Length of Homilies

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.

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Q: On several occasions I have attended Mass on Sunday in a parish in the U.S. outside of my own diocese. Each time, the celebrant gave about a one-minute homily. Indeed, the parish announcements were longer than the homily. Is there any rule that indicates how long a Sunday homily is to be? — M.E., Rochester, New York

A: One experiences a rare pleasure when a parishioner laments about the homily being too short. It is a sign of true hunger for a substantial explanation of God’s word.

Unfortunately there is relatively little with respect to official norms regarding length of homilies. This is partly inevitable because expectations vary from one culture to another and even from one social milieu to another. There are some cultures which expect long discourses during Mass and others which fidget after six minutes.

No. 24 of the Introduction to the Lectionary has the following to say about the homily:

“The homily, by which, through the course of the liturgical year, the mysteries of faith and norms of Christian life are set forth from the sacred text, as part of the Liturgy of the Word has been recommended often and especially since the liturgical constitution of the Second Vatican Council, and indeed is prescribed in some cases. The homily in the celebration of Mass is customarily to be given by the one who presides by virtue of the fact that it shows how the word of God which has been proclaimed becomes together with the eucharistic liturgy ‘a kind of proclamation of the wonders of God in salvation history or the mystery of Christ.’ And also the Paschal Mystery of Christ, which is announced by the readings and homily, is exercised through the sacrifice of the Mass. Christ, moreover, in the preaching of his Church, is always present and at work.

“The homily, therefore, whether it explains the word of sacred Scripture that has been proclaimed or another liturgical text, ought to lead the community of the faithful to celebrate the Eucharist actively, so that ‘they may hold in their manner of life what they have grasped by faith.’ By this living explanation of the Word of God, which is read, the celebrations of the Church, which are carried out, can also acquire a greater efficacy if the homily is truly the fruit of meditation, aptly prepared, neither excessively drawn out nor too brief, and if it is attentive to the needs of all those present, even children and the uninstructed.”

Pope Benedict XVI’s apostolic exhortation Verbum Domini has a beautiful passage regarding the importance of the homily:

“59. Each member of the People of God ‘has different duties and responsibilities with respect to the word of God. Accordingly, the faithful listen to God’s word and meditate on it, but those who have the office of teaching by virtue of sacred ordination or have been entrusted with exercising that ministry,’ namely, bishops, priests and deacons, ‘expound the word of God.’ Hence we can understand the attention paid to the homily throughout the Synod. In the Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis, I pointed out that ‘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’ (No. 46). The homily is a means of bringing the scriptural message to life in a way that helps the faithful to realize that God’s word is present and at work in their everyday lives. It should lead to an understanding of the mystery being celebrated, serve as a summons to mission, and prepare the assembly for the profession of faith, the universal prayer and the Eucharistic liturgy. Consequently, those who have been charged with preaching by virtue of a specific ministry ought to take this task to heart. Generic and abstract homilies which obscure the directness of God’s word should be avoided, as well as useless digressions which risk drawing greater attention to the preacher than to the heart of the Gospel message. The faithful should be able to perceive clearly that the preacher has a compelling desire to present Christ, who must stand at the center of every homily. For this reason preachers need to be in close and constant contact with the sacred text; they should prepare for the homily by meditation and prayer, so as to preach with conviction and passion. The synodal assembly asked that the following questions be kept in mind: ‘What are the Scriptures being proclaimed saying? What do they say to me personally? What should I say to the community in the light of its concrete situation?’ The preacher ‘should be the first to hear the word of God which he proclaims,’ since, as Saint Augustine says: ‘He is undoubtedly barren who preaches outwardly the word of God without hearing it inwardly.’ The homily for Sundays and solemnities should be prepared carefully, without neglecting, whenever possible, to offer at weekday Masses cum populo brief and timely reflections which can help the faithful to welcome the word which was proclaimed and to let it bear fruit in their lives.”

If this is the challenge the Church poses to priests and deacons for their preaching, then it would seem unlikely that it can be achieved in a brief minute-made homily.

The Church does recommend brevity, above all because the homily should be in proportion to the entire celebration. It makes little sense to go on for 20 or more minutes and then rush through the Eucharistic Prayer.

Once more cultural factors have to be taken into account, and it is nigh impossible to give strict rules. One could say that on a Sunday six minutes would be a minimum, but the maximum is much harder to determine. I believe that the criterion of proportion with the rest of the celebration is a good guide, along with the faithful’s expectation within the context of a concrete pastoral situation.

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Readers may send questions to liturgy@zenit.org. Please put the word “Liturgy” in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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Fr. Edward McNamara

Padre Edward McNamara, L.C., è professore di Teologia e direttore spirituale

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