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November 18, 2012

Overview of new document on the Sunday homily, adopted this November during U.S. Catholic bishops' national meeting in Baltimore

In this edition:
1. Preaching the Sunday homily.
2. Reaching disaffected Catholics.
3. Diversity in today's congregations.
4. "Real questions of human experience."
5. Quotes from the preaching document:
a) Partisan views.
b) Abortion.
c) International priests.
d) Connecting the homily to mission.
e) Respecting Muslims.
f) Respecting other religious traditions.
6. Effective preaching.
7. Doctrine and catechetical content.
8. Preaching among Hispanic Catholics.

1. Preaching the Sunday Homily

"Given the importance of the preaching ministry for the life and mission of the church, it is not a surprise that becoming an effective homilist capable of bringing the message of the Scriptures into the life of the Christian community is a lifelong and demanding process," the U.S. Catholic bishops comment in the document on preaching they approved during their Nov. 12-15 national meeting in Baltimore.

Titled "Preaching the Mystery of Faith: The Sunday Homily," the 17,000-word document is the first on preaching issued by the U.S. bishops in 30 years. It was developed by their Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations, whose chairman is Archbishop Robert Carlson of St. Louis.

The archbishop told the U.S. bishops' meeting that preaching today must be done "more effectively in the context of the new evangelization." People, he said, "hunger for better preaching" to "help them rediscover their faith."

The new evangelization is among key themes in the preaching document. "In our day many Catholics have drifted away from active participation in the church and are in need themselves of hearing again the Gospel of Jesus Christ and of recommitting themselves to discipleship," it states.

The new evangelization, "at its heart," calls for "the reproposing of the encounter with the risen Lord, his Gospel and his church to those who no longer find the church's message engaging," it says.

It points out that many people the new evangelization hopes to reach may be present in a church on Christmas or Easter, or at weddings and funerals. There are occasions when "the assembly will likely include many Catholics who participate only occasionally in the church's liturgy" or "when family members who may have strayed from the practice of their faith are present."

The bishops caution that a wedding or funeral, for example, "is obviously not the time to chide such Catholics" for their frequent absence. However, the bishops advise, "the homilist should use the beauty of the liturgy and the contents of the homily to open the Scriptures, to make a gracious and thoughtful connection to the meaning of Christian faith in the world today and to invite back those who have lost contact with the church."

The preaching document is directed mainly to those who preach the Sunday homily, along with those responsible for their "formation and training" and others "who conduct continuing education programs for clergy."

2. Communicating With Disaffected Catholics

The bishops are aware, their new document on preaching acknowledges, "that in survey after survey over the past years the people of God have called for more powerful and inspiring preaching." In fact, the bishops add, "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."

Furthermore, "recent studies have shown that many Catholics, for a variety of reasons, seem either indifferent to or disaffected with the church and her teaching," the bishops say.

Their document says that "many Catholics, even those who are devoted to the life of the church and hunger for a deeper spirituality, seem to be uninformed about the church's teaching and are in need of a stronger catechesis."

And in expressing concern for young adults, the bishops observe that while many "are idealistic and search out ways to be of service to society, there is also grave concern that the participation of young adults in the life of the church has declined in a significant way."

In light of these kinds of concerns, the bishops make the point that the church in the U.S. at this time "faces a number of challenges that compel us to call for a renewed consideration of the church's mission to proclaim God's word."

3. Diversity in Today's Congregations

Among challenges encountered by homilists is the increased diversity of the congregations they address. For example, the bishops note:

"Through immigration the Catholic population is increasingly diverse in its cultural and ethnic makeup, and this diversity is found in many parishes, particularly those in urban areas. This diversity is a great blessing for our church and our country, but it also raises new challenges for those who preach in such settings."

Today the U.S. is "one of the most culturally diverse countries on the planet, and a very significant number of [its] new immigrants are Catholics," the preaching document states. "In the last 50 years," it explains, "our country has received substantial numbers of immigrants from Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America, South America, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Vietnam, the Philippines, India, China, Nigeria, Uganda, Tanzania and many other places."

The church benefits "greatly from the cultural wealth and diversity of experience that these new immigrants have brought to our shores," and "in many cases the presence of Asian, Latin American, Eastern European and African Catholics has meant new life for parishes that had been fragile," according to the document. "So much diversity," though, represents "both an opportunity and a challenge for any preacher."

By way of example, the document observes that "particular cultures often have their own preferences for which style of preaching they find most compelling."

A reason cultural complexity "poses a sharp challenge" to the preacher is that he may not share the congregation's "education, background and assumptions." The document exhorts homilists "to have a deep respect for other cultures and, to the extent possible, to enter into another culture with humility, attention and deep love."

The document recommends that the homilist "strive, above all, to learn the language of the people he serves and, as best he can, to appreciate their manner of thinking, feeling and acting." It comments that "only then can he preach heart to heart."

It says that "in certain pastoral circumstances bilingual or multilingual preaching may be a good option to ensure that all in the congregation understand the homily."

One thing the bishops hope homilists never forget is "that, despite enormous differences among us at the level of language, practice, history, lifestyle and social class, we remain, in spiritual essentials, one." New immigrants resemble others in the church because:

-- "Everyone wants joy in life, but at times sadness strikes."

-- "Everyone is finite and yet has expansive hopes and longings."

-- "Everyone seeks friendship but also experiences times of loneliness and isolation."

-- "Everyone sins; everyone is a subject worthy of respect; and everyone is called by God."

The members of all cultural groups "appreciate pastors and preachers who cultivate personal relationships with them and demonstrate a willingness to move beyond their comfort zones and enter the world of the 'other,'" the new document makes clear.

4. "Real Questions of Human Experience"

"Homilies are inspirational when they touch the deepest levels of the human heart and address the real questions of human experience," according to "Preaching the Mystery of Faith."

Thus, for example, a good homilist "is able to articulate the mystery of the incarnation . . . in such a manner that his listeners are able to understand more deeply the beauty and truth of this mystery and to see its connections with daily life."

The homily's goal "is to lead the hearer to the deep inner connection between God's word and the actual circumstances of one's everyday life." A homily brings together a biblical message and the contemporary experience of those to whom the homily is offered."

A "true pastor," the document says, will know "his people's sorrows, their anxieties, their weaknesses, their capacity for love, their abiding joys and their deepest longings." To "preach persuasively," a homilist must be aware both "of his own deepest experience" and the experience "of his people."

The bishops hold that homilists need to become aware, "in an appropriate way, of what their people are watching on television, what kind of music they are listening to, which web sites they find appealing and which films they find compelling."

In fact "references to these more popular cultural expressions -- which at times can be surprisingly replete with religious motifs -- can be an effective way to engage the interest of those on the edge of faith," it is suggested.

Effective homilies take a "cue from the very nature of the Scriptures," where "a rich variety of literary forms" are employed in communicating a message, the bishops say to homilists. It is known, for example, "that Jesus was not an abstract preacher but laced his preaching with rich images and provocative stories."

The bishops drive home the point that "as natural storytellers usually are, Jesus was a keen observer of human life, with all of its beauty and complexity."

The parables Jesus told had the power to engage listeners, prompting them to ponder the meaning of the stories they heard. "Jesus did not simply lecture his audiences but enticed them by evoking experiences they were invited to think about and try to understand," the preaching document observes.

It says that "being an effective storyteller may not be a gift that comes easily to everyone who must preach." However, the lesson here is "that the homilist must have empathy for human experience, observe it closely and sympathetically, and incorporate it into his preaching."

A homily is meant "to establish a 'dialogue'" between a biblical reading "and the Christian life of the hearer," the preaching document insists. It says:

"The homily in its most effective form enables the hearer to understand the meaning of the Scriptures in a new way and, in turn, helps the message of the Scriptures, proclaimed in the context of the liturgy, to illumine the experience of the hearer."

