Preparing a homily
The number of occasions during the week and on a Sunday when lay people are being called upon to preach in a liturgical context is growing. The more lay people can prepare themselves well for preaching, the more the Church will be enriched. The helpful notes that follow are an encouragement to people who may con-sider taking up this ministry.
A homily (or sermon or scripture reflection) in the contemporary Liturgy of the Word is essentially an interpretation of preceding scripture readings applied to a contemporary congregation.
Most commonly, but not always, the homily is based on the Gospel reading, with the other readings playing a com-plementary role. The first reading on a Sunday has usually been chosen because it is related in some way to the Gospel reading.
The process of homily preparation can be summarized in the following three steps:
1. text for first century hearers
This step is an interpretation of the scripture text that takes into account the context of those early Christian com-munities as well as the place of this particular reading within the overall plan of the book that it comes from. In other words, this first step is an interpretation of the text taking into account the criteria normally used by contem-porary scripture scholars.
Most homilists will need access to recent scripture commentaries to do this. If you do not have access to recent scripture commentaries, some helpful New Zealand websites are the Society of Mary site (www.sm.org.nz/about/nz-province/homily-helps/ ) which has many links to other homily sites; Bill Fletcher’s site (home.clear.net.nz/pages/bfletch/index.html ) (or google The Practice of Jesus) which has a strong social justice orientation not often found on other sites; Bosco Peters’ site ( www.liturgy.co.nz ) has many liturgical resources including reflections on the readings and seasons.
The homilist should be aware though that scripture scholars are not just neutral observers. Like the rest of us they are influenced by their wealth, their culture, their gender, their geography, etc. Nevertheless, keeping this in mind, scripture commentaries can give us access to information about the context of the scripture readings that most of us do not have time to investigate for ourselves.
The key point here is that the hopeful homilist should not be put off by having to do a little research beforehand. Scriptural interpretation is not just the domain of professional scripture scholars. It can be done by anyone who has tried to live the scriptures and is prepared to check out some commentaries or websites.
2. key message for now
From the initial investigation of what the text was saying to its original hearers, the homilist discerns a message that is relevant to this contemporary congregation. The homilist does this out of familiarity with both the scripture text and the congregation. What is the most important message from this text that I need to convey to this congregation? Usually a homily can have only one such message, perhaps two. Here the homilist needs conviction. A homily carries a message. It is not just a general explanation of a scripture text.
Without this discernment and conviction, the homilist is likely to resort to banalities or time-filling stories or per-sonal experiences that are essentially ballast rather than a message delivered with conviction. If you have nothing to say, don’t try to make it attractive.
3. to change the congregation now
Once the key message is clear to the homilist, the form of the presentation becomes the next step — the way in which this message can most effectively be communicated to this contemporary congregation.
It is a good idea to keep in mind four broad areas of application:
- the personal conversion or development of the people within the congregation
- the church itself and how it should live as a Christian community (e.g. relationships within the community, leadership, ministries)
- the mission or outreach of the Christian community into the wider society (e.g. about social justice, peace, evangelization)
- Christian responsibility towards the natural environment and within the planet Earth.
A homilist will seldom be able to make applications to all four of these areas in a single homily, but does need to decide which are actually to be made in this particular homily. Be worried too if, over time, one or several of these areas has been consistently ignored.
The homily presentation can then be concerned with ways to illustrate, concretize, and bring home the message to this congregation: stories, contemporary events, role models (ancient or contemporary) are important here. People listen most easily to stories. But homilists are better to avoid stories that have little to do with the message of the homily and in fact distract from it. Similarly, personal confessions of the homilist can be used sometimes, but occa-sionally is better than often.
relevance to my congregation
Sometimes websites can also help with stories, role models, and applications. But most of those sites are speaking to a different congregation with different needs and different strengths. Is this relevant to my congregation?
Key phrases or even slogans that focus the main message of the homily can also be effective. And homilies are usually more memorable when they finish with a brief conclusion that similarly focuses its main theme or message.
If the homilist preaches frequently to the same congregation, this is also the point where s/he needs to make sure that this is not essentially the same message that has been delivered repeatedly on earlier occasions. If it is, this is a cue to return to the scripture readings to look for another message — there is never just one message there.
Homilists need also to decide about how they use their backup script: to write it out in full and read out the whole homily? To write it out in full, and then speak mainly from memory? To write it out in note form, and then speak from memory? These are decisions where homilists try to play to their own strengths rather than regard one style as desirable for all.
