In what should be good news for many Catholic Americans, the U.S. bishops have launched an effort to improve the homilies delivered each Sunday in the nation’s 18,000 parishes. A team of committees has begun work on a 50-page document authorized by the bishops at their spring meeting this year, and expect to complete it within a year.

Whether the effort will accomplish its lofty goal remains to be seen, and certainly will take years to bear real fruit. But it is a welcome acknowledgement that, first, Catholic homilies too often are poorly-delivered and lacking in content or relevance, and, second, that those seven or so minutes a week are critically important in adult catechesis and faith formation — unfortunately it is usually the sole opportunity a pastor has to engage his flock. 

‘The Church in America is faced with the challenge of recapturing the Catholic vision of reality and presenting it in an engaging and imaginative way.’

It also ties in neatly with Pope Benedict XVI’s renewed emphasis on new evangelization, or revitalizing the life of faith in parts of the world like ours where the Gospel already has been preached but has lost its energy. Next year representatives of the world’s bishops will be gathering in Rome to address the topic, and a Vatican office for new evangelization is gradually taking shape. 

In an address to U.S. bishops during his visit to the United States in 2008, the pope emphasized the importance of improved preaching: “I believe that the Church in America, at this point in her history, is faced with the challenge of recapturing the Catholic vision of reality and presenting it, in an engaging and imaginative way, to a society which markets any number of recipes for human fulfillment. I think in particular of our need to speak to the hearts of young people, who, despite their constant exposure to messages contrary to the Gospel, continue to thirst for authenticity, goodness and truth. Much remains to be done, particularly on the level of preaching and catechesis in parishes and schools,” he said, “if the new evangelization is to bear fruit for the renewal of ecclesial life in America.” 

Many Church historians, including the bishops’ conference president, New York Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan, make a point of noting that periods of genuine renewal in the Church are also characterized by a revival of good preaching. 

For clerics, whose ministry is intimately connected to preaching, that knowledge should evoke a sober sense of responsibility to make the most of every single moment at the pulpit during the Sunday liturgy. 

But Catholics in the pew, whatever their current state of engagement with their faith, also should feel a stirring of conscience. To be Christian means, in whatever walk or stage of life, to be a missionary and, in the words of St. Peter, to “always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope.” 

It is easy to be critical of our Sunday homilist for apparent lack of preparation. Perhaps that energy would be better spent in examining how we prepare ourselves for those countless daily encounters in which we have an opportunity to share the good news of God’s mercy and love — but fall short. 

“In a word,” Pope Benedict told the U.S. bishops, “the Gospel has to be preached and taught as an integral way of life, offering an attractive and true answer, intellectually and practically, to real human problems.” 

It is heartening the bishops have targeted poor homilies as part of the problem of new evangelization. But the solution ultimately will require the determination and dedication of all committed lay Catholics in being preachers, too.

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor.