By Father Edward McNamara
Rome, 3 November 2015 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: Is listening to the Sunday homily necessary to fulfill one's Sunday obligation? Sometimes for personal reasons I do not feel inclined to listen to the homily of a particular priest as I feel very strongly about his sincerity and because he doesn't practice what he preaches. — R.C., Mumbai, India
A: Canon law obliges the celebrant to prepare and deliver a homily at each Sunday Mass, or at least entrust the deacon or another priest to do so. To wit:
"767 §1. Among the forms of preaching the homily is pre-eminent; it is a part of the liturgy itself and is reserved to a priest or to a deacon; in the homily the mysteries of faith and the norms of Christian living are to be expounded from the sacred text throughout the course of the liturgical year.
"§2. Whenever a congregation is present a homily is to be given at all Sunday Masses and at Masses celebrated on holy days of obligation; it cannot be omitted without a serious reason.
"§3. If a sufficient number of people are present it is strongly recommended that a homily also be given at Masses celebrated during the week, especially during Advent or Lent or on the occasion of some feast day or time of mourning.
"§4. It is the duty of the pastor or the rector of a church to see to it that these prescriptions are conscientiously observed.
"768 §1. It is necessary that those who proclaim the word of God to the Christian faithful are first of all to propose those things which one ought to believe and do for the glory of God and for the salvation of humankind.
"§2. They are also to impart to the faithful the teaching which the magisterium of the Church proposes concerning the dignity and freedom of the human person, the unity and stability of the family and its duties, the obligations which men and women have from being joined together in society, and the ordering of temporal affairs according to God's plan.
“769. Christian doctrine is to be proposed in a manner accommodated to the condition of its listeners and adapted to the needs of the times."
Therefore, except for a grave cause, the homily should not be omitted on a Sunday. Since, as canon law says, it forms part of the liturgy, then it is the duty of the preacher to prepare and deliver it as best he can. From the point of view of the faithful it is their religious duty to do their best to understand and embrace that teaching insofar as it conforms to Catholic truth, which, we presume, is the case at hand.
As canons 768-769 make abundantly clear, the subject matter of the homily is expounding the teaching of Christ and its applications in the magisterium. It is not about the qualities of the preacher, although these obviously have some effect on the efficacy of the message.
I am in no position to judge if a preacher in Mumbai practices what he preaches, and indeed only God can truly judge the human heart. I know for certain that I, as a priest, never fully practice what I preach. Indeed every time I stand at the pulpit, or give advice in confession, I am acutely aware of my own inadequacies and failures to live up to the challenge of the Gospel. And yet I am convinced of the truth of the message and strive to communicate it to the best of my abilities. I can only presume that most priests share this experience.
The English poet and Anglican clergyman George Herbert in his verse “The Church Porch” has an interesting reflection on preaching: "Judge not the preacher; for he is thy Judge: If thou mislike him, thou conceiv'st him not [you do not understand him]. God calleth preaching folly. Do not grudge / To pick out treasures from an earthen pot. The worst [preachers] speak something good: if all want sense, God takes a text, and preacheth patience."
In other words, it is the content of the preaching, even if defective, that is important and not the preacher. One interpreter of the poem explains it thus:
"The media is not the message. Look for the jewel. The earthen pot […] does not matter. See what is important. Accept it. God uses everything for His purpose. Your response to the preacher judges you rather than his message. The preacher is your Judge, the litmus test by which you are judged. If you dislike him, you will not listen or understand God's message. Even a fool may speak knowledge to the wise. You refuse God's knowledge out of prejudice. This, too, is a judgment. Even the worst preacher, as a person, student and speaker, has a lesson to teach. Whatever the text for the day that the preacher may mar, God chooses his own text and preaches patience so that the sermon saves those who believe regardless of the preacher."
St. Paul has a similar idea in his epistle to the Philippians 1:15-18:
“It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of good will. The latter do so in love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice."
I can only recommend to our correspondent that he also rejoice like St. Paul.