THE HOMILIST – TEACHER OF THE FAITH
Cardinal William Levada
February 12, 2008
It is a great pleasure for me to be with you, my brother bishops, distinguished speakers, and all who join us for this conference on “The Eloquence of Teaching,” sponsored jointly by the Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine and the Department of Theology of the University of Notre Dame, and funded by a grant administered through the University’s Institute for Church Life. I recall very well coming here almost three years ago for the excellent Symposium on the 40th Anniversary of Dei Verbum, “The Word of God in the Life of the Bishop.” I express my gratitude to Dr. John Cavadini of Notre Dame and Fr. Thomas Weinandy, OFMCap, of the USCCB and their staffs for providing another such opportunity for the Bishops of the United States, especially in view of our teaching and preaching ministry.
For my reflections today I turn to Pope Benedict XVI’s Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis, on the Eucharist as the source and summit of the Church’s life and mission, in which he presents the conclusions of the 2005 General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops. The passage of the Exhortation I want to address in this talk deals with the homily. My theme focuses on what the Pope refers to as “thematic” homilies, or what I call the “doctrinal” homily.
The homily according to Sacramentum Caritatis
The Pope’s Apostolic Exhortation has a three-fold presentation on the Eucharist: it is a Mystery to be believed, celebrated and lived. In the middle section on the Eucharist as a Mystery to be celebrated, detailed attention is given to the structure and parts of the Mass. At the beginning of my talk, I want to cite the text of no. 46 of the Exhortation on the homily.
“Given the importance of the word of God, the quality of homilies needs to be improved. The homily is ‘part of the liturgical action,’ and is meant to foster a deeper understanding of the word of God, so that it can bear fruit in the lives of the faithful. Hence ordained ministers must ‘prepare the homily carefully, based on an adequate knowledge of Sacred Scripture.’ Generic and abstract homilies should be avoided. In particular, I ask these ministers to preach in such a way that the homily closely relates the proclamation of the word of God to the sacramental celebration and the life of the community, so that the word of God truly becomes the Church’s vital nourishment and support. The catechetical and paraenetic aim of the homily should not be forgotten. During the course of the liturgical year it is appropriate to offer the faithful, prudently and on the basis of the three-year lectionary, ‘thematic’ homilies treating the great themes of the Christian faith, on the basis of what has been authoritatively proposed by the Magisterium in the four ‘pillars’ of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the recent Compendium, namely: the profession of faith, the celebration of the Christian mystery, life in Christ and Christian prayer.”
At the end of the paragraph, one finds the following footnote: “To this end, the Synod has called for the preparation of pastoral aids based on the three-year lectionary, to help connect the proclamation of the readings with the doctrine of the Faith.”
In calling for improved homilies, the Pope makes his own the oft-repeated request made by Bishops at the Synod. For many people today the main way to better homilies is to make them shorter. Here are a few anecdotal references that highlight the point.
For example, Fr. Al McBride’s new book, entitled How to Make Homilies Better, Briefer and Bolder – Tips from a Master Homilist, seems to subscribe to this thesis. I recall too my colleague from seminary days and long-time homiletics professor at St. John’s Seminary Theologate in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Fr. Charles Miller, CM, who was an apostle of the “seven-minute” homily. Recently an Italian friend gave me this unsolicited piece of advice when I mentioned the theme of this talk: “The Church ought to make a rule that no homily can last more than three minutes!” By the way, in case you wonder whether he is a qualified observer, he goes to Mass every Sunday.
While I do not have a time-limit proposal for the doctrinal homily, it does seem to me that a homily that presents the content of our faith on a particular point, and shows its relevance to our contemporary situation, will have to take ten to fifteen minutes. So the suggestion of greater doctrinal focus for homilies only increases the challenge we all experience in making our preaching engaging and interesting. My point is not about “better” homilies per se. It is about homilies that help people know better the rich content of the Church’s faith and how to live it in their lives. It is about homilies that will better serve the Church’s mission of preparing our laity to fulfill their baptismal vocation of evangelizing our culture and transforming our society to reflect Gospel values.
Is the homily the place for instruction in the faith?