Feedback is important for the homilist. Relying on spontaneous feedback at end of the liturgy results very often in no feedback at all, and in any case people are likely to be compassionate rather than honest. Sometimes, feedback is just critical and dispiriting with no indication of how widespread that criticism is. It is better if feedback is sought in some kind of organized and friendly yet honest way. If you yourself want to offer a criticism to another homilist, don’t do it at the end of the liturgy when the homilist can’t do anything about it anyway, and enthusiasm may be dashed. Give it at a later time, preferably when the homilist is preparing for another homily, and can do something constructive about it.
Author: Neil Darragh is a priest of the Diocese of Auckland, a writer, theologan, and ecologist.
Turning our lives around
Lent, the annual time of preparation, beckons and challenges us once again. Part of the challenge is to think in a new way about the usual exhortations of ‘prayer, penance, almsgiving, and taking up your cross and following Jesus’.
Yes, Lent is a season of reflection, and traditionally, some form of curbing self-indulgence, joining a study group, and making some gesture towards service in the community. There is something very good about all these things. Just for a little while we try to honour what is most important in our lives — coming to the Truth, and seeking a deeper understanding of the mysteries of our Faith.
So how to turn our lives around in preparation for this Easter?
a good place to begin
Repentance is a good place to begin, and a good word to examine, since it appears quite often in the Gospels, and in scripture generally. No matter how many times we hear that this word, translated from Greek, does not mean sorrow, regret, and changing our behaviour, we still come back to the idea that it does mean sorrow, regret etc, a fact which is quite unfortunate. Even some ‘colloquial’ translations of the New Testament still render the word in the usual way, and so imply that a moral and not a mental change is indicated.
Metanoia is the original word, and its meaning has to do with ‘a change of mind, a change of direction, thinking from a new perspective’. So it’s not about physical behaviour, it’s about mental behaviour! In The Mark, Maurice Nicoll explains: “The Greek particle meta is found in several words of comparatively ordinary usage, such as meta-phor, metaphysics, metamorphosis. In ‘metaphor’, it means transference of meaning . . . to carry over or beyond and so transfer the meaning of what is said beyond the words used. Metamorphosis is used to describe the trans-formation of form in insect-life, e.g. the grub to the butterfly. The particle meta therefore indicates transference, or transformation, or beyondness.
‘The other part of this word translated as repentance — noia — is from the Greek word nous, which means ‘mind’. The word metanoia therefore has to do with transformation of the mind in its essential meaning. The English word repentance is derived from the Latin poenitare which means to feel sorry, feeling pain or regret. Metanoia stands far above such a meaning, and is not a mere mood.”
the heart of the matter
So having defined this maligned word — yet again — how could it be applied in our lives this Lent, if that is what we wished? Going directly to the heart of the matter, we would find ourselves maybe having to turn our whole lives around, at least from the mental standpoint! That’s a bit radical. How about for one day, every week of Lent, we question every thought, especially judgments or beliefs about ourselves, others, scripture etc, and turn it around — to see these things from another perspective.
As Catholics/Christians, we have been incredibly hard on ourselves, demanding perfection, ‘repentance’, and seek-ing God’s forgiveness from sin. (Our liturgies repeat this many times). We hear the words from the creed that God ‘will come to judge the living and the dead’. The Gospels might be saying: stop thinking this way, while you are able.
Turn it around. Aren’t Gospel stories wonderful metaphors, hardly ever meaning what the words on the page are saying? We have to look deeper, and repent, ie, turn all our thinking around — and see what happens. Read Luke 13:1–5. Jesus tells the people they are wrong in thinking the murdered Galileans were killed because they lived worse lives than other Galileans, and were guilty. His response was, “They were not, I tell you. No! But unless you repent (change your thinking) you will all perish as they did.”
Another story, also full of metaphor and relevant for this time, is that of Jesus in the desert forty days and nights. How can we rescue this story from its literal translation and find in it a meaning for ourselves, not just something that happened to Jesus two thousand years ago? What metanoia can take place here? If the meaning is not about devils and temples and stones, and angels, what is it about?
humanity without torment?
Here he is, the great awakened one, the Christ — and the man, Jesus, seriously hungry, depleted and tempted. Just because he is the Christ, Son of God, doesn’t mean his humanity is without torment — any more or less than ours, when we find ourselves in ‘deserts’ and ‘dark nights’. The devil comes! What is the devil? Is it nothing but our own minds and their demented thinking? We don’t need an external devil to be lurking, seeking whom he may devour. Our own minds can steal our souls away quite well, tempting us to believe all kind of frightening or threat-ening things, about ourselves as well as others, and life and religion. Haven’t we all heard those voices — money, power, greed, seduction, fear, judgment? Don’t they come from our mind? Why blame a devil!
