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An appreciation of the homily

English Spanish Fr. Eduardo Barrios, SJ Profile

The appreciation of the homily or liturgical preaching has grown inordinately. There are parishioners who choose the Sunday Mass not for the convenience of the schedule, but for the preacher, whether bishop, priest or deacon.

The faithful make a mistake when they evaluate the Mass only by the quality of the homily. It may happen that the homilist lacks eloquence, but says all the prayers with clarity and devotion, making the Mass a success, a fruitful act of worship.

When the celebrant does the prescribed gestures and pronounces the texts as they appear in the Missal, he allows the Supreme and Eternal Priest Jesus Christ to shine in the celebration. Our Lord is the main celebrant. The Second Vatican Council teaches, "the liturgy is considered as an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ" (Sacrosanctum Concilium No. 7).

The bulk of the Mass is comprised of the three great prayers, namely, Opening Prayer, Prayer Over the Gifts, and Prayer After Communion, the Bible readings plus the Ordinary of the Mass with its Eucharistic Prayers. This is when the High Priest acts sovereignly. A Mass that is well celebrated is valid by virtue of the rite itself, or as the scholastics said, "ex opere operato". The divine element prevails.

On the other hand, the homily depends more on the preacher's talent, that is, on his great or little proficiency. Returning to the scholastic terminology, the "ex opere operantis”, the action of the homilist, counts more in the homily. The human factor prevails.

As proof that the homily is not the main passage of the Mass, note that it is only mandatory on Sundays and other days of precept (see SC No. 52). Although many bishops and presbyters preach at all Masses, it is not obligatory. Pope Francis preaches daily in the chapel at St. Martha’s House, but St. John Paul II did not when he celebrated Mass during the week with small groups of the faithful.

Now, there is no doubt that the homily is a great opportunity to strengthen the faith of those who participate in the double banquet of the Word and the Eucharist. It is important, though not the most important.

There are allocutions that are not homilies but are circulating under that name. It is not a conference, a catechesis or a thematic sermon. The homily is a sacred oratory piece "sui generis."

Unfortunately, there are homilists who focus their preaching on personal anecdotes and on religious issues unrelated to the ongoing liturgy.

Liturgical preaching must be based on liturgical texts so that it does not turn out to be foreign to the celebration; the exposition is usually based on readings from the Lectionary. The preacher must know the texts and their context well to explain their primary meaning, then descend to the relevance of the message in the here and now of the Church. The actualization of the message should not become an asphyxiating moralism. Showing what God does for us rather than insisting on what we should do for God obtains better conversion results.

Other parts of the Mass are also appropriate for preaching. There is a wealth of messages in the three prayers of the Mass and in the prefaces. Particularly illuminating are the prefaces recited once a year, those of the solemnities. They usually sum up very well the mystery that is celebrated. Prefaces like the ones for Holy Trinity, Corpus et Sanguis Christi and the Sacred Heart come to mind. There are also very good Marian prefaces for the solemnities of the Mother of God, the Immaculate Conception and the glorious Assumption.

The people are hungry for the Word of God and sound doctrine. The homily should be used to feed the hearts and minds of the parishioners. It also helps to highlight the heroism of the saints during their feasts or memorials.

Celebrants should beware of "showing off" in the homily by talking for more than half an hour and then bumping off the Eucharistic Prayer II in less than five minutes. Such an aberration is very common.

Another anomaly is to dedicate the homily of a funeral to extolling the life and miracles of the deceased. Although the mandate is that there not be a panegyric on the deceased, many celebrants find it difficult to focus on the biblical texts that expose the comforting eschatological doctrine of Christianity.

May the Lord grant the Church preachers who act as His docile instruments. Amen.  

Fr. Eduardo Barrios, SJ
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Comments from readers

Michael Kramer - 08/02/2017 08:41 PM
Brother, one compliment and one constructive criticism: I'm a little uncomfortable with the idea that doctrine or morals unrelated cant be taught at this point in the Mass. Adult catechesis doesn't reach near the numbers in the pews, nor do children emerging from religious education programs claim to have an understanding of things generally (regrettably) not covered much in class. There is much of our faith that my wife now is only now discovering at 27 rather than ever hearing it in a homily or from her religious instruction. Its lamentable but its reality. Priests need to instruct. I of course sympathize with the idea that they should indeed preach about the readings. But perhaps there is room for a catechesis as well. I've heard great sermon series on angels, the four last things, etc. It would perhaps be advantageous to preach on the readings and then spend no more than 3-5 min on a topic of doctrine/morals. One other point. Thank you very much for your comments on a lengthy sermon and then blowing through Eucharistic Prayer II. I starve for Eucharistic Prayer I. I find myself reading it even when II is used. When I hear it, the history of the church and of the liturgy just booms in the building we are gathered in. The text is ancient and I look forward to the day we rediscover it widely. But until that day, it would be nice to not default to II and to rush through it all the time because the sermon was 25 minutes. (And there is probably 5 minutes of announcements waiting). Thank you for pointing this out!
Mons Estevez - 08/02/2017 06:23 PM
Tan buenas orientaciones. El Papa Francisco da unas orientaciones muy valiosas en Evangeli Gaudeum.
P. Joaqu�n Rodr�guez - 08/01/2017 10:49 AM
Muy Bueno y completo el art�culo del padre Barrios sobre la homil�a en la celebraci�n eucarist�ca; s�lo discrepo en lo de la oportunidad de la misma en la Misa diaria; el papa Francisco lo est� haciendo y yo he celebrado as� desde el d�a de mi ordenaci�n: en todas las misas, aunque sea s�lo tres minutos. La Liturgia de la Palabra (seg�n la tradici�n constante de la Iglesia en sus mejores momentos y seg�n el Vaticano II no se agota en la lectura de las Lecturas de la misma y s� se completa (no solo se complementa) con la explicitaci�n de los textos b�blicos que la componen.
James - 07/31/2017 06:31 PM
Dear Fr. Eduardo Barrios, and fellow faithful, I submit for your perusal that I am total agreement. Please keep focused on Jesus words. The Homily is sacred and should be kept that way. So, I will keep this short and to the point also. Amen.
Barbara Romani - 07/31/2017 02:38 PM
Thank you for this article . I would also like to state how much I enjoy your homilies . They are always food for the soul. Blessings,

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