Re-Reading Sacrosanctum Concilium: Article 52

Having decreed in article 51 that richer scriptural fare is to be provided to the faithful at Mass, the Council Fathers now turn their attention to preaching at Mass.

Vatican website translation:

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.

Latin text:

52. Homilia, qua per anni liturgici cursum ex textu sacro fidei mysteria et normae vitae christianae exponuntur, ut pars ipsius liturgiae valde commendatur; quinimmo in Missis quae diebus dominicis et festis de praecepto concurrente populo celebrantur, ne omittatur, nisi gravi de causa.

Slavishly literal translation [through the kindness of Jonathan Day]:

52. The homily, through which during the course of the liturgical year the mysteries of the faith and the norms of the Christian life are expounded from the sacred text, is firmly to be designated as a part of the liturgy itself; indeed, in those Masses celebrated on Sundays and feasts of obligation with the people participating [or ‘with the people present in large numbers’], it is not to be omitted except for a serious reason.

The Council Fathers choose the term “homily” to refer to liturgical preaching at Mass, understood as a genuine element of the liturgy. (This probably challenges the custom of preachers at the time of the Council making the sign of the Cross at the beginning and conclusion of their preaching at Mass, thus indicating that they were “exiting” from the formal liturgy for the sermon [sometimes prefaced by announcements and concluded by the prone] and “returning” to it when this insertion was ended.) They characterize this liturgical preaching at Mass as “expounded from the sacred text”; the presumption is that the “more lavish” scriptural fare decreed in article 51 would found homiletic biblical preaching, rather than sermons offered individually or in series on topics extraneous to the biblical lections. They further characterize liturgical preaching as both doctrinal (“the mysteries of the faith”) and paraenetic (“the norms of the Christian life”), presuming that the preacher will be able to ground the Church’s teachings in faith and morals in biblical insight. Wisely they note that no one homily is able to communicate the entirety of Christian belief and practice, but that homilizing in this way will have a cumulative effect over the course of the liturgical year. Finally they emphasize the importance of liturgical preaching at Mass especially when large numbers of the faithful are present, such as on Sunday and holy days of obligation.

Pray Tell readers may wish to discuss any of the following:

1) the further development of the understanding of the homily in official and scholarly documents since SC;

2) how effectively formation programs have prepared preachers to homilize according to these understanding;

3) how effectively liturgical preaching is practiced in our parishes and communities of faith;

4) to what extent this description of homiletic preaching at Mass may be extended to other sacramental and devotional situations;

5) what characteristics mark an effective liturgical homily;

6) what can be done to improve liturgical preaching.

14 comments

  1. 5. After listening to people, and reflecting on the Scriptures, find one point and explore it to a fullness.

    6. Listen to people.

    6a. Make frequent recordings of oneself, video if possible, and listen to (yourself).

    6b. Maybe listen to a voice coach or theatre director.

  2. 6.) Recognize that the gift of preaching doesn’t necessarily accompany the vocation of priest/deacon. Not all ordained men are – or ever will be – good preachers. And there are good preachers that are not ordained. Is it possible to have “extraordinary ministers of preaching” in order to do this really important ministry well?

  3. I was under the impression that a liturgical text (EP, collect, etc.) could also be the basis for a homily; or the special seasons (Advent, Christmas, Lent, Triduum, Easter). While the biblical texts may be the primary basis, is there not room for other liturgical texts?

  4. In response to Lee Bacchi.
    At the time of the Council, with its strong focus on revitalizing the Liturgy of the Word, there is only mention of ‘the sacred text’ as a basis for the homily. However GIRM 65 and 66, which treat of the homily, allow for a homily based on the liturgical texts. Given that during the Liturgy of the Word the community is called to nourish itself at ‘the Table of the Word’, making the Scripture readings the basis for one’s homily would seem to be the first priority of the homilist. Taking advantage of the liturgical texts, of which I have found the Collect and the Preface very apt on “doctrinal” feasts, eg, The Trinity or Corpus Christi, should be secondary and supplementary. The EP’s can also be usefully used on Corpus Christi. I once attempted a homily based on interweaving key ideas from the Exultet and the Easter Vigil readings, but the resulting first draft was way too long. It would have made a good report for a class in Liturgical Theology, but a very long and demanding homily.

