Shorter Homilies are Better for Us
Embracing the mystery of scripture through the liturgy…
Being a convert in the Church comes with some hurdles.
Things that jar my previous Protestant sensibilities or baffle the framework they live in at times. Common ones you may hear of are things like Mariology, or the idea of the papacy, Transubstantion etc.
This article is about something more innocuous, however, that I’ve been thinking a lot about: Homilies.
More specifically, I want to relate why I’ve come to realise shorter Homilies are, usually, better for all of us.
A History of Sermons and Homilies.
You see, coming from the lower-church baptist-y circles I grew up in before, I was pretty used to 30-45 minute long sermons.¹ But coming into the Catholic life something that always struck me is that homilies are much shorter in comparison. Maybe 20-25 minutes tops, on a very slow day.
There’s a couple causes you could attribute to this, but I think the main reason is the difference between how Scripture is viewed and used in Catholic and Protestant circles.
The Scriptures in the Catholic Economy
Catholicism is Sacramental and thus puts a lot of focus on the sacraments, especially in the Liturgy. Namely, the Eucharist, which the Catechism calls “The Sacrament of sacraments.”²
This isn’t a lesser emphasis on Scripture as opposed to Protestant communities, however. In fact, the Sacred Scriptures are the only book that the Church commands the laity to read and study. The Catechism even goes so far as to say, “the Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures as she venerated the Body of the Lord.”³ We don’t think the Sacred Scriptures a less authoritative source or binding in doctrine on the Church, we just don’t confess it as the only authority or doctrinally binding work of Christianity.
Thus, the usage of Scripture during the liturgy is in relation to the sacramental ministry of the Church, and this is visible throughout the whole of the Mass.
The Mass is embedded in both prayer — through the Gloria, the Sanctus, and many of the prayers in the Eucharistic liturgy — and the three main readings during the Liturgy of the Word — An Old Testament, Psalm, New Testament, and Gospel reading respectively. ⁴
Why shorter homilies are better for us.
The homily, then, serves as a fantastic place to help show how these various portions of Sacred Scripture “fit together” in the Gospel narrative and life of the Church. Highlighting the promises of the Old Covenant, the prayers and praise of God’s people in the psalm, the Church’s ministry in the Epistles and Acts, and the centrality of the person of Jesus in all of it from the Gospel. The Homily serves as a great point for the Priest⁵ to tie together the message the Church is trying to communicate in a personal way to his congregation.
But this should also be done with caution.
In varying and multiple ways, the Catholic Church acknowledges that there is an inherent mystery to the depth of the Scriptures. We see this in the 13 mysteries of the Rosary that come directly out of the Scripture, the Church acknowledges they have a depth beyond pure explanation.⁶
Thus we want to approach with it’s inherent mystery in mind. Notwithstanding that this looks different for the laity & the clergy, I feel that keeping the homilies shorter — and more embracing of the mystery of Scripture — has it’s benefits here.
How shorter homilies help the laity.
For the lay-people, a concise homily can serve as both explanation, direction, and invitation.
As we’ve discussed above the homily can serve to explain what the Apostolic Church is trying to communicate to it’s members through the various readings and prayers. It can help clear up doctrinal confusion. It can also direct lay-persons in how to live the message they’ve heard, how to cling to the truth of these Scriptures or how to pray with them at home depending on the emphasis of the liturgy in question.
It doesn’t need many fancy words to communicate these things simply and shortly, but they are important to communicate.
For the laity it is helpful to be able to comprehend and recall what was said and instructed in the homily throughout the week, and to see the invitation that should lie at the heart of each homily.
This invitation is to lean in and abide. We need to lean into the mystery of the liturgical readings, as St. Paul put it in his Epistle to the Philippians:
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.⁷
We need to see the good in, and practice them as the Church examples. We need to heed the warnings of various passages, to pray with the emotional outcries of the Psalms, and to sit with the parts we just can’t quite get.
It’s an invitation to abide in Christ, through the Scriptures which are all to-do with Him, and let Him teach us as the great Rabboni through the means he establishes in the life of the Church.
I think I just heard all my cradle-Catholic readers gasp.
That’s paragraph 1330 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
1. For non-Catholic Christian readers, this can seem jarring. But, putting aside the debate of sacramentology, I think it can be agreed if the Eucharist is true then it should rightly be the center of the liturgy.
Paragraph 141, quoting Dei Veribum 21.
Each of the main readings is also centred around the Church’s Calendar, like Lent, Advent, Ordinary Time etc.
Or Deacon in some cases.
The only two extra-scriptural mysteries are the Assumption & Coronation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
This is Philippians 4:8-9 in the ESV-CE.