I have tried to frame this question in as neutral a way as possible, given the fact that I have already signaled my answer to it. It will be my contention that there should be no real opposition between the scriptural/liturgical homily and the doctrinal homily. But I believe that a certain tension does continue to exist for a variety of reasons; your experience may confirm this as well.
Here a personal memory may illustrate one reason why there has been – at least in my view – a certain bias against doctrinal homilies. In the summer of 1962 I received my first assignment as a newly-ordained priest; as you will note from the date, it was just a few months before the Second Vatican Council began. Shortly after I arrived, all of us priests in the Archdiocese received a letter from Cardinal McIntyre assigning a list of topics for the homilies to be preached in all parishes over the Sundays of the 1962-63 year. Each topic was referenced to a consecutive section of the English translation of Tanqueray’s 3-volume Dogmatic Theology. At no little expense, the Cardinal had sent a set to each rectory and religious house. The topics assigned had no reference to the Scriptures read at those Masses, nor to rites and prayers of the liturgy; I recall trying to tackle the “creation of man and monogenism” on the first Sunday of Lent. For my generation of clergy this may be what the idea of “thematic” or doctrinal homilies conjures up.
The Council as we know took an entirely different approach to the homily. It sought to overcome the long-standing practice of sermons or homilies disconnected from the liturgical rite being celebrated, and from the Scripture proclaimed within it. For example, the Constitution on the Liturgy says: “By means of the homily, the mysteries of the faith and the guiding principles of the Christian life are expounded from the sacred text during the course of the liturgical year” (SC 52).
The sense of the Council is reflected in the “General Instruction of the Roman Missal,” no. 65: “The homily … should be an exposition of some aspect of the readings from Sacred Scripture or of another text from the Ordinary or from the Proper of the Mass of the day and should take into account both the mystery being celebrated and the particular needs of the listeners.”
If my generation had to “relearn” how to focus our preaching at the liturgy on a scripture-based homily, subsequent generations of priests have been trained to give homilies based on this directive, sometimes to the exclusion of doctrinal and catechetical purposes of liturgical preaching.
Here are a few examples of this post-conciliar tension regarding the focus of the homily. Fr. Miller, for example, says, “It is the duty of preachers to lead people to understand that we have something greater than the catechism or other books for finding the statement and meaning of our faith.” [Ordained to Preach, New York: Alba House (1992), 153] Fr. Robert Waznak, a long-time Sulpician homiletics teacher, distinguishes a catechetical or instructional homily from a “liturgical” homily, whose task is to interpret or mediate the meaning of the biblical text by drawing from it a contemporary point of reference or application. To illustrate his point he quotes Cardinal Newman’s remark about the Roman Catechism (“I rarely preach a sermon but I go to this beautiful and complete Catechism to get both my matter and my doctrine”) as a witness to an “older, instructional” style of preaching [Cf. “The Catechism and the Sunday Homily,” America, Oct. 22, 1994, 20]. And in recent America [Aug 27 – Sept 3, 2007, p. 15] article, Cardinal Godfried Danneels, Archbishop of Brussels, says “Liturgy is neither the time nor the place for catechesis.”
Certainly I do not advocate the return to sermons that are textbook lessons unrelated to the Sunday readings. But too often even today one finds an overly restrictive interpretation of the intentions of the Council and the sense of the post-conciliar liturgical directives. In Dei Verbum 24, immediately after the familiar phrase “the study of the sacred page should be the very soul of sacred theology,” the Council Fathers go on to say, “The ministry of the word, too – pastoral preaching, catechetics and all forms of Christian instruction, among which the liturgical homily should hold pride of place – gains healthy nourishment and holy vitality from the word of scripture.” One may hope that Pope Benedict’s proposal in Sacramentum caritatis will help us to reintegrate one of the perennial goals of preaching, that of teaching the faith.
