BEFORE THE CROSS | Good homilies inspire us to proclaim the Gospel to all

Before the Cross - Archbishop Robert J. Carlson's Column

Lisa Johnston | lisajohnston@archstl.org

These weeks of Lent, I am reflecting on Pope Francis' apostolic exhortation, "Evangelii Gaudium" ("The Joy of the Gospel"). The largest section of the Holy Father's chapter on proclaiming the Gospel is devoted to the Sunday homily. This is appropriate. The homily is the principal way that the Good News of Jesus Christ is communicated week in and week out. As Pope Francis writes, "The homily has special importance due to its eucharistic context: it surpasses all forms of catechesis as the supreme moment in the dialogue between God and His people which leads up to sacramental communion." The homily is, or should be, the primary way that Catholics are inspired and encouraged to go out into the world and proclaim the Gospel to others.

The fact is that homilies can sometimes be a source of frustration for those who have to listen to them, as well as for those who have prepare and deliver them. "The homily is the touchstone for judging a pastor's closeness and ability to communicate to his people," the Holy Father writes. "We know that the faithful attach great importance to it, and that both they and their ordained ministers suffer because of homilies .... It is sad that this is the case. The homily can actually be an intense and happy experience of the Spirit, a consoling encounter with God's word, a constant source of renewal and growth."

Practicing what he preaches, Pope Francis is not content to simply name a problem. Instead he offers suggestions for improving the quality and effectiveness of homilies. Here is a very brief summary of the guidelines for good preaching offered by our Holy Father:

• The homily cannot be a form of entertainment but it does need to give life and meaning to the celebration. It should be brief and avoid taking on the semblance of a speech or lecture.

• The words of the preacher must be measured, so that the Lord, more than His minister, will be the center of attention. The congregation should be encouraged by the closeness of the preacher, the warmth of his tone of voice, the unpretentiousness of his manner of speaking, the joy of his gestures.

• The secret to Jesus' success in preaching lies in the way He looked at people, seeing beyond their weaknesses and failings. The Lord enjoys talking with His people; the homilist should communicate that same enjoyment.

• Each word of Scripture is a gift before it is a demand. Preaching that is purely moralistic or doctrinaire detracts from the heart-to-heart communication that should take place in the homily.

• The preacher has the wonderful but difficult task of joining loving hearts, the hearts of the Lord and His people. Joined hearts make the difference between boredom and heartfelt fervor.

• To speak from the heart means that our hearts must not be just on fire, but enlightened by God's word. One of the defects of a tedious and ineffectual preaching is precisely its inability to transmit the intrinsic power of the text which has been proclaimed.

• The greater or lesser degree of holiness of the minister has a real effect on the proclamation of the word. Preachers are not asked to be flawless, but to keep growing and wanting to grow as we advance along the path of the Gospel.

• A preacher has to contemplate the Word, but he also has to contemplate his people. He needs to be able to link the Gospel text to human experiences that cry out for the light of God's Word.

• Rather than pointing out what shouldn't be done, suggest what we can do better. Positive preaching always offers hope, points to the future, does not leave us trapped in negativity.

• Speak concisely, say much in few words.

I'm grateful to Pope Francis for the inspiration, and challenge, he has offered me as I work continually to become a better homilist. I encourage all my brother bishops, priests and deacons to pay careful attention to the Holy Father's words and to the heartfelt message that he shares with us. I also invite the people of this archdiocese to listen attentively to the Sunday homily, to read between the lines if necessary and hear what the homilist is saying with his heart as well as his words.

I love the saying of St. Francis of Assisi, our pope's namesake, "Preach the Gospel always. If necessary, use words."

Archbishop Robert J. Carlson's calendar

Monday, March 24-Friday, March 28

Trip to Rome to visit St. Louis seminarians studying there

Saturday, March 29

9 a.m. Zechariah Men's Ministry breakfast at the Cardinal Rigali Center

Sunday, March 30

10 a.m. Mass followed by reception for 75th anniversary of St. Martin of Tours Parish, at the parish church in Lemay

5:30 p.m. Evening Prayer for Annual Catholic Appeal kickoff at St. Raymond's Maronite Cathedral, dinner follows at The Cedars 

Bishop Edward M. Rice's calendar

Monday, March 24

7:50 a.m. Sacrament of reconciliation at Villa Duchesne

Noon Meeting with Office of Priest Personnel at the Cardinal Rigali Center

Tuesday, March 25

10 a.m. Mass at St. Pius X High School in Festus

5 p.m. Meals program at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Soulard

Wednesday, March 26

9:30 p.m. Mass at the Newman Center at the University of Tulsa, Okla.

Thursday, March 27

11:45 a.m. Mass and staff Lenten reflection at the Cardinal Rigali Center

2 p.m. Catholic STL250 committee meeting at the Cardinal Rigali Center

6-9 p.m. Sacrament of reconciliation at Holy Redeemer Church in Webster Groves

Friday, March 28

7 p.m. Rite of Confirmation at St. Theodore Church in Flint Hill

Saturday, March 29-Tuesday, April 1

Parish mission at St. Leo the Great Church in Minot, N.D. 

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