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The ‘Homily’ in Roman Catholic Observance, Research Paper Example

Pages: 5

Words: 1430

Research Paper

Basics of the Ritual

In broad terms, the homily as historically practiced within the Roman Catholic church is an oration or commentary following, and directly addressing, a reading of scripture. In some churches, both Catholic and otherwise, the homily has come to be viewed as synonymous with a sermon. The two are not, however, technically the same. The ‘sermon’ may exist and be preached independently of a scriptural reading; most sermons incorporate biblical passages within them, but these passages actually are employed to serve the sermon’s purpose. The sermon is ‘inspired’ by the texts read. The homily is solely created to further address the reading preceding it: “It is that form of preaching which flows from and immediately follows the scriptural readings of the liturgy and which leads to the celebrations of the sacraments” (Waznak 1).

It is hardly surprising that the history of the homily is ancient, going back in fact to the earliest Roman Catholic church services recorded. As church and feudal states were codependent power bases, the homily was historically employed as something of a direct instruction to the people as to what civil behaviors were expected by local authority, and even the Mass itself was not a voluntary affair. Heavy fines and/or penalties were imposed on citizens who failed to appear at services, and this alone underscores how different the homily was from the sermon; the latter, when practiced, was preached for spiritual enlightenment, while the homily existed far more as a political and social device. Even today, homilies and sermons exhibit this difference in intent. Modern Roman Catholic worshipers do not, as a rule, expect homilies in their services, and the sermon is the prevalent mode of Catholic preaching today.

Purposes of Homilies, Then and Now

As stated, the ancient homily was a directive of sorts to the parish. It was deemed essential to help a largely uneducated populace understand what was required of them by the ruling powers, which would be presented as being in accord with divine expectations. Primarily, the traditional homily was negative in approach and was composed to warn of the evils of sin.   Above all, it was performed for worshipers thought to be in need of such instruction. The common man and woman, as seen by the eyes of ancient Catholic authorities, could not practice the precepts of Christianity unless strictly guided, as well as warned of the consequences of transgressions.

On a more humane level, the homily was essential to Catholic service simply because the people could understand it. It was there to elucidate, and in the most literal way, the arcane and often baffling subject or story of the biblical reading. It must be remembered that Roman Catholic services were exclusively in Latin and remained that way until only very recently. Until 1963 and papal approval was granted to the new Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy, Latin held virtually absolute sway in the churches:  “For the average worshiper, the Mass was an almost completely passive act with almost no participation except to gaze at the elevation of the host…” (White, Mitchell 62).  The homily seen in this light was in essence a translation for the worshipers.

In today’s Roman Catholic church the homily is, again, far less preached than in prior centuries. When in fact a homily is given in our times, it is more in the manner of a literary reading, a deliberate turning back to tradition and pointed up as such. This is not to say that neither priest nor worshiper is dismissive of the homily’s content when it is delivered in this way; rather, an attempt at fusion is made, wherein the core value of the homily is presented along with its attraction as a sampling of crucial Catholic church history.

Terms of Usage

While a church deacon may be empowered to deliver a homily, it primarily rests within the office of the priest. At no time ever may a lay person deliver a homily. In certain circumstances, such as on high Holy Days or Vatican celebrations, bishops have been known to give homilies. By and large, however, it is exclusively the province of the officiating priest of the church. He composes it based upon the scripture selected to be read at that Mass or service and he presents it immediately upon completing the reading.

As of March, 2010, the Vatican has decreed that no homilies should last longer than eight minutes, which is thought by them to be an average span of attention to be relied upon. There is of course some latitude in this decree, and priests are encouraged to adjust the lengths of their homilies to what they feel are the needs and desires of their parish. What is not subject to choice is how the homily relate to the scripture; the homily depends upon the given reading for its whole content.

Beyond these conditions, canonical law in observance today dictates that homilies must be given at every Sunday Mass, as well on all Catholic celebratory occasions, such as weddings, funerals, and christenings. It must be reiterated, however, how similar in the public mind the sermon is to the homily. Many Roman Catholic worshipers, and even the most devout, will attend services and hear homilies that they believe to be sermons. This confusing of the two is simply an evolution within the long life of the Roman Catholic church, and not a deliberate consequence of church policy. The two orations are just so alike that one is easily mistaken for the other.

Composition and Purpose

Roman Catholic doctrine, divided in so many areas, has ever been united on one front: the homily serves to exhort, to excite, and to educate. Drawn from specific scripture, it’s purpose is to take the often obscure core of meaning and offer it to the worshipers in a manner they can appreciate and, presumably, integrate into their lives.

In accordance with this precept, priests are empowered to employ all their personal talents in creating a stirring homily, as well as their intimate knowledge of the composition of their parish. To be avoided at all costs within the homily is a ‘preaching’ aspect, or scolding tone; souls are not best swayed by such means. “The homily must not be a dry exhortation or sermon, or a moralizing treatise, which would only tend to weary preacher and auditors alike” (Spirago 411).

The priest is serving himself and his congregation best when he composes his homily while actually inspired by the scripture. This does not mean that he must be in some transcendent state to create an effective one; rather, a combination of intellect and spirit should extract from whatever passage is chosen a moral, element or issue not immediately apparent. The Roman Catholic worshiper is not, to put it bluntly, there to hear what he or she can easily glean through their own reading of scripture. The priest must present these known episodes and theological scenarios in a new light, and give his worshipers something fresh to think about. Only in this way can the homily truly serve the needs of the Roman Catholic, for only in this way is the service kept a living, vibrant thing.

To this end it is in the priest’s best interests to incorporate aspects of modern life into his homilies. Scripture is timeless, and that quality lends itself to supporting interpretations of modern dilemmas facing the parish today. Conversely, the homily for the wedding or funeral service may do well to veer into another direction and recapture beloved, comforting sentiments as affirmed by the faithful in scripture. In all cases, the priest is free to do what is most desirable for himself and for his parish: present a homily that touches and moves them, and allows them to spiritually revisit the scripture on their own.

This is what the Roman Catholic should be taking away from each Mass. The homily has undergone a slow transformation over many years, from a more direct applying of both secular and ecclesiastical power to a means of uniting worshipers in the spirit of their church. These worshipers must feel a sense of having submitted to an experience enriching and edifying when they exit the church; they must believe that something inspiring or unique has been revealed to them from their priest, and through the homily he has created from a scriptural foundation.

Works Cited

Spirago, F. Spirago’s Method of Christian Doctrine: A Manual for Priests, Teachers, and Parents. National On-Demand Publisher BiblioLife LLC, 2008. Print.

Waznak, R. P. An Introduction to the Homily. Minneapolis, MN: Liturgical Press, 1998. Print.

White, J.F., and Mitchell, N.D. Roman Catholic Worship: Trent to Today. New York, NY: Liturgical Press, 2003. Print.

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