He saw through all the temptations, and he saw through all the allurements, and in the ‘desert’, he said: ‘No thank you. Go away.’ Notice he didn’t run away. He didn’t even seem surprised. He didn’t cry out in anguish. He didn’t indulge these tempting things and neither did he struggle against them. He saw through it all. He stopped believing those thoughts and they lost power. What a wonderful metaphor this story is.
This sounds very blunt, but our rigid, narrow thinking is the ‘devil’. Our silence, presence, acceptance and letting go, and metanoia is the ‘Christ’. The essence of Gospel stories is the essence of us, not just something of the past, or some kind of miraculous story about Jesus. That’s the beauty of them. They are always dropping breadcrumbs of new understanding.
Lent is a good time to retreat to the desert — to be quiet. Doubts, fears, and spiritual lethargy may arise, even at the thought of it! But in the silence, it’s amazing where wisdom and answers come from. The desert story ends: “Then the devil left him, and the angels came and looked after him.” When that inner peace comes, in the deep sigh of knowing that this very moment is OK, devils disappear and angels are attending us. But as long as we entertain the devil, ie, let all the tormenting thinking germinate and develop, we are in hell — trying desperately to work it all out. ‘Be still and know that I am God.’
One dark night, fired by Love’s urgent longing,
I went out by a secret ladder . . . unknown.
(St John of the Cross)
divinely embodied people
The last spiritual season we enjoyed was the beautiful joyousness of Christmas. Now we have a chance to enter the darkness, not in fear or guilt, but in stillness. Our bodies may need healing, and our minds may need to change and open, but, as Daniel O’Leary reminds us in that wonderful article in last December’s issue of Tui Motu, not that we are sinners needing pardon, but ‘divinely embodied people’ with all our human differences, weaknesses and strengths.
To quote from that article Fleshy Feast: “Christmas reveals that we are all born with a divine star. Our bodies car-ry auras of inner loveliness. That is the meaning of the hallowed halo around the baby’s sleepy head. We all have one! Its brightness does not depend on being successful at religion, on acquiring virtues and overcoming vices, on enforced beliefs and passing worthiness tests.”
Whatever Lent means to each of us, may we all feel the blessedness of our human-beingness, and honour with jus-tice, dignity and respect, the ‘divinely embodied’ in our neighbourhood and country, and all God’s creatures everywhere on this amazing planet.
Author: Cecily Sheehy is a Dominican sister living in Auckland, where she teaches music.
Are Catholic schools still Catholic?
Recent history shows the connected changes occurring within religious education in Catholic schools. The writer traces the effect of these changes on our Catholic schools and asks some pertinent questions.
It is not surprising that this question can arise among people in their fifties when reminiscing and sharing memories of their own education in Catholic schools. Generally, they reflect on a time when it was assumed that nearly all children in the schools were practising their faith and that the catechesis of the time was focused on supporting the home through the presentation (not necessarily the understanding) of doctrine. The formal delivery of education into the late 1970s meant that Catholic schools had a very different feel about them from what they have now. They were often seen as good academically, strong in discipline, sport and culture. Our schools punched above their weight. They were not always so successful in supporting students with learning difficulties, or providing alterna-tive education paths for those less academically inclined.
a new curriculum introduced
By the 1970s a new curriculum was introduced called We Live and Teach Christ Jesus. It was an inspired cateche-sis, provided teachers had had sufficient formation in faith to allow them to develop and expand the themes of faith that were well placed in the document. In the late 1970s many of the religious orders were no longer so involved in schooling and their replacements were frequently teachers with little more formation than their own schooling and home environment. Many coped well but for those less confident there was a move to make the catechesis more of an activity book. Many teachers stayed close to the recommended lesson formats, whether they were relevant or not, to give them the confidence to present the faith to their students.
integration and change
During this period, integration became the focus for our schools and we tended more and more to be assimilated into other aspects of state education and reporting. There is no doubt in my mind that integration saved our schools economically but I am not sure that we protected our catechesis at the same time. As more and more lay teachers entered the system they did so with very limited understanding of the catechesis and even less personal formation.
Having traversed that important period of our history within a very short focus, I want to move to the question that challenges us now. If in the 1970s we could assume that nearly all students were engaged with their family in their faith what do we understand now? I cannot comment on all schools but I know it was a great struggle to maintain that engagement through secondary schooling when I was principal at Kavanagh College. We regularly checked the level of engagement with church to find that as they progressed through the senior secondary we were left with a very small percentage of year 13 students still active in their faith.
