The Homily: Grace, Talent, Training, or Happy Accident?

Archbishop Flynn’s smackdown of lay homilists is getting some little netplay (as opposed to airplay) today. dotCommonweal has a good discussion on their site. The usual apologists appear and do their best (or less than best) to make a case.

Clergy, by virtue of their ordination, not only have the right, but they have some special quality of the Spirit that permits them to preach liturgically. It’s a matter of obedience to the revisionist 2004 Redemptoris Sacramentum, and those who disobeyed before ’04 should’ve known they were heretics, transgressors, or whatever.

Preaching is a spiritual gift given for the benefit of the particular community. If lay people are part of that movement of the Holy Spirit (God again!) who are the hierarchy to frustrate God?

They do train preachers, don’t they? Do seminaries or lay theology schools give out certificates?

Or can anybody blunder into this ministry just by checking the right box on the time/talent survey?

This all makes me think the Church needs to go back to basics on preaching. What is the purpose? How does it get done?

It’s rather curious that Roman Catholics have a system of discernment for preaching (presumably the grace department) entirely independent of considerations such as talent or training. In other words, if we go by the book, the first time a preacher will preach is after he has been discerned, schooled, and ordained. Put another way, once the guy’s a priest or deacon, we’re pretty much stuck with however he’s turned out as a homilist: good, bad, or ugly. But don’t worry, says the institution. It’s God’s will, and plus, the priest will have a hissy if you take his privilege away.

On the talent end of things, one might say that the gift of preaching and its execution would come first. Then a vocation to orders discerned because the person preaches well, or because that gift works in concert with other abilities the Church deems useful for the ordained. The problem here, of course, is that the Roman system is wholly not supportive of such a thing. Not to mention that vocation directors don’t approach lay ecclesial ministers or others of their ilk for seminary candidates.

And then you have the training end of the affair. One dotCommentator wrote, “Is preaching formation always a good thing? I’ve sat through homilies that I thought were articulate, full of illustrations, energetically delivered–that left me completely cold. But the preacher would have done very well in homiletics class.”

Why is it that most Catholic minds ponder training or education, they automatically think classroom? As if the only way to teach is to row the desks and clean those blackboards. This goes back to the other issues and begs the question: How can priests learn to preach if they can’t practice as lay people? How can they practice if lay people can’t preach? This might well be a skill, talent, or ability well suited to apprenticeship, at least in part.

I have to come to the undeniable conclusion woven by the Curia: Preaching is so important that (1) only clergy can do it (2) we’re going to strip away any pretense of ability or training to reinforce it really must come from God … no matter how bad it gets.

Do I have that about right?

By the way, does anybody think it’s opportune to take a look at the 1981 USCCB document, “Fulfilled in Your Hearing (The Homily in the Sunday Assembly)” or should it wait its turn till after other documents?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
This entry was posted in Liturgy, Ministry. Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to The Homily: Grace, Talent, Training, or Happy Accident?

  1. Jeff Pinyan says:

    Why is a call for obedience to the mandates of the Church deemed a “smackdown”? Was the Archbishop particularly harsh or derogatory in his statement?

    As far as preaching at Mass is concerned, that is the privilege of the ordained only. Preaching outside of Mass is another story altogether.

    And as for crappy homilies from ordained ministers… “The quality of homilies needs to be improved. … Hence ordained ministers must ‘prepare the homily carefully, based on an adequate knowledge of Sacred Scripture’.” (Pope Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis, n. 46) My brother teaches homiletics at Seton Hall University… he’s a good homilist, and I’m under the impression a bad homilist can improve.

    What is meant exactly by a homily leaving a person “cold”?

  2. Todd says:

    Jeff, I thought the archbishop was rather dismissive and derogatory. By a reasonable reading of CCC 766-767, lay preaching at Mass was permitted at the bishop’s discretion until a few years ago.

    If the quality of lay preaching isn’t relevant to giving them permission, neither is it relevant to withdrawing said permission.

    Archbishop Flynn could have just quoted RS and that would be the end of it. The strewing of insult was needless and distracting.

  3. Gavin says:

    As Jeff says, bad homilists can improve. Maybe bishops should ask those priests who aren’t good homilists to work on their preaching. Seems like a better answer than someone with an anticlerical agenda throwing his or her hands up and saying “well, the priests can’t do it, let’s put a woman in the pulpit!”

  4. Jeff Pinyan says:

    Todd, I really don’t see how you can read canons 766 and 767 in a way that permits lay homilists.

    Can. 766: The laity may be allowed to preach in a church or oratory if in certain circumstances it is necessary, or in particular cases it would be advantageous, according to the provisions of the Episcopal Conference and without prejudice to can. 767 §1.

    Can. 767 §1: The most important form of preaching is the homily, which is part of the liturgy, and is reserved to a priest or deacon. In the course of the liturgical year, the mysteries of faith and the rules of christian living are to be expounded in the homily from the sacred text.

    Preaching in a church or oratory DOES NOT mean preaching a homily, and 767.1 strictly reserves the homily to the ordained ministers.

    Am I missing something?

    As for the remarks from the Archbishop, yes, I see that he didn’t really make the point that the Church makes, and instead explained it as a matter of personal qualifications rather than sacramental ordination.

  5. Jim McK says:

    The Blogosphere seems to me the best argument against lay preaching. If you let just anybody stand up and preach, you end up with a lot of wacky ideas presented as if they are true.

    I hope greatly for more lay preaching, but not at Mass. So I hope greatly for more occassions to gather to hear the Word proclaimed and presented. That is the opportunity that I see in enforcing the rules, both Bp Murhpy’s discontinuation of communion services and Abp Flynn’s discontinuation of lay preaching at Mass.

    What are the next steps? Finding those who can preach and training them properly. That includes formal education, but it also has to include theo-logos, knowledge of God. Prayer, community, nature — all the ways we can come to know the Lord personally. It means mystery, not knowing as part of knowing. I hope that is what is taught in homiletics.

  6. Clayton says:


    Catholic sacramental theology believes in the principle of ex opere operato.

    So the homiletical skill of the priest or deacon is beside the point. The fact is that they have been ordained for this service. That means something to Catholics.

    Have you read The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene? It’s not about the qualities of the priest; it’s about God’s grace working despite, and often through, human weakness…

  7. Todd says:

    For the record, canonists and bishops had argued in favor of lay preachers (not homilists–my error there) along the lines of those same canons. It’s why “reflection” was the term in vogue, and “homily” was never used. Along with moral sermons, all forms of preaching.

    Clayton, I don’t disagree with the principle of ex opere operato. I think you’re stretching to put the homily on the level of a sacrament. A consistently poor preacher doesn’t detract from the grace of the Eucharist, but he will fail to form, edify, challenge, and foster growth through the preached word. By the same token one might say other aspects: music, art, architecture are also beside the point.

    The balance attempted to be struck here seems to me the prevention of criticism of a particular liturgy person’s bad day. Overall, I’d say, the expectation is that people will do their best, and that includes a feedback mechanism to ensure the positives are drawn out, the negatives addressed if not corrected.

    Or are we suggesting that clergy have a different standard, a much lower one, than lay preachers.

  8. Clayton says:


    I wasn’t referring to the homily as a sacrament. I was referring the grace of ordination for a priest. Regardless of his worthiness, he is able to fulfill his particular configuration to Christ as priest, prophet, and king… he preaches in persona Christi and is the servant-leader of the Gospel for the local community. He has a different relationship and different set of particular duties in relation to the Word of God in the community.

  9. Clayton says:

    The Congregation for Clergy addressed this in the 2002 instruction The Priest, Pastor and Leader of the Parish Community

    As for the priest, he “proclaims the word in his capacity as “minister’, as sharer in the prophetic authority of Christ and the Church” (Pastores dabo vobis, n. 26). To fulfil this ministry faithfully, corresponding to the gift received, he “ought first of all to develop a great personal familiarity with the Word of God” (ibid.). Even though he may be surpassed in the ability to speak by non-ordained members of the faithful, this would not reduce his being the sacramental representation of Christ the Head and Shepherd, and the effectiveness of his preaching derives from his identity. The parish community needs this kind of effectiveness, especially at the most characteristic moment of the proclamation of the Word by ordained ministers: for this reason the liturgical proclamation of the Gospel and the homily that follows it are both reserved to the priest.