The homily and Scriptural exegesis
Of course it is true that the homily is not simply catechesis. It is another genre, and has its own form and dynamic. In his book Ordained to Preach, Fr. Charles Miller, C.M., gives a succinct description of this dynamic, structured in two “movements”: “As with biblical preaching in general, the homily is to move from exegesis to hermeneutic, which means that it is to proclaim what God has said in the scriptural message and what he says to us today, or to show what God has done in salvation history and what he is doing now. In the homiletic understanding of the terms, the purpose of exegesis is to make us contemporaneous with God’s word; the purpose of hermeneutics is to make God’s word contemporaneous with us.” (p. 142)
Let us turn our attention first to the “exegetical” moment. In most of the homily help material I have seen, the exegesis of the Scriptures in the Lectionary is thoroughly presented. Seminary courses in Sacred Scripture have prepared most priests with a background to profit from the expertise of commentaries by Biblical exegetes. Although at times one hears homilies that begin and end with a presentation of a detailed exegesis of the Scriptures of the day, it seems clear that this not the purpose of the homily. Bishop Rino Fisichella remarks with characteristic bluntness: “Preaching that would only give the data of exegesis, prescinding from an understanding of it in the history of interpretation and of the Church’s magisterium, would proclaim a “dead letter” and would not keep alive the faith of the People of God.” [“Apologetica,” Dizionario di omiletica, M. Sodi and A. Triacca eds., Torino-Bergamo: Ed. ELLE DI CI – Ed. Velar (2002), 127]
A homily I heard in a small Italian town last summer brought this point home to me. The gospel was the pericope on Jesus’ encounter with the woman taken in adultery. The priest made a fine presentation of the Scriptural exegesis of this passage, but missed what I thought was a golden opportunity to explore the connection with the Sacrament of Penance. The basis of Jesus invitation to the crowd was his knowledge of human nature: each one there had his own unexamined sinful condition. Moreover, in extending mercy and forgiveness to the woman, Jesus invited her to a firm purpose of amendment: “Go and sin no more.” Lack of preaching about Confession on occasions such as this passage, or the story of the Prodigal Son, may contribute to the dramatic decline in the use of the Sacrament of Penance that we see in so many Catholics today.
In line with the general purpose of “homiletic exegesis” it may be useful to recall some limitations of modern Scriptural exegesis, even among Catholic exegetes, who after all came late to the field – Pope Pius XII’s Encyclical Divino afflante Spiritu is often cited as the opening of the door to Catholic exegetes. Protestant exegetes had already developed principles of historical-critical exegesis that owe much to post-Enlightenment philosophical conclusions, principles that lead to overly skeptical, demythologizing interpretations of the Scriptural texts. At our Region XIII Bishops’retreat last month Fr. Robert Barron referred to this limitation by recalling some of his own seminary Scripture courses. As he put it, one could sum up the conclusions of the exegesis of a Scriptural passage in a refrain that often sounded like this: “We can’t say for sure what happened here, but we know that something happened!” Sound familiar?
Such skepticism about the message of Scripture can sap the homilist’s confidence, and hence his ability to preach Jesus as real, personal and present to us today in the Eucharist we celebrate. The Council already alluded to this limitation when it taught in Dei Verbum 19: “Holy mother church has firmly and with absolute constancy maintained and continues to maintain, that the four Gospels, whose historicity it unhesitatingly affirms, faithfully hand on what Jesus, the Son of God, while he lived among men and women, really did and taught for their eternal salvation … The sacred authors, in writing the four Gospels, … retained the preaching style, but always in such a fashion that they have told us the authentic truth about Jesus.”
A second limitation of historical-critical exegesis for the homilist might be described this way. If the homilist is to remain faithful to the Scriptures and their literal sense, is it legitimate for him to go beyond that literal meaning to preach doctrines that were developed only centuries after the human author of Scripture wrote the inspired words of the text we now read or hear proclaimed? Have we not all been warned about the dangers of “exegesis” becoming “eisegesis” – of reading into Scripture what we think it should say or want it to say, instead of what it actually says? The comments of Cardinal Avery Dulles address this point directly: “Doctrinal definitions are normally based on a convergent use of many biblical texts, prayerfully read in the tradition of the worshiping Church under the light of the Holy Spirit. … The theological meaning is a true meaning of the text, and cannot be dismissed as ‘eisegesis,’ as if the Church were reading something into the text that was not really there.” [Letter and Spirit 2 (2006), 24]
The Cardinal’s point is an important one. We tend to think of doctrine as something added to Scripture, but in fact doctrines are the result of a cluster of scriptural texts understood in a particular way. This is an understanding developed in the context of the Church’s faith, so that when the word of God is proclaimed in the liturgy, the sensus fidei of the faithful continues to be formed. When the homilist knows the clusters of texts that surround certain doctrines, then the appearance of these texts in a particular liturgy becomes an occasion for doctrinal teaching that is nonetheless thoroughly scriptural. The implications for priestly formation should not escape us. Seminaries would serve us well if they were to rethink and develop courses both on doctrine and on homiletics with scriptural-based doctrinal homilies in mind.
