Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: For many years in the seminary, and now about to finish seminary formation and preparing for apostolate, I have noticed that some priests, even bishops, be it in seminaries or in parish, write homilies, and during Mass they read them while preaching. Others, on the contrary, don’t but preach from the heart. My question is this: What is the official position of the Church as regards preaching a homily? Is a homily to be written or not? Is there any canonical provision about it? — A.M., Enugu, Nigeria
A: There is very little official legislation regarding the homily. Certainly, Pope Francis in his apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” amply treated this topic and has touched upon it frequently, above all in meetings with clergy. Several bishops have commented to me that he also brings up the topic in their private meetings during their official, five-yearly “ad limina” visits to the Holy See. It is obviously something dear to his heart.
Among the counsels offered for preparing the homily, the Holy Father states in his apostolic exhortation:
“156. Some people think they can be good preachers because they know what ought to be said, but they pay no attention to how it should be said, that is, the concrete way of constructing a sermon. They complain when people do not listen to or appreciate them, but perhaps they have never taken the trouble to find the proper way of presenting their message. Let us remember that ‘the obvious importance of the content of evangelization must not overshadow the importance of its ways and means.’ Concern for the way we preach is likewise a profoundly spiritual concern. It entails responding to the love of God by putting all our talents and creativity at the service of the mission which he has given us; at the same time, it shows a fine, active love of neighbor by refusing to offer others a product of poor quality. In the Bible, for example, we can find advice on how to prepare a homily so as to best to reach people: ‘Speak concisely, say much in few words’ (Sirach 32:8).
“157. Simply using a few examples, let us recall some practical resources which can enrich our preaching and make it more attractive. One of the most important things is to learn how to use images in preaching, how to appeal to imagery. Sometimes examples are used to clarify a certain point, but these examples usually appeal only to the mind; images, on the other hand, help people better to appreciate and accept the message we wish to communicate. An attractive image makes the message seem familiar, close to home, practical and related to everyday life. A successful image can make people savor the message, awaken a desire and move the will towards the Gospel. A good homily, an old teacher once told me, should have ‘an idea, a sentiment, an image.’
“158. Paul VI said that ‘the faithful … expect much from preaching, and will greatly benefit from it, provided that it is simple, clear, direct, well-adapted.’ Simplicity has to do with the language we use. It must be one that people understand, lest we risk speaking to a void. Preachers often use words learned during their studies and in specialized settings which are not part of the ordinary language of their hearers. These are words that are suitable in theology or catechesis, but whose meaning is incomprehensible to the majority of Christians. The greatest risk for a preacher is that he becomes so accustomed to his own language that he thinks that everyone else naturally understands and uses it. If we wish to adapt to people’s language and to reach them with God’s word, we need to share in their lives and pay loving attention to them. Simplicity and clarity are two different things. Our language may be simple but our preaching not very clear. It can end up being incomprehensible because it is disorganized, lacks logical progression or tries to deal with too many things at one time. We need to ensure, then, that the homily has thematic unity, clear order and correlation between sentences, so that people can follow the preacher easily and grasp his line of argument.
“159. Another feature of a good homily is that it is positive. It is not so much concerned with pointing out what shouldn’t be done, but with suggesting what we can do better. In any case, if it does draw attention to something negative, it will also attempt to point to a positive and attractive value, lest it remain mired in complaints, laments, criticisms and reproaches. Positive preaching always offers hope, points to the future, does not leave us trapped in negativity. How good it is when priests, deacons and the laity gather periodically to discover resources which can make preaching more attractive!”
The Holy Father’s opportune recommendations should be taken to heart by all preachers. But he does not address our reader’s particular question.
My own view is that homilies should always be well prepared, including as regards means of delivery. Homilies should always be preached from the heart, but not necessarily preached by heart. A read homily may also be from the heart.
Therefore, presuming that the homily is well prepared, the decision on whether to write it in full, write an outline, or construct it entirely in the head before preaching depends entirely upon the ability and inclinations of the preacher, the needs of the faithful, and the particular context of the celebration.
A bishop or priest may opt to write down and read his homily because he considers that precision of language is important in certain contexts, especially if the homily is later to be published.
