The point of a homily is not just to give us something to think about, or to lead us to make a minor change in our life. It’s to form us to become more like Jesus Christ.
The U.S. bishops in 2012 noted, “In survey after survey over the past years, the People of God have called for more powerful and inspiring preaching.
Pope Benedict wrote in 2006, “Given the importance of the word of God, the quality of homilies needs to be improved.” Pope Francis in 2013 stated, “So many concerns have been expressed about this important ministry [of preaching] and we cannot simply ignore them.”
There are various misconceptions about the purpose of preaching … Some said it’s to “give a very brief thought or two on the readings,” to “provide the faithful a point to pray and meditate upon,” to leave people “with at least one resolution” to apply to their life. Others said it’s to “tie the readings together.” Others asserted it’s to teach the doctrine of the faith, and therefore homilies should be more catechetical. All of these have some element of what the Church is looking for, but are all seriously short of the mark.
The Second Vatican Council’s decree on the ministry and life of priests, Presbyterorum Ordinis, taught that the purpose of sacred preaching is “conversion and holiness.” Pope Benedict, in his post-synodal apostolic exhortation Verbum Domini, wrote: "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."
Pope Francis, in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, stressed that homilies are supposed to bring about the heart-to-heart dialogue between God and his people, proclaiming God’s work of salvation, restating the blessings and demands of the Covenant he has made with us, and guiding us to respond with faith and enter into a life-changing communion in the Eucharist. The homily is “part of the offering made to the Father and a mediation of the grace that Christ pours out” — meant to form, Francis said, evangelized evangelizers, missionary disciples, capable of living the word and sharing it.
Those are the lofty goals toward which homilies need to be prepared and on which they need to be evaluated. Do they convert preacher and faithful and strengthen them to become saints? Do they illumine daily life with the light of Scripture, inspiring people to greater faith, prayer, communion with God, and the capacity to share the Gospel effectively with others? Do they attune us to God’s voice, remind us of his grace and call, and strengthen us to align our life lovingly to his will?
In other words, the point of a homily is not just to give us something to chew on for the week, or lead us to make a minor course correction in our life. It’s ultimately to form us cumulatively to become Christ-like, so that we respond, like Mary, “Let it be done to me according to your word.”
Meeting such goals require a great deal of preparation. They, moreover, require some time in delivery, considering the fact that many listening have hardened, rocky and thorny soil, to use Christ’s image, and not just good soil ready to bear hundredfold fruit. Finally, to reach a supernatural goal requires a supernatural means, and that’s why preaching with sacred Scripture, inerrantly inspired by God, is so important.1