Some Reflections on Preaching

My friend Fr. Lambert Greenan, O.P. (RIP) once told me about how in Ireland, “back in the day” (he lived to be 101…), it was not uncommon for bishops to issue a syllabus each year to the priests of their dioceses on what they were to preach on in the course of the Sundays and major feast days of that year. Preaching was not necessarily as tied down to the readings of the day, and the issuance of a syllabus ensured that the faithful across the diocese were hearing something approaching a consistent message from parish-to-parish and also a more-or-less complete exposition of the faith over the course of each year.

Such an idea may seem very stifling today, until one considers how, within any given topic, there is an Awful Lot that can be said. If the bishop instructed us to preach on the mystery of Christian marriage on some Sunday, for example, sermons could vary quite widely between parishes, even though “marriage” was the common topic under consideration in all. So there was still freedom. At least, it would seem, that system served to ensure that the main points of the faith were communicated from year-to-year. Not a bad goal.

Legislation on preaching has changed since those bygone days. The current instruction for Holy Mass, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), states that “the Homily is part of the Liturgy and is highly recommended, for it is necessary for the nurturing of the Christian life. It should be an explanation of some aspect of the readings from Sacred Scripture or of another text from the Ordinary or the Proper of the Mass of the day and should take into account both the mystery being celebrated and the particular needs of the listeners.” (GIRM, 65). Although there is a case to be made for the bishop’s ordering that the homily be given on some particular topic on a given Sunday, even if it doesn’t relate to the readings, we see from the foregoing that the homily now is ordinarily tied to the readings of the day and/or the prayers of the Mass.

And those tasked with preaching quickly realize that there is not a lot of coherence week-to-week in the themes presented by the Lectionary, which itself is on a three-year cycle of readings (for Sundays). I think of the several weeks in a row last summer, for example, when we had the gospel from John chapter 6 each week – so, several weeks in a row on the Holy Eucharist. Then there are times when the topics jump around greatly. It would be hard to make a coherent syllabus of preaching topics from the Lectionary and prayers of the Mass as currently organized. But our preaching is tied to them.

Recently, I also did a survey of the homilies I’ve given over the past year. My concern each week is to try to preach something that not only connects to at least the gospel, if not more of the readings (or occasionally, to one of the other readings but not the gospel) and also connects to some tenet or doctrine of the faith. Beyond that, I think about “things that I need to preach on” — various moral issues and the like, which I have a duty to preach on as a priest — and whether it might be possible to make a connection on a given weekend or not, without “forcing the issue”. Then I generally try to think back over what I’ve said in recent weeks and months and make sure I am not being repetitive or otherwise beating a dead horse. (I do pray, also……..)

I was surprised by my findings. In devising a list of short descriptions for each homily, I concluded that, in the course of a year, I covered what seems to me like precious little ground. Yes, there is a lot to talk about. But the short descriptions reveal some of my preaching biases (virtually all preachers have them — themes they keep coming back to). And, at the end of the day, there is the challenge of responding to the law, which we priests have sworn an oath to uphold: preaching on the readings and prayers, which themselves do not necessarily afford the “space” needed also to cover in a systematic manner all the bases of the faith!

To priests who write out their homilies, you may want to go back and do a similar analysis. Over what period of time do you succeed in giving a fairly complete exposition of the faith? It’s useful also to reflect on what the Code of Canon Law says about preaching:

Can. 767 §1. Among the forms of preaching, the homily, which is part of the liturgy itself and is reserved to a priest or deacon, is preeminent; in the homily the mysteries of faith and the norms of Christian life are to be explained from the sacred text during the course of the liturgical year. §2. A homily must be given at all Masses on Sundays and holy days of obligation which are celebrated with a congregation, and it cannot be omitted except for a grave cause. […]

Can. 768 §1. Those who proclaim the divine word are to propose first of all to the Christian faithful those things which one must believe and do for the glory of God and the salvation of humanity. §2. They are also to impart to the faithful the doctrine which the magisterium of the Church sets forth concerning the dignity and freedom of the human person, the unity and stability of the family and its duties, the obligations which people have from being joined together in society, and the ordering of temporal affairs according to the plan established by God.

Perhaps the law places upon us a burden which it is not actually possible to fulfill. In which case, we are morally not bound to fulfill it. In any case, we see a weakness in the present law/approach. I would note also this very fine essay from Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, on weaknesses and exclusions in the present three-year Lectionary, versus the old one-year format, as well.

Well, we could “zoom out” a bit. I am pastor in my assignment for at least six years (possibly twelve). That is the term of office I am given. So maybe, at least, within the confines of Church law, I can fulfill my mandate not within a year — which is clearly impossible — but within six or, at worst, twelve. Perhaps it’s not reasonably possible to cover all the bases in one year or even two or three. Well, in any event, how am I doing? Am I on track at least for the end of my mandate? That may be a good way for each pastor to approach the matter.

I suppose – and I need to end this post at some point – that underlining my considerations is the presupposition that the homily is a catechetical moment. Some priests disagree with that. The study of Dr. Kwasniewksi (and the author of the book he reviewed), linked above, suggests to me that that is how the readings were chosen (and how some were omitted). The approach that some Irish bishops apparently took in the past suggests to me that it was understood that the homily or sermon was a teaching moment, also. The way the law is written strengthens my opinion, besides. But some today assiduously assert that that is not the case. Well… May we all find clarity! The above exercise has been helpful for me, in any case, and I share the experience for the benefit of those who also keep track of what they say on Sundays and Holy Days and may profit from analyzing it as well.

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