Beggars and crumbs: how to hear a homily

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Fr. Kevin Wilwert celebrates mass in the Church of Incarnation. Photo by Kaity Chaikowsky.

There are common phrases heard across campus such as: “Wow, that was a great homily!”; “Finally, a young priest with good homilies.”; “Do you even remember the homily today? I’ve totally blanked.”

However, don’t those statements make the typical “good” Catholic University of Dallas student feel a bit guilty? After all, parish priests, parents, or friends remind us again and again that the homily isn’t the most important part of the Mass. One will hear that it is just a prelude to the Eucharist, or that it doesn’t matter if that homily isn’t Fulton Sheen-esque, or be questioned as to why they weren’t paying closer attention in spite of the problem. These responses can continue ad nauseum.

As with many great fallacies, there are pieces of truth in all of the above assertions. Unfortunately, they all lack a matching piece in the proverbial puzzle. For answers to that puzzle, I turned to a group better educated on the subject than myself: priests.

The homily has been a part of the Church since its inception, finding its traditional origins in the Gospel of Luke 24:13-35, also known as the Road to Emmaus. These verses are what Fr. Thomas Esposito, O. Cist., dubs the “basic blueprint for the Church’s liturgy.”

On the road to Emmaus, two travelers are astonished as a man relates the holy scriptures about  the passion, death and resurrection of Christ, and they listen attentively as he explains to them the meaning they failed to recognize on their own. As the man breaks bread with them, recreating the Last Supper, the travelers recognize him as Jesus, only for him to disappear from their midst.

The basic ‘why’ of the homily is because the scriptures aren’t always clear, and they need to be clarified in some way,” Fr. Thomas said. “The homily is bridge between the word and the Eucharist itself. It brings into the present day those words which were written so many thousands of years ago.”

Why the homily exists does not always justify how the homily exists today, however. According to Fr. Thomas, in the past 50 years the Catholic Church has attempted to bridge a gap that had formed between the laity and the priesthood. One of the unlucky consequences of this attempt was a decline in the quality of homilies in response to other needs of the Church. However, this has not stopped all priests of today from taking steps to turn the culture of the Church back to emphasis on the scriptures.

In Pope Benedict XVI’s Apostolic Exhortation “Verbum Domini,” he addressed this crisis of preaching in the Church. He stated that the “faithful should be able to perceive clearly that the preacher has a compelling desire to present Christ, who must stand at the centre of every homily.”

“It is very important for priests to preach the word of God well,” said Fr. Larry Swink, a UD class of ’99 alum and pastor of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in La Plata, Md. “It is true that receiving the Blessed Sacrament is the pinnacle of our experience at the Holy Mass, but good preaching helps people receive the Eucharist with more devotion and piety.”

What can lay people do in response to these measures? Fr. Thomas recalled a conference he attended where Dr. Scott Hahn, renowned American Catholic theologian, was asked a similar question.

“I am a beggar, looking for any crumb that falls off of the table,” Hahn said.

Even if the crumbs were weak or bitter, or perhaps if he was lucky enough to get more than just a crumb, Hahn understood that his time in Mass was his time to encounter Christ, not a priest, and he would take any morsel of truth gladly.

Call upon your parish and local priests to preach well. Praise them for the efforts they make when their homilies enkindle in us a desire for greater virtue. They are our shepherds, and we rely on them to lead and evangelize us. Constructive criticism can and must be carefully and  thoughtfully given, but good priests need our appreciation even more than our criticism, especially in this time of turmoil in the Church.

Additionally, let us be zealous in the attention we pay to the next homily we hear, and then let us make that zeal habitual. Priests and other clergy cannot lead us to heaven on their own; they require the support and communion of the entire church. We are privileged on this campus to be surrounded by amazing preachers, and if we recognize and implement the gifts we are given at this school, the UD community can affect true change in our Church, one great homily at a time.

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