Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The real climax of Mass: hint--it's not the homily!

At her Open Book, Amy Wellborn has been posting on the Synod on the Eucharist underway right now in Rome. She posted this comment from Archbishop Gregory:

"Archbishop Gregory makes an excellent point. Seems as if he's listening to the arguments back home.

Increasingly, the faithful expect better homilies from celebrants at the Sunday Eucharist. Bishops must lead by our own good example as well as our admonitions to improve the quality of Catholic preaching at the Sunday Eucharist. Ritual precision alone will not bring back those who do not attend Sunday Mass."

I want to comment on Archbishop Gregory's point, about the importance of preaching, in relation to precision of the celebration of the liturgy...

I may be wrong, but I am concerned by certain hints I pick up from many active Catholics whose comments suggest that the homily is the main thing for them, at Mass.

Is anyone else hearing such things?

The priest I know very well (wink) does try to offer good homilies, and can't help being gratified when people express appreciation. He tries to elicit specific comments, so as to know what's working, what's resonating, etc.

But the main event of the Mass is not the homily.

If we think of the two parts of the Mass, the Liturgy of the Word, and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, each one has a climax:
the climax of the Liturgy of the Word is the proclamation of the Gospel...

The Gospel itself is the climax, hence we stand, we greet it with Alleluias (the sequences are extended alleluias), we have a procession, perhaps with incense, and there is an option to chant it; and only an ordained minister may proclaim the Gospel. And the Gospel is kissed--by the bishop, if he's present.

The homily, the Creed, and the prayers, are a response to the Gospel; and then we begin building to a new climax, this time to the Seed of Christ, the Word in our midst, doing something new and wonderful among us.

Some have compared the Gospel procession and proclamation to the event of the Incarnation, in contrast to the Liturgy of the Eucharist bringing us to the Passion, Death, Resurrection (and glorious return) of Christ.

Thus, the Eucharistic Prayer would be the second climax--different folks could disagree on the exact moment, but I'd say you have a series of climaxes, each rising higher: the entering into the Holy of Holies, with the Sanctus; the Epiclesis, calling down the Spirit, Christ's own words of insitution; the offering of this Sacrifice (following the "mystery of faith" acclamation), to which we join all our prayers, all summarized in the concluding prayer: "Through Him, with Him, in Him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is yours, Almighty Father, forever and ever. Amen!" If memory serves me right, St. Ambrose described this amen as "thunderous" -- as it should be.

The subsequent parts of the Mass are, again, our response: we "pray with confidence" the Our Father, we acknowledge Jesus our Peace present on the altar ("Lord Jesus Christ, you said..."), and--if we have been made worthy, we receive the Eucharist--and then Mass concludes very quickly, as we are sent.

We might see the Agnus Dei and the Fraction as the climax; but look at the Roman Canon: at one point, the priest bows, and prays, "Almighty God, may your angel take this Sacrifice to your altar in Heaven...then as we receive from the altar..." -- i.e., the Fraction and sharing the Eucharist are a "coming down" from heaven, and the power derives from the summit of the Offering of Jesus eternally for us.

As I say, others could see it differently; but all this is to say: a good homily, devoutly to be wished for, is subordinate to the real power of the Mass, which is the Sacrifice.

(I posted this comment first at Open Book, but thought you might like to read and comment on it here as well.)


Paul, just this guy, you know? said...

Father, without contradicting anything you say in this post, the homily seems more important when the thought it provokes to echo through my mind is "stay for the Eucharist, stay for the Eucharist..."

Two weeks ago, my Associate Pastor, preaching on the parable of the landlord and the tenants, told us to be like the tenants; he said we should take it upon ourselves to throw off oppression.

I rather thought this missed the point of the parable pretty severely.

Discussing it afterwards, I learned from my wife that she, too, was restraining herself from leaving.

This is the same priest who can work a Hindu and a Protestant ("Mahatma" Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr.) into a homily on All Saints Day, but not a single Catholic saint. I don't think I've ever heard him mention a saint from the pulpit.

The other priests that serve our parish are more orthodox, but their homilies are delivered in a monotone, without passion, almost devoid of energy.

I agree that the homily is not the point of the mass, but when the whole thing stops and the priest spends ten or fifteen minutes either putting me to sleep or making me angry, it makes the rest of the liturgy much harder to enter into.

DP said...

Thanks for reminding us all of the real reason we're at mass - it's obviously the Eucharist, but many seem to have lost sight of this.

Being that the Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith, I find great comfort in this. I can go to any mass, and so long as the mass is validly preformed, I receive the same graces regarldess of whether it's a Tridentine mass or a life-teen mass, whether there are ten eucharistic ministers or none, whether the homily is uplifting or whether I struggle to stay awake... ultimately, Christ will meet me there in body, blood, soul and divinity.

While I may disagree some liturgical matters, homilies, or even people at any particular church, what matters is that in the mass I am present at the pascal sacrifice and Christ humbles Himself to physically enter into the lives of the faithful.

Henry said...

[And here's a reply that I posted at Amy's blog.]

I want to comment on Archbishop Gregory's point, about the importance of preaching, in relation to precision of the celebration of the liturgy...

You're right, Septimus, that was an especially good post.

It's hard to argue that better sermons would not be a good thing. But, in attending a good many more Masses in his archdiocese than Ab. Gregory has (yet), I've observed the same thing there as elsewhere. On balance, I cannot help wondering whether the obligatory homily does not detract from the liturgy more often than it supports it.

Would it be a bad thing to call a time out on homilies -- or perhaps at least try skipping them at daily Masses -- and put the whole focus on reverent liturgy and actual worship? Or maybe allow only homilies on the real presence and the sacrifice of the Mass. Then perhaps, after getting the liturgy back on track, homilies and due attention to them could return.

Admittedly, I may be only half-serious. But it's a serious problem in the U.S. church that so many homilies are distractions from rather than contributions to the liturgy.

Todd said...

Notre Dame's study on parishes focused on the two aspects people sought and expected at Mass: good preaching and good music.

It might be that the Eucharistic Prayer and the Communion Rite are doing just fine as is. I think when mortals put more of themselves into the Mass (and there are no more "personalized" items than the homily or music) we run a greater risk for problems.

I think Catholics concerned about homilies and music would all pretty much agree the Sacrament overrides either in importance. But there's nothing wrong with wanting it all.