Reviewing the Homiletic Directory

by Fr. William Skudlarek OSB

One of the recommendations of the 2008 Synod on the Word of God was that “a ‘Directory on the Homily’ be elaborated, which would present, together with the principles of homiletics and the art of communication, the content of the Biblical themes that are found in the lectionaries used in the liturgy” (Proposition 16). The “Homiletic Directory” recently issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments is the response to that request.

It is evident that the Congregation focused its attention on the Synod’s request that the directory present “the content of the Biblical themes that are found in the lectionaries used in the liturgy.” It does so in Part Two of this Directory (entitled—somewhat curiously to my mind—“Ars praedicandi”), which comprises over half of this 100-page document. The Directory includes two appendices, one indicating the paragraphs in the Catechism of the Catholic Church that “allude to the specific readings, or . . . treat topics found in the readings,” the other listing post-conciliar ecclesial sources relevant to preaching. These appendices take up about one quarter of the document. A mere 12 pages are devoted to Part One, “The Homily and its Liturgical Setting,” which is divided into three subsections: The Homily, Interpreting the Word of God in the Liturgy, and Preparation.

The document states that the homily is an integral part of the liturgy and therefore “not a sermon on an abstract topic . . .[nor] simply an exercise in biblical exegesis. . . [nor] catechetical instruction,” even though doctrine, exegesis, and catechesis can be elements of a homily. To say what a homily is, the document cites The General Instruction of the Roman Missal and the Introduction of the Lectionary, summing up this material by saying, “the [eucharistic] homily is shaped by a very simple dynamic: it reflects on the meaning of the readings and prayers of a given celebration in light of the Paschal Mystery; and it leads the assembly to the Eucharistic celebration in which they have communion in the Paschal Mystery itself” (15).

Although this summary includes elements that are present in all homilies (or should be, at any rate)—readings and prayers, liturgical celebration, assembly, Paschal Mystery—it presents an approach to the homily that is poles apart from that of Fulfilled in Your Hearing, the document of the United States Bishops on the Sunday homily that was published in 1982.

Fulfilled in Your Hearing proposed what can only be called a paradigm shift in the understanding of the homily. It states that the role of the liturgical preacher is not so much to reflect on the meaning of the readings and prayers, as to reflect on the life of the community gathered for worship. The homiletic way of doing this is to turn to the Scriptures and prayers of a particular celebration, doing so to help the members of that community recognize the presence of God in their lives and respond with praise and thanksgiving.

The Directory, on the other hand, continues to follow classical homiletic methodology, which begins with an explanation of the scriptures, which in turn are then “applied” to peoples’ lives. Furthermore, by placing so much emphasis on understanding why particular passages from the Scriptures were chosen for the various feasts and seasons (Part 2), and by providing a comprehensive index of doctrinal references in the Catechism (Appendix 1), I believe the Directory, in spite of its protests to the contrary, reinforces that all-too-prevalent model of the homily as a few words of explanation about the “readings we just heard” or an explanation of a Church teaching.

What Fulfilled in Your Hearing proposes is that liturgical preaching is not so much a matter of interpreting Scripture, but a way of helping people interpret their their lives—which would indicate that homilies should normally begin by addressing the human situation rather than the Scriptures. Then, turning to the Scriptures to understand how God through his Chosen People and especially through his Son was present in the lives of those who have gone before us, the preacher draws on these biblical passages as patterns to indicate how God continues to be actively present in human life today. By helping—or at least trying to help—people find this religious dimension of meaning in their lives, the preacher offers them a motive for giving God thanks and praise.

Without this functional understanding of the role of the homily, I am afraid that much, if not most, liturgical preaching will continue to be little more than a talk about a Bible passage that the priest gives at Mass—perhaps interesting, maybe even helpful, but not really a call to worship based on a deeper understanding of God’s presence in our lives. Understood in this way, the homily becomes a dynamic rather than static part of liturgical prayer.

That reference to “a talk that the priest gives at Mass” leads me to one final comment. Referring to the minister of the homily, the Directory states,

It is because the homily is an integral part of the Church’s worship [In quanto parte integrante del culto della Chiesa] that it is to be delivered only by bishops, priests, or deacons. . . Well-trained lay leaders can also give solid instruction and moving exhortation, and opportunities for such presentations should be provided in other contexts; but it is the intrinsically liturgical nature of the homily [la natura intrinsecamente liturgica dell’omelia] that demands that it be given only by those ordained to lead the Church’s worship (5).

