How to Construct a Homily

Author: Gaetano Piccolo

How to Construct a Homily

Gaetano Piccolo

With the power of images

Published here is an article written in Italian, entitled "The Santa Marta effect: the homily is fashionable again". The article, written by the Jesuit professor of theoretical philosophy at the Pontifical Gregorian Uniersity, appeared recently in Vita e Pensiero.

Rhetoric is an art, learned in the workshop, at the office, with practise. A homily forces us to find valid reasons in support of our ideas and also compels us to organize our arguments in a clear and convincing manner. Although theological language is also subject to and tailored by the rules of human language, it retains one of its own particular traits, namely the disproportion between the human medium and the divine content.

This disproportion, as previously noted by Abelard, could render the theologian and preacher silent. Since we cannot know God, but only savour something of him, our language can emerge from the silence only through the use of imagery and similitude: “This is why there seems to be no term for God which preserves the significance it was designed to express, but all terms are all attributed to Him through metaphor and in the form of figurative enigmas; these terms must therefore be analyzed through a similitude which is grounded in ratio; in this way that ineffable majesty can be savoured superficially through the use of conjecture rather than knowledge” (Peter Abelard, Theologia Summi Boni).

The use of images in preaching is therefore not a rhetorical expedient, but derives from the authentication of the very nature of theological language. After all in the first centuries, mystagogy appeared precisely in places of faith, in the basilica, next to the baptismal font or pointing to the altar as the place where sacrifice takes place.

In a homily, also depending on the kind of assembly, we can propose two types of images: at times it may be useful to refer to a work of art that translates a theological concept into more human terms (The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb, by Hans Holbein the Younger, to speak of the moments in which we too feel closed in a tomb; The Parable of the Blind, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, as an image for discourses on the blindness of the two men from Emmaus; the images of René Magritte, which cast us into the struggle of seeing ourselves and letting ourselves be seen).

The second type of image is the kind drawn from everyday life: the kind of image that Pope Francis makes frequent use of in his homilies and speeches (a “spray-God”, the Church as an NGO or as a field hospital, the odour of sheep). Using an image is a way to synthesize: in homilies, one of the most common obstacles to understanding is dispersion. Some preachers throw the bulk of their ideas into a large trunk, with the illusion of loading it onto the shoulders of the listeners, who, on the contrary, leave it there where they found it. An image instead compels the homilist to find a point around which to make his thoughts converge. From this point begins the difficult task of organizing his talk according to the rules of argumentation.

L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
21 August 2015, page 13

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