Perhaps you didn’t the need the pope to tell you that! Recent surveys in both a major east coast and a major western diocese found that American Catholics find the preaching at Mass to be one of the least satisfactory aspects of church life.
I ran across this statement of Pope Benedict when I was preparing to give a talk to a group of deacons recently. The pope comments on the problem both in Verbum Domini, (The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church), par. 59, and in Sacramentum Caritatis. In response to the problem, the Holy Father emphasizes the responsibility of ordained ministers to “expound the word of God,” by which he means to explain the Scriptures rather than saying whatever is on their minds.
Some years ago I kept track of the homilies I heard over a few months asking the question, “Did this homily explain and apply at least one of the readings?” I was amazed to find that only about one-third of the homilies did that, even by some of my favorite priests. Instead, many homilies used the text as a springboard, or segue, into speaking about whatever topic was on the preacher’s mind, however good that might be (feeding the poor, Eucharistic adoration, defending life, etc.).
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with occasionally preaching on the saint of the day or on a text from the liturgy. But the meat and potatoes of the homily, so to speak, is supposed to proclaiming and applying one or more of one the lectionary readings.
Pope Benedict recalls the purpose of the homily:
The homily is a means of bringing the scriptural message to life in a way that helps the faithful to realize that God’s word is present and at work in their everyday lives…. Generic and abstract homilies which obscure the directness of God’s word should be avoided, as well as useless digressions….
Of course, Christian preaching must be focused on a person as much as the text:
The faithful should be able to perceive clearly that the preacher has a compelling desire to present Christ, who must stand at the center of every homily. (59)
A description of the deacon Philip’s method of evangelizing the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:35, last Thursday’s first reading) captures it well: “beginning with this scripture passage, he proclaimed Jesus to him.”
Besides attending to the readings and preaching Jesus, how can preachers raise the level of their game? Pope Benedict has more to say:
Preachers need to be in close and constant contact with the sacred text; they should prepare for the homily by meditation and prayer, so as to preach with conviction and passion…. (59, emphasis added)
Each of the italicized phrases gives food for thought.
I’d like to mention two resources that can aid priests and deacons in their tremendously important role of preaching. Sometimes preachers digress to talk about something that’s on their mind because they can’t think of anything fresh to say about the readings. That’s where a regular habit of studying Scripture pays off. A simple but effective means of study is to read ten minutes a day from a theological-pastoral commentary, such as a volume of the Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture. At that pace a busy preacher could study the whole New Testament over the course of a few years.
Besides prayerful study of Scripture, one of the best means for preachers to improve is to listen to good preachers. Over many years Fr. Francis Martin, a noted Scripture scholar, has been the favorite preacher at the priest conferences at Franciscan University. Recently he launched the Word Proclaimed Institute which is sponsoring a conference on preaching for priests, deacons, and seminarians in Philadelphia July 23-27. Besides Fr. Francis Martin, speakers include Fr. Peter Cameron, OP (editor of Magnificat), Msgr. John Esseff (Institute of Priestly Formation), and Dr. Ralph Martin (Renewal Ministries, Sacred Heart Major Seminary). For more info go to www.theWordProclaimed.org.
Some of the same excellent preachers and others will present at a Festival of Preaching to be held June 4-8 in Huntington, NY.
Here are two other helpful articles on homilies I found: