No Perfect Homily

I feel sorry for priests. Every Sunday they are required to get up in front of a crowd and preach, whether they’re good at it or not. This leaves them wide open for criticism — and, believe me, I’ve not only heard plenty of it, I’ve, unfortunately, done my fare share as well.

A common critique is that they don’t talk enough about morality or doctrine. Another is that what they say isn’t relevant, a complaint I can definitely relate to. Personally, I am tremendously irritated when the homily becomes a barrage of negativity against today’s culture. Then there are those homilies that go nowhere. For instance, I can’t remember a single thing from the homily delivered during the Mass in which I pronounced my final vows as a sister — the most important day of my life — because the homilist rambled on and on. Church acoustics and hard-to-understand accents can also make or break a homily.

Are you like me and often left wanting more out of a homily? What can we do? I believe underlying these complaints is a legitimate desire to be fed spiritually and encounter Christ in His Word. What is this desire — different for each one of us — which is not being fulfilled?

Naming this longing within us is the first step we can take to satisfy our needs. The focus then shifts from the “priests” (who cannot possibly satisfy every single person in the congregation) to us. If it is doctrine I am interested in hearing, I can find material that explains the Church’s doctrine. If I am looking for a connection of the Scriptures to my own life, I can plan on meditating on the passages ahead of time. And if I am looking for an encounter with Christ, I can spend more time in prayer.

The best homilies I’ve ever heard did exactly what they are supposed to do: explore the meaning of the readings that are proclaimed. With this in mind, anyone can explore the many resources that are available. We can find priests who post their homilies online — it might be very helpful to find a priest that you really like, and read or listen to his homily as an extension of your Sunday worship experience. There are also missalettes available with reflections on the readings that can be useful.

By making use of other Scripture resources from which we can receive insight, we are not limiting ourselves to just the one priest at one Mass. So when the homily gets boring, is irrelevant or begins to irritate me, I can think about the other homily I heard online or the thoughts I read in the Missalette, rather than just sitting there unfulfilled. This proactive stance can lead to a stronger spiritual life, a faith that finds nourishment, and a deeper satisfaction with the overall liturgical experience.

We can also turn to various forms of prayer. One extremely helpful aid is an ancient form of prayer that was developed in the Church’s monastic tradition. Lectio Divina, or Sacred Reading, provides us with a method allowing God to unfold the meaning of His Word in our life. We read the text over and over again (lectio), and allow our hearts to be receptive to one word that moves us. If you are in the habit of praying the Rosary, you might use thoughts from the Sunday readings to orient your prayer. Or, if you’re a scripture enthusiast like me, you can begin every day of the week reading a portion of the previous Sunday’s readings.

These practices help us sharpen our hearing, open our eyes and widen our hearts to the presence of God in our lives and allow the Sunday liturgical experience to pervade every other day of the week. As the Word resounds within us, God can continue to inspire us with insight, meaning and grace. Thus, what we hear during Mass on Sunday begins fulfilling the deepest desire that lies within each of us: the desire for intimacy with God.

The search for the perfect homily is futile. I believe that many of us may not be satisfied if Jesus himself were the one delivering the homily — after all, John’s Gospel tells us that many of his followers stopped following him after hearing him speak (John 6:66). But the search to satisfy our desire to be fed spiritually is not futile. If we consider the homily to be one aid among many, we can begin to fulfill our personal expectations regarding what we want to get out of a homily. This transforms not just our entire Sunday experience, but the rest of our lives as well.

[Published on: October 24, 2012]


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