What a Homily Should Be: Doctrinal, Liturgical,
and Spiritual | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | December 9, 2005
What a Homily Should Be: Doctrinal, Liturgical,
and Spiritual | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | December 9, 2005
"A certain artificial opposition between the homilies with a doctrinal
characteristic and those with a liturgical one impeded the catechetical
formation of the faithful in order to carry out their faith in the modern
secularist world. This false dichotomy can be surpassed only by showing
how the doctrinal aspect is what takes the most profound sense from the
Sacred Scriptures, similarly to what the liturgy itself does: making us
meet Christ the Redeemer." Archbishop William Levada, Synod
of Bishops 
When the General Catechism was originally published, but still only
in French, I wrote an essay in the Homiletic and Pastoral Review,
entitled, "The Church Explains Itself: The New Catechism" (June,
1993). In it, I suggested that one of the major problems in the Church was
the basic ignorance of most Catholics about just what were the basic teachings
of the Church and why they made sense. I can still ask a large class "who
was the Good Samaritan?" or "who wrote the four Gospels?"
or "what does the Incarnation mean?" only too often to receive
back little but blank stares.
The Catechism, obviously, is a very basic text designed precisely
to meet this doctrinal need. It is a basic guide and reference for Catholics,
learned or unlearned, to know and understand the reasonableness of the faith.
As a means to accomplish this purpose, I had suggested that bishops inaugurate
a five-year program (my "five-year plan"!). Each parish and religious
jurisdiction should address itself in regular sermons to this end. The basic
teachings of what Catholics actually held and taughtno more, no lessought
to be presented in a clear and forthright manner.
As far as I know, no one immediately leaped on this proposal as the greatest
apostolic idea heard in years. Yet, clearly the Catechism has itself
found its way into many a sermon since its final publication in English.
This topic of the doctrinal content of sermons was, in fact, the subject
of the short intervention that William Levada, the current Prefect of the
Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, gave at the recent Synod on the
Eucharist. Archbishop Levada noted the possibility of a tension between
sermons or homilies based on the Scriptural reading for the day and the
orderly dogmatic understanding of Church teachings that originate in Scripture.
This tension often produced an "artificial" dichotomy leading
us to have two sorts of views of what the Church is aboutone based
on the historical sequence of Scriptural presentations, the other on a more
systematic doctrinal presentation. The liturgy itself is based both on a
Scriptural understanding of our encounter with Christ and a doctrinal understanding
of what this encounter means.
To remedy this situation, Levada proposed the publication of a pastoral
programme"not to be imposed!"that would "link
the proclamation of the doctrine of faith to biblical texts in which such
truths are well-rooted." For this purpose, both the General Catechism
and its more recent Compendium would be the standard reference points.
Now while I think this might be a more difficult task than may at first
glance appear, still, it is certainly one of the fundamental needs of the
Church in its active life in parishes, schools, universities, and religious
communities. We are in, I would say, desperate need of a much more attentive
realization of the meaning or intellectual nature of Catholicism and the
grounds on which it is based. At the extreme is the pastor I heard of recently
who managed to draw out a teaching on birth control from every scriptural
reading of every Sunday in the year, over against a parish that has not
heard anything preached but the opposite of "tough love" for the
past quarter century.
The principal coordinator or director of the original project to write and
publish the General Catechism was the Dominican scholar, Christoph
Cardinal von Schönborn, who is currently the Archbishop of Vienna.
On November 5, 2005, with Cardinal von Schönborn present, the Bishops
of Austria held their ad limina visit with the Holy Father in his
Private Library in the Vatican. Benedict XVIs address, which touched
on this very topic of doctrinal teaching in the local church, was rather
straight-forward, even blunt at times (LOsservatore Romano,
November 16, 2005).
Pope Benedict XVI, after referring to the Austrian presence at the World
Youth Day in Cologne, was concerned to "analyze calmly and confidently
the situation of the Austrian Dioceses in order to identify the key points
that require our particular attention for the salvation and good of the
flock." The first step in righting something is to know that it is
upside down. The spirit the Pope wanted called for the bishops to "look
courageously into the eyes of reality without letting optimism, which always
attracts us, become an obstacle to calling things by their proper name with
full objectivity and without embellishment." For not having the reputation
of being a practicing Thomist, this "full objectivity" indicates
an outlook worthy of the method of the Angelic Doctor. And of course it
is very Augustinian, something closer to the Popes habitual way of
seeing thingscalling them by their proper names, with no embellishment.
"Grievous events are occurring." What are these? The first mentioned
is not something peculiar to the Austrian scene alone. "The secularization
process (is) constantly gaining momentum in Europe at this time." Recalling
Austrias history and its special relation to the faith, Benedict frankly
adds that "it has not been halted at the gates of Catholic Austria."
Many people no longer identify themselves with the faith. The consequence
of this erosion is that "the certainty of the faith and reverential
awe for Gods law are lacking." The bishops are "aware"
of these and other internal problems in Austria, the Pope acknowledges,
or, we might add, at least if they werent before, they are now!
The next issue is what to do about it? Benedict insists that "God
has prepared a remedy for the Church in our time." What is this remedy?
The first thing we need "is clear, courageous and enthusiastic profession
of faith in Jesus Christ, who is also alive here and now in the Church
and to whom, true to its essence, the human soul oriented to God can find
happiness." Here it is affirmed exactly the source of human happiness,
where it is found, and how it is to be principally achieved. The bishops
themselves clearly must be the first to exhibit this very profession.
