Within the context of a universal call to proclaim the Gospel by all the baptized, the Pope now turns his attention to the liturgical homily. He refers to the homily as “the touchstone” for judging a minister’s (he specifies “pastor” but given what he is about to say, it would apply as well to all bishops, deacons and presbyters) “closeness and ability to communicate to his people.” And so he begins his short course on homiletics.
Lesson #1: The Homily as Experience, Encounter, and Source of Renewal
Pope Francis reminds all homilists of the potential of the homily. Rather than something to be dreaded by all concerned, the homily should be “an intense and happy experience of the Spirit, a consoling encounter with God’s word, a constant source of renewal and growth.” The initiative is all on God’s part: God wishes to communicate with God’s People, using the preacher as His instrument. The homily is, therefore first and foremost, God’s loving outreach to His People. Once the preacher thinks he is preaching his own message, the homily is doomed. This is a great comfort to preachers! A homily is not just another speech we might devise; it is an attempt to find God’s will and God’s words. Our focus is on God and on the People: we’re just a go-between trying to help the connection between the two.
Lesson #2: The Liturgical Context
The homily occurs during a liturgical celebration, and this further assists the homilist. Pope Francis quotes Pope John Paul II: “the liturgical proclamation of the word of God, especially in the Eucharistic assembly, is not so much a time for meditation and catechesis as a dialogue between God and his people, a dialogue in which the great deeds of salvation are proclaimed and the demands of the covenant are continually restated.” But Pope Francis goes further: “The homily has special importance due to its Eucharistic context: it surpasses all forms of catechesis as the supreme moment in the dialogue between God and his people which leads up to sacramental communion.” We are told in the liturgical books that when the scriptures are read in Church, it is Christ who proclaims: in the homily during the Eucharist, Christ continues that conversation. Furthermore, the homily for us is not the only action of Christ during the liturgy! The pope reminds us that, even though the human skill of the preacher might permit him to drone on and on (well, OK, so the Pope doesn’t say “drone”; but he does say that the homily “should be brief” because if it goes on too long it will affect “the balance and the rhythm” of the liturgy. Since the homily is itself liturgical, it should “guide the assembly, and the preacher, to a life-changing communion with Christ in the Eucharist.”
Lesson #3: Talk With Your Mother
In a lovely passage (##139-141) the Pope reminds us that the Church is a mother, and so “she preaches in the same way that a mother speaks to her child, knowing that the child trusts that what she is teaching is for his or her benefit, for children know that they are loved.” But he also points out that the good mother listens to the concerns of her children and learns from them. The preacher is “to hear the faith of God’s people. . . . The language is a kind of music which inspires encouragement, strength and enthusiasm.” All of this should be found through “the closeness of the preacher, the warmth of his tone of voice, the unpretentiousness of his manner of speaking, the joy of his gestures.” Pope Francis speaks of the great dialogue Christ had with the people of his day, a dialogue he wishes to continue. The secret to Christ’s approach, he says, “lies in the way Jesus looked at people, seeing beyond their weaknesses and failings.” He is full of the joy of his relationship with his Father.
Lesson #4: Choose Words of the Heart
Once again the pope uses the language of dialogue, which “is so much more than the communication of a truth. It arises from the enjoyment of speaking and it enriches those who express their love for one another through the medium of words.” This enjoyment is not simply in “objects” but in the persons participating in the dialogue. The pope cautions that we are not dealing with “abstract truths or cold syllogisms” but through the beauty of images and wonder, a source of hope from the joyful and practical exercise of the love they have received. “The challenge of an inculturated preaching consists in proclaiming a synthesis, not ideas or detached values. Where your synthesis is, there lies your heart” (#143). Words mediate meaning, but the right words also join two hearts: God and the People. It falls to the preacher, who should know both God and the People so well, to find the right words to build up this loving covenant of Heart to hearts.
Lesson #5: Reverence for Truth
Turning his attention to the actual preparation of the homily, the pope encourages a “prolonged time of study, prayer, reflection and pastoral creativity.” Almost apologetically, the pope says, “I wish to stop for a moment and offer a method of preparing homilies.” He knows that most preachers are so busy with pastoral responsibilities that it is often hard to find the time to devote to this proper preparation.
Nonetheless, I presume to ask that each week a sufficient portion of personal and community time be dedicated to this task, even if less time has to be given to other important activities. . . . A preacher who does not prepare is not ‘spiritual’; his is dishonest and irresponsible with the gifts he has received.
