US bishops say homilies should invite Catholics to conversion

Sunday homilies should promote repentance, instill a sense of mission and lead Catholics to grow in understanding their faith, the U.S. bishops said in a new document on preaching.

"The ultimate goal of proclaiming the Gospel is to lead people into a loving and intimate relationship with the Lord, a relationship that forms the character of their persons and guides them in living out their faith," the bishops emphasized.

In "Preaching the Mystery of Faith: the Sunday Homily," the bishops offered a reflection on preaching for priests, deacons and those who are responsible for forming them.

Members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted to approve the document – which will also be translated into Spanish – on Nov. 13 at their fall general assembly in Baltimore. The vote tally was 227 in favor, 11 against and four abstaining.

The bishops noted that Catholics have asked for "more powerful and inspiring preaching" in surveys, and that the laity can become discouraged by a "steady diet of tepid or poorly prepared homilies."

Homilists should respond to this desire by preaching with a "sense of urgency and freshness," connecting Scripture, the Eucharist and the Creed, they advised.

As an "intrinsic part of the Sunday Eucharist," the bishops said in the document, every homily must be centered on the person of Christ, whose death and resurrection are at the heart of our salvation.

"If a homilist conveys merely some example of proverbial wisdom or good manners, or only some insight gained from his personal experience, he may have spoken accurately and even helpfully, but he has not yet spoken the Gospel," they stated.

And while "every effective homily is a summons to conversion," the bishops also said this does not mean that a homilist should "simply berate the people for their failures."

Instead, the clergy should emphasize the "offer of grace" and do so with "pastoral sensitivity."

This invitation and "promise of grace" is an important context, particularly when addressing those who do not regularly attend Mass or discussing the moral challenges presented by Church teaching on delicate issues such as sexuality and marriage, they added.

The bishops also acknowledged that many Catholics seem to lack knowledge of Church teaching and be in need of stronger catechesis.

Since "the Sunday liturgy remains the basic setting in which most adult Catholics encounter Christ and their Catholic faith," they counseled homilists to use the opportunity to present Church doctrine.

Over time, the homilist should cover the entire scope of the Church's rich catechetical teaching, including its stance on critical issues such as the respect for human life, the importance of religious freedom and justice for the poor and migrants.

"Homilies are inspirational when they touch the deepest levels of the human heart and address the real questions of human experience," the bishops said, noting the importance of incorporating both ordinary experiences and the deeper hopes and longings that give meaning to them.

"Our encounter with Jesus inevitably leads to mission," they noted, adding that homilies are incomplete if they do not inspire a sense of mission that translates love of Christ into love for others.

Building on the New Evangelization, the Year of Faith and the call for a renewal of preaching by Pope Benedict XVI at the 2008 Synod on the Word, the bishops explained that preaching is a participation in the apostolic continuation of Jesus' ministry.

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They pointed to Mary as an example of hearing and proclaiming the Word of God without hesitation. 

In their personal lives, homilists should work towards ongoing spiritual renewal, seeking to lead lives of holiness with a deep love of Scripture and respect for Tradition, they said.

The effectiveness of preaching can also be improved through an understanding of contemporary culture, including the music, movies and websites that are a part of the people's lives.

The bishops offered several factors to consider when preparing homilies, including the growing individualism in modern culture, the need to speak respectfully about other religious traditions and the cultural diversity of Church communities.

"Once he has come to know the customs, mores, practices, history, and religiosity of a people, a homilist can draw on that richness in order to make his presentation of the faith fresh and enlivening," they said.

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