Last week Archbishop Jason Gordon shared on preaching as a call, and the need for the priest to have a vision/aspiration for his community. In this article he explores how a good homily is constructed through deep study and understanding the dynamic of the text.
The Sunday Mass is where you meet your people, where you have the opportunity to form them, where you can lead them to the next stage of their development. Through the Sunday Mass, you have the greatest impact to achieve most of your pastoral priorities.
So, what is a homily? A homily is the Word of God that is directed to a people who are at a particular place and state in their journey. The homily has to speak to each pastoral context in which it is delivered.
The dynamic of the text
If Christ is present in His Word, then I am a conduit through which this Word comes to the People of God, of which I am the first hearer.
Pope Paul VI, in Mysterium Fidei, 1965, says: “In still another very genuine way, He (Christ) is present in the Church as she preaches, since the Gospel which she proclaims is the word of God, and it is only in the name of Christ, the Incarnate Word of God, and by His authority and with His help that it is preached, so that there might be one flock resting secure in one shepherd” (#36).
Preaching is a function of Christ for the sake of His Bride the Church and the priest enters into Persona Christi as He preaches. It is not my word, my intention, my brilliant ideas or desire for the congregation that is vital and important. It is Christ’s intention that we must seek out and proclaim.
The first and most difficult challenge of the preacher is to listen deeply to the text given and find in this text what Christ is saying to His bride, the Church.
As a young priest I began homily preparation by:
• engaging the text through head and heart. I listened to the text in prayerful meditation. I also listened to the text through reading the best commentaries I could find;
• I read until I understood the Word, its inner dynamic and contradictions; its brilliance and challenge, the social significance of the actors, the core message of the text; the thing that God is doing in the text to the first hearers of the Word; the thing that God is doing in and through the text today as I hear it and as it reads to me.
This is both an intellectual and deeply spiritual engagement with the text. This is at the core of priestly spirituality.
As Pope Francis says: “Preparation for preaching is so important a task that a prolonged time of study, prayer, reflection and pastoral creativity should be devoted to it” (EG, 145).
In the Catholic tradition, we have what I call the spirituality of the Lectionary. Catholic priests are given the text. For me this is a key element of the spirituality of the priest.
I believe that God speaks in a specific and direct way to the community and its needs through the text that is given that day. For us there is a liturgical reading as there is an exegetical and divine reading of the text.
The first reading on the Sunday, interprets the gospel and points to how the Church seeks to interpret it. The Word is a person who invites us to an encounter, to conversion, to discipleship. Christ speaks today to His people, in the concreteness of their lives and journeys, through the text that is given in the Lectionary.
Our task and burden as priests is to hear through all the words, to the Word that wants to become flesh and dwell amongst us.
As Pope Francis says: “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 lead up to sacramental communion” (EG, 137).
The second most difficult challenge about preaching is that it requires you to wrestle with God till the Word overpowers you. Like Jeremiah, I often say: “You have seduced me, Yahweh, and I have let myself be seduced; you have overpowered me: you were the stronger” (Jer 20:7).
Pope Francis makes the point: “For all these reasons, before preparing what we will actually say when preaching, we need to let ourselves be penetrated by that Word which will also penetrate others, for it is a living and active word, like a sword ‘which pierces to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerns the thoughts and intentions of the heart’ (Heb 4:12)” (EG,150).
The third most difficult challenge is that your homily should only have one big idea. Only one! This comes from your engagement with the text and God. It emerges through your struggle and prayer, your exegesis and Lectio Divina.
But it must only be one big idea or people will not remember. It is your pearl of great price that God desires to communicate this week, when you find it, sell everything else and communicate that and that alone. This pearl, Pope Francis reminds us, is best communicated through a sentiment and an image (EG,157).
Pope Francis says: “A preacher has to contemplate the Word, but he also has to contemplate his people…He needs to be able to link the message of a biblical text to a human situation, to an experience which cries out for the light of God’s word” (EG,154).
TO BE CONTINUED