The homily is, by its nature, a presidential function. The one who presides over the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Sacrament is the one who leads the community from listening and reflecting on the Word of God to the action of praise and thanksgiving. But to say that “the intrinsically liturgical nature of the homily . . . demands that it be given only by those ordained to lead the Church’s worship” strikes me as a hyper-clericalized understanding of liturgy that I hoped had been laid to rest. We can put on hold the question of who can be ordained to lead the Church’s worship, but to imply, as this paragraph seems to imply, that because the homily is a liturgical act, it cannot be given by a lay person strikes me as outrageous. That such a statement should be made by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments makes it doubly so.

William Skudlarek, a monk of Saint John’s Abbey, Collegeville MN, was the principal writer for the subcommittee of the USCCB that produced Fulfilled in Your Hearing and prepared the document in its final form. He taught homiletics and pastoral liturgy at the Saint John’s School of Theology/Seminary for twenty years, was a Maryknoll associate in Brazil for five, and a member of Saint John’s priory in Japan for ten.  He is currently Secretary General of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue and managing editor of its on-line journal, Dilatato Corde.

 

16 comments

  1. I have been reflecting on this issue of lay homilies during mass. It seems to me that rather than simply invoking ordination as the necessary qualification for delivering the Eucharistic homily, the document would be more coherent if it urged that homilies were an essentially presidential function, and as such were reserved to the presiding priest. Then of course, the inevitability of exceptions could be addressed.

  2. Fr. Skudlarek – thank you for Fulfilled in Your Hearing. It was the primary text in my homiletics course, some dozen or so years ago.

    Thanks, too, for your distinction here between the method advocated by FiYH vs. the method put forth in this document. Very helpful.

  3. Yes, thank you for that document. I first heard about it through Jim Pauwels, and it rang so true that it was exciting to read.

  4. The Homiletic Directory is another example of a failure of imagination by the CDWDS. One just has to note the fact that it fails to note any major document on biblical studies put out by the Pontifical BIblical Commission in the past 20 years.
    As the previous three commenters have already mentioned the USCCB’s own document, “Fulfilled in Your Hearing” composed by Fr Skuldarek among others, and now sadly superceeded by a document of lesser quality, is a far better document on the nature of the homily. I wonder how many homilists will refer to Appendix 1 with its cross-references to the CCC. I’d already written the basic outline of my homily for this coming Sunday, and found no help in the CCC references given.

  5. It seems a little odd to me “Fulfilled in Your Hearing” is being presented here as such a high quality and helpful document.

    The general view on all sides has always seem to me to be that quality of preaching was less than desirable, and that it urgently needs to be improved. I would have thought a document first published in 1982 would have to now accept its share of the “credit” for the current state of affairs (i.e. it is the status quo), rather than being a way forward.

    Moreover, we all have experience which confirms the approach of “Fulfilled in Your Hearing” can produce poor quality preaching. Attempts to “help people interpret their lives” is very difficult when speaking to large groups of people, all with very diverse lives.

    This approach can narrow the range of people able to engage with a homily, as so many sit there thinking, this is not relevant to my life. Or indeed that the priest’s attempted interpretative assistance is flawed.

    Ultimately, “Fulfilled in Your Hearing” may have been a paradigm shift, but it has not been one which has provided us with the quality of preaching all seem to think is desirable.

    And so before we start rubbishing its replacement merely due to its differences, it would be very interesting to first consider what strengths and weakness the approach contained in “Fulfilled in Your Hearing” had in practice.

    1. @Scott Smith – comment #5:

      By your logic, Scott, we would also cast aside countless encyclicals and councils, and even the teachings of Jesus, because we have failed to live up to them.

      I think that the flaw is not in FIYH, but in your reasoning.

      I agree with your point that putting the US bishops’ document into practice “is very difficult when speaking to large groups of people, all with very diverse lives,” and there are certainly other challenges as well. Yet that doesn’t negate either the value or the validity of the paradigm.

      You are right to bring the discussion around to the question of the actual quality of the homilies themselves (and their impact on the lives of hearers). Yet I would suggest that what is needed is some careful, thoughtful investigation of the questions implicit in your comments:

      1) How broadly and effectively has FIYH been used in the formation of priests, deacons, and seminarians?

      1a) What are the barriers and best practices in its use in formation?

      2) How effectively are priests and deacons implementing FiYH?

      2a) What are the barriers and best practices in its actual use in giving homilies?

      2b) Does it require a higher level of ability to follow FiYH’s approach rather than the classical approach?

      Once we have answered these questions, we will be in a better position to assess whether the new directory is a step forward or backward.

      1. @Jeff Rexhausen – comment #6:

        By your logic, Scott, we would also cast aside countless encyclicals and councils, and even the teachings of Jesus, because we have failed to live up to them.

        I think that the flaw is not in FIYH, but in your reasoning.

