Coming soon to a pulpit near you?
There hasnt been much comment here about the U.S. bishops recent document on preaching, Preaching the Mystery of Faith, approved at their November 2012 meeting. Since it represents a new direction in the bishops thoughts about the goal of Sunday preaching, I wonder what people think about the changes the bishops have recommended.
Preaching the Mystery of Faith is a sequel to the influential 1978 document from the bishops on preaching, Fulfilled in Your Hearing. The bishops say that new circumstances within the Church at this historical moment call for us to build on this previous document.
What new circumstances? It is a familiar list. First, people have become disaffected with the church mostly, in the documents analysis, because of our individualistic, relativistic, materialistic society, not because of what people may have come to feel about the church, its message, its leaders, the nature of authority, or their local parish. Second, both the people who have drifted away and those who are at mass every week seem to be uninformed about the Church's teaching. Neither of these diagnoses are documented with details, perhaps because they are now so widely regarded (by many church leaders, anyway) as the official story of our current condition.
The bishops call upon preachers to remember that homilies are inspirational when they touch the deepest levels of the human heart. But the bishops also clearly feel that Fulfilled in Your Hearing neglected the homily's catechetical function, and the driving force behind Preaching the Mystery of Faith is to restore catechesis, in the form of description and explanation of church doctrine and tradition, as a stronger and more urgent homiletic priority.
When we have the privilege of preaching the homily to a congregation at the Sunday Eucharist, we also have an invaluable opportunity to advance the Church's catechetical ministry. ... Over time the homilist, while respecting the unique form and spirit of the Sunday homily, should communicate the full scope of this rich catechetical teaching to his congregation.It would also be helpful for experts and publishers to prepare pastoral aids for the clergy to help connect the proclamation of the readings with the doctrines of the Church.
In addition, the bishops say that virtually every homily preached during the liturgy should make some connection between the Scriptures just heard and the Eucharist about to be celebrated.
It's a lot to accomplish in a Sunday homily, isn't it? Retain a focus on the week's readings and how they might illuminate the great questions and decisions of our lives, but also make their connection to the doctrines of the church explicit, and provide an explanation of those doctrines as needed. And also make sure to work in the Eucharist.
In 1978, Fulfilled in Your Hearing helped begin an era where preaching on the readings became the official and widespread expectation for what most preachers should be doing most Sundays. By contrast, with Preaching the Mystery of Faith, the catechetical homily only marginally related to the lectionary may make something of a comeback. In my own diocese, a schema of such homilies is running throughout the Year of Faith, with all preachers directed to devote the second Sunday of each month to an assigned catechetical topic (Scripture and Tradition, The Four Marks of the Church, etc.).
Perhaps there are people who will respond well to a refresher of Catholic Basics in their homilies. What concerns me most is the undercurrent of condescension towards those who will hear these homilies: those undercatechized, culture-saturated laity who need so much remedial teaching: "The homilist ... addresses disciples who like their spiritual ancestors on the road to Emmaus may be tending, in varying degrees, in the wrong direction, confused and unsure." Thus the need to be very explicit about resolving their confusion.
By contrast, the innate respect for the assembly expressed in Fulfilled in Your Hearing asks us to wonder first about the words parish listeners are actually hoping to hear, rather than our preconceived notion of what they ought to hear.
Unless a preacher knows what a congregation needs, wants, or is able to hear, there is every possibility that the message offered in the homily will not meet the needs of the people who hear it. To say this is by no means to imply that preachers are only to preach what their congregations want to hear. Only when preachers know what their congregations want to hear will they be able to communicate what a congregation needs to hear: Homilists may indeed preach on what they understand to be the real issues, but if they are not in touch with what the people think are the real issues, they will very likely be misunderstood or not heard at all. What is communicated is not what is said, but it is what is heard, and what is heard is determined in large measure by what the hearer needs or wants to hear.
The bishops have made their own judgment about the shape of our parishes right now and what their assemblies need and want to hear in homilies. Are they right?
About the Author
Thomas Baker is the publisher of Commonweal.