After prayer, our entire attention is to be given to the biblical text, “which needs to be the basis of our preaching.” In great humility, we are to pause often and seek a greater understanding of the text. This is what the Pope calls “reverence for the Truth.” “To interpret a biblical text, we need to be patient, to put aside all other concerns, and to give it our time, interest and undivided attention.” The pope is clear: if you’re looking for quick results, you are going about it all wrong. “Preparation for preaching requires love. We only devote periods of quiet time to the things or the people whom we love; and here we are speaking of the God whom we love, a God who wishes to speak to us. . . . ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening'” (1 Sam 3:9).
Next, we must understand the meaning of the words we read. However, the pope says, while we do want to use all of our critical tools in analyzing the text, the single most important thing is to find its principal message, “the message which gives structure and unity to the text.” The preacher should also use the text as it was intended:
If a text was written to console, it should not be used to correct errors; if it was written as an exhortation, it should not be employed to teach doctrine; if it was written to teach something about God, it should not be used to expound various theological opinions; it it was written as a summons to praise or missionary outreach, let us not use it to talk about the latest news.
Lesson #6: Personalize the Word
The preacher needs a “great personal familiarity with the word of God.” We must approach the word “with a docile and prayerful heart so that it may deeply penetrate his thoughts and feelings and about a new outlook. . . .”
It is good for us to renew our fervor each day and every Sunday as we prepare the homily, examining ourselves to see if we have grown in love for the word which we preach. . . . If we have a lively desire to be the first to hear the word which we must preach, this will surely be communicated to God’s faithful people. . . .”
This wonderful examination of conscience helps us to avoid the anger of Jesus who “was angered by those supposed teachers who demanded much of others, teaching God’s word but without being enlightened by it. . . . The apostle James exhorted: ‘Not many of you should become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness” (Jas 3:1). The word of God must become incarnate in the daily life of the preacher.
The preacher’s attitude is one of total humility and dependence upon the Holy Spirit: “the Holy Spirit places on his lips the words which he could not find by himself.”
Lesson #7: Spiritual Reading: Lectio Divina
Fully integrated into the search for the scripture passage’s principal message is the prayerful reading of scripture and finding its application in the preacher’s own life. The pope offers a wonderful series of questions for reflection:
- What does this text say to me?
- What is it about my life that you want to change by this text?
- What troubles me about this text?
- Why am I not interested in this?
- What do I find pleasant in this text?
- What is it about this word that moves me?
- What attracts me?
- Why does it attract me?
Lesson #8: An Ear to the People
Pope Francis, as we have seen so many times in the past, always speaks in terms resonating with the ideas of the Second Vatican Council. Consider the following citations from the beginning of Vatican II’s Gaudium et spes:
1. The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. . . .
4. The Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel. Thus, in language intelligible to each generation, she can respond to the perennial questions which men ask about this present life and the life to come, and about the relationship of the one to the other. We must therefore recognize and understand the world in which we live, its explanations, its longings, and its often dramatic characteristics. . . .
Now hear Pope Francis (citing Pope Paul VI’s landmark Evangelii Nuntiandi) as he exhorts preachers to have “an ear to the people.” “A preacher has to contemplate the word, but he also has to contemplate his people. In this way he learns ‘of the aspirations, of riches and limitations, of ways of praying, of loving, of looking at life and world, which distinguish this or that human gathering,’ while paying attention ‘to actual people, to using their language, their signs and symbols, to answering the questions they ask.’
The pope notes that we need to truly understand what really affects people’s lives: their experience is what matters, and the pope remarks that “we should never respond to questions that nobody asks”! The homily is more than a simple challenge of current affairs: we are to respond to human experience “in light of the Gospel”: challenging what needs to be challenged, affirming what is to be affirmed.
Lesson #9: Homiletic Resources
Here the pope challenges preachers to attend to the technical aspects of homily preparation and delivery. While the primary focus is always spiritual, even these technical components have a spiritual foundation. He first lists “imagery”: how well do we find and use appropriate images in our homilies? Not merely examples, which appeal to the mind, but images, which appeal to the whole person. Again citing Paul VI, preaching should be “simple, clear, direct, well-adapted.” He cautions that many preachers fall into the trap of using the technical and theological words learned through years of formation and education; we must adapt our language accordingly to be understood. It must be well-organized as well: there should be “thematic unity, clear order and correlation between sentences.” Finally, the homily must be positive. We should focus less on what should not be done, but with what we can do better. “Positive preaching always offers hope, points to the future, does not leave us trapped in negativity.” Let me recap the resources the pope highlights:
- Use of imagery more than examples
- Simple language
- Clearly presented
- Thematic Unity
- Clear Order and Correlation in Structure
That’s it! Preaching Like the Pope in Nine Easy Lessons!
“How good it is when priests, deacons and the laity gather periodically to discover resources which can make preaching more attractive.”