Preaching the Mystery of Faith: The Sunday Homily

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US Conference of Catholic Bishops – 2012 –

A Review by R. B. Williams, O.P.

Thirty years ago, the American bishops' conference (USCCB) published a very helpful booklet entitled: "Fulfilled in Your Hearing: The Homily in the Sunday Assembly" (Washington, D.C.:USCCB, 1982). Its importance and impact were recently highlighted by a "pastoral commentary" on it published by the Catholic Association of Teachers of Homiletics ("Preaching in the Sunday Assembly – A Pastoral Commentary on Fulfilled in Your Hearing" James Wallace, ed., Liturgical Press, 2010). However, the USCCB, prompted by Pope Benedict XVI's post-synodal exhortation, Verbum Domini, has revisited the subject of preaching in the Sunday assembly. They were also motivated by the thrust of the "New Evangelization" and their awareness that "a steady diet of tepid or poorly prepared homilies is often cited as a cause for discouragement on the part of laity and even leading some to turn away from the church." Their document, "Preaching the Mystery of Faith: The Sunday Homily," was approved and published in November 2012. I have been invited to offer this review of the document.

What I will have to say is shaped by who I am. I belong to the Order of Preachers (the Dominicans) and my ministry is full time "itinerant preaching" of parish missions, retreats, novenas, etc. mostly in the United States. I have been a priest for 42 years. I also serve my Dominican province in the South as "Promoter of Preaching," a kind of "cheerleader" task to encourage the brethren in fulfilling the charism of our Order. When I heard that the USCCB would be publishing a major document on preaching, I looked forward to reading it and using it especially in my ministry of preaching retreats for priests and deacons. After reading it several times I must express my disappointment that the USCCB, in its ministry of teaching, has missed a great opportunity to support and supplement Fulfilled in Your Hearing.

There is no question that considerable effort on the part of many well-intentioned bishops and experts on scripture, homiletics, liturgy, catechetics and spirituality went into the composition of "Preaching the Mystery of Faith." This may well be the reason for its considerable length (18 pages in the version I have from ORIGINS, v.42, n.26, Nov. 29, 2012) which is self-defeating. There is simply too much said. In the end, the burden of theology, liturgy, catechesis, preparation and diversity of audiences may discourage rather than encourage the particular audience targeted by the document: the ordained priest who preaches on Sunday. I found this in the frequent use of the words "effective" and "should" in referring to homilist and homilies! My hope is that the promised "practical resources" that are to come will be more accessible.

That being said, the document does have its fine moments. Each of the four major sections could be the subject of a separate document! The bishops are concerned that the Sunday homily be shaped by a profound acquaintance with the scriptures and Catholic tradition; that the preacher be a person of holiness, steeped in the scriptures and tradition of the Catholic faith/teaching, and one who knows the situation of the People of God in the pews ("a man of communion"); that it be more catechetical to combat widespread ignorance of the content of Catholic faith (they promote more use of the Catechism); that the connection between the Liturgy of the Word and Liturgy of the Eucharist be emphasized in the homily; and that the homilist be more aware of the needs of a particular congregation (this is no easy task, given the diversity of persons and ethnic sensitivities). Special attention is given to the increasing Latino presence in the United States. There is also a repetition of the homily preparation process from Fulfilled in Your Hearing!

Each of these concerns, taken individually, could be the subject of fruitful consideration by any preacher. (Perhaps that might be the best way to read this document – in slow easy stages.) However, given the variety of "agendas" that manifest themselves in this very long text, I really wonder how many of the intended audience will have the time to read it! The most frequent complaint that I hear from laity in my parish mission preaching is about the preaching of the local clergy. A renewed effort to promote the use of Fulfilled in Your Hearing is worthwhile. Anything that will improve the quality of pulpit preaching in the Catholic church in this country (and elsewhere) is worth the effort. What is said in Preaching the Mystery of Faith is all very true, but its weight makes it unhelpful. I will look forward to the promised "practical resources" in the hope that they will be more helpful!

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