By Msgr. Jonas Achacoso, JCD
Pope Francis scored again on long homilies. In his meeting at St. Martin’s Cathedral of Bratislava, Slovakia, he encouraged bishops and priests to keep homilies short. At this concern, a big round of applause burst from the audience and echoed around the whole cathedral. He cracked a joke emphasizing that those who initiated the applause were the nuns, because they are the victims of long homilies.
As we know, this is not the first time that the Holy Father has scored on long homilies. He has been consistent in his suggestion on the brevity of sermons from the very beginning of his pontificate. He wrote about this in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, which was released in 2013, in the first months of his pontificate. This letter discusses the proclamation of the gospel and making the message relevant in today’s world.
The pope explained that because the homily falls under a “distinctive genre,” it is not an ordinary speech or lecture. What marks its distinctive character and makes it different from other speeches is the fact that homilies are delivered “within the framework of a liturgical celebration.” This is where its importance is based. In the context of the Eucharistic celebration, the homily “surpasses all forms of catechesis as the supreme moment in the dialogue between God and his people which leads to sacramental Communion.”
Homilies being interesting and engaging do not justify exemption to the standard of brevity. I think the Holy Father has a well-grounded explanation. “A preacher may be able to hold the attention of his listeners for a whole hour, but in this case, his words become more important than the celebration of faith. If the homily goes on too long, it will affect two characteristic elements of the liturgical celebration: its balance and rhythm.”
Oftentimes, charismatic preachers would tip the balance to themselves and deviate the focus from the important centrality of the Eucharist. We have seen the effects of this unfortunate phenomenon. Fascinated by the charism and style in preaching, people would call the parish office to inquire about the Mass schedule of the priests they are following and try to evade those that they are not fond of.
Our prime motivation to go to Mass should be to receive Jesus in Communion. Homilies should inspire us to appreciate this greatest gift. The homily is “part of the offering made to the Father and a mediation of the grace which Christ pours out during the celebration. This context demands that preaching should guide the assembly, and the preacher, to a life-changing communion with Christi in the Eucharist. This means that the words of the preacher must be measured, so that the Lord, more than his minister, will be the center of attention”
To inject richness into preaching does not mean to make it entertaining for a good laugh as one can have in a comedy club. The pontiff shares a lesson he learned when he was taught how to prepare his homilies with internal coherence. When I had such a class, my professor instructed us that, at the moment we begin the homily, we should have in mind already how to end it. As time goes by in my priestly ministry, I find more wisdom in such a pointer on keeping internal coherence in homilies.
To victims of long homilies, I apologize. Obviously, homilies are not better simply because they are short. In the words of Pope Francis, homilies should always be a slap.
The preaching “cannot be lukewarm … preaching is always — let me say this term — a slap, it’s a slap, a slap that moves you and moves you forward” (Morning Homily, January 26, 2018).
Msgr. Achacoso is the author of ‘Due Process in Church Administration’ (2018), recipient of the Arcangelo Ranaudo Award (Vatican City), and Administrator of Corpus Christi Church in Woodside..