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At a workshop last week I was asked where the word “homily” comes from and why we use that word to describe what other Christians might call a sermon.
The term homily derives from the Latin homilia, meaning “conversation”. It has its roots in the Jewish synagogue service where, after the readings from the Law and the Prophets, an explanation of their meaning was given by one of those present.
That a homily was a part of the liturgy in the early church is attested to by Justin Martyr’s account of the celebration of the Eucharist in around the year 155: “When the reader has finished, the president in a discourse urges and invites us to the imitation of these noble things.” Clearly the presider is applying the reading that has been proclaimed to the lives of the worshippers.
Some of the most interesting writings that have come down to us from the patristic period are the homilies of Christian leaders such as John Chrysostom (“golden-mouthed”), Augustine and Leo the Great.
During the Middle Ages the sermon developed into an independent activity which appeared to have no connection to the worship. The content changed from a proclamation of the word of God to an instruction on Catholic doctrine or morals. It became almost an interruption to the Mass, especially since the celebrant removed his chasuble and moved to the pulpit in the nave to preach.
The Second Vatican Council restored the homily as an integral part of the liturgy and made, what were then, some startling statements about the preaching ministry. The document Dei Verbum, for example, insisted that “all the preaching of the Church must be nourished and ruled by Sacred Scripture”. (21)
The purpose and importance of the homily is explained clearly in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy:
“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.” (52)
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal describes the homily as “necessary for the nurturing of the Christian life” and says that it “should take into account both the mystery being celebrated and the particular needs of the listeners”. (65)
It is important therefore for preachers to be in touch with the realities of life today so that their homilies relate to the lives and needs of listeners.
The Introduction to the Lectionary for Mass urges that the homily be “truly the fruit of meditation, carefully prepared, neither too long nor too short, and suited to all those present, even children and the uneducated”. (24)
Like the reading of scripture in liturgy, the homily is a two-way process, a dialogue. The assembly has a part to play too in assuring that the homily achieves its purpose. This involves listening attentively to the readings and to the words of the preacher, keeping an open mind to the insights which are being presented, and applying them to one’s personal circumstances.
It helps, too, if preachers are given feedback on their homilies - positive and constructive as well as critical!