What We Have Been Waiting for: A New Preaching Resource

Preaching_Sunday_Homily-smallIt has been over thirty years since the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a formal document on preaching the Gospel. This document, Fulfilled in Your 
Hearing: The Homily in the Sunday Assembly
, has been an important part of the formation of deacons and priests in the intervening time.  Now we have a new resource, Preaching the Mystery of Faith: The Sunday Homily, has been published (it was in draft form on the USCCB website for a few months before actual publication, so, perhaps some deacons have already delved into the document). 

It has been over thirty years since the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops last issued a formal document on preaching the Gospel. This document, Fulfilled in Your Hearing: The Homily in the Sunday Assembly, has been an important part of the formation of deacons and priests in the intervening time.  Now we have a new resource, Preaching the Mystery of Faith: The Sunday Homily, has been published (it was in draft form on the USCCB website for a few months before actual publication, so, perhaps some deacons have already delved into the document). 

There are nuggets of insight within both documents; they each have their own emphasis. In fact, Preaching the Mystery refers to Fulfilled in Your Hearing within the new document’s Introduction and elsewhere in the new one. Additionallly, the new document takes advantage of the insights of John Paul II and Benedict XVI in their own papal preaching and writing. Examples of such insights are included below.

The Church, under the leadership of Blessed John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, has emphasized the need to engage in a “New Evangelization,” … (p. 3)At its heart, the New Evangelization is the re-proposing of the encounter with the Risen Lord, his Gospel, and his Church to those who no longer find the Church’s message engaging. Pope Benedict XVI has presented the New  Evangelization as the focus, mission, and ministry of the Church going into  the future: “Recovering the centrality of the divine word in the Christian life leads us to appreciate anew the deepest meaning of the forceful appeal  of Pope John Paul II: to pursue the missio ad gentes and vigorously to embark  upon the new evangelization, especially in those nations where the Gospel has been forgotten or meets with indifference as a result of widespread secularism.”  In order to awaken this hunger and thirst for the word of God in  our time, we need to renew our preaching with lively faith, firm conviction,  and joyful witness. (p. 3) 

More than ever, therefore, an increasingly important objective of the Sunday homily in our day is to stir the hearts of our people, to deepen their knowledge of the faith, and to renew their living the faith in the world and participation in the Church and her sacraments. (p. 4) 

We also recognize that many Catholics, even those who are devoted to the life of the Church and hunger for a deeper spirituality, seem to be uninformed about the Church’s 
teaching and are in need of a stronger catechesis. (p. 5)

The Church’s rich theological, doctrinal, and catechetical tradition must therefore properly inform the preaching task in its liturgical setting, for Jesus Christ must be 
proclaimed in a new way and with new urgency, and the Sunday liturgy remains the basic setting in which most adult Catholics encounter Christ and their Catholic faith. Therefore, this statement will give special attention to the biblical and theological foundations for effective liturgical preaching and will consider the proper connection between the Sunday homily and the Church’s liturgy and catechesis. (p. 5)

In the love of the Holy Spirit, the Father creates everything through his Son. Thus the Scriptures present the Word of God as all-powerful, creating the universe that teems with 
life and beauty and, with human beings as the pinnacle of material creation, shapes them male and female in his own image and likeness. Impelled by love, God, through his Word, gives reality and meaning to all of creation. The poetic words of the prophet Isaiah capture this fundamental biblical conviction: “Just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth,  making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to the one who sows . . . so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; my word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it” (Is 55:10-11). (p. 7)

Christian preaching derives from the Risen Lord and finds its voice and force through the gift of the Holy Spirit. As Paul himself affirmed, “No one can say, ‘Jesus  is Lord,’ 
except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:3). And further, “God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying out, ‘Abba, Father!’” (Gal 4:6). (p. 9)

This defines the preacher’s task: enabling the whole community and each individual believer to draw on the power of the Holy Spirit and to say with one’s whole being, “Jesus 
is Lord,” and to cry out to God, “Abba, Father!” To preach Christ is ultimately to preach “the mystery of God,” to preach the one “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:2-3)We can think of ourselves as apprentices to Jesus the Master and so draw inspiration and learning about preaching from the example of Jesus himself as presented in the Gospels. 
(p. 9)

The key motif of Jesus’ preaching in the Synoptic Gospels is his announcement of the coming Reign of God: “After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God: ‘This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel’” (Mk 1:14-15). (p. 10)

Jesus himself is the embodiment of the Kingdom of God. (p. 10)

The message of the Gospel is truly a matter of “life and death” for us; there is nothing routine or trivial about it. If a homilist conveys merely some example of proverbial wisdom or good manners, or only some insight gained from his personal experience, he may 
have spoken accurately and even helpfully, but he has not yet spoken the Gospel, which ultimately must focus on the person of Jesus and the dynamic power of his mission to the world (p. 11)