        Sorry, I was unclear. I was meaning to refer to the extent to which FIYH has been implemented (thus my reference to its share of the credit). To the extent it has been ignored or failed to be implemented, the “credit” must be placed elsewhere.

        Yet that doesn’t negate either the value or the validity of the paradigm.

        I think it might, particular given the increasing diversity of our parishes. But in any event that discussion would I think be far more rewarding, regardless of the conclusion we might end up reaching.

        Once we have answered these questions, we will be in a better position to assess whether the new directory is a step forward or backward.

        I agree entirely.

        Particularly about approaches which require higher ability. People in generally are not great public speakers, particularly compared to our modern reference points, as we now have the worlds best speakers on tap via things like YouTube etc.

        Approaches which don’t rely on excellence, like Pope Francis’ advice to keep it short, have a much better chance of being effective.

  6. I think it’s difficult to impossible to assess the overall quality of Catholic preaching. Most of us attend one or a small handful of masses on any given weekend, and most of us worship in only one or a handful of different parishes.

    It’s entirely possible that preaching can be dreadful at the parish I attend, and terrific at the parish next door. And so for the local community in which I live, what is the overall score? Is it dreadful, terrific, or do we somehow take the average and conclude it’s mediocre? None of those assessments seems to give a true picture.

    And as I believe I’ve noted before, bishops may not be more exposed than the average person in the pews to the breadth and depth of Catholic preaching, inasmuch as bishops tend to preach at whatever services they preside at. If bishops believe that the quality of preaching needs to be improved, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask our bishops, “How do you know?”

    If there is a general impression that Catholic preaching is poor, I think it’s because we tend to remember some really bad homilies we’ve heard – homilies that are so bad that it has caused us to comment or complain about it to others. In this respect, it can be helpful to ask ourselves, “What are some homilies I’ve heard that have stuck with me because they’ve been good – perhaps have even changed me in some way?” My experience is that most of us can think of examples, even after just a few moments’ thought.

  7. Fulfilled in Your Hearing didn’t have the luxury of being issued in a vacuum. It proposed a paradigm shift to preachers who already were deeply invested in another way of preaching. As with many other aspects of the liturgical renewal, it didn’t fully succeed immediately, and it’s still a work in progress. Old habits are hard to break, and old habits even get passed along from one generation to another.

    Here is a paradigm shift I’ve struggled with that may be a bit of an analogy: as a deacon, I’m asked to preach homilies that are distinctly diaconal: I live a different life and have a different ministry than a parish priest (e.g. I’m married, a father, and have a regular job), and it would be good for the faith community if my preaching would reflect those distinctive aspects of how I live out my calling. But deacons don’t have a long and deeply rooted tradition, yet, for diaconal preaching. Virtually all of us were formed by hearing priests preach. Priestly preaching is our precedent. And so, unless we deacons are conscious and intentional about trying something new, our homilies – content, style, etc. – can tend to be patterned after priests’ homilies.

  8. This past Christmas I attended a party at the home of a parishioner where I met a man who grew up in our parish and later sent his children to our grade school. By his description, he was a C&E Catholic, attended a few baptisms and funerals, but never much more. Then a friend talked him into trying Cornerstone Church, a newer evangelical megachurch just up the road. Fast forward a few years, he has now “turned over his life to Christ,” “saved his marriage,” and is involved with this church “nearly every day of the week.” Plus he is very (very) excited to tell his story.

    I asked him what made the difference, what did he find at Cornerstone that he never found in the Catholic Church? The preaching! He described his pastor as being on fire with love for Christ. I especially remember his comment that a sermon on his pastor’s worst day was still better than anything he had ever heard in a Catholic church.

    Then I asked him what does his pastor preach about? If I showed up some Sunday, what would I hear? He preaches discipleship and life-change. His preaching teaches you how to invite God into your marriage, how to raise Christian children in a secular world, how to view your career and finances and schedule priorities in light of the Gospel, and similar topics. The members of the church suggest topics for upcoming series and he answers the questions they present.

    Their approach seems to be: 1) start with lived experience, 2) apply scriptural insights into the challenges, joys, and pains of that experience, and then 3) move to concrete challenges and next-steps on how to live your faith.

    Unfortunately, I don’t see any of that in this new directory. What I see is a guidebook for preaching to the already converted, speaking to the intellect without engaging the heart, and giving a message that can be mentally filed under church-talk without any clear connection to real life.

