can unearth others and that you are your communities are enriched in the process.

 

 

Edward Foley is the Duns Scotus Professor of Spirituality and Professor of Liturgy and Music at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. A member of the Province of St. Joseph of the Capuchin Order since 1966 he was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1975. He holds multiple graduate degrees in music, ministry and theology including the Ph.D. in Theology (1987) from the University of Notre Dame.

An award winning author, he currently has 21 published books to his credit; his most recent work is A Commentary on the Order of Mass: A New English Translation, for which he serves as general editor, published in October 2011 by the Liturgical Press. 

Foley has also authored over 300 chapters in books, scholarly and pastoral articles, and reviews. His current research projects include an exploration of interfaith theological reflection for which he received a Lilly Faculty Fellowship for the academic year 2012-13; his forthcoming book on this topic is entitled Reflective Believing.

 

 

[i] Rush Limbaugh, “It’s Sad how wrong Pope Francis is,” The Rush Limbaugh Show (27 November 2013), online at www.rushlimbaugh.com/daily/2013/11/27/it_s_sad_how_wrong_pope_francis_is_unless_it_s_a_deliberate_mistranslation_by_leftists

[ii] Marian Tupy, “Is the Pope Right about the World?”, Atlantic Monthly (December, 2013), online at http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/12/is-the-pope-right-about-the-world/282276/

[iii] The language of “context” occurs 15 times in the document. Notable is the Pope’s emphasis that evangelization “constantly seeks to communicate more effectively the truth of the Gospel in a specific context” (no. 45, emphasis added).

[iv] See, for example, his “Dignity and Freedom of Man,” originally presented in 1952 and included in Theological Investigations II, trans. Karl-H. Kruger (Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1963), 235-63, specifically p. 241.

[v] Dalai Lama, Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World (Boston-New York: Houghton Mifflin Hartcourt, 2011). In particular, see Part I:2 “Our Common Humanity”, pp. 21-29.

[vi] Notice the strong resonance in these words with the opening lines of Gaudium et Spes.

[vii] See, for example, Johannes Metz, Faith in History and Society: Toward a Practical Fundamental theology, trans. David Smith (New York: Crossroad, 1980), esp. pp. 161-68.

[viii] See, for example, my “Practical Liturgics: a ‘fusionary’ tale, Proceedings of the North American Academy of Liturgy (2013) 25-33.

[ix] Keith Pecklers does a masterful job of “uncovering” this buried treasure in his The Unread Vision: The Liturgical Movement in the United States of America: 1926-1955 (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1998), especially “The Liturgical Movement and Social Justice,” pp. 81-149.

[x] No. 161 is an especially rich discussion of the “love of neighbour.”

[xi] Catherine Bell, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice (New York — Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), esp. chapter 9, “The Power of Ritualization,” pp. 197-223.

[xii] The mercy seat was the lid of the ark of the covenant, which resided in the Holy of Holies in the Temple of Solomon. The presence of God hovered over the mercy seat, and when the blood of atonement on Yom Kippur was sprinkled on that place, God’s mercy was dispensed to the Jews. See Heb. 9:3-5 for the early Christian community’s appropriation of this metaphor.

[xiii] Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1832. The complete list of the fruits of the spirit are: charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self control and chastity (cf. CCC, no. 1832).

[xiv] For an introduction to Rahner’s distinction between the liturgy of the church and the liturgy of the world, see Michael Skelley, The Liturgy of the World: Karl Rahner’s Theology of Worship (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991), especially chapter 4, pp. 85-105.

[xv] Especially the Latin American and Caribbean bishops in notes 4, 17, 21, 63, 84, 98, 103, 106, 147, 165; also the 2012 synod of bishops in no. 14; African bishops in no. 62; bishops of Asia in nos. 62 and 110; bishops of the US in no. 64 and 180; French bishops in no. 66; bishops of Oceania in no. 118; bishops of Brazil in no. 191; Bishops of the Philippines in no. 215; bishops of the Congo in no. 230; and the bishops of India in no. 250.

[xvi] See Stephen Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology, rev. ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books,

2005).

[xvii] See, for example, the highly influential Method in Ministry by James and Evelyn Whitehead, rev., ed. (Kansas City: Sheed & Ward, 1995).

[xviii] The best introduction to the empirical task of practical theology continues to be Johannes van der Van, Practical Theology: An Empirical Approach (Kampen: Kok Pharos, 1993).

[xix] See the wonderful summary by Nancy Ramsay, “Emancipatory Theory and Method,” in The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Practical Theology, ed. Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, 2012), pp. 183-192.

[xx] See his magisterial A Fundamental Practical Theology: Descriptive and Strategic Proposals (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991), especially chp. 2 on “Exploring Practical Wisdom and Understanding,” pp. 34-54.

[xxi] See Elizabeth Conde-Frazier, “Participatory Action Research, in The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Practical Theology, ed. Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, 2012), pp. 234-43.

[xxii] In this vein, I previously redefined the homily as “a ritual conversation between God and the liturgical assembly which announces God’s reign through the mediation of a preacher, who offers a credible and imaginative interpretation drawing on the whole of the liturgical bible in the context of a particular liturgy and community.” See my “The Homily beyond Scripture,” Worship 73:4 (1999) 351-58.