  5. (pardon the “Comme Le Prevoit” translation – it’s what I can remember offhand) “Lord, for your faithful people, life is changed not ended.”

    My pastor routinely uses this quotation from the preface as the basis for his funeral homily.

  6. I think good preaching is a basically a talent, which can or wont be developed. A seminarian, without this basic talent, will not be a first class preacher, no more than a moderately talented organist will become Bach, no matter how much study and work.

  7. Earle – I tend to agree, but there are improvements that can be made along the way. I sang in choirs throughout college and seminary, so I was trained in how to use my voice to its best potential. Poor vocalization can be a major impediment to decent or good preaching. It doesn’t matter what you say if what you say can’t be heard and understood.

    All too often I have heard two or three or four potentially good homilies rolled into one amorphous, anchorless mess. Having ONE focal point is as essential in good preaching as it is in much good painting. “A focal point is the element in a painting (preaching) that pulls in the viewer’s eye (ear), that is the center of attention or the main subject. You can emphasize a focal point through the painting’s (homily’s) composition, through color (e.g. references to Patristic thought), and through the range of tones (examples) you use.”

    One more “must”: The preacher must know what the Church does NOT teach. Too often I have heard pious anecdotes, legends, and personal preferences presented as doctrine.

  8. And I have come to believe over my 28 years of preaching that the power of the homily comes Providentially from the scriptures of the day. When I have to step away from that foundation for money talks or other necessary matters, the power just isn’t there. Catechetical instructions, “Come to Jesus” talks about behavior in church, et al, just don’t have the power that a scripture based homily does.

  9. I was taught the three point homily, similar to the style of Pope Francis. We were taught to memorize the homily outline and practice it before a mirror. Of course the basis would be the readings, but primarily, not exclusively, the Gospel. Anecdotes to make one’s point was encouraged.
    When I think back to homilies I heard growing up, I don’t recall content at all, but the passion, authenticity and faith that came across from the priest. Oddly enough I still remember an army chaplain priest around 1957 or so when I was about 4 who told funny moral stories about “Mr. And Mrs. Spaghetti Bender” and still remember hearing laughter and laughing myself for the first time at Mass.

    1. @Father Allan J. McDonald – comment #9:
      To re-echo Fr. Kavanaugh’s excellent point

      “One more “must”: The preacher must know what the Church does NOT teach. Too often I have heard pious anecdotes, legends, and personal preferences presented as doctrine.”

      Let’s hope you stay on topic and don’t bore folks with tidbits from your kerfuffle blog. (talk about personal preferences masquerading as church doctrine)

  10. Over the last 40 years many people have commented about my “great” or “moving” homilies. Although I actually do listen to my own homilies, I leave it to other listeners to determine how effective they may be. What I can say is that my Irish heritage plays a key role in my preaching style. What can I say, I have the gift of gab. This means I never have to worry about being self conscious. I know who I am: a beloved, redeemed, flawed, son of God. I am acutely aware of how he sought me out when I was lost, so my preaching is rooted in my gratitude for God’s mercy. My homily is shaped by what I hear God saying in the lessons, songs, and prayers of the Mass. I set out to engage the assembly. Everyone has learned that smiles, quizzical looks, nods of the head in agreement or disagreement are both permitted and appreciated. My goal is to invite an amen to what I have preached. Often it’s robust, other times its weak. We move on to respond with our profession of faith. I find that people take what they need and leave the rest.

  11. Is there not a movement afoot to supplement scriptural and liturgical preaching with occasional catechetical content? I’m sure I’ve read a couple of items about this in recent years.

  12. It’s too bad that this post didn’t get the lengthy discussion Michael Joncas seems to have expected. Maybe people are all talked out about homilies.
    Anyway, here’s a delayed comment falling under his number 5: The Fathers say, boiled down, that in the homily “mysteria et normae ex textu exponuntur”—that homilies need doctrinal content, moral force, and a basis in the day’s Scripture. It may be too much to expect every homily to be strong in all three areas; it seems to me, though, that a homily noticeably lacking in one or another of them is likely to disappoint. (It would probably be a bad spiritual practice for me to try to remember examples.)

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