  9. In terms of how is FiyH being used in formation, we read it in Preaching 1, splitting it, I think, over four weeks, so there was pretty extensive discussion of it. The first assignment of Preaching 2 was to write a “bulletin column” style exposition of it for a parish setting. It was, of course, not the only thing we read. I won’t try and recite the whole reading list, but we also read “Preaching the Mystery of Faith” in Preaching 3. That may have moved earlier in the curriculum now, as it hadn’t come out yet when we were in Preaching 2! I’m pretty sure they’re also reading the section on the homily in “Gaudium Evangelii.” That remains the best writing on preaching I think I’ve ever read. We also read many reflections by practitioners and theologians that don’t have institutional magisterial authority. I remember Tom Long featuring prominently.

  10. Without presenting arguments for supposed benefits of FiYH’s paradigm shift – for which purpose, I grant, a “review” may not provide enough space – the post sounds a bit like a complaint that the universal Church hasn’t been bright enough to agree with me and my friends.

    For my own part, simply on the basis of Fr. Skuldarek’s descriptions (i.e., without sourcing things from the documents themselves and larger analyses of them), the FiYH approach seems obviously deficient. This deficiency arises from failing to let Christ “de-center” us (as Pope Francis likes to put it) and instead reinforcing our self-centeredness. How so? Well, the classical approach takes the Word as its starting point, while FiYH begins with the listener – let’s talk about you, and then we can figure out what Christ has to do with you (because you, dear hearer, are the fixed point of reference here).

    Without suggesting that the author implies an exclusive disjunction, to “begin by addressing the human situation rather than the Scriptures” suggests to me that an exposition of the Scripture itself is inclined to be disconnected from lived experience. But can we not challenge this with the Church’s constant observation that we fail to grasp the meaning of human life and experience unless it has first been revealed to us in Christ? It is the Scriptures that reveal to us who we (really) are and what we are (really) experiencing, so why would I spin my wheels conducting an investigation of the human situation from the vantage my own and my audience’s primordially flawed understanding when I could first have Christ challenge those understandings through His word and thereby equip me with the proper vision to interpret my condition?

    Starting from the Scriptures is not meant to be an apodictic maxim of preaching, as if reductiones from the assembly’s experience are flawed from the get-go, but it certainly seems to me that starting a *paradigm* from the human person as opposed to the revealed Word is unfruitfully anthropocentric.

    1. @Aaron Sanders – comment #12:

      I would characterize the FiYH approach as following the model described in Jesus’ encounters with the woman at the well and the disciples on the road to Emmaus, both of which begin with a focus on the life experience and condition of heart of those people.

  11. Scott – yes, that does sound appealing, and no doubt all of us Catholic preachers can learn from such examples.

    Fundamentally, our starting point is the lectionary and liturgical texts. Sunday’s Gospel is the cleansing of the leper. No doubt, that can be connected in some way to marriage, children, finances and career. On the other hand, it can also be a salutary reminder about forgiveness of sins and personal holiness for a congregation that is so focused on relationships, children and career that they don’t lead examined lives. Can that message be crafted as an instance of the proclamation of God’s wonderful works in the history of salvation? Sure hope so!

  12. Aaron Sanders : Without presenting arguments for supposed benefits of FiYH’s paradigm shift – for which purpose, I grant, a “review” may not provide enough space – the post sounds a bit like a complaint that the universal Church hasn’t been bright enough to agree with me and my friends. For my own part, simply on the basis of Fr. Skuldarek’s descriptions (i.e., without sourcing things from the documents themselves and larger analyses of them), the FiYH approach seems obviously deficient. This deficiency arises from failing to let Christ “de-center” us (as Pope Francis likes to put it) and instead reinforcing our self-centeredness. How so? Well, the classical approach takes the Word as its starting point, while FiYH begins with the listener – let’s talk about you, and then we can figure out what Christ has to do with you (because you, dear hearer, are the fixed point of reference here).
    That is a distorted view of the patristic approach to homiletics, on which I believe Fr. Skudlarek and FiYH based their approach. Patristic preaching was not about “what does this text mean in itself?” but about “how can we understand God, Jesus Christ, the world, ourselves, and life with the aid of the scriptures? What light do they throw on these matters for us?” The text is not the object of preaching at the Eucharist (though it may be the object in the classroom); it is the major tool.

  13. It’s a valid question: is one of the purposes of holy orders to confer a license to preach? Presumably one of the effects (indelible marks?) of full ordination is a capacity to administer all of the sacraments, but surely there’s many a layman or woman who can preach as well or better as many a parish priest. I too am uncomfortable with restricting the preaching office to the ordained, and find the defence of this in FIYH unconvincing.

    The example given in no. 10 is instructive. One wonders whether a steady diet of good lay preaching would have spoken to this person’s needs.

    In another post I argued against flouting the rules to force through a fait accompli, but here I see that it’s in my interest to argue the opposite. Perhaps pastors and bishops need to start inviting layfolk to preach on a regular basis. (And personally I’d rather listen to Michael Voris than Father X any day.)

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