On a sunny day in Florida during the Preaching for Encounter program’s February 2023 winter retreat, three panelists came together to present “Connecting Pulpit and Pew” for the online Southwest Liturgical Conference. The three of them embodied what it means to “connect pulpit and pew” – the panelists were Bishop Greg Kelly, auxiliary bishop of the diocese of Dallas, TX, Deacon John O’Leary, associate director of the Institute for Homiletics, and Dr. Karla Bellinger, the institute’s lay executive director. They spoke together about the importance of the liturgical homily in the context of the Eucharistic revival, which was the theme of the conference.
The Blind Spot
Bellinger began by asking, “How do we renew the Church?” In our evangelization efforts, the homily has been a blind spot. Have we given up on renewing the liturgical homily as a moment of conversion and renewal? In youth ministry, we have created big revival events. Renewal programs encourage hospitality and inviting others to Mass, a “bring them in!” approach. But lay people often wonder, “What are they going to get when they get there?”
The Convocation for Catholic Leaders in 2018 advocated for the implementation of Evangelii Gaudium in America. Yet, though there are twenty-five paragraphs about the homily in that papal document, there was not one breakout session at the convocation about the role of the homily in the renewal of the faith. Have we given up on the potential for the ordained preacher to help his people to encounter the living God through the liturgical homily? Some might say that the Sunday homily does not matter anymore. Is that the case?
The discussion opened the question, “Where is the ordinary Sunday homily within the Eucharistic revival?” The panelists discussed, is the focus of the revival to renew the overall Eucharistic celebration? Or is it devotion to the Eucharistic species of the Body and Blood of Christ? There seems to be a tug and pull, a both/and, within the revival. What is the role of preaching within that conversation?
Comments that the panelists have heard: “the homily is the hairshirt of penance that I endure to get the prize of Jesus in the Eucharist.” “I come to ‘get Jesus’; I don’t need the homily.” “The homily – who needs it?”
Unlike those in the devoted “inner circle,” five out of six people in the pews do not do anything else besides come to Mass – not Bible studies, not Catholic radio, not daily prayer or Knights of Columbus or Altar and Rosary, etc. (CARA Sacraments study). So, the homily is their only source of input into their faith. Bishop Kelly shared Colossians 3:2, that in love, we want our people to understand: “that their hearts may be encouraged as they are brought together in love, to have all the richness of fully assured understanding, for the knowledge of the mystery of God, Christ.” How are they to know if we do not preach?
The Homily as Integral to Worship
In liturgical theology, the homily is integral to worship. The panel was asked, “What does that mean for our preaching?” Bishop Kelly spoke of the two-fold table of the Lord, word and sacrament, not an either/or. but a both/and. We need both.
Bellinger shared from Verbum Domini: “Given its liturgical nature, the homily also possesses a sacramental significance: The proclamation of God’s word at the celebration entails an acknowledgment that Christ himself is present, that he speaks to us, and that he wishes to be heard” (VD 56).
She offered that the Holy Spirit believes in the liturgical homily. Thus, so should we. The Eucharistic celebration brings us together as a people. We encounter the living God through word and sacrament, give God our “yes!” and then go out into the world in which we live to share the Lord whom we have experienced. If the homily is integral to liturgy, the purpose of the homily is to help to bring people toward an encounter with God and empower them for mission. It is not an advertising moment. It is not a time to give them homework for when they go home (they are headed to the table at that moment, not home). Though teaching is a part of the homiletic moment, it is not primarily for catechesis. The purpose of the liturgical homily is to bring those assembled to an encounter with the living God.
Each of the panelists shared a witness of what it means to them to bring people to God through the liturgical homily. Deacon John shared that preaching has become an act of love for his people. Bishop Kelly offered that his mindset has changed through the Preaching for Encounter program – he now focuses on how he is heard, asking “what will inspire my people?” Dr. Karla shared that she wants her family and friends to meet Jesus, for the One who has so transformed her life – she wants that encounter for them too. The Lord is the one who touches the heart, awakens the imagination, fires the will, and fuels the intellect – we need to preach in all of these ways, for we are the Church of grace, of the mystics, the contemplatives, the saints.
At the institute, the panel shared that they are re-envisioning a distinctly Catholic homiletic for the Eucharistic revival. From Bellinger’s research, young people are looking for personal connection. A few are able to describe a life-changing experience through the liturgical homily. Many are not. The institute has recently received a $1 million grant from the Lilly Endowment to study how to reach young Catholic through the liturgical homily, and from that research, create resources to help homilists to do so.
Changing lives through the Sunday homilists – the panelists shared how we are working on that in our programming.
Then all three of the panelists had to go back to the winter retreat for forty-eight preachers, where they were in the middle of helping better preaching to happen.