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The “O” Antiphons: O Key of David…

o_key_of_david

From December 17-23, I’d like to share with you these antiphons, that you will pray with them and they will help you continue to prepare for the Advent of our Lord. May they become part of your Advent tradition as they are becoming part of mine.

For December 20, the antiphon is based on Isaiah 22:22, Jeremiah 13:13; 51:19, Matthew 4:16; 16:19 and Luke 1:79

O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel, qui aperis, et nemo claudit; claudis, et nemo aperuit: veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris, sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel! You open and no one closes, You close and no one opens: Come and lead out of prison the captive who sits in darkness and the shadow of death.

From Evening prayer
O Key of David, O royal Power of Israel,
controlling at your will the gate of heaven:
Come,
break down the prison walls of death for those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death; and lead your captive people into freedom.

From O Come, O Come Emmannuel:
Verse 5:
O Come, Thou Key of David, come,
and open wide our heav’nly home,
make safe the way that leads on high,
that we no more have cause to sigh.

Key of David
Jesus, our Lord possesses the royal power of His ancestor David in a far fuller and higher way. What he commands is done. By His death on the Cross, He broke open the gates of death and led the souls of the just into everlasting life. He broke the power of the devil who had helped all people captive in sin and the fear of death. We pray Him to come and free us from slavery to sin and to the fear that sin brings with it.

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(Reflection taken from Bible and Liturgy, a Sunday parish bulletin published by the Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minn. Edited by Rev. William Heidt, OSB. Published with the approval of Bishop Peter W. Bartholome of St. Cloud. Printed in 1959 by the North Central Publishing Company, St. Paul, Minnesota (c) 1959 by the Order of St. Benedict, Inc.)

The “O” Antiphons: O Stock of Jesse…

o_stock_of_jesus

From December 17-23, I’d like to share with you these antiphons, that you will pray with them and they will help you continue to prepare for the Advent of our Lord. May they become part of your Advent tradition as they are becoming part of mine.

For December 19, the antiphon is based on Isaiah 11:1, 10, Isaiah 52:15 and Romans 15:12.

O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum, super quem continebunt reges os suum, quem gentes deprecabuntur: veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.

O stock of Jesse, set up as the rallying sign for the nations! In Your presence rulers are silent and the peoples make supplication: Come deliver us; do not delay.

From Evening prayer
O Flower of Jesse’s stem,
you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples;
kings stand silent in your presence;
the nations bow down in worship before you.
Come,
let nothing keep you from coming to our aid.

From O Come, O Come Emmannuel:
Verse 4:
O Come, Thou Rod of Jesse’s stem,
from ev’ry foe deliver them
that trust Thy mighty power to save,
and give them vict’ry o’er the grave.

Stock of Jesse
In His human nature, Christ is the descendant of Jesse, Father of David, the great king of God’s people.

Our Lord is the King of kings. His power extends to all peoples and to their rulers. In the desperate perils of our age, we pray Him to come quickly and deliver us, to establish in all hearts His kingdom of truth and of life, of justice, love and peace.

-
(Reflection taken from Bible and Liturgy, a Sunday parish bulletin published by the Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minn. Edited by Rev. William Heidt, OSB. Published with the approval of Bishop Peter W. Bartholome of St. Cloud. Printed in 1959 by the North Central Publishing Company, St. Paul, Minnesota (c) 1959 by the Order of St. Benedict, Inc.)

The “O” Antiphons: O Adonai…

o_adonai

From December 17-23, I’d like to share with you these antiphons, that you will pray with them and they will help you continue to prepare for the Advent of our Lord. May they become part of your Advent tradition as they are becoming part of mine.

For December 18, the antiphon is based on Exodus 3:2, Isaiah 33:22; 63:11-12, Micah 6:4 and Acts 7:30-31.

O Adonai, et dux domus Israel, qui Moyse in igne flammae rubi apparuisti, et ei in Sina legem dedisti: veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.

O Adonai and Leader of the House of Israel! You appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush and gave the Law on Mount Sinai: Come, and redeem us with outstretched arm.

From Evening prayer
O Adonai,
Sacred Lord of ancient Israel,
who showed yourself to Moses in the burning bush, who gave him the holy law on Sinai mountain:
Come,
stretch out your mighty hand to set us free.

From O Come, O Come Emmannuel:
Verse 3:
O Come, O Come, Thou Lord of might,
who to thy tribes on Sinai’s height
in ancient times didst give the law,
in cloud, and majesty, and awe.

Adonai

Adonai means Lord (thus the translation, “Sacred Lord of Ancient Israel). It was one of the titles used when speaking of or to God in the Old Testament. It was Adonai who led the Chosen People out of captivity in Egypt “by the mighty arm of his power” and gave them His law on Mount Sinai.

Similarly Christ, the Lord led us out of our captivity to Satan by dying “with outstretched arms” on the Cross of Calvary; and He has given us His law of love. We beg Him to come at Christmas and redeem us completely from slavery to sin; and to vie us the power to live more fully in obedience to His law.

(Reflection taken from Bible and Liturgy, a Sunday parish bulletin published by the Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minn. Edited by Rev. William Heidt, OSB. Published with the approval of Bishop Peter W. Bartholome of St. Cloud. Printed in 1959 by the North Central Publishing Company, St. Paul, Minnesota (c) 1959 by the Order of St. Benedict, Inc.)

The Advent Season’s Brightest Jewels

Antiphons

“Come, Lord Jesus!”  “Tomorrow, I will be there!”

