In his Apostolic Exhortation The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis wrote: “Both the laity and their ordained ministers suffer because of homilies. The laity from having to listen to them and the clergy from having to preach them!” Pope Francis speaks tongue firmly in cheek but goes on to say that it is sad that this is the case. Rather than a painful experience, homilies should be a consoling encounter with God’s word and a time of learning and growth. How can we ensure that the homily remains a joyous and enjoyable event for both preacher and congregation?
In 1982, anxious about the standard of preaching in churches, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued the booklet, Fulfilled In Your Hearing, that aimed to instruct priests and deacons on the objectives, techniques and methodology of preaching. We can reflect on three principles suggested by the booklet: the inductive method, hermeneutics and the open-system of preaching.
The recommended methodology for preaching today is the inductive method. Many homilies inadvertently fall into the same pattern: “In today’s readings… therefore we should…” Rather than beginning with the Scripture text and deducing commandments that should be obeyed, the inductive method begins with the human experience.
On any given Sunday, members of the congregation may have lost someone they love, had a terrible week at work or are struggling to make sense of their faith. The preacher must try to help people see God present in those experiences, to help them understand that God is already present in their lives.
The inductive method follows the belief that the Christian tradition offers answers to the questions that are raised within the experience of life. The preacher is challenged to persuade the congregation to accept those answers in faith.
For the vast majority of Catholics, the Sunday Eucharist is their one encounter with God and time of prayer during the week. It is the only time that they hear the Word of God proclaimed and the homily is their only means of faith formation. This places a great responsibility on the preacher. It is also a tremendous opportunity for catechesis. The word “hermeneia” means interpretation and the homily can offer the congregation an interpretation and explanation of the Scriptures.
The preacher also enters into a critical dialogue with contemporary culture. What are the challenges facing our society and the Church today? Are we blind to the poor? Do many people find faith irrelevant? In this way, the preacher is called to be a prophet, not one who foretells the future, but one who interprets the signs of the times and inspires people to listen to what God may be calling them to do.
The great Roman orator Cicero once said that a good speech should “teach, delight and persuade”. This is the perfect description of the open-system of preaching.
In a closed-system homily, the preacher formulates the questions and also provides the answer. A text of the Scripture is used to construct and impose a conclusion. The danger is that the message deteriorates into platitudes and moralising.
In open-system preaching, on the other hand, preachers encourage listeners to reflect on their life and challenge them to put the teachings of Christ into practice in the unique context of their own lives. The conclusion is not what must or ought to be done but an image that inspires people and leaves them thinking: how is God calling me to live my faith?
Saint Alphonsus Liguori reminds preachers to preach in a manner accommodated to the capacity of their hearers. Sermons composed in a simple and familiar style are far more effective. They remind people that God’s salvation is truly working in their lives.
Finally, Pope Francis says that the homily, well written and delivered, can be a time when faith and life meet, when our questions are answered by the word of God.
Father Gerard Louis is a Redemptorist priest.