Which is More Important: The Preaching, or the Mass?


Editor’s note: the following is a guest essay submitted by a reader who wishes to remain anonymous. We have agreed to publish it here in the hopes of generating a fruitful discussion. 

In my efforts to draw friends into my local Latin Mass community, I’ve noticed a curious pattern in the way they evaluate their first few experiences at St. ––—. Of course, they can’t help remark about the reverence they observed in the sanctuary, and how pretty they found the music, but for nearly all of them, the part of the experience that determines their judgment is the homily.

I’ve puzzled over this for months. It isn’t that I’m not inclined to agree with their criticisms. Admittedly, some priests are, well, rather austere in their homiletic styles. There are some who, thinking it to be more traditional, preach straight from dry old moral theology manuals, which may be serviceable as textbooks, but make for dreadful rhetoric. So one may readily concede the point. We all must resign ourselves to the occasional pedantic sermon.

It leaves me scratching my head when I ask them back, and again and again the reason they say they won’t return is . . . the homily. At first, I thought it might just be an evasion tactic, a defensive screen for more deep-seated reasons of aversion to the style of the old form of Mass. And it could indeed be that.

But then I hit on what is likely the real reason: they are judging the old Mass based on homiletics because that’s essentially how they are accustomed to judging the Novus Ordo Mass they usually attend. With a universally bland ars celebrandi, all but evacuated of aesthetic allure, stripped of edifying and engrossing ritual, devoid of significant seasonal variation in mood, and sapped of theological richness, the suburban Catholic experience is essentially a Protestant affair, where the only thing left to judge in a Mass is the priest’s personality, how “dynamic” his homily is, how intriguing his personality, how flattering to their own sentiments, or how warmly welcomed he makes parishioners feel. This, of course, is an entirely Protestant sense. It probably contributes to the phenomenon of “parish shopping” as well.

They can’t be blamed, perhaps. The truncated modern rite emphasizes the “Liturgy of the Word,” whose responsorial psalms, “active lay participation” in readings, and frequent breaks in ritual (for greetings, improvised prayers, etc.) create a “personal” and “congenial” atmosphere. The first half of the liturgy takes up far more time, and is much more full of stimulating hustle and bustle than the more prosaic and methodical latter half, the “Liturgy of the Eucharist,” when the monotony of the priest’s raised voice is broken only by the occasional affirmative “acclamation.” The internal logic, the gravitas of the rite, is altogether centered on the celebration of the Word—and of this, the center-piece, in a journalistic TV culture like ours, is the homily.

Now any good Catholic will say that the Eucharist is the heart of every Mass, and in this way they correctly and piously profess the holy mystery of Christ’s self-immolation on the altar. Unfortunately, however, they fail to think out the ritual consequences of that profession. They are generally contented with the comparatively blasé approach to the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and since their formation usually has not instilled any better liturgical sense, they think adequate worship is offered by the mere fact of the consecration, forgetting that how we comport ourselves in the face of such a mystery makes our hearts more or less worthy receptacles of the Holy Gift and our objective worship more or less pleasing to the divine majesty.

There is also a failure to distinguish between the objective and subjective ends of worship. The primary purpose of communal public worship is that the creature offer worship that is right and just to the Creator—and that, whether or not he receives any sensible benefit from it. In worship, we offer back to God the best of our praise, the finest works of art we can produce, and a worthy objective confession of our faith, articulated in ceremonial solemnity and profound reverence. Any benefits we hope for for ourselves come decidedly second  in public worship. Indeed, the Collects often pray that we might feel the effects of grace in our hearts, but that is not the primary goal. To look first for what we “get out of” Mass is to have it all backwards! We should first ask ourselves: is God being worshiped justly here?

Speaking of homilies, something we often forget is that the rite itself, worthily performed, is the best homily on Scripture. In the Roman rite, Scripture is treated with great unction, it bubbles forth as the first word on the rite’s lips, whether in blessing or supplication, praise or thanksgiving. The texts comprising our liturgy were composed by Roman saints who lived and breathed Scripture, who with humble spirits received the Word of God. The rite itself might be seen as a liturgical body of sorts, whose soul the ingrafted Word has siezed and embraced utterly. Thus, the rite itself is a great homily, a breathtaking exegesis of the living Word.

And we have not even commented yet on the role of Gregorian chant! As the Church Fathers delivered their great commentaries on Scripture using their rhetorical skills, the cantors of our tradition used other methods, developing a “musical patrology” that is a rich lode of exegesis in its own right. Thus, the whole ritual embodies and exegetes and dramatizes Scripture in so many marvelous and subtle ways! It is one great homily in itself. This is what Catholics stand to gain from attending a High Mass in the traditional Roman Rite. Over time, through growing familiarity with the Mass, the Divine Office, the rites of sacraments, blessings, processions, and other ceremonies, the faithful are getting the best, the deepest, the most beautiful preaching the Church can ever offer them.

Perhaps the Second Vatican Council did well to attempt to restore homiletics. Perhaps sermons from manuals are dry and boring and even damaging to faith. I’m willing to admit all that, and chide pastors who give no evidence that the Liturgical Word has come alive in their hearts. But even admitting all of that, I would never make a decision about worship based on how much I liked a pastor’s sermonizing. The health of a parish for me would be its joyful reception of tradition, the number of healthy young families, the confraternities, the choirs, the good works, the science of the saints flourishing in hearts, the purity and goodwill of the young people, the modesty of the women, the strength of the men—all things that strong traditional parishes just simply and evidently win at.

Some Middle Eastern parishioners at St. John Cantius have braved death threats from their family members in order to live that parish’s liturgical life. The Institute of Christ the King is famous for transforming low-income neighborhoods with the Catholic families who gather to be around the Eucharistic hearth. None of those people would come for preaching alone; all are drawn by the immense treasure that Christ has bestowed on His Church in her age-old tradition.

This should be our focus. Let the homily take a back seat.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email