To conclude these brief reflections on homiletic exegesis, I want to call attention to the Foreword of Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth, in which he analyzes his approach to Scripture, especially in relation to historical-critical scholarship. The Pope echoes the “fundamental principle of theological exegesis” contained in no. 12 of Dei Verbum: “If you want to understand the Scripture in the spirit in which it is written, you have to attend to the content and to the unity of Scripture as a whole. The Council goes on to stress the need for taking account of the living tradition of the whole Church and of the analogy of faith (the intrinsic correspondences within the faith).” [p.xviii] In this way the Pope explains how he is able to use and go beyond the insights of contemporary exegesis in his “search for the face of the Lord.” His reflections seem to me to be of particular value for today’s homilist.
The “homiletic hermeneutic”
No doubt the challenge faced by the homilist is a real one. Once again I let Fr. Miller sum up the challenge: “In the homiletic hermeneutic, the preacher is concerned with what the word of God is saying to us today. It is the most difficult part of the composition. A preacher can usually determine a sound exegesis by a study of competent commentaries, but a valid hermeneutic depends on prayer, reflection, and knowledge of people” (p. 144). Sometimes the homilist might even wish that the Bishop would assign a theme for every Sunday! In practice, that assignment is now often made by one or other of the vast array of “homily helps.”
One recurring theme in much of the literature about homiletics concerns the homilist as the one who relates the Scriptures to the needs of the people. There are surely needs of a community that are particular to a time and place. But there is also a general spiritual need of the community at stake: that is, faith. “It is the Church that believes first, and so bears, nourishes and sustains my faith (CCC 168). For this reason, one should not leap simply from the scriptural text to “the needs of the people.” In fact, the doctrine of the faith is a bridge between one and the other, even if perhaps we tend to forget this, or to presume that our congregations really do know the faith of the Church.
At baptism, the catechumen (or the parents and godparents of the baby) is asked: What do you ask of God’s Church?” And the answer is: “Faith.” “What does faith offer you?” “Eternal life.” Doctrine always tells us about the “needs of the people.” The doctrines of the Church’s faith have been formulated over the centuries with a view to our salvation, to “eternal life.” We should not think of doctrines as a theological exercise remote from people’s real concerns. These doctrines – concerning the Creed, the sacraments, the commandments, prayer – speak to us about what God has said and done for the “sake of our salvation.” Thus they help us discern precisely what God is saying to us today in the Scripture. “Father, … this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).
God speaks his Word to us today, as He has through the centuries of the Church’s history, to evoke our response of faith. This faith is both personal and ecclesial: at the end of the profession of faith in every Baptism and Confirmation ceremony, we invite the whole assembly to say, “This is our faith. This is the faith of the Church. We are proud to profess it in Christ Jesus our Lord!” The Church needs to profess her faith in common, and she needs to hear her faith articulated and believed in common. It is my contention that the homilist is an indispensable figure in ensuring that today’s Catholics do not become strangers to “the faith of the Church.” To help his people know and live the riches of the faith of the Church, which is “their” faith, the homilist needs to think and preach “doctrinally.”
It is the particular task of the homilist to relate the doctrine(s) of the Church’s faith – our faith as believers – to our life today in a world that challenges faith both theoretically and practically, challenges of indifference and materialism if not outright opposition that are little different from those that emerge so strikingly in the Letters of St. Paul. All the doctrines of the faith are related through the hierarchy of truths to the eternal life for which God created us and for which he sent his Son as Savior. This is why they need to be heard again and again in our preaching.