5. Quoting New Preaching Document

Partisan Views: "It would be inappropriate for the homilist to impose on the congregation his own partisan views about current issues. Yet for preaching to be so abstract that it reveals no awareness of or concern for the great economic and social issues that are affecting people's lives in a serious way would give the impression that the words of Scripture and the action of the Eucharist are without relevance for our everyday experience and our human hopes and dreams."

Abortion: "Nearly all parish communities include women and men who have been harmed emotionally and spiritually by an abortion experience. While reminding the community of the beauty and sacredness of human life, the homilist should always emphasize God's infinite mercy for all sinners, including those suffering after an abortion. Like the [Samaritan] woman at the well, such individuals need to be invited to approach the church without fear in order to receive God's forgiveness and healing grace."

International Priests: "The increasing presence of international priests in the pastoral life of the United States is a great blessing but also requires sustained efforts at cultural and linguistic adaptation, particularly in relationship to effective preaching. Dioceses and religious communities need to offer these brother priests opportunities for intense language preparation and help in understanding the varied social and pastoral contexts of Catholics in this country."

Mission: "Our encounter with Jesus inevitably leads to mission; our love for Jesus translates into our love for others. . . . The homily, which participates in the power of Christ's word, ought to inspire a sense of mission for those who hear it, making them doers and proclaimers of that same word in the world. A homily that does not lead to mission is therefore incomplete."

U.S. Muslims: "The political turbulence and violence in the Middle East sometimes contributes to local prejudice against Muslims in our country. It is important to remind the faithful that, as stated clearly in 'Nostra Aetate,' recent papal teaching and statements of episcopal conferences, Catholics are called to respect Muslims. An emphasis on peace and patience, together with the encouragement to foster good relations with local Muslims, is crucial, therefore, when preaching about Islam in any context."

Respect for Other Religious Traditions: "The unique opportunity to address an entire congregation with the innate authority of the preacher in the Sunday homily also requires sensitivity and respect when speaking of other Christians or other religious traditions."

6. Effective Preaching

The characteristics of "effective liturgical preaching" constitute a theme of "Preaching the Mystery of God." The document pays "special attention to the biblical and theological foundations for effective liturgical preaching."

A few dimensions of effective preaching already have been mentioned in this edition of the jknirp newsletter. But, in summary form, here are four more of the document's observations on what an effective homily requires:

1) "Preparing an effective homily necessarily entails interpretation of the Scriptures. In the context of preaching, such interpretation cannot be simply an intellectual exercise but must be a serious attempt to understand the Scriptures in the light of faith."

Seeing "the world through biblical eyes" is essential for homilists, the document holds. It says: "The homilist must necessarily be a person with a deep love of the Scriptures and one whose spirituality is profoundly shaped by God's word. This entails being someone who habitually immerses himself in the language, stories, rhythms, speech patterns and ethos of the Scriptures."

2) "All effective homilies have [a] sense of urgency and freshness, revealing the startling beauty and promise of the kingdom of God, and of the Jesus who embodies it and brings it to reality through his death and resurrection."

Thus, the document states, "if a homilist conveys merely some example of proverbial wisdom or good manners, or only some insight gained from his personal experience, he may have spoken accurately and even helpfully, but he has not yet spoken the Gospel, which ultimately must focus on the person of Jesus and the dynamic power of his mission to the world."

3) "Every effective homily is a summons to conversion. The announcement of the kingdom through the words and examples of the homily, if it is clear and compelling, inevitably leads the hearer to a desire to be changed."

However, the document continues, "the need for repentance does not mean that homilies should simply berate the people for their failures. Such an approach is not usually effective, for concentrating on our sinfulness, unaccompanied by the assurance of grace, usually produces either resentment or discouragement. Preaching the Gospel entails challenge but also encouragement, consolation, support and compassion."