    But there is widespread confusion because of what has been taught in this country… from seminary faculty all the way up to cardinals. Despite the fact that the Church has been clear in the distinction between ordained ministries and lay apostolates, even the USCCB has studied the oxymoronic concept of “ecclesial lay ministry.”

    Is there really so little for laypeople to do in being leaven in society, that they must abandon their baptismal call and spend their time in the sanctuary instead, acting like quasi-ordained? It’s a very bizarre form of clericalism.

  10. Todd says:

    The worthiness of the individual priest isn’t part of the equation. It wasn’t a consideration of mine.

    As you raise the issue, the question seem to me to be one of the expectations for effectiveness. That priests can or should preach isn’t being argued against.

    Is there an expectation of imitating Christ, for example? The Gospels report Jesus doing things not to demonstrate his power or abilities, but for the particular needs of the people he encountered. In other words, was the incarnation just a demonstration of God’s power? Do we just tag along in Jesus’ wake as best we can? Or is there a sense that clergy (not to mention musicians and others) ought to aspire to quality, beauty, and effectiveness in their preaching?

  11. Clayton says:

    Of course they should. There are all sorts of documents urging the holiness of the priest, which is what produces beautiful homilies. As Maximilian Kolbe once said, “Only love is creative.”

  12. Gavin says:

    In many ways Todd, this is a more sensitive issue than you seem to realize. When’s the last time YOU criticized your priest’s homily? For that matter, how often do any of us? I try to let my boss know when I’m really impressed with his preaching, which is quite often, but I would never think of saying “Gosh, Father, that was a real stinker today! What were you thinking with that illustration?” And none of us would think of saying such a thing, because it would be grossly offensive to a priest who (presumably) labored all week to prepare his sermon. For the same reason many musicians never advance in their talents because for good reason no one ever suggested as much to them. Hence the sorry state of American Catholic music before and after the Council. Oh sure, priests get input on if the parishoners agree or disagree – but this isn’t the same thing as evaluating the preaching. A priest can get up in the pulpit and say “John Kerry is going to Hell!” for his Pentecost sermon, and the pro-lifers will be lined up around the block to congratulate him on his superb preaching. Likewise, a priest can give a well-crafted relevant sermon on the male priesthood and the pant-suit feminists will line up in even greater numbers to tell him what a horrible preacher he is. Where IS a priest to get valuable input on his preaching from??

    As I said, I think the bishops should take a more active role in promoting good preaching. If I were a bishop, God forbid, I would probably request regular samples of preached sermons from my priests. If I saw any that had serious deficiencies, I’d see to it they took the time to improve their preaching. In general, I think the solution to a LOT of the Church’s problems is more involvement from the bishops.

  13. Clayton says:

    I’d urge more prayer among bishops and priests, rather than techniques, committees or workshops. As Father Thomas Dubay says so well in the first pages of Fire Within:

    As the experience of the centuries attests, true transformations in the world and in the Church continue to come about only through the interventions of men and women on fire — that is, through saints. The evidence is overwhelming… Indeed, at this very moment, deep and lasting changes in the Church are being brought about by a faithful few who are burning interiorly as a consequence of the deep prayer given by the Holy Spirit, who renews the face of the earth in ways other than our own. These quiet, humble, unassuming individuals seldom write position papers… They are not identified with any “ism”… They do not achieve popular acclaim by opposing ecclesial leadership and rejecting received doctrine. Rather, they are like the saints have always been. The burning ones are the unflickering light of the world, the savory salt of the earth, the lively leaven in the mass.

  14. Any number of times I’ve told my parish that it would be much more helpful for them to speak to me about homilies that didn’t reach them than about the ones that do. Even presuming that a preacher goes to the ambo each week with the best of preparation and intention, he will at least on occasion miss the mark. If folks let him know about this, he’ll learn from it.

