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.


7 thoughts on “Sliding From the Head to the Heart

  1. You have touched on a topic many fear to go near… yet is critical to the growth of millions of Catholics, and that is the homely, expounding on God’s Word.

    Please understand that my comments come from a protestant pastor’s heart, so they may seem a bit alien to many, but please stay with me.

    I do not agree with Susan’s husband comment about the reason for lackluster sermons being the outgrowth of the parish priest being too busy. Although gracious is his approach, the reasons run deeper. Catholic culture places supreme significance on the Eucharist as the focal point of the mass, all else is secondary to the consecration of the bread and wine. As a result, homiletics are not stressed, resulting in less than inspiring sermons in a majority of cases. Let me tread carefully with my next comment… most Catholics have grown accustomed to attending a mass that rarely lasts longer than 40-45 minutes. Given the existing liturgy, that leaves very little time for a priest to deliver a homily of longer than 10 minutes or so. As a pastor who has delivered literarily hundreds of sermons, it is difficult, if not impossible, to deliver a relevant, well thought out message in 10 minutes. And no, I am not in any way suggesting the homily must run 45 minutes to be effective either.

    A major paradigm shift would be required, both at the priestly and congregant levels, for this situation to change. Many may be asking, “why even suggest a change?” I offer you the following, true Christian growth does not occur by merely attending the same service week in and week out, with literally no variation whatsoever. Add to that homilies which do not teach, provoke conviction or get one to think at a deeper level about the person of Jesus Christ. If we are to be His disciples, then we must “know” why He said what He said and be taught how to apply those truths in our own lives. Simple attendance at mass, in the majority of cases, does not fulfill that requirement. The gospels are full of examples where Jesus Himself went to great length to explain and expound on the truths of the Kingdom. If Jesus took the time to explain, in detail, why shouldn’t you expect the same. Chapters 5, 6 and 7 of Mathew’s Gospel are often referred to as the Sermon on the Mount. It is arguably the greatest homily ever preached, and I would be on safe ground to say it lasted considerably longer than 10 minutes.

    My heart goes out to anyone who feels the need to attend two services in the same day simply to have their thirst for God fulfilled.

  2. Susan, try the Cathedral.

    Dr. John, the Eucharist is the only important thing; Catholics know that it is a re-presentation of Calvary, with angels present and the Holy Spirit making the bread and wine into the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ. Of course it’s the focal point! It is a bloodless sacrifice, repeated time and time again, day after day, not merely week after week. As we follow the liturgical year, so we follow the life of Christ; for us, the homily is supposed to reflect truth of the day’s scripture.

    Christian growth occurs by becoming closer to Christ, through the Eucharist, through Adoration and Confession, through reforming our lives so we leave behind that which separates us from Him; assisting at Mass is only part of it.

    I sometimes go to two services in the same day so I can be with Orthodox friends and go to Mass.

    • The topic of the post dealt with the homily and why it isn’t as important a part of the liturgy as it should be. Clearly, the focus on the eucharist, almost to the exclusion of all else, minimizes the importance of the preached word.

      Although I agree with most of what you shared, experience has shown me that true Christian growth requires instruction, and specific instruction at that. Are confession and adoration important elements of our walk? Certainly, but alone they are insufficient. Look to scripture for an unbiased approach to discipleship. Jesus was often referred to as Rabbi – teacher. He taught that which was necessary to come into union with God. He expounded on OT writings, corrected, admonished, encouraged and always loved… these activities, in addition to adoration and confession, were essential elements in Jesus’ earthly ministry, and by association, should be essential in modern Christian ministry as well.

      Again, I am in agreement with your comment about growth coming as a result of reforming one’s life… but for reformation to be meaningful, it must establish a set of standards, standards we endeavor to pursue. Teaching is the Christ ordained way of establishing those standards. We must “know Him” to adore Him; in the absence of knowledge, what and who are we adoring? Why confess if we do not understand the need and the adverse effect sin has?

      I would ask you to consider the following, it is a direct quote from 2 Tim 3:16, “All scripture is God breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in rightheousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

  3. Dr. John, here we differ. Catholics follow both Tradition and Scripture; while Mass is the most important thing, Confession is an important part of being in Communion with the Church as it allows remission of one’s sins. Priests at my parish give excellent homilies which do expound on Scripture.

    Spending time with Jesus in Adoration brings us closer to Him. Just ask St. Faustina.

  4. Nan… the beauty of discourse like this is manifest when two can agree to disagree, we are obviously at that point.

    Tradition can be and is spiritually enriching when it is based on that which is eternal and God breathed. Tradition based on anything else, although often satisfying to the flesh, offers little that brings glory to God.

    I found your comment about confession interesting, “Confession is an important part of being in Communion with the Church…” Confession, in any Christian sense, has as its purpose the re-establishment of communion and fellowship with Christ, not the institution we call the church. I’m sure we’re on the same page there, just different ways of saying it.

    I too know priests, some personally, who are excellent homilists.

    Be well and shalom,

  5. The emphasis on the homily is a very protestant thing, wouldn’t you say?

    We go to Mass for worship, for thanksgiving, for praise, for penance and contrition, to make requests and most importantly, to receive the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, physically, within us. Really!!! If we get a good homily, that is a bonus.

    Protestants might get Billy Graham, Aime Semple McPherson or some Prosperity Gospel motivational speaker. Can they match what we get? They can’t even come close!

    We expect our priests who are on duty seven days a week to match the professional speakers of protestant churches who might have a couple of days a week of liturgy and the rest to prepare for it. I admit many of our priests lack oratorical skills. But I want and will take what they give me that is most import —- Jesus!

  6. Ray,
    I guess you and I differ; I don’t think it is a “protestant thing” to want a good homily. Our Catholic Mass is composed of the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Part of the Liturgy of the Word is a homily that breaks open the readings. I don’t see why one should view a good homily as a “bonus.”

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