The “Year of Faith” will end on November 24. But Pope Emeritus Benedict’s objective must go on: to “rediscover the content of the faith that is professed, celebrated, lived and prayed, and to reflect on the act of faith” (§ 9). Our Catholic faith has an intellectual content to be known so it can be embraced, pondered, lived, and taught.
I claim that the Sunday homily is the best opportunity pastors have to help the laity deepen their faith and live it. The reason is that Sunday Mass is the time each week when all the faithful who practice their faith are present.
But the homily is a terribly wasted opportunity.
Does it have to be?
Has it always been?
In 1940 in my diocese of Springfield in Illinois, Bishop James A. Griffin published a 32-page booklet called “Program of Instructions on the Virtues.”
It was an outline of what Bishop Griffin expected his priests to preach about in their Sunday sermons during the 1940-1941 liturgical year. That year, the faithful would receive systematic instruction on the theological and moral virtues. For example, on April 27, 1941, the Second Sunday after Easter, the sermon was to be on the virtue of prudence; four points were included to be taught.
When is the last time you heard a homily which mentioned prudence? Have you ever listened to a homily that used the word prudence?
In his greeting at the beginning of the booklet, Bishop Griffin noted that this was the thirteenth year of this program “for the purpose of introducing a uniform and general system of catechetical instruction in the churches of our Diocese.”
This is what every bishop ought to do now.
However, it is no longer appropriate to preach “sermons” completely distinct from the readings proclaimed in the Liturgy of the Word. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal tells us the homily should be an exposition of some aspect of the readings from Sacred Scripture . . . to nurture the Christian life, taking “into account both the mystery being celebrated and the particular needs of the listeners (§ 65).
While the post-Vatican-II Lectionary for Mass is a rich presentation of the Sacred Scriptures following a systematic plan, the Scriptures are not, of course, a systematic presentation of the faith. Nevertheless, the doctrines of the faith are contained in Sacred Scripture, so the Lectionary readings can be the basis for preaching about doctrine. Certainly, one of the critical “particular needs of the listeners” is a sound doctrinal catechesis.
With intelligent effort, a bishop will be able to present—and so homilists will be able to preach—all the fundamental doctrines of Faith and morals over the three-year Lectionary cycle.
So that the homily is maximally effective and to address “the particular needs of the listeners,” the outline should also include practical ways for the faithful to live out the implications of their faith.
Thus, to summarize what every bishop ought to do, he ought to provide an outline of what every homilist under his authority should preach about every Sunday. This outline would be the basis of a doctrinally-focused homily which grows out of the Lectionary readings. The outlines should have three parts: central idea, doctrine, and practical application.
• First, a central idea, which the group of readings contains, should be articulated. In this way, the homilist can illuminate the overall salvific meaning of the Lectionary readings.
• Second, one doctrine from the Deposit of Faith or Catholic morals which the readings contain should be identified. The outline should help the homilist define, explain, and illustrate this doctrine.
• Third, practical ways that the laity can apply this doctrine to their lives should be offered. This third step helps accomplish the Church’s desire that the homilist “nurture the Christian life” of the lay faithful. It helps fulfill the goal of the Year of Faith that the faith be lived.
This approach meets the requirement that the homily nourish the faithful by explaining the Word of God to them. It also answers the call to teach doctrine. Finally, it fulfills an urgent particular need of the laity: how practically to apply the faith in our ordinary lives.
No homily can fully expound all the riches contained in any set of Lectionary readings, but every homily can explain some of them. Homilists can get into the habit of drawing out the doctrinal riches which the Sacred Scriptures contain. In addition, pastors can connect these doctrines to the ordinary lives of the laity. Each week, the homilist can offer the faithful a new facet of the intellectual content of our faith so the faithful can embrace it, ponder it, live it, and even teach it to others as part of the New Evangelization.
The bishop should say to his priests “Here is what you will be preaching about this week. Here’s an outline. Make it your own. Make it relevant to your parishioners. But do it.”