What is a Homily?

Broadly speaking, a homily attempts to apply the message of the Sunday Scripture readings to lives of the people. But what are its specific goals? I've been giving homilies for 28 years, sometimes stumbling, sometimes connecting. And sometimes I ask myself, "Why am I doing this? What do I hope to accomplish when I stand up in front of these people?"

From talking with priest friends I know that even the most brilliant homilists get discouraged. Sure, they receive compliments, words of praise, even favorable comparisons to other priests, but inside they are not certain what their goals are. They may resort to gimmicks or worse, just slack off, even give up completely. We have some perfectly competent priests sitting on the benchs. By way of encouragement I have tried to identify the basic goals of the homily. I came up with four purposes. Here they are in order of importance.

Odd as it may sound, the primary purpose of a homily is worship. Our main reason for going to church is to fulfill the Third Commandment--keep holy the Day of the Lord. As creatures and as redeemed sinners, our first duty is worship. It is what we are made for. Altho the homily is not the most important part of Sunday worship, it has a crucial role in drawing people into the overall act. For that reason the homily should always in some way speak of God's sovereignty, transcendence and mercy.

The problem is that we are constantly being drawn into the old error of Pelagianism. Pelagius was a fourth century British monk who taught that Christ came to give us an example and that our salvation consists in simply following him. This view seems noble and reasonable, but St. Augustine saw where it would lead: self-exaltation and separation from God. Unfortunately the temptation of Pelagianism is very great (its latest version is the "self-esteem" movement).

A priest once told me I was too negative, that Jesus came to tell us how good we are. I wanted to respond that Jesus was not like the prophets who cried "Peace, Peace, when there is no peace,"* but I kept my mouth shut. I did not want to hurt his self-esteem. But more to the point did not want him to attack mine. Even tho he might feel people in general were good, he knew I wasn't so hot--and had a tongue which could make me painfully aware of the fact. In my better moments I can glimpse that truth--not just about Slobodan Milosevic--but about myself. The point here is not so much to hit people with how sinful they are (true enough) but to show them God's free and unmerited gift. It cannot be otherwise since we are talking about his very Self. He is holy, we are not, but he calls us into his own holiness. The homily can help invite people into that awe and joy. And there is no greater human joy than worship.

Closely connected with worship is the call to repentance. In his first "homily" Jesus said: "The time has come; the kingdom of God is upon you; repent and believe the Gospel." (Mk 1: 15) The word for repent is metanoia. It literally means to change ones mind. We are surround by a secular culture which doesn't exactly deny God's existence but implies that if he does exist, he is unimportant to human affairs. That viewpoint deeply affects our Sunday congregation and, let's be honest, the preacher himself. Before we can come to God, we have to change our minds.

Repentance is more than a "head trip." A military metaphor is apt. Repentance allows God to establish a beachhead from which he makes raids to capture more and more territory. But there are some areas we are afraid to surrender and so the battle constantly seesaws. God accepts even the smallest act of repentance, but will not be satisfied until we have given ourselves totally to him.

In preaching repentance we should not ignore the fact that members of our congregation may have fallen into serious sin--the kind which completely excludes God (Mortal Sin). For example they may be carrying unrepented sins of adultery, abortion, drunkenness, occultism, etc. John Wesley was quite direct in preaching against marital infidelity, drinking and gambling. He not only saved many souls, but in the process transformed English society. One of the big reasons Catholics, especially the poor, join evangelical churches is because the pastor preaches against the vices which destroy families.

Besides calling people to repentance, we must give them solid teaching. Catechesis is the third purpose of the homily. Those of us who pray the daily Office of Readings are aware how much patristic preaching involved catechesis: explaining the doctrines of the Trinity, Incarnation, soteriology, etc. They were preaching to people who had only a rudimentary knowledge of the faith. So are we but with a crucial difference. The culture surrounding them was pagan; ours is post-Christian. As C.S. Lewis said, it is the difference between a virgin and a divorceť. No one in our culture, even the follower of Wicca, is pagan in the sense of wanting to sacrifice a bull to the gods. At the same time everyone assumes they know all about Christianity, including of course the folks at Sunday Mass. The challenge is to (re)introduce them to the mysteries which our doctrines represent.

The final purpose of preaching is perhaps surprising: to entertain. What I mean is not to compete with Jay Leno. But if people are not in some way drawn in by what we say, there is no point in saying it. Cardinal Newman's motto was cor ad cor loquitur. Heart speaks to heart. Our first job is to get the message in our own hearts, then to figure out how to deliver it to people's hearts. By saying this I am opening myself up to judgment. I am often aware of going over folk's heads, losing and confusing them. But I have sincerely tried to avoid the temptation to put the blame on them. I need to work to understand and clearly express Jesus' teaching, to use images and examples which will help people grasp it and to bring appropriate emotion and emphasis to the delivery. The task is daunting, but it can also be a lot of fun. The people are with us. Otherwise, they would not be there. Our challenge is to love them enough to give them the best we can. We should not be too proud to read homiletic manuals. One I recommend is Homiletic Moves and Structures by David G. Buttrick.

Fr. Phil Bloom
June 27, 1999

*See Jeremiah 6:14 They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. `Peace, peace,' they say, when there is no peace. (cf. Ezekiel 13:10 & 13:16)