[xxiii] The text of the document was published in Pastoral Music 20:3 (February-March 1996) 13-19 and is available on-line at http://www.canticanova.com/articles/liturgy/art9o1.htm (accessed 21.vii.14).

[xxiv]Nathan Mitchell, “Amen Corner,” Worship 70:3 (1996) 258.

[xxv] Alejandro García-Rivera, The Community of the Beautiful (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1999), p. 181.

[xxvi] Martin Marty, “Two Kinds of Civil Religion,” in American Civil Religion, ed. Russell E. Richey and Donald G. Jones (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), 155.

[xxvii] See his Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania (1749), on line at http://www.ushistory.org/franklin/biography/app03.htm (21.vii.14).

[xxviii]Martin Marty, The Public Church (New York: Crossroad Press, 1981), p. 16; also, see his earlier “Two Kinds of Civil Religion,” in American Civil Religion, ed. Russell E. Richy and Donald C. Jones (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1974), pp. 139-160.

[xxix] Ibid., p. 3.

[xxx] Ibid., p. 16.

[xxxi] This is language that the Pew Research on Religion and Public Life has popularized, designating those who do not identify with any religion, even though they may engage in religious practices or believe in God. See “’Nones’ on the Rise,” from Pew’s Religion & Public Life project (9 October 2013), online at http://www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/ (accessed 21.vii.14).

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5 comments

  1. Thank you Fr. Foley for this timely reflection on EG. I was thinking just the other day that I needed to do some reading to improve my homilies and this treasure arrived via Pray Tell.

  2. What a marvelous essay – well worth being billed as a “feature article” on PrayTell.

    Regarding this snippet: “the reader of EG perceives the many audiences outside of the Roman Catholic church who seem to be invited to “overhear” this apparently internal conversation.”

    … This “overhearing” takes place quite literally, in my experience. I’ve learned at some point that it is a mistake to assume that Catholic churches are filled exclusively with Catholics. For many reasons, non-Catholics attend Catholic liturgies.

  3. I confess that these two paragraphs from Fr. Foley puzzle me. I’ll say more in the next comment.

    “Francis’ image of the homily, as noted above, also emphasis preaching and the liturgy as exercises in beauty. In the incredibly diverse US context, the nature of the beautiful is highly contested. Is it defined by the elite who throng to the Kennedy Center in Washington DC and Symphony Hall in Chicago, or is it what garners the broadest hip-hop audience as charted by billboard.com? There was a highly controversial document on the liturgy issued by a small think-tank entitled the “Snowbird Statement on Catholic Liturgical Music” (1995).[xxiii] That statement rightly insistently argued for the importance of “beauty” in liturgical music, yet its circuitous discussions of beauty were markedly non-contextual, universalist, and arguable anchored in western musical conservatory definitions of beauty that took Bach, Beethoven and Brahms as the universal litmus tests of the beautiful. On the other hand, it seemed to overlook and implicitly reject any standard of “beauty” enacted by the masses. In that vein, I am always reminded of the poignant reflection by mentor Nathan Mitchell, who suggested that “Secretly we believe that God loves the poor, but hates their music; surely God loves Mozart more than Randy Travis.”[xxiv]

    “Francis writings seem to embrace what could be considered a Marian aesthetic, or beauty as refracted through the anawim hymn Mary voices in Luke 1:45-66. In his exploration of theological aesthetics, Alejandro García-Rivera argues that a true aesthetic — even a liturgical aesthetic — must embrace the lowly. This lifting up the lowly, according to García-Rivera, takes place “in the biblical heart” where good and evil must be discerned.[xxv] Francis’ continued emphasis heart, but one that is tuned to the poor and marginalized, seems to cry out for a very particular aesthetic: one not defined by some music conservatory or philosopher, but in the heart of Mary the very “Mother of Evangelization” (no. 284).”

  4. Hmm, well, I was going to write about my puzzlements in this comment. But in searching for a particular quote to refer to, I came across this passage by Robert Waznak, which may be one take on the question of beauty in homilies:

    “Laurence Perrine warned his students not to read poetry while lying in a hammock because poetry’s ‘purpose is not to soothe and relax, but to arouse and awake, to shock into life, to make one more alive’ … Karl Rahner chided his fellow theologians because they had lost the imagination of the poet and had become hopelessly prosaic: ‘Where are those ages when the great theologians wrote hymns as well? When they could write like Ignatius of Antioch, versify like Methodius of Olympus, when they lived in the ecstacy of hymns like Adam of St. Victor, Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas?’ Please note that Rahner did not chide his fellow theologians because they were expressing theology but because they did not express their theology with the vision and imaginative language of the poet … The title Walter Brueggemann gave to his 1989 Lyman Beecher Lectures on Preaching at Yale Divinity School is telling: _Finally Comes the Poet: Daring Speech for Proclamation_. Brueggemann proposes that contemporary preaching should be a ‘poetic construal of an alternative world.’ His choice of the image of the preacher as poet is based on a conviction that ‘preaching is an event in transformed imagination. Poets, in the moment of preaching, are permitted to perceive and voice the world differently, to dare a new phrase, a new picture, a fresh juxtaposition of matters long known.’

    — From Waznak, Robert P, SS, _An Introduction to the Homily_, Collegeville, MN: The liturgical Press, (c) 1998, pp 100-101.

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