20 January 2006

Praedicare! To Preach!

Praedicare! To preach! What does it mean “to preach”? Is reading a homily from the pulpit preaching? Is washing dishes at a homeless shelter preaching? Is a loud, haranguing diatribe against sin/injustice/the Bush administration preaching? Is throwing little vials of your blood on parked bombers at an Air Force base preaching?

The most obvious and readily accessible form of preaching is the homily delivered at Mass by the priest-celebrant. I think most everyone will agree that this is preaching. Are there other forms of preaching? No doubt. But let’s look at liturgical preaching in the hope of getting a better understanding of what preaching is more broadly understood.

A little clarity from the Catechism: “The liturgy of the Word is an integral part of sacramental celebrations. To nourish he faith of believers, the signs which accompany the Word of God should be emphasized: […] the place of [the Word’s] proclamation (lectern or ambo), [the Word’s] audible and intelligible reading, the minister's homily which extends [the Word’s] proclamation…” (CCC n. 1154).

So, the homily is an extension of the Word’s proclamation. To give voice to the Word, to project it out to be heard is preaching. Let’s break this down even more:

1. When we say that we “proclaim the Word,” what do we mean? When we proclaim the Word, we make the Word plain in a striking way. Straightforwardly conspicuous? Memorably obvious? The idea here is that our proclamation of the Word must be plain, simple, unadorned and at the same time beautiful, noble, seductive. Not an easy balance.

2. How does the homily “extend the proclamation of the Word”? If the proclamation of the Word must be simple and seductive, then the preaching of the Word can be nothing less. There’s no sense in which we can talk about the homily improving on the Word or going deeper than the Word can go. The Word needs no improvement. It goes to the marrow of the bone. There is no deeper. This is why I like the idea of preaching as an “extension of the Word.”

The good homily will…

…draw out the Word,
…lengthen it,
…spread it out,
…lift it up,
…hand it over,
…and give it lots of volume!

The bad homily will…

…discourage the Word,
…flatten it,
…draw it in,
…hold it down,
…keep it closed,
…and whisper, whine, and wail.

3. Is there a difference between “delivering a homily” and “preaching the Word”? Yes and no. I suppose, strictly speaking, these two are the same. However, I also want to say that there is a Big Difference between merely speaking about the Word and giving the Word voice. There is a difference between reading the Bible and proclaiming the Word. There is a difference between the performance of a text and embodying the living Word—speaking, living, putting it out there, consuming, and being consumed. The homily, the preaching, is that moment of clarity and grace when the preacher exposes the Word, trespasses against a dark silence, exhorts and extols goodness, teaches Life against Sin, and invokes with his very breath the memory, the treasure, the story, the poetry of the faithful dead for the benefit of the living faithful.

4. You know you’ve heard a good homily when…

…you are encouraged in your faith, strengthened in your trust of God,
…you are set afire to read your Bible, to read the Fathers,
…you are compelled to speak the Word to someone else,
…you are convicted in your heart to conversion,
…you are shown mercy and you show mercy in turn,
…you are deepen in the Apostolic Tradition and the authority of the Magisterium,
…you are sent out, given the proper tools, and convinced of success!

You know you’ve heard a bad homily when…

…you sadden by the faith handed to you, weakened in your trust of God,
…your faith is attacked, ridiculed, dismissed, or called a lie,
…you are told more about what the Bible isn’t about than what it is about,
…you are more convinced than ever that your sins aren’t all that bad after all,
…you are shown lax indifference and you show lax indifference in turn,
…you are ridiculed for being “nostalgic” or applauded for being a “suspicious thinker,”
…you are closed up, properly aggravated, and certain of failure!

So, are all the things I mentioned above preaching? Sure. If they extend the Word as it is understood in the Church’s long tradition, the living memories of the apostles still with us, and if they set out to glorify God, to seek his face always, to strengthen and support the Truth, to call us all to forgiveness, and to throw the Word into the world, as is, whole, simple, and unadorned.

Yup, that’s preaching.


  1. Anonymous11:15 PM

    Dear Fr. Phillip,

    One of my OP spies in J-Hall in SLU has told me I ought to meet with you sometime. Perhaps we can.

  2. Anonymous6:03 AM

    I judge a good homily by how many times the name of Jesus is, or is not said.

  3. Anonymous7:07 AM

    Father, I read these points from the perspective of a listener, and I think they will help me reflect better on the message(s) of a homily. Thank you.

  4. Andy,

    I wonder if we share spies at J-Hall! LOL. Where are you located in the US? I'd happy to meet.


    I understanbd what you're saying about hearing the name of Jesus. My only concern is that I've heard some really horrible homilies that mention Jesus repeatedly. "Jesus was a pacifist and he demands that we withdraw from Iraq." "Mary was the first disciple to proclaim Jesus' resurrection, therefore women ought to be priests" and so on. Merely mentioning the name of Jesus is insufficient, I think. If Jesus' name is invoked in the homily in a way consistent with the magisterial tradition and scripture, then I have no qualms...of course!

    Fr. Philip

  5. Anonymous8:57 AM

    BTW, for what it's worth, I ran into one of your novices in San Antonio at the RFC conference (don't get me started on that one, please!). Good man, from my view.

  6. Andrew,

    Contact me via email at neripowell(at)yahoo(dot)com.

    I would love to hear about the RFC conference. The reports I got were glowing.

    Fr. Philip

  7. Thank you for making the distinction between preaching about the word and preaching the word. I think the difference to the hearer is the difference between walking away changed and walking away with a head full of knowledge only.


  8. Thank you, Father, for posting these! I'm a 2003 alum but still living in the area, and I'm thrilled that you get to be the chaplain. I think reading your homilies will help me to keep up with the Mass readings even on the days when I can't get to Mass. Thank you and God bless you.

  9. Consider the (largely congruent) advice from Episcopal Priest Ken Collins: How to Preach a Lousy Sermon

  10. Another whoops. Rev. Collins is ordained in/from the Disciples of Christ.