Some priests and deacons read the text simply because they have bad memories. Other preachers write down homilies or outlines and then deliver it with nary a glance at the text. The mere presence of the text frees them from the worry of suffering a mental blockage.
Others, such as the great Fulton Sheen, prefer not to use a written text. It should be remembered, however, that this form often requires more preparation to get things right. It is also often the most efficacious from a rhetorical point of view, facilitating such elements as personal contact with the listeners.
There are also those who preach from a prepared text who achieve this contact, and this form should not be considered in any way as second best. Popes Benedict and Francis, with different styles, both show how this form can be a most efficacious preaching method.
What is not usually effective is reading a text simply downloaded from the Internet or some other resource. Even if well read, it often lacks the quality of being the fruit of prayerful meditation, assimilation of the message and personal conviction in its truth — which must necessarily come across if a homily is to be a true communication of faith.
Pope Francis also illustrates this point:
“144. To speak from the heart means that our hearts must not just be on fire, but also enlightened by the fullness of revelation and by the path traveled by God’s word in the heart of the Church and our faithful people throughout history. This Christian identity, as the baptismal embrace which the Father gave us when we were little ones, makes us desire, as prodigal children — and favorite children in Mary — yet another embrace, that of the merciful Father who awaits us in glory. Helping our people to feel that they live in the midst of these two embraces is the difficult but beautiful task of one who preaches the Gospel.”
* * *
Follow-up: Crucifixes on the Altar
In the wake of our June 17 comments on the altar cross, a Belgian reader asked: “If a church is blessed to possess a relic of the True Cross, could it be used as the processional cross, and as the cross placed upon or near the altar during Mass?”
I would say that this would not be the best practice. The relics of the True Cross receive a special degree of veneration that would make it somewhat complicated to use them as the processional cross and the habitual altar cross.
For example, it is customary to venerate the relic of the True Cross with a genuflection. This requirement would complicate movements during Mass.
Above all, however, the Ceremonial of Bishops, Nos. 866 and 921, forbids the placing of relics upon the altar during the celebration of Mass, and no exception is mentioned for relics of the Passion.
I would say that it is probably better to distinguish the procession of the relic of the True Cross with a shrine of its own containing the reliquary.
At the same time, because of the long history of venerating relics of the True Cross, it is quite possible that in some cases cruciform reliquaries have done double duty as an altar cross. This would be most likely where the cross was above a high altar.
A correspondent from Poland asked which direction the figure on a cross upon the altar should face. As we wrote on May 16, 2006, the figure should face the altar:
“[A reader asked]: Based on GIRM, No. 308: ‘There is also to be a cross, with the figure of Christ crucified upon it, either on the altar or near it, where it is clearly visible to the assembled congregation.’ Since the concern here is visibility ‘to the assembled congregation,’ it would seem also that a crucifix on the mensa of the altar should be turned to face the people.
“I am not convinced of this interpretation. The mention of the figure of Christ in the new General Instruction of the Roman Missal was inserted above all to eliminate the nascent fashion for bare crosses. I believe that the visibility requirement refers above all to the cross itself.
“The rubrics of the Ceremonial of Bishops in use before the conciliar reforms already foresaw the possibility of the altar ‘versus populum.’ This book, while mandating that the cross be visible to all, also prescribed that the corpus be placed toward the altar (‘cum imagine sanctissimi Crucifixi versa ad interiorem altaris faciem’).
“Another priest suggested having an altar crucifix designed with a figure on both sides.
“Although there do not seem to be present norms to forbid this practice, it was not permitted in earlier times.
“Some manuals recommended the use of other images on the side of the cross (facing the people) such as the fish symbol or even another image of the Redeemer such as the Good Shepherd or King of Kings.
“With regard to visibility many local synods established a minimum size of 40 centimeters (16 inches) for the vertical to 22 centimeters (8.8 inches) for the horizontal bar, although in practice the altar cross was often larger.
“A decree of Pope Benedict XIV (1740-1758) also established that another cross was not necessary if a large crucifix was painted or sculptured as part of an altarpiece.”
* * *
Readers may send questions to email@example.com. 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.