Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Homilies vs. Sermons

The other evening some friends and I were discussing differences between Anglicanism and Catholicism. One resourceful fellow pulled out his iPhone and found that the differences boil down almost entirely to one: authority.

The Anglican Church, founded by Henry VIII, does not recognize a central authority, least of all the Pope. This leads Anglicans to rely solely on Scripture for divine truth, finessing two thousand years of tradition beginning with the Apostles and the early Fathers and of course ignoring the Magisterium of the Catholic Church.

Sure, there are other minor differences. Anglican priests can marry, while (most) Catholic priests are celibate. (An Anglican priest who converts to Catholicism can remain married and a priest.)

I pointed out that the weekly Readings and Gospel are generally identical. When I visit my mother, an Episcopalian, I come home from Mass and compare notes on the homily I heard compared with the sermon she listened to.

Here, though, there’s often another divergence.

In the Anglican (Episcopal, we called it) Church of my youth, and especially in other Protestant denominations, the priest seemed to be at liberty to sermonize about whatever he deemed fit. Some may have been more conscientious about reflecting on the day’s Scripture readings, but I have heard Episcopal ministers go off on any and all tangents—including a recent, notable anti-Catholic screed that really fried my potatoes.

The Catholic homily, as I understand it, is a focused reflection on teaching found in the day’s Scripture, particularly the Gospel. This point is stressed in paragraph 132 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, where it is stated that “the liturgical homily should hold pride of place.”

I have often heard it said, and not without reason, that Protestants know Scripture better than Catholics. They certainly can recite “chapter and verse” more accurately and sometimes with stunning powers of memory.

However, I would say that a Catholic who goes to daily Mass and listens to homilies that hew faithfully to Scripture is going to know the Word of God as well, and perhaps in greater depth, than a Protestant who attends Bible study plus church once a week, hearing sermons that run all over the map.

NOTE: This post is one of a continuing series of reflections on the CCC. Here the topic is Sacred Scripture and the Life of the Church, as covered in paragraphs 131–133. These paragraphs are summarized by question 24 of the Compendium of the CCC: 

What role does Sacred Scripture play in the life of the Church?
Sacred Scripture gives support and vigor to the life of the Church. For the children of the Church, it is a confirmation of the faith, food for the soul and the found of the spiritual life. Sacred Scripture is the soul of theology and of pastoral preaching. The Psalmist says that it is “a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105). The Church, therefore, exhorts all to read Sacred Scripture frequently because “ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ” (Saint Jerome). 


  1. Webster, you appear to have had better luck that I have in Catholic parishes, and worse luck than I did in Episcopal parishes. In Episcopal congregations, for the most part, those whom I heard preaching made at least some effort to adhere to the lectionary, and to relate their remarks to some theme at least discernable in the appointed readings.

    On the other hand, when I was visiting Catholic parishes, I heard far too many homilies that were poorly delivered, that did not appear to have been thought out, and that reflected some hobby horse of the priest, rather than the readings.

    In addition, both Catholic priests and Protestant clergy have been afflicted with the need to make the homily/sermon "entertaining." They seem to want to warm up the congregation with a few jokes, through in a few topical cultural references, and then wrap it up with a little uplift. Which doesn't always work, especially with some of the difficult passages.

    But then, that habit afflicts even some Orthodox priests. Perhaps we are seeing a reflection of the Americanization, protestantization, or consumerization of Christianity in general.

  2. Webster, thanks for your post. I think the problem with Catholic homilies is that they lack any real catechesis, whether they base that on the day's readings or not. I don't think I've ever heard the word 'dogma' in a homily, or a homily about a dogma! Priests - please teach us some stuff!

    Fr. Kenneth Baker SJ wrote an article a couple of years called "In Defense of Dogma" in which he advocated priests sticking a little less rigidly to the readings as a source for homilies, and preaching on the Creed, Catechism, and Liturgy. I'm with him.


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