That is why "many teachers of homiletics warn, quite legitimately, against 'moralizing' homilies, which harp excessively or exclusively on sin and its dangers. . . . At the same time, our responsibility toward our brothers and sisters in Christ includes the need for 'fraternal correction' done in a spirit of charity and truth."

4) "Effective preaching also entails a thoughtful and informed understanding of contemporary culture. The fathers of the Second Vatican Council made this point when they insisted that leaders within the Catholic Church must be deeply attuned not only to Scripture and tradition, but also to the 'signs of the times,' signals coming from today's world."

7. Doctrinal and Catechetical Content

A homily has a catechetical purpose that is not at odds with its teaching doctrine, according to the U.S. bishops' new document on preaching. "A wedge should not be driven between the proper content and style of the Sunday homily, and the teaching of the church's doctrine," it states.

For, when "the full scope of Jesus' preaching" is considered, it "reminds us that when we have the privilege of preaching the homily to a congregation at the Sunday Eucharist, we also have an invaluable opportunity to advance the church's catechetical ministry."

The document affirms, moreover, that catechesis "in its broadest sense" encompasses "the effective communication of the full scope of the church's teaching and formation, from initiation into the sacrament of baptism through the moral requirements of a faithful Christian life."

For example, the homilist can, "without being pedantic, overly abstract or theoretical," spell out effectively:

-- "The connection between Jesus' care for the poor and the church's social teaching and concern for the common good, or

-- "Jesus' pronouncements on the prohibition of divorce and the church's teaching on the sacredness of the marriage bond, or

-- "Jesus' confrontations with his opponents and the church's obligation to challenge contemporary culture about the values that should define our public life."

According to the document, doctrine "is not meant to be propounded in a homily in the way that it might unfold in a theology classroom or a lecture for an academic audience or even a catechism lesson." The homily's "language and spirit" should fit its liturgical context.

Still, the document explains, the homilist ought to "preach doctrinally and catechetically" because, "as Paul and the evangelists knew, the people are drawn to Jesus and his Gospel by the beauty and truth of the mysteries of our faith."

As an "ecclesial act," the homily "is not a time for theological speculation," the document informs those who preach. At the same time, it says "fidelity to the church's magisterium does not mean" that a homily "should be an abstract affirmation of doctrine."

The homily's "purpose and spirit," the document explains, is "to inspire and move those who hear it, to enable them to understand in heart and mind what the mysteries of our redemption mean for our lives and how they might call us to repentance and change."

8. Preaching Among Hispanic Catholics

"The Hispanic/Latino segment of the Catholic community is growing at a particularly rapid rate and poses substantial opportunities and challenges for effective preaching," the U.S. bishops' document on the Sunday homily comments.

"Preaching among Hispanic/Latino and other non-European communities correlates with the church's overarching goal of communion in diversity," the document explains.

The bishops point out that "many Hispanic Catholics are especially attuned to the symbolic and sacramental world of Catholicism." It is suggested that homilists coming from "a different cultural context" take steps "to immerse themselves in Hispanic popular piety."

This, however, "requires exposure to the people's neighborhoods or barrios, their homes and associations, and even their countries of origin, if at all possible," the bishops state.

In this context they add that "Spanish-language ability is an urgent need." The bishops urge seminaries and permanent diaconate formation programs "to include Spanish-language preparation and proper exposure to Hispanic cultures" in their programs.

"The serious social, economic and political struggles of the Hispanic/Latino poor" are particularly relevant "for preachers who wish to connect with these congregations," the bishops note. To be effective, homilists need to "be aware of and acknowledge people's struggle for a better life in the United States and in their countries of origin."

This, the bishops clarify, does not mean homilies ought to "replicate civic or political discourse." People participating in the Eucharist "want to hear God's word robustly and reverently proclaimed." The bishops consider the homilist "successful if he plumbs the depths of the Scripture and, when appropriate, recalls stories about Mary and the saints," and serves as a witness "to God's presence and power."

Good preaching will at once honor "the experience of immigrant families" and sympathize with "the challenges of adapting to life in the United States," the bishops stress.