Preparations are under way for a new statement from the U.S. bishops that will address an often-heard concern among Catholics in the pews — the need for better homilies at Sunday Mass. 

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has begun work on a document on preaching, which is expected to come before the full body of bishops for a vote at their November 2012 general assembly. The bishops voted 187-3 to greenlight the project at their spring meeting this June in Seattle. 

Early details on the document were revealed during an informational gathering in Chicago on Sept. 7 for liturgical publishers and those involved in the formation of priests and deacons. The meeting, led by Father Shawn McKnight, executive director of the bishops’ Secretariat of Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations, provided a glimpse at what the bishops intend to address in the document and details on how it will come together. 

Addressing concerns

The bishops first discussed the need for a conference-wide statement on preaching in 2006, Father McKnight said. Although the project had been put on hold for the past few years, the bishops were further motivated to address the issue when Pope Benedict XVI discussed the importance of homilies and the need for improved preaching in two apostolic exhortations, 2007’s Sacramentum Caritatis (“The Sacrament of Charity”) and 2010’s Verbum Domini (“The Word of the Lord”). 

A priest gives a homily during a Mass in Rochester, N.Y. CNS photo by Mike Crupi

In addition to echoing the pope’s comments on preaching, Father McKnight said the new document will expand upon the U.S. bishops’ own previous text on the subject, the 1982 document “Fulfilled in Your Hearing.” The new statement, he said, will not replace that document but will instead address more contemporary issues. 

“The new conference statement is not designed to cover everything that is needed for the training of priests or deacons to preach,” he said. “It should be seen in concert with ‘Fulfilled in Your Hearing,’ but it needs to go further.” 

The document will be drafted by the Secretariat of Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations in conjunction with five other offices of the bishops’ conference: Divine Worship, Evangelization and Catechesis, Doctrine, Cultural Diversity in the Church, and Ecumenism and Interreligious Affairs. Outside consultants will also provide input in the process, with the revisions being made over the next 12 months to prepare a final draft for the bishops to review. 

One of the biggest challenges — especially with so many groups involved in drafting the document — will be keeping the final version to a maximum of 50 pages, the size limit set by the bishops. That means that not every topic can be included, Father McKnight said, and thus other organizations will be encouraged to build upon the bishops’ framework with their own texts or resource materials. 

“In order to have an effective and succinct statement about the basic principles of preaching, we probably will not be able to address all the pastoral contexts,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean that is the end of the story. I think that this is the initial point of departure.” 

Reaching the people

Many bishops and priests have long been aware that Catholics are not feeling nourished or inspired by the homilies they hear at Mass. 

“It is about time that we really do something about preaching,” said Father Richard Vega, president of the National Federation of Priests’ Councils. “I know that people have been complaining for a long time that the quality of preaching is just not up to snuff.” 

What is often missing from homilies, Father Vega told Our Sunday Visitor, is a connection between the celebration of the Eucharist and what happens in the lives of the laity outside the church walls. 

“People want to know how what they just heard [at Mass] gets lived out there, and what are some concrete examples of how you live the Christian identity based on what the Word tells us,” he said. “That’s what the homily is supposed to do, and I don’t know that we’ve been doing that.” 

One potential reason for this disconnect that the bishops’ document will address is the importance of preachers being more aware of who they are preaching to. In particular, the document will look at the differences in preaching to a congregation that consists primarily of Hispanic parishioners. 

“It is not enough to be correct in what you say from the pulpit. You have to be effective,” Father McKnight said. “We have to be able to grab [people’s] attention and speak to them where they are at in order to convey to them the profound depth and mystery of the word of God.” 

Another way to be more effective — though it may also be more controversial — is for preachers to eliminate the use of prewritten homilies or extensive notes, said Father McKnight. Though this recommendation may not make it into the final draft, he said, it is something that all preachers should take into consideration. 

“It would be about encouraging [homilists] to preach from the heart,” Father McKnight said. “I do believe that we need to be more encouraging and more demanding of that in seminary formation.” 

Teaching opportunity

Homilists may also be encouraged to consider the role of catechesis in their preaching, which plays a key role in the faith formation of adult Catholics, said Deacon Leo McBlain, past president of the National Diaconate Institute for Continuing Education. 

“What we have seen in various surveys is that many people say their education in the Catholic faith comes from the Sunday homily,” Deacon McBlain told OSV. “So it is a unique opportunity — maybe the only opportunity — to supplement people’s learning, to inspire them and to stimulate their curiosity [about Church teaching].” 

For deacons, the document will likely become an important component of their own formation as well. Deacon McBlain, who currently serves as director of the Office of the Diaconate in the Diocese of Camden, N.J., said he hopes that it will aid deacons in expanding their ministry. 

“Hopefully this document does reflect how we can carry this whole matter of preaching outside of the church and reach people in their everyday lives,” he said. 

Scott Alessi writes from Illinois.