Sliding From the Head to the Heart

I’m not saying anything most Catholics don’t acknowledge to themselves, even if many don’t like to say it out loud, when I observe that the quality of homilies in Catholic Churches is often not very good. While I’ve been the beneficiary of some wonderful homilies from Jesuits at my retreat house in NY and from a number of the Vincentians at St. John’s University in NY, and at the law school from some of the priest who celebrate our daily Masses, I have been largely uninspired by many homilies in the various parishes I’ve attended on a Sunday. To give full disclosure, I sometimes find myself attending two Masses on Sunday: one on my own parish (so I can worship with my family) and a second at an Episcopal church, where I can be assured of a good homily.

Why it is the case the Sunday homilies at Catholic parishes are often lacking, I don’t know. My husband generously suggests it is that parish priests are overworked and simply do not have the time to adequately prepare. There may be other reasons.

But the bottom line is that a good homily adds something important to the liturgy. My daughter’s way of expressing what is a “good homily” is one that adds something to what she gets from simply hearing the readings proclaimed. A homily that brings the scripture readings together in a way that gives “added value.”

I agree with my daughter’s statement, and, since I often pray with the Mass reading of the day during my morning prayer, I love nothing better than a homily that opens a passage to me in a way differently from how it unfolded in my morning prayer.

But I think there is something else that is important also, and it was expressed in a simple line from a column in a recent issue of Commonweal. In Joys (& Fears) of Cooking: A Homilist’s Education, Fr. Nonomen writes about how he prepares for his Sunday sermons – a process that begins on the preceding Monday – and then expresses that his “goal is to make [his] words about the Scripture slide from the head to the heart.”

I love that expression: slide from the head to the heart. A good homily, I believe, doesn’t just address our head. It is not a summary or paraphrase of the readings and it is not academic exegesis. It instead is something that should touch our hearts, allowing us to experience God and the way God is at work in our lives.

Will every homily be successful in touching every person who hears it? Clearly not. But it is not too much, I think, to hope that that is the goal of those who have the privilege of preaching every week.