It was a well-written homily. It reflected on the Gospel for the Sunday (the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost, i.e., prodigal son) and developed a contemporary application: do we envision God as a cosmic policeman ready to pounce on us when we sin, or is God seen as a shepherd who foolishly leaves his sheep to find the lost lamb, a woman who calls in friends and neighbors to rejoice over a lost coin or as a father who treats his wastrel son as a returning hero? The homily took the Scripture seriously and asked how it spoke to a contemporary congregation. I suspect the homilist or his parish had paid top dollar to the homily service that provided it.
Unfortunately, it was delivered five days after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on Sept. 11, and less than 40 miles from the still-smoking ruins of the World Trade Center. Aside from one or two ill-considered, ad-libbed comments, there was no mention of the events that had so brutally taken hold of the country’s consciousness.
The day after the terrorist strikes, I asked the students in my introductory course on liturgical preaching to attend to how preachers dealt with the topic in their Sunday homilies. The following Monday they reported that in every case the preacher had dealt with the topic, some much more successfully than others. One reported on a homily in which the preacher read from the catechism on the just war theory! Mine was the only case reported where the topic had been basically ignored, although, to be fair, the presider had spoken about the events of the week in his opening comments before Mass. I was prepared to write off one preacher’s failure until I began to hear more and more reportsthis time from the Washington, D.C., areaof homilies that did not in any way deal with the worst terrorist attack in the history of the United States. What was shocking and painful was that some of those who chose to do this are preachers I know, men I admire, priests who are generally known for their pastoral sensitivity in dealing with parishioners.
What understanding of preaching allowed these Catholic preachers to ignore what was so obviously happening in the world around them? Some, like the preacher outside New York City, had used canned homilies. Perhaps, over the years, they had become convinced that they did not have the gift of creating a homily and had turned to a prepared homily in the belief that a professionally written work was far better than anything they could write themselves. In some cases that decision may have been applauded by members of the congregation.
Others had evidently used what Bishop Kenneth Untener of Saginaw calls microwave homilies: homilies that have been preached already, and are recycledpreferably to a congregation that did not hear them before. Again, taking the most charitable approach, it had clearly been a very demanding, stressful week for priests as well as for other Americans, and the homilies, used though they may be, presumably had worked before and represented a significant original investment of time, thought and prayer.
Nevertheless, it is incomprehensible that someone could preach to a congregation of shocked, hurting, frightened people and not address their situation in the homily. The point is not to sit in judgment on other priests, but to ask why? Not why they chose to preach the way they did, but rather why it was not painfully obvious that the deaths of nearly 5,000 people, the trauma and profound fear shared by virtually every American demanded a response, a word from the pulpit. Why didn’t this reality, which had so consumed a society, compel them, at least for one Sunday, to forego accustomed habits and address their people’s pain?
The problem may be traced to, of all places, the Second Vatican Council and its Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (1963). Paragraph 52 of that document marks a watershed moment in Catholic preaching; it calls for a homily by means of which 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. It is a blessing on the church that the majority of priests and deacons preaching today have been profoundly formed by their understanding of that demand. Although there are still some who insist on preaching from nonliturgical texts like the catechism, most Catholic preachers realize and take seriously their obligation to preach the Scripture, even when they resort to canned and recycled homilies.
Most Catholic preachers interpret the paragraph to mean that preaching is to be on the Scriptures, as opposed to whatever topic the preacher thinks is important, as was often the case before the council. On one level their interpretation is certainly correct. However, it is important to realize that Paragraph 52 of the liturgy constitution was the first, but not the last, word in the renewal of Catholic preaching. While it successfully reoriented the homily, phrases like mysteries of the faith, guiding principles of the Christian life, and the sacred text can suggest a homily that is an abstract, generalized reflection on a biblical reading, with little direct connection to the events of human life. Later church documents have made it clear that such an interpretation is inadequate.
One of the most significant and best developed treatments of what the homily should be and do is the document Fulfilled in Your Hearing: The Homily in the Sunday Assembly, authored by the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Priestly Life and Ministry of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. The document describes the homily as a scriptural interpretation of human existence which enables a community to recognize God’s active presence, to respond to that presence in faith through liturgical word and gesture, and beyond the liturgical assembly through a life lived in conformity with the Gospel. This makes it clear that the homily, ultimately, is not about Scripture; rather, it is about human existence as interpreted in light of the Scripture readings of the day. Two elements are brought into dialog: human experience and the scriptural text. It is not a case of using examples taken from human experience to illumine what the text means; rather human experience itself is seen as revelatory, even though the meanings of human experience, especially when it is as traumatic as the events of Sept. 11, become clear only when viewed though the perspective of the scriptural message.
Such a theology of preaching could run the risk of pointing the preacher back to a pre-Vatican II style of topical preaching, but that need not be the case. One still begins the process of homily preparation by looking at the Scriptures assigned for the coming Sunday, not by asking What situation in my parish do I need to address? But on a more fundamental level, the process of preparation has begun long before the preacher attends to it. It begins in attentiveness to the experiences of the people in the parish and the people of the world. If we are attentive to those experiences, we hear in them an echo of the Gospel that resonates when we read the specific Gospel text. The readings for the Sunday following the attackparables about a loving, forgiving and caring Godcan clearly speak to the deepest needs of a traumatized people.
Obviously, one needs to be attentive to the danger of eisegesisare we reading into the Scriptures a word, whether comforting or challenging, that has no basis in the historical meaning of the text? Such a danger is real, but can be countered by a responsible use of scriptural commentaries. But note, the commentaries are used to test interpretation, not provide it.
If a preacher adopts a theology of preaching such as that advocated by Fulfilled in Your Hearing, then there can be no question of using either canned or recycled homilies, because neither addresses the immediate congregation and its current experience. That inability became all too painfully obvious the Sunday after the terrorist attacks, but it is true on the most ordinary of days. Each congregation has its own identity and concerns, and each changes in subtle but real ways over the course of time. When a homily does not address the lived experience of the congregation as it exists in front of the preacher, not only is a precious pastoral opportunity lost, but a negative message is sent as well: that the Scriptures do not have anything to say about the reality of my life.
At the start of the Mass described at the beginning of this article, the presider acknowledged the probability that there were some in the congregation who had not been to Mass in a long time. I fear the homily, well written as it may have been, may have convinced them there was no reason to return the following week.