For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! I Corinthians 9:16 RSV
What is this ‘patrimony’ which Anglicans are being encouraged to bring with them into the Catholic Church? High on my list would be good preaching. Anglicans have inherited this from the Reformation, when the preaching and teaching of scripture as the word of God were restored as belonging to the heart of the minstry of the clergy. There is no conflict with Catholicism here, for the Council of Trent declared preaching to be praecipuum episcoporum munus ‘the principal office of bishops’. We should be glad that we have in Pope Benedict XVI a teaching Chief Bishop. The collections of his homilies and addresses on the Mass and on our Lady, are shot through with biblical teaching. He quotes scripture with insight and with clear love of God’s word. His expositions of the psalms in A School of Prayer bring freshness expecially for those who recite the psalms daily in the Divine Office, and are perhaps temped to rush through them.
Preaching then, flows from the reading of scripture; it aims to ‘break’ the word of God so that the people may be fed by the Lord Jesus himself, and that we may say with the dsiciples on the road to Emmaus: ‘Did not our hearts burn within us as he talked to us on the road and explained the scriptures to us?’ (Luke 24:32) One of the worst sermons I have heard illustrates only too well what happens when the priest does not begin and end with the Bible. It was preached at a priestly anniversary, and consisted mainly of embarrassing reminiscences of the celebrating priest’s life, to which were attached some sentimental observations about priesthood. What a missed opportunity!
The homily or sermon is an integral part of the celebration of the Sunday Mass. The priest has an obligation to prepare his sermon with care, basing it firmly on the scriptures for the day, trying as best he may to make clear their meaning and to suggest ways in which we may put the teaching of the Lord into practice in the week ahead. Careful preparation is part of the respect due by the priest to his people for the trust that they put in him and the attention that they pay to his words. We should come with expectation and it will be a great encouragement to the priest to see us alert and listening. It may not be the custom everywhere in England for Catholics to shout ‘Yes, Jesus’ when the preacher makes an inspiring point – but it is a delight to see a congregation smile perhaps, or nod in agreement.
But if the preacher has a right to our attention and concentration, then he owes it to us his people to preach with care, with devotion and with inspiration. Very few clergy can preach these days without a text in front of them or at least very full notes. The magnificent speeches of Winston Churchill took hours of the great man’s time, and were crafted and then learnt by heart. We should be ready for a Sunday homily of about 12 – 15 minutes (we do not listen to long sermons as the Victorians did) and the priest must use every minute, speaking with clarity, with his quotes and authorities prepared. The delivery must be strong and authoritative, yet gentle and fatherly. Sometimes the priest will need to admonish, and his words will not always be popular. A wise and trusted priest will say these things without moaning or bullying, and everyone will recognise that the first person he is speaking to is himself!
The lectionary is a precious gift to God’s people. Over the three years of its Sunday cycle we hear all of the Gospels, most of the remainder of the New Testament, and a representative selection of the Old Testament. The preacher at Sunday Mass begins from the Scriptures for that day: he does not start with a theme or idea of his own, and then put in Bible references to make his point. The preacher is under the authority of the word of God and is humble before it. Certainly the homily is the place in the Mass where the personality of the Celebrant will be most seen (and hopefully, most appreciated) but let the preacher beware of hobby horses: he must neither avoid difficult subjects not force them into every sermon he preaches.
It is the custom of some clergy to preach at the daily Mass, and this is both an inspiration for the people and a good discipline for the priest. The time is limited for people may be on their way to work or school in the morning, or tired after a day’s work. The priest therefore sets himself to preach on the Gospel in five sentences, no more. It is not easy, and you may make perhaps only one simple point. In the forty days between leaving the Church of England and being received into the Catholic Church, I went every day to Mass. I was, of course, unable to go to Communion, but how much I appreciated the daily homily, which fed me at the table of the word when I was unable to go to the table of the Eucharist.
I would like to ask you to benefit from the journey we shall be making in the forthcoming catecheses (0n prayer) by becoming more familiar with the Bible, which I hope you have in your homes. During the week, pause to read and meditate upon it in prayer, in order to know the marvelous history of the relationship between God and man, between God who communicates with us and man who responds.
Pope Benedict XVI Abraham’s Prayer 18th May 2011