    In spite of my inviting critique, it is slow in coming and that’s after serving in the same town for 14 years among folks with whom I believe I have a good relationship.

    I can’t agree with Clayton that the “the homiletical skill of the priest or deacon is beside the point.” While the office of the presbyter or deacon does, of it’s nature, lend an authority to his preaching and an inclination on the part of the assembly to listen and trust, the homiletic skill of the priest or deacon is becoming more and more a crucial piece of Catholic worship life. More and more people seek out parishes where they trust that the preaching and the music will nourish and deepen their faith and how they live it.

    With far too great a frequency we ordain men each year who:
    -have few talents for writing anything, let alone a homily
    -have little love or understanding of poetry
    -lack even basic skills for public speaking
    -regularly resort to homily services as the primary source for their preaching
    -do not understand what it means to assert that “the homily is an integral part of the liturgy”

    And add to all of that the growing frequency with which the preaching task is handed to a priest who “comes in for a Mass on Sunday morning” whose relationship to the life of the particular parish is minimal.

    In how many dioceses is a structure in place to monitor, evaluate and develop the preaching skills of the newly ordained? of the long ordained?

    Aside from school classrooms, there are very few venues left where one man has 10-15 minutes of talking-head time at his disposal every week, with the same audience, over a number of years. This is precious time in the life of the people of God who hunger and thirst for spiritual nourishment, living in a culture so often at odds with gospel values.

    I believe that the homiletic skill of the priest or deacon is very much to the point.

    I regularly read Fr. Martin Fox’s homilies on line. I’ve never heard him preach so I have only the text to deal with but I know on that basis that he has a gift and real talent for writing homilies: they are consistently excellent.

    I suspect this writing comes somewhat “natural” to Martin. That’s not to say he doesn’t work on preparing his homilies -I’m sure he does- but the product reveals that he’s gifted in this part of his ministry. Not everyone is so gifted but that does not relieve the not-so-gifted from the standard of excellence in preaching. Approaching this topic from an ex opere operato point of view can leave us open to setting the standard too low.

    Might a diocese or deanery or vicariate establish its own “homily service?” I don’t mean mailing out canned homilies but a system in which the preaching task is discussed, studied and shared? I’d love to be at a clergy gathering with the topic, “How do you prepare a homily?” – with Fr. Fox at the table! It would be helpful for all the preachers involved in such a discussion to reflect on their own process (or lack of one) and to hear how others approach the same work.

    In reply to Todd’s question, I think the response here indicates that it would be opportune for a look at Fulfilled In Your Hearing

  15. Clayton says:

    With far too great a frequency we ordain men each year who:
    -have few talents for writing anything, let alone a homily
    -have little love or understanding of poetry
    -lack even basic skills for public speaking
    -regularly resort to homily services as the primary source for their preaching
    -do not understand what it means to assert that “the homily is an integral part of the liturgy”

    Sounds like an argument against ordaining Fr. Solanus Casey and St. John Vianney… A good utilitarian view of the clergy. Doing over being. Action over contemplation. Etc.

  16. Todd says:

    I don’t read utilitarianism in Fr Austin’s post. I’m less familiar with the case of Fr Solanus Casey, but his apostolate was more that of a spiritual friend rather than a preacher.

    It’s my understanding the Cure of Ars was handicapped by poor schooling, not poor talent.

    During his life, John Vianney was known for his deep spirituality and ability to discern. If he had difficulty with Latin, it might make a better case for the vernacular rather than a case against the man as a priest.

  17. Clayton: I did not conclude from your post that you favored the ordination of “Mass priests,” men ordained only to “confect the Eucharist” and without faculties, or with only limited faculties, for preaching.

    To reach that conclusion I would have had to have jumped as far as you did to conclude that I favor “Doing over being. Action over contemplation.”

    The homily is an “integral part of the liturgy” and we should be careful about choosing the men we ordain to preach it.

  18. Tony says:

    It’s a matter of obedience to the revisionist 2004 Redemptoris Sacramentum, and those who disobeyed before ‘04 should’ve known they were heretics, transgressors, or whatever.