… every effective homily is a summons to conversion. (p. 11)

The need for repentance does not mean that homilies should simply berate the people for their failures. … Preaching the Gospel entails challenge but also encouragement, consolation, support, and  compassion. (p. 11)

… [W]hen the offer of grace is also clear and presented with pastoral sensitivity, the recipient of that grace wants to change and wants to know what the new life in Christ looks like concretely. (p. 11)

A good homily is an occasion to find healing precisely through confidence in Christ Jesus. This is why it is crucial that the homilist be a man of faith, capable of making the reality of his faith visible and radiant. (p. 12)

“… [B]eginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them what referred to him in all the scriptures” (Lk 24:23). The sacred writings of the Old Testament, which these disciples knew well, now took on a new resonance as they were placed in relation to Jesus and his life-giving Death and Resurrection. A fundamental conviction of the New Testament 
is that the hopes and longings of the Old Testament were not in vain but find their fulfillment in the person and mission of Jesus. (p. 14-15)

Homilies are inspirational when they touch the deepest levels of the human heart and address the real questions of human experience. (p. 15)

“Little hopes” are those ordinary experiences of joy and satisfaction we often experience: the love of family and friends, the anticipation of a vacation or a family celebration, the satisfaction of work well done, the blessing of good health, and so on. But underneath these smaller hopes must pulsate a deeper “great hope” that ultimately gives meaning to all of our experience: the hope for life beyond death, the thirst for ultimate truth, goodness, beauty, and peace, the hope for communion with God himself. As the pope expresses it, “Let us say once again: we need the greater and lesser hopes that keep us going day by day. But these are not enough without the great hope, which must surpass everything else. This great hope can only be God, who encompasses the whole of reality and who can bestow upon us what we, by ourselves, cannot attain.” (p. 15)

Jesus often built his teaching about the Paschal Mystery on the firm foundation of the Old Testament. (p. 16)  

His practice affirms for us that the preaching of the Sunday homily should typically involve the bringing together, in mutual illumination, of the Old Testament and the New 
Testament. Indeed, the Sunday readings in lectionaries revised after the Second Vatican Council were chosen to demonstrate this very connection. (p. 16)

The homiletic practice of both the Latin Rite and the Eastern Churches has always shown how the Old and New Testaments blend together into the single voice of God speaking to his people in two important ways. First, the New Testament recognizes the authority of the Old Testament as revealed by God, who thereby shows us his plan for salvation. Second, the New Testament appropriates the writings of the Old Testament by developing them in the light of Jesus Christ. It is in connection with this latter step that St. Augustine formulated his now-famous dictum: “In the old the new lies hidden; in the new the old comes to light.”  (p. 16)

The Emmaus account illuminates the interpenetration of the two dimensions of the Eucharistic liturgy. Jesus’ explanation of the Scriptures (the Liturgy of the Word) leads to an intense experience of communion with the Risen Christ (the Liturgy of the Eucharist), and the very vividness of the latter brings about a deeper appreciation of the former (“Were not our hearts burning within us?”). (p. 17)

One might even say that the homilist connects the two parts of the Eucharistic liturgy as he looks back at the Scripture readings and looks forward to the sacrificial meal. This is why it is preferable that the celebrant of the Eucharistic liturgy also be the homilist. In addition, this very integration of the homily into the texture of the liturgy warrants the use of the Lectionary readings as the basis for the homily. (p. 17)

Once they recognize the Risen Christ in “the breaking of the bread,” the two disciples resolve to return to Jerusalem, despite the lateness of the hour, and rejoin the community 
they had left. In a word, they reverse direction and head back to where they should be going. There, along with the rest of the disciples, they encounter the Risen Christ anew 
and are given the mission of being his witnesses and preaching the Gospel of repentance and forgiveness to the world (Lk 24:36-49), a mission that would explode with power with 
the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost. … This is why the homily, which participates in the power of Christ’s word, ought to inspire a sense of mission for those who hear it, making them doers and proclaimers of that same word in the world. A homily that does not lead to mission is, therefore, incomplete. (p. 18) 

“Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures,” and “he rose again on the third day, according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3-4). The homilist, then, must again and again put into relief this “according to the Scriptures” of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus and its meaning for our livesThe homilist should rely on the presence of the Risen Lord within him as he preaches, a presence guaranteed by the outpouring of the Spirit that he received in ordination. As the Risen Lord himself did, the homilist, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets,” interprets for his congregation “what referred to him in all the Scriptures.” And whatever is taught, the lesson is summarized in this way: “Was it not necessary that Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (Lk 24:26-27). (p. 19)

…[V]irtually every homily preached during the liturgy should make some connection between the Scriptures just heard and the Eucharist about to be celebrated. … Constructing homilies in such a way that this vision is actually achieved is, of course, a challenging project. But homilists should not be daunted by the task and should be encouraged by the grace of their ordination and by the great tradition of preaching that belongs to the whole Church. (p. 20) 

[The] intrinsic relationship between preaching, doctrine, and catechesis is also reflected in the ministry of Paul the Apostle. Paul describes himself as “compelled” to preach the Gospel: “For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saed. But how can they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how can they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone to preach? And how can people preach unless they are sent? As it is written, How beautiful are the feet of those who bring the good news!” (Rom 10:13-16). … Paul’s purpose is to draw his hearers into full awareness of the depth of that mystery in which they have already been plunged through Baptism. (p. 23). 