Here Fr. Jeremy Driscoll provides an important insight in commenting on the model provided by the Fathers in the patristic age: “The most important doctrines remain the same through the ages and need to be approached again and again in preaching; namely, the divine and human natures of Christ and the mystery of the Trinity which Christ reveals in his Paschal Mystery. I am not suggesting that preachers ought simply to stand up and talk more about these things. Rather, I am claiming that these doctrines are the deepest sense of Scriptures and that this deepest sense was discovered precisely when the Scriptures were proclaimed in the liturgical assembly and when the Scriptures became sacrament in the eucharistic rite.” (J. Driscoll OSB, Theology at the Eucharistic Table, Rome: Studia Anselmiana, Gracewing, 2003, 224-5).
This “deepest sense” of the Scriptures was discovered because the Church was vitally concerned for the salvation of its members and indeed for that of the whole human race. This is the ecclesial and liturgical context in which doctrine was produced, and it is the context in which doctrine can be fruitfully preached. This is lex orandi, lex credendi. The two should not be separated into different context and moments. Both are dimensions of the single celebration of faith which every liturgy is.
In a culture such as ours, marked by individualism and relativism, our people need to be reminded how their faith must be both personal and ecclesial. For example, the Catechism (no. 167) has a brief comment on the relation of “I believe” (which introduces the Apostles Creed) and “We believe” (with which the Nicene Creed begins): “’I believe’ is the faith of the Church professed personally by each believer, principally during Baptism. ‘We believe’ is the faith of the Church confessed by the bishops assembled in council or more generally by the liturgical assembly of believers. ‘I believe’ is also the Church, our mother, responding to God by faith as she teaches us to say both ‘I believe’ and ‘We believe’.”
This passage contains a vivid insight into the intrinsic connection between the Scripture proclaimed and the Church’s doctrine of the faith. It reminds us that “the Church, our mother,” is responding to God’s word in faith. The doctrine of the faith is the response of faith that our Mother Church receives as a gift from the same divine Author who inspired the Scriptures. She teaches us her children this same faith. Indeed through us she herself professes her faith at every Eucharist, in which our faith continues to find its source and summit. In this image I think the homilist can see more clearly that his task in the “homiletic hermeneutic” contains an intrinsic doctrinal moment in which the Church herself is continually built up in the faith she celebrates in the Eucharist.
Preaching and teaching the faith – a never-finished task
I have been reflecting on what seems to me to be the fundamental reason for doctrinal homilies: faith – our faith, the faith of the Church – is the first and principal response to the proclamation of the word of God. It is necessarily part of the spiritual need of God’s People. Another way of highlighting this point can come from reflecting on the parts of the Mass, in order to understand the relationship of various elements of faith I am seeking to articulate. We hear the Scripture proclaimed in the Liturgy of the Word. Then the homilist seeks to expound that Word in such a way as to lead his hearers to profess together and individually the Creed, the Church’s faith. The Creed then opens onto the eucharistic liturgy in which all that is professed is rendered sacramentally present and fruitful “for the sake of our salvation.” (Cf. J. Driscoll, What Happens at Mass, Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 2005, 55-58). The Fathers did not understand the Creed as something in addition to Scripture or other than it, but rather, as St. Cyril of Jerusalem so beautifully put it, the Creed is the Scripture summarized in a single page (cf. Catechesis V, 12). Or in the same vein, we can recall St. Irenaeus’ expression that the Scriptures are the myriad pieces of a mosaic, while the Church’s rule of faith is the master plan for assembling them.
This faith cannot simply be presupposed, as if once heard or learned it is somehow locked into people’s hard drive. People experience constant change in their life and their culture. In the midst of such change, they need to reflect again and again on the perduring character of the faith, its breadth and beauty, into which the Holy Spirit – divine author of Scripture and guide of its apostolic proclamation – has led the Church. The content of faith is a divine Revelation, even if the doctrines in which it is articulated, and certainly the homilies that preach it, do not enjoy the divine inspiration that makes Scripture the very Word of God. But we do not exhaust the depths of this faith; it is not something that we at last finally and completely grasp. It must be proposed again and again, and this continually coming back to it is joy and nourishment for the People of God.