    I suppose this sneering little statement could be applied by some to the Second Vatican Council.

    Expect more of these “clarification” documents to be issued to counter the Satanic “spirit” of Vatican II.

  19. Tony says:

    If folks let him know about this, he’ll learn from it.

    We’re blessed with a fabulous homilist. He used to be an English teacher before he was ordained.

    I remember sitting through three separate Masses one Christmas (5:30pm with the kids, Midnight and 11:30 am the next day with the choir) and I noticed the homily getting better and better. 11:30 was the absolute best.

    I commented to our pastor about that and he said: “I watch the congregation, and I see what works and what doesn’t and I adjust subsequent homilies accordingly.”

    I decided to start podcasting his homilies on our parish website (and a neat side effect was that his family who lives out of town could enjoy them) :)

  20. Clayton says:


    Fair enough. “Utilitarian” was a bit strong.

    However, a largely functional view of the priesthood seems to be afoot here… that the priesthood is more about being qualified than being called.

    I am very interested in improving the quality of homilies. Even more, I am interested in the vocations that God sends and the Church confirms. Maybe, just maybe, a impressive homily isn’t the most important thing to God in every case. Maybe God’s ways are above are own. Once in a while.

  21. Deacon Eric says:

    Clayton, I don’t think folks are saying the priesthood is about qualifications first. I have this great book on formation entitled “Called, Formed, Sent.” That’s the sequence. Just because someone has a calling doesn’t mean he already has the necessary skill sets; that’s what seminaries are for. And if they turn out bad preachers, then it’s not unreasonable that one may look to the formation and ask why. It might even be appropriate to add some time onto formation to a particular candidate so he can receive more intensive guidance in preaching; Canon Law establishes minimum times for formation, but no maximum.

  22. Jim McK says:

    Is it really this difficult to imagine that the celebrant is the best homilist, not in terms of talent or gifts but as part of the liturgy?

    Imagine a priest speaking on the ascension, talking about God lifting his child to heaven, comparing it to a funeral, but without the grief of loss, only the glory of exaltation. A few moments later he commands “Lift up your hearts” and leads us to the exalted glory of singing with angels before the throne of God is heaven. The one builds on the other, and gives us insight into the mystery in front of us. We are God’s children, lifted from the earth to heaven like the ascending Christ.

    The good homilist wil do this often, reveal Christ in the Scriptures as the basis for our prayer, our hope, our celebration. Sometimes he will do it accidentally. Isn’t that what makes a good hommily? Not knowledge or cleverness, but inspiring a deep and honest offering of ourselves to God?

  23. Todd says:

    “Is it really this difficult to imagine that the celebrant is the best homilist, not in terms of talent or gifts but as part of the liturgy?”

    I don’t know if it’s a matter of difficulty as much as a matter of honest doubt.

    Your example might as well be conducted by a lay person as a priest.

    Which isn’t to say serendipity doesn’t have an occasional role.

    By the way, Jim, thanks for writing, you posted the 5,000th comment on this blog since we switched to WordPress.

  24. Jim McK writes:
    “Is it really this difficult to imagine that the celebrant is the best homilist, not in terms of talent or gifts but as part of the liturgy?”

    As presider and preacher at most liturgies in my parish I absolutely understand the point Jim makes here. I end virtually every homily by making an explicit connection between the message I have just preached and the table and sacrament we are about to approach. I take very seriously the notion that the Word service is meant to send us to the table of thanksgiving and praise.

    I know the depths of this connection for me as a presbyter when one of my deacons preaches. Even if the deacon’s homily is good, I am aware that I am not as connected as when I preach. And if the deacon’s homily (or mine) is wanting, then I know it when I move from ambo to table.

    The question I raise is not about who preaches. I’m working from the Church’s presumption that the homily is delivered by one ordained to do so. But what if that homily is wanting? lacking? misses the mark?

    No, not every homily reaches every listener – at least not usually. But I am convinced that it is in the interest of the Church (her people and the sacraments they celebrate) to ordain homilists who can do the work.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s