Presenters at conferences talked about the postmodernist period which represented the generation X and Y students and postulated that this was a normal part of a modern day faith search. There was a belief that we would restore their relationship with the church as they entered family life themselves and sought for their children the right to enter a Catholic school. The circle would be complete and the catechesis of adults would be as important as the cat-echesis of the children.
catechesis to evangelization
It is true that in the last few years many schools have spent significant time and energy trying to support parents in their growth in faith even as the schools continue to support their children. So the very nature of Catholic schooling has moved from catechesis to evangelization of both child and parent. Now, unlike the 1970s, more and more chil-dren come to the school with little or no experience of faith practice. Often their parents are drawn by a memory of their own schooling but more often they are attracted by the successes of the local Catholic school. It is a great trib-ute to the way Catholic schools today have become important instruments of evangelisation. They are often bea-cons in a community. For many they are more visible and responsive than the parishes are and for some they have the capacity to displace the parish as the primary faith community if the parish is not strong and proactive.
supporting the mission
The Bishops of New Zealand recognised that a transformation has taken place in our schools but they also recog-nised the important part they have to play in supporting and proclaiming the mission of the Church. Some years ago they began a process of Catholic reviews on a cyclical basis for all Catholic schools in New Zealand. Sometimes we irreverently call these reviews the ‘Catholic ERO’ or the ‘God Review’.
‘the god review’
The most important question for these reviews is: ‘What does the school do to protect and grow its special charac-ter as a Catholic school?’ There are three key parts to a review. There is a full review of the spiritual life of the school and its participation in, and promotion of, a prayerful and sacramental life. There is a full enquiry into the way the pastoral care within the school represents the gospel and finally there is a close inspection and review of the way the Catholic curriculum is planned and delivered. The reviews are about assessment and development and so the emphasis is on how the school is and how its community is planning to become a better Catholic school and what resources and focus are given to make this happen.
a new question
The question arises then, ‘Do our reviews tell us that our schools are truly Catholic?’ Schooling today is different from our experience, but so was the education of our parents compared to our own. The question might better be: ‘How effective are our schools as agents of the gospel in a postmodernist time?’
There is certainly a challenge for the schools to make more of the relationship between parish and school and for people to see that time in the school is part of the experience of belonging to the wider Catholic life of parish. For secondary schools this is harder. Students are enrolled from many different parishes and at a time when adoles-cence and 21st century living challenge the traditions and beliefs of our faith. Finding ways to make the par-ish/school relationship happen is the most important task of our schools. If we judged schools on the number of pupils engaged in church life we would need to acknowledge we are failing in retaining engagement with Church.
magnets of hope
What we can also say is that the schools remain magnets of hope in a range of communities and for the people within the school communities. Many staff who become part of the Catholic school system find they do not want to work in any other system. They are supported by, and supportive of, the values and pastoral systems of the schools. Non-Catholic staff are often the first to talk about these differences and name them as strengths.
article in North and South
A recent article in North and South extolled the success of a number of Catholic schools in the Auckland region and, in particular, schools that had had significant success with students from lower decile communities. The article made a number of significant comparisons with other high decile schools and showed how the selected schools had given significant academic, sporting and cultural success for students. The comparison was made from a state school perspective.
The article did not focus on engagement with the Church. This kind of publicity has led commentators on education to ask if the absence of a values or belief system is part of the reason for a lack of success for students in state schools and it has led to roll pressure for successful Catholic schools. Here we have an opportunity for real evange-lisation. We know that to be fully human a relationship with God through Jesus is an integral part of our journey of success.
So we ask: ‘Are our schools still Catholic?’ We have to be prepared to examine their missionary role in today’s society and to make changes that preserve the very reason for their existence. One of the great challenges for Ca-tholic schools is to have a staff that can, by both example and teaching, represent the message of the Church as re-ligious did in earlier times. The great challenge for the future is to invest heavily in staff formation and develop-ment and to be uncompromising about the requirement to be continually formed in faith while teaching in a Catho-lic school. I would support much wider enrolment than the current system of preference, provided we had much stronger requirements for the development and formation of staff. Too often there are much stronger messages giv-en to students by aspects of the teacher’s personal life than by any form of catechesis.
transmitting the message
If we are successful, then we will have students who come to faith through the evangelisation of the school because they see ‘God in the teacher’ recognizing ‘God in them’. We transmit the message through people. If people are the key, then the Church and school Boards need to be quite hard–nosed about ensuring that the people who are the face of God can be recognized by the students.
The challenge is to turn the enthusiasm parents have for the school into enthusiasm for a life of faith.
Author: Paul Ferris is the acting principal of the new Catholic Institute of Aotearoa New Zealand (CIANZ). Till recently he was the principal of Kavanagh College, Dunedin.