… [C]atechesis in its broadest sense involves the effective communication of the full scope of the Church’s teaching and formation, from initiation into the Sacrament of Baptism through the moral requirements of a faithful  Christian life. (p. 24)The beautiful words of Ephesians express this apostolic longing to communicate the full sense of the Christian mystery: “ . . . that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the holy ones what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:17-19). (p. 24)

We know … that at certain moments in the liturgical year, such as Christmas or Easter, the assembly will likely include many Catholics who participate only occasionally in the Church’s liturgy. … the homilist should use the beauty of the liturgy and the contents of the homily to open the Scriptures, to make a gracious and thoughtful connection to the meaning of Christian faith in the world today, and to invite back those who have lost contact with the Church. This is precisely the rationale of the call for a New Evangelization of those Catholics who, for whatever reason, have drifted away from their spiritual home. Through the prayerful celebration of the Eucharistic ritual and through the graceful and respectful proclamation of the word, all are invited to be aware of their 

deepest spiritual and human longings and to immerse themselves again in the mystery of Christ present in the Eucharist, who alone is able to quench their deepest spiritual thirst. (p. 24-25)

The doctrines of the Church should direct the homilist and ensure that he arrives at and preaches about what is in fact the deepest meaning of Scripture and sacrament for Christian life. For doctrines simply formulate with accuracy what the Church, prompted by the gift of the Spirit, has come to know through the Scriptures proclaimed in the believing assembly and through the sacraments that are celebrated on the foundation of these Scriptures. (p. 25)

The most central mysteries of our faith—the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the redemption that Christ reveals in his Paschal Sacrifice—were attested in the Scriptures and are proclaimed and celebrated in the Eucharist. .. [T]hese doctrines ought to be seamlessly introduced and articulated still today in the course of our liturgical celebrations in order to ensure that by reading the Scriptures and celebrating the Eucharist we understand ever more deeply the essential beliefs of the Church … (p. 26) 

One effective way to do this might be to connect some point of the homily to a phrase or key idea of the Creed that will be immediately recited by the assembly when the homily is finished. … (p 26) 

St. Cyril of Jerusalem … explained, “The most important doctrines were collected from the whole of Scripture to make a single exposition of the faith. (p. 26) 

A good homilist, for example, is able to articulate the mystery of the Incarnation—that the eternal Son of God came to dwell among us as man—in such a manner that his listeners are able to understand more deeply the beauty and truth of this mystery and to see its connections with daily life. (p. 26)

Of course, what is essential for speaking about the mysteries of our faith with passion and conviction is that the preacher himself grasps the doctrinal significance of their truth and so loves these mysteries himself that he can communicate that love and truth to his listeners. (p. 27)

The goal of the homily is to lead the hearer to the deep inner connection between God’s word and the actual circumstances of one’s everyday life. The homily in its most effective form enables the hearer to understand the meaning of the Scriptures in a new way and, in  turn, helps the message of the Scriptures, proclaimed in the context of the liturgy, to illumine the experience of the hearer. (p. 29)

While the homily should be respectful of those who hear it and therefore be thoughtful, well-prepared, and coherent, the Sunday homily is not a time for theological speculation. It is a sacred ecclesial act meant to lead from the biblical word to the Eucharistic action and thereby to nourish faith and build up the Body of Christ gathered in prayer. (p. 30)

The document comes to an end with an invocation of the Blessed Mother as Hearer and Bearer of the Word: Mary, the Mother of God and Mother of the Word Incarnate, can serve as an example for those who preach the Sunday homily. Mary is “the one in whom  the interplay between the word of God and faith was brought to perfection.” When she heard the word, she listened 

intently and responded with an unhesitating “yes.” This is why Church Fathers, such as St. Ephrem and St. Augustine, could say that Mary conceived the word in her heart before 
conceiving the Word in her womb. (p. 47)

Perhaps a good approach is to reread Fulfilled in Your Hearing first and then read/study Preaching the Mystery. No matter how good a homilist one might be, one can, with the help of the Holy Spirit, see to proclaim that message which those who are listening need to hear… and the only way we can come to know the message is to know God in prayer, Word, and Liturgy, and his people to who we are to minister.

(Posted by Deacon Rex Pilger)

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