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Some notes on diaconal preaching and homilies

January 7, 2015

Fr. George Rutler’s essay on “The Art of Preaching” occasions some thoughts.

First, Rutler correctly notes that a homily is a form of preaching, but most of the rest of his essay uses these two terms interchangeably or in labored tandem (e.g., ‘liturgical preaching’). Having to check which word(s) is/are being used with almost every given assertion slows one’s reading.

A few of Rutler’s comments (in italics below) seem odd.

“The old Code of Canon Law called the homily a ‘legitimate interruption’ of the Mass … ” Where did the 1917 Code say that? Canons 1337-1348 of the old Code treat preaching in general and homilies in particular but I see no language in those canons suggesting that homilies are “interruptions” of the Mass. Laver’s Index Verborum does not show the words “homilia” or “interruptio”, etc., being used together in any canons of the old Code.

“ … but Benedict XV and Pius XII formally declared otherwise.” Again, assuming such a declaration was needed, where did these popes say that? In the only two places wherein modern canon law invokes Pius XII on homilies (it does not draw on B15 at all), homilies are not described as interruptions of the Mass. More than one Pio-Benedictine canon, however, imposes an obligation to offer homilies at most Masses (Canons 1344-1345).

“The great pulpits of the Counter-Reformation architecture show the importance of preaching the Word.” Maybe. But they surely show that most of the Mass was not celebrated so as to be heard by the faithful, this in contrast to the homily, which was typically delivered in the vernacular. In an age without electronic amplification, assisting the voice of the homilist or preacher by moving pulpits into the nave made practical sense.

“Blessed Teresa of Calcutta told me once after Mass, perhaps as a gentle correction, that the preacher should pray and then tell the people what Jesus had told him.” That’s a nice story, but it cannot serve as a guide for preachers or homilists. The new Code (Canon 768), as did the old Code (Canon 1347), directs the content of homilies. Catholic doctrine, not private revelation or personal inspirations, is at the top of the list.

“Yet so high was her appreciation of the priestly character of preaching that she never would have dreamed of preaching in the Liturgy.” It needs no appreciation of the ‘priestly character’ of (liturgical) preaching for a religious woman to decline giving homilies; appreciation of the liturgical character of the homily and its express canonical reservation to clerics (Canon 767) suffices.

“While Church law permits deacons to preach by exception during the Liturgy, diaconal preaching is essentially non-liturgical and catechetical.” Canon law does not prefer priests to deacons in preaching at Mass (Canons 764, 767), though liturgical law favors the celebrant (by definition, a priest) over a deacon for the homily. See Ecclesiae de Mysterio (1997), art. 3, § 3, and GIRM (2010) 66. That does not imply, however, that diaconal preaching at Mass is “non-liturgical” (nor that priestly preaching outside of Mass is “liturgical”); rather, this presbyteral preference respects the hierarchical nature of the Church in much the same way that the rubrics for some sacramentals prefer priests to deacons and deacons to lay persons in their celebration.

“Not every priest is a Chrysostom or Bernardino, so if he is pressed with many other legitimate pastoral duties and his imagination is lax, he would do well just by recounting the life of a saint.” Lives of the saints often illustrate important pastoral points, including some homiletic points to be made in accord with law as above, but that fact does not justify a priest simply substituting saint stories for homiletics at Mass.

“For a guide and source of ideas, I would cite the man whom I consider the greatest Catholic preacher of the twentieth century:  Ronald Knox.” Msgr. Knox’s work is a preaching and homiletics goldmine. But, to adapt a saying, “The question is not so much, what did Knox say in his day, but what would he say in ours.”

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