Catechesis and the Homily

Prof. Michael F. Hull, New York

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Pope St. Pius X lamented the poor state of catechesis among the faithful in his encyclical Acerbo nimis (April 15, 1905). At the end of the twentieth century, things were no better despite Pope John Paul IIís apostolic exhortation Catechesi tradendae (October 16, 1979). Both papal teachings make specific reference to the importance of the homily and catechesis (AN, nos. 12Ė14 and CT, no. 48). Moreover, the Second Vatican Council accents the importance of the homily in its dogmatic constitution Sacrosanctum concilium (no. 52). By their very nature, a sufficient understanding of the truths of religion among the faithful and an adequate idiom of sacred eloquence among the clergy are not easily assessed on the theoretical level, even if it be obvious that in both cases a surplus is impossible. Yet, on the practical level, as we enter the third millennium of Christianity, the appalling lack of both is all too evident.

Pius points out clearly that homiletics and catechesis are not the same thing in such wise that the homily is generally aimed at the already catechized, while catechetical instruction is aimed at those ignorant of the faith, especially children (AN, no. 12). But the fact of the matter is that many priests and bishops address entire parishes Sunday after Sunday that are, for all intents and purposes, uncatechized. Likewise, many parishes hear priests and bishops Sunday after Sunday whose homilies are so devoid of content, even if they be highly stylized, as to leave whole portions of the people of God without any solid instruction in the eternal verities.

John Paul writes: "Respecting the specific nature and proper cadence of [the liturgical setting], the homily takes up again the journey of faith put forward by catechesis and brings it to its natural fulfillment. At the same time, it encourages the Lordís disciples to begin anew each day their spiritual journey in truth, adoration, and thanksgiving" (CT, no. 48). Here the pope highlights the essential link between catechesis and the homily: Basic catechesis is foundational to further advancement in truth, adoration, and thanksgiving; and the homily is fruitful insofar as it advances the spiritual journey of the faithful towards the beatific vision.

Sacrosanctum concilium teaches: "By means of the homily the mysteries of the faith and the guiding principles of the Christian life are expounded from the sacred text during the course of the liturgical year. The homily, therefore, is to be highly esteemed as part of the liturgy itself" (no. 52). The faithful are in desperate need of preaching from the pulpit that illustrates our holy religion. As part of the sacred liturgy, the homily is no time for novel exegesis, storytelling, popular psychology, or blithe reflection. The homily is a time for truth and consequences: the facts of the Gospel and the results of affirming or denying it. Furthermore, Vatican II also reminds us: "Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture make up a single sacred deposit of the Word of God, which is entrusted to the Church" (Dei verbum, no. 10). Now more than ever, priests and bishops are obliged to expound that sacred deposit in their homilies so as to build upon and at the same time to build up the faint catechetical foundation of the present day. Every priest and bishop ought to mount his pulpit with the words of St. Paul in the forefront of his mind: "Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!" (1 Cor 9:16).