A change of "course" is needed. What is done currently is not
adequate. Numerous small and large new initiatives are required. The bishops
are again reminded that "the profession of faith is one of the Bishops
most important duties." No sense in asking others to believe if the
bishops themselves lack faith and the enthusiasm for it. What about prudence,
about doing something that might not work or might cause harm? No one
wants the bishops to come across as "fanatics." Prudence is
always basic, the Pope admits, but it is not an excuse for inaction. "The
Word of God" is to be presented even when people are "less willing
to hear or that never fail to arouse protests and derision." We can
imagine what this "Word of God in its full clarity" that the
Pope has in mind is like.
The Pope becomes very frank. He tells the Austrian bishops "you are
well aware that there are topics concerning the truth of faith and especially
moral doctrine that are not being adequately presented in catechesis and
preaching in your Dioceses and that at times, for example, in youth ministry,
in parishes or associations, are not being confronted at all or are not
being clearly addressed as the Church wishes." We can assume that
Pope Ratzinger, from his previous position in the Congregation for the
Doctrine of the Faith, and his time as Archbishop of Munich, has long
files on this failure of teaching and preaching, not merely in Austria.
The Pope, moreover, is speaking to bishops of a continenteven in
its Catholic areassometimes especially in Catholic areas, with declining
populations, fewer families, and little attention to its own physical
future. Basic things simply are not being taught or preached. No wonder
people do not know or practice them, even granted that people can choose
not to listen.
Things are not so bad elsewhere. Some hold, however, that people will
leave the Church if bishops stress what the Church teaches. But the Pope
does not buy this excuse. He thinks that the opposite is the truth. "Be
under no illusion. An incomplete Catholic teaching is a contradiction
in itself and cannot be fruitful in the long run." We cannot pick
and choose what we will hold in an attempt to keep up numbers. The teaching
of the Church is a whole so that an effort must be made to see that everything
is coherently presented and related. Even if things "seem impossible,"
they are not, in practice, if this is what the Church teaches. Gods
grace is sufficient.
The Pope then asks the bishops to think how teaching and preaching this
religious catechesis on various levels can be improved. They are to be
innovators and entrepreneurs of the faith. They are to use the General
Catechism and the Compendium, something also recommended by
Archbishop Levada. Bishops must "insure" that priests and other
teachers "use" these instruments. They should be explained in
parishes and other opportune places.
"The clarity and beauty of the Catholic faith are such that they
brighten human life even today! This is particularly true if it is presented
by enthusiastic and convincing witnesses." The Pope again tells the
bishops that they can do something. Many measures are needed, often ones
that seem insignificant. A missionary spirit in dioceses is needed. The
famous tradition of "Catholic Study Days" in Austria is encouraged.
Ordinary acts of episcopal rule are often the best ones that will make
"Wise and correct decisions concerning personnel that permanently
improve the situation," Benedict suggests, are key. Such decisions
are obviously within the sphere of the bishops competence. We assume
that the pope himself intends to follow, in his own jurisdiction, his
own principle that he sets down here for the Austrian bishops. The bishops
words should be heardurging people to attend Mass, to seek penance,
to love their neighbor. Mindful of his great book, The Spirit of the
Liturgy, Benedict recommends Eucharistic adoration and the saying
of the Rosary. He even hopes for good collaboration with the state.
"The spark of Christian zeal can be rekindled. God is not satisfied
by the fact that his people pay him lip service. God wants their hearts
and gives us his grace if we do not drift away or cut ourselves from him."
We can evidently do the latter, cut ourselves off from Him, and have done
so. Lip service is not enough. Zeal can be rekindled.
After these forceful words, the Pope, in an obviously nostalgic mood at
the end of his discourse, recommends the Marian shrine in Austria at Mariazell,
"whose shine has become so dear to me." He has obviously been
there, in this land just across the way from where in Germany he himself
was born and spent his early years. The pope understood that he could
talk frankly to the Austrian bishops about something that was close to
the vocation of all of them. This subject was the condition of the faith
in a given land, and, we might acknowledge, in all lands.
At the heart of what is immediately needed is a careful attention to the
title of the congregation the pope formerly headed and which is now in
the hands of Archbishop Levada, namely "the doctrine of the faith."
This topic, I think, is the area that needs attention most. These suggested
initiatives about the General Catechism, its Compendium,
about preaching, about the links to liturgy and scripture, in the light
of what it is the Church addresses to our intellects about Christ, are
clearly uppermost in the mind of Benedict XVI. Or as Archbishop Levada
put it about the things we need to hear, "the doctrinal aspect is
what takes the most profound sense from Sacred Scripture.
1Archbishop William Joseph Levada, "Program for Preachers,"
11th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, LOsservatore
Romano, October 26, 2005, 9.
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Dialogue Is Never
On Praise and
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the Delight of Truth
The One War, The
On Saying Mass (And Saying It Correctly)
Had a "Liberal" Pope
On Being Neither
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Is Heresy Heretical?
Commencements: A Time for Truth to Be Honored
On The Sternness
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James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture,
and literature including Another
Sort of Learning, Idylls
and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing,
Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing,
and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning.
Read more of his essays on his
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies,
and news in the Church!