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.