Ending a Homily

Author: Father Edward McNamara, LC


Ending a Homily

ROME, 2 OCT. 2012 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: I have been taught that the homily, whenever given, is part of the Mass, many times obligatory (Sundays and solemnities), and always advisable, when possible. It should lead the faithful from the banquet of the Word to the Eucharistic banquet. In fact, it is good that the last words of the homily make some express reference to the Eucharist. That is why I have always understood that homilies should not be ended with the words, "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." This usage breaks the unity between the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. There should rather be a smooth passage to the rite of the Eucharist. Those words are to be said at the beginning and at the end of the Mass, but not at the end of the homily. My question is: Is this correct? Should it be incorporated somewhere in the rubrics or in the General Introduction of the Roman Missal? Should it be taught to young and old priests who might have forgotten it? That invocation to the Blessed Trinity, so beautiful, is not proper to the homily, but perhaps it is to sermons and other expositions of Christian doctrine outside the celebration of the Mass, as in novenas, etc. — A.D., Nairobi, Kenya

A: The most recent and complete official pronunciation on the importance of the homily is found in the 2010 postsynodal apostolic exhortation, VerbumDomini:

"59. Each member of the People of God 'has different duties and responsibilities with respect to the word of God. Accordingly, the faithful listen to God's word and meditate on it, but those who have the office of teaching by virtue of sacred ordination or have been entrusted with exercising that ministry,' namely, bishops, priests and deacons, 'expound the word of God.' Hence we can understand the attention paid to the homily throughout the Synod. In the Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis, I pointed out that 'given the importance of the word of God, the quality of homilies needs to be improved. The homily "is part of the liturgical action" and is meant to foster a deeper understanding of the word of God, so that it can bear fruit in the lives of the faithful.' The homily is a means of bringing the scriptural message to life in a way that helps the faithful to realize that God's word is present and at work in their everyday lives. It should lead to an understanding of the mystery being celebrated, serve as a summons to mission, and prepare the assembly for the profession of faith, the universal prayer and the Eucharistic liturgy. Consequently, those who have been charged with preaching by virtue of a specific ministry ought to take this task to heart. Generic and abstract homilies which obscure the directness of God's word should be avoided, as well as useless digressions which risk drawing greater attention to the preacher than to the heart of the Gospel message. The faithful should be able to perceive clearly that the preacher has a compelling desire to present Christ, who must stand at the center of every homily. For this reason preachers need to be in close and constant contact with the sacred text; they should prepare for the homily by meditation and prayer, so as to preach with conviction and passion. The synodal assembly asked that the following questions be kept in mind: What are the Scriptures being proclaimed saying? What do they say to me personally? What should I say to the community in the light of its concrete situation? The preacher 'should be the first to hear the word of God which he proclaims,' since, as Saint Augustine says: 'He is undoubtedly barren who preaches outwardly the word of God without hearing it inwardly.' The homily for Sundays and solemnities should be prepared carefully, without neglecting, whenever possible, to offer at weekday Masses cum populo brief and timely reflections which can help the faithful to welcome the word which was proclaimed and to let it bear fruit in their lives."

This text says much regarding the importance of the homily but practically nothing regarding such questions as to how to appropriately begin or conclude a homily. Indeed there do not appear to be any strict rules regarding this, although there are many opinions.

In the above text Benedict XVI insists above all that Christ be the center of any homily, and I believe that this is sufficient to connect the table of the Word to the table of the Eucharist. Asking the homilist to always attempt an explicit reference to the Eucharist is more likely to be counterproductive and end up imposing a formulaic and artificial construction.

Something similar could be said about using the Trinitarian formula. Some preachers might do so as an act of devotion and as a way of underlining that their preaching is done in God's name and not for personal glory. Even when such high motivations exist, however, I do not think it is a good idea to always conclude in this way. I believe that it is generally better to prepare a conclusion appropriate to the readings. In some cases it might even be a way of avoiding having to make a proper conclusion at all by using a catch-all phrase.

However, there is no express prohibition on doing so. Indeed, concluding the homily with a Trinitarian doxology was quite common in patristic times when the doxology served the role of the preacher's profession of faith before the introduction of the creed into the Mass. Some medieval preachers, such as St. Peter Damian, would also frequently conclude the homily with a Trinitarian doxology.

Both Blessed John Paul II and our present Holy Father tend to finish the homily with an exhortation or a prayer of intercession. The use of the Trinitarian formula is rare, although it concluded at least one homily on the feast of the Most Holy Trinity.

Most of Benedict XVI's homilies end with an "Amen" after a prayer. For example, he recently concluded his homily on the solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in this way:
"Let us entrust ourselves to her Motherly intercession, that she may obtain that he strengthen our faith in eternal life; may she help us to live the best way the time that God has given us with hope. May it be a Christian hope, that is not only nostalgia for heaven, but a living and active desire for God who is here in the world, a desire for God that makes us tireless pilgrims, nourishing in us the courage and the power of faith, which at the same time is the courage and the power of love. Amen."

Several writers have claimed the Benedict XVI will be remembered most for the quality of his homilies. I certainly believe that many priests would benefit from close contact with his work. The faithful would probably be grateful as well.

* * * 

Follow-up: Ending a Homily [10-16-2012] 

In the wake of our Oct. 2 article on ending the homily several readers reminded me of an official reply on this matter from 1973 which I should have mentioned. 

A reader from Congo wrote: "In the Notitiae 9 (1973), 178, there was this question: Is it opportune before or after the homily to invite the faithful to sign themselves with the sign of the cross, to greet them, e.g., saying, 'Praised be Jesus Christ,' etc.? The Congregation for the Divine Worship replied in these terms: This depends on legitimate local uses, but generally speaking it is not opportune to observe these customs, since they were introduced into the homily from preaching outside of Mass. The homily is part of the liturgy; the faithful have already made the sign of the cross at the beginning of Mass, and they have been greeted. It is preferable, therefore, that these things not be repeated before or after the homily." 

I don't think it changes substantially what I said in the original article, although it strengthens the point that such greetings are preferably avoided. I would note that the official reply still defers to local custom. 

For the sake of precision, I would comment that the historical argument offered in the reply — that such phrases entered into the homily from preaching outside of Mass — is true insofar as we are dealing with a time from the late Middle Ages onward. This is when most preaching was done outside of Mass and such standard formulas were useful.  It would not apply to the examples of concluding Trinitarian evocations offered in the original article; these examples were drawn from patristic and early medieval sources. These homilies were generally preached during Mass, and the Trinitarian invocation was not just a stock formula but a profession of faith. 

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