In a talk he gave shortly after the publication of the Catechism in 1992, then-Cardinal Ratzinger told a story from the early post-conciliar period that can provide further insight into Pope Benedict’s recommendation to homilists to preach on “the great themes of the Christian faith, on the basis of what has been authoritatively proposed by the Magisterium in the four ‘pillars’ of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.” Because of all the new issues on the horizon – so the young Fr. Ratzinger was thinking – it seemed evident that a theologian who wanted to be up to date should, at least temporarily, suspend the “old discussions” and tackle the new questions. Ratzinger said that “At about this time, I sent a small piece of mine to Hans Urs von Balthasar. Balthasar replied by return mail on a correspondence card, as he always did, and, after expressing his thanks, added a terse sentence that made an indelible impression on me: Do not presuppose the faith but propose it.”
Cardinal Ratzinger went on to reflect, “Faith is not maintained automatically. It is not a ‘finished business’ that we can simply take for granted. The life of faith has to be constantly renewed. … It follows that the chief points of faith – God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, grace and sin, sacraments and Church, death and eternal life – are never outmoded. They are always the issues that affect us most profoundly. They must be the permanent center of preaching and therefore of theological reflection.” [cf. Gospel, Catechesis and Catechism, p. 23-4]
Doctrinal reflection: helping the homilist
While I can not pretend to have done anything amounting to a survey of homily help materials, what I have seen I would describe as “light” on the doctrinal “moment” of Fr. Miller’s homiletic hermeneutic. Therefore the suggestion in the footnote to no. 46 of the Apostolic Exhortation strikes me as particularly timely. I would recommend three aspects of “the preparation of pastoral aids based on the three-year lectionary, to help connect the proclamation of the readings with the doctrine of the Faith.” I would see such pastoral aids not as obligatory, but as a useful supplement to provide orientation and imagination to the homilist’s important work, not only of mind but of heart, in preparing the Sunday homily.
i) The first aspect of showing connections between the Sunday readings and the great themes of the Christian faith will remain a work in progress. One example of such a cross-reference work is To Proclaim the Gospel, published by the Diocese of Pittsburgh in 2002.
ii) A second aspect might be the sharing or publication of some actual doctrinal homilies. Even if the idea of doctrinal homilies seems like a good one, its execution is not necessarily easy. To be sure, the Catechism of the Catholic Church provides a “catechetically-oriented” exposition of the doctrine of the faith, yet it still needs to be presented in an engaging way, and related to the current situation of the congregation. “Exemplary” doctrinal homilies would provide a great stimulus for many homilists; they could be particularly helpful in addressing more complex or delicate issues that present a greater challenge.
One such example is the attached homily Fr. Jeremy Driscoll OSB drafted for the Christmas Mass at Mt. Angel Abbey. He was unable to give it due to a death in the family, but gave me permission to provide it to you. It lets us look at the ingredients of one example of a doctrinal homily. The scriptural text is the Prologue of John’s Gospel. Fr. Jeremy has let the whole reality of Christmas and its liturgy strongly condition his reading of the text. Further, staying close to the text, he shows how its deepest meaning is expressed in some of the phrases of the Nicene Creed, which will be recited by the assembly as soon as the homily is finished. He does not fail to emphasize the soteriological implications that are of immediate concern to his hearers. Jesus Christ whose birth is celebrated today is “God from God, Light from Light.” This light “shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it,” as the Prologue says. And ultimately, the darkness in which the light shines is the heart of each believer, and the light will shine there especially in the reception of the Eucharist which is about to follow. None of this contradicts a proper exegesis of the text, but it certainly goes beyond what a merely exegetical exposure could produce.
iii) A third aspect might take a look at a comprehensive plan for covering the “great themes of the Christian faith” presented in the four “pillars” of the Catechism over three or six years of the lectionary cycle. In this way the omission of important doctrinal matters that often results from a more random approach could be remedied. Of course experience would be needed to make sure that sufficient flexibility was built in to the plan to allow for variable needs. The major seasons of the liturgical year offer particularly important orientation and focus for sustained doctrinal preaching.
