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 | By Bishop Earl Boyea

Why Do We Have a Homily at Mass?

Why on earth do we have a homily at Mass? Perhaps, it is as St. Paul asks, “But how can they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how can they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone to preach?” (Rom 10:14) Well, OK, but that was before we had the written New Testament. Can’t we just hear the homilies preached by the Apostles in the New Testament and be done with it? I believe Paul would say, “No.” But why?

Jesus himself can be the model for us. Recall his walking with those two disciples as they were leaving Jerusalem for Emmaus. After hearing their version of what had recently taken place in Jerusalem, Jesus then explained the Scriptures to them, telling them that it was necessary that the Messiah should suffer. Luke then tells us, “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them what referred to him in all the scriptures.” (Lk 24:27) These two disciples later exclaimed, “Were not our hearts burning [within us] while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us?” (Lk 24:32)

So, there are two reasons for a homily. The first is to explain the Scriptures. Evidently, Jesus knew that the Scriptures are not always clear or that we who read them have barriers to understand them. In either case, there is a need to explain. The second reason is to set hearts on fire.

As to the first reason, before the Second Vatican Council, homilies were called sermons and usually were explanations of the creed or the commandments and usually had little or nothing to do with the Scripture readings of the day. I remember as a kid, over a series of Sundays, hearing my pastor cover the Ten Commandments. To be honest, I don’t remember much about hearing or understanding the Scripture texts that were read.

The Vatican Council II document Sacrosantum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy) made a significant shift in the nature of sermons:

“The sermon, moreover, should draw its content mainly from scriptural and liturgical sources, and its character should be that of a proclamation of God's wonderful works in the history of salvation, the mystery of Christ, ever made present and active within us, especially in the celebration of the liturgy.” (#35)

This is why we now use the term “homily,” rather than “sermon,” to describe this action.

As to the second reason, it is clear that the preacher is to be a “walking homily,” and thus his words manifest Christ and his victory through the preacher’s words and his life. St. Pope Paul VI once wrote, “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” (Evangelii Nuntiandi 41) Now, of course, this places a great burden on the priest or deacon. We are all sinners preaching to sinners, and thus no better than anyone else. Nonetheless, the approach I take is first to preach to myself, to let the word of God set my sinful heart on fire before approaching that mission among all of you.

The word “homily” itself in Greek means “to be with or converse with” someone or others. We are all in this together, and thus the homily must always be seen as our communal effort to understand and live the word of God so as to give God glory.

Jesus preached, the Apostles preached and we need good and holy preachers to this day. Pray for your pastor or deacon as he approaches the pulpit that God will give him the words to say.