Let me sketch briefly what I am suggesting. Advent and Christmas provide opportunity for teaching about the Lord’s Incarnation and his coming again in glory, mysteries that cannot be explored without the language of his divine and human natures and how they are united in his divine person. Epiphany and the Lord’s Baptism supply us with an opportunity for teaching the universal salvific significance of the Only-begotten Son born in time. Lent suggests that we address the nature of sin and the victory over it that we have in Christ. The whole Easter season announces with overflowing joy that the “one who was crucified, God has raised him up.” It allows us to contemplate the human nature of Jesus filled with divine glory, which is the “pledge of our future glory” anticipated in the Eucharist. Especially in this season the Scriptural texts mention again and again the names Father, Son and Holy Spirit. These are the events and these are the texts which led to the formulation of the doctrines concerning the Church’s Trinitarian faith. In the time after Pentecost – the Sundays of Ordinary time – one and then another of these great themes of Christian faith could be further explored, as the circumstances of a community indicate and the lectionary texts of the three-year cycle offer the opportunity.
Who will take responsibility for the preparation of such pastoral aids? Why dear brother bishops, I hope that you will. Such projects would be money well spent by the Conference of Bishops. It would be a genuine service to the local churches, and it would respond to oft-repeated appeals by clergy and laity alike for improved homilies.
But such projects could well be undertaken at the diocesan level too, if resources are available. One fruitful pool of such resources might be found among our retired priests. And inviting some of our brother priests, who have undertaken a life of prayer and penance under terms of the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” to work on such a homily project might provide them a fruitful priestly service that does not include public ministry.
And naturally we would be happy to receive from the Holy See an implementation of the Pope’s recommendation in Sacramentum caritatis.
Until now I have not addressed a problem noted in almost every ad limina visit of the world’s Bishops to our Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: Catholics are increasingly ignorant of their Catholic faith. While I believe that increased emphasis on the instructional and catechetical aims of preaching through increased focus on Church doctrine will have a beneficial effect, I do not propose that doctrinal homilies should substitute for a systematic catechesis as a necessary part of a Catholic’s education in the faith.
Listen again to those two extraordinary Anglican converts to the Catholic faith on this point. Venerable Cardinal John Henry Newman spoke to lay people over a century ago, telling them “I want a laity … who know their faith, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it and who know enough of history to defend it. I want an intelligent well-instructed laity … And one immediate effect of your being able to do all this will be you gaining that proper confidence in self that is so necessary for you.” [cited in E. D’Arcy, “The New Catechism and Cardinal Newman,” Communio XX/3, Fall 1993, 496-7]
And in the first half of the twentieth century, according to Evelyn Waugh, Fr. Ronald Knox “was not training apologists to speak in Hyde Park, but ordinary men living in the world, who should be able to give an account of their faith when it was challenged in ordinary social intercourse.” [cited in M. Walsh, Ronald Knox as Apologist, San Francisco: Ignatius Press (2007), 44-5] Surely the need to know their faith is even greater for our people today; it would be a pity to ignore a vital means to support such knowledge as the Sunday homily.
I want to end with a word of comfort and reassurance. The mysteries we proclaim and the truths we teach are so sublime and transcendent that even our best efforts at preaching doctrinal homilies may leave us unsatisfied. Let the words of the great bishop preacher St. Augustine be our comfort: “For my part, I am nearly always dissatisfied with my discourse. For I am desirous of something better, which I often inwardly enjoy before I begin to unfold my thought in spoken words; but when I find that my powers of expression come short of my knowledge of the subject, I am sorely disappointed that my tongue has not been able to answer the demands of my heart.” (De Catechizandis Rudibus II, 3)
And let the inspired words of the great Apostle of the Gentiles in his First Letter to the Thessalonians (2:13) be for us a source of reassurance and confidence: “We give thanks to God unceasingly, that in receiving the word of God from hearing us, you received not a human word but, as it truly is, the word of God, which is now at work in you who believe.”