During the final week of Advent the Church offers us an intense time of preparation for the feast of the Nativity, and the Roman Church in particular sings a series of antiphons at Vespers that magnificently set forth the nature of the coming One.

In the Liturgy of the Hours, Evening Prayer, also know as Vespers, always includes Mary’s great hymn known as the Magnificat. Each evening, the Magnificat is preceded by a short verse or “antiphon” that links the prayer to the feast of the day or the season of the year. In the last seven days of Advent (December 17-24), the antiphons before the Magnificat are very special.  Each begins with the exclamation “O” and ends with a plea for the Messiah to come. As Christmas approaches the prayer becomes increasingly urgent.

It is believed that the “O Antiphons” were composed in the 7th or 8th century when monks put together texts from the Old Testament, particularly from the prophet Isaiah that looked forward to the coming of our salvation. They form a rich mosaic of scriptural images. The “O Antiphons” became very popular in the Middle Ages when it became traditional to ring the great bells of the church each evening as they were being sung.

Each of the O Antiphons highlights a different title for the Messiah: O Sapientia (O Wisdom), O Adonai (O Lord), O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse), O Clavis David (O Key of David), O Oriens (O Rising Sun), O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations), and O Emmanuel.  Also, each one refers to the prophecy of Isaiah of the coming of the Messiah.  A particularly fascinating feature of the O Antiphons is that the first letter of each invocation, when read backwards, forms an acrostic in Latin: the first letters of Sapientia, Adonai, Radix, Clavis, Oriens, Rex, and Emmanuel in reverse form the Latin words: ERO CRAS.  These can be understood as the words of Christ, responding to his people’s plea, saying  “Tomorrow I will be there.”

Here is a rendering of this ‘season’s brightest jewels’ that can help us understand more clearly how Jesus has fulfilled the hopes, dreams and aspirations of Israel.

O antiphons 1December 17  O Wisdom, O Holy Word of God (Sir. 24:3), you govern all creation with your strong yet tender care (Wisd. of Solomon  8:1).  Come and show your people the way to salvation (Isa. 40:3-5).

December 18  O Sacred Lord of Ancient Israel (Exod. 6:2, 3, 12), who showed yourself to Moses in the burning bush (Exod. 3:2), who gave him the holy law on Sinai mountain:  come, stretch out your mighty hand to set us free.

December 19  O Flower of Jesse’s Stem, you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples (Isa. 11:10; Rom. 15:12); kings stand silent in your presence (Isa. 5:15); the nations bow down in worship before you.  Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid (Hab. 2:3; Heb. 10:37).

December 20  O Key of David, O royal Power of Israel, controlling at your will the gate of heaven (Isa. 22:22; Rev. 3:7); come, break down the prison walls of death for those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death; and lead your captive people into freedom (Isa. 42:7; Ps. 107:14; Luke 1:79).

December 21  O Radiant Dawn (Zech. 6:12), splendor of eternal light (Heb. 1:3), sun of justice (Mal 4:2):  come, shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death (Luke 1:78-79; Isa. 9:2).

December 22  O King of all the Nations, the only joy of every human heart (Hag 2:8); O Keystone (Isa. 28:16) of the mighty human arch (Eph. 2:14); come and save the creature you fashioned from the dust (Gen. 2:7).

December 23  O Emmanuel (Isa. 7:14; 8:8), king and lawgiver (Isa. 33:22), desire of the nations (Gen. 49:10), Savior of all, come and set us free, Lord our God.


The “O” Antiphons: O Wisdom

 

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I vaguely remember my mother telling us, during the Season of Advent, while growing up, about the “O” antiphons. I never really understood what these were. Even as an adult, she would occasionally send me various reflections on the “O” antiphons. I must say, with regret that while I thought it to be an important part of our Advent Tradition, I didn’t really see them as part of my tradition.

Until I began praying the Office of the Church.

As a Deacon, I have made a promise to pray the Liturgy of the Hours: Morning prayer (laudes) and Evening prayer (vespers). This prayer of the Church allows us to pray with (and through) the Psalms. They have been part of the prayers of the Church since very early in our history. As we pray the psalms, each one is introduced by an antiphon (not unlike the refrain we pray at Mass during the Responsorial Psalm). Added to the Psalms, which are different every day, there are two canticles from the Gospel of Luke that are prayed every day: The Canticle of Zechariah (Luke 1:68-79) in the morning for laudes; and the Canticle of Mary (the Magnificat: Luke 1: 46-55) in the evening for vespers.

On the last seven days before the Vigil of Christmas, December 17-23, our Church sings antiphons that are slightly different than the rest of the year. For evening prayer, before the Magnificat, each of these antiphons begins with the word, “Oh” (or in Latin “O”), thus the short-handed name, the “O” antiphons.

Each of these seven prayers-songs consists of
a) an invocation addressed to Christ, using one of his prophetic titles (O Wisdom; O Key of David etc.);
b) a development of that title reflecting passages in the Old and New Testaments;
c) an ardent request expressed by the word “Come”;
d) the reason why we want Christ to come.

Not only are these antiphons prayed during vespers, but they have also been placed in the daily Liturgy as the verse of the Gospel Acclamation. With the new translation of the Roman Missal, these are sometimes summarized or even repeated, but, in their essence, they are the same. If you go to daily Mass between December 17 – 23, you’ll hear them.

I recently discovered that, not only are these found in the Liturgy of the Hours and in the daily Mass, but they are actually, also the verses to a song that all of us know very well, O Come, O Come Emmanuel.

All of us can make use of these anthems in our family and personal prayers for they sum up everything that we want our Lord to be toward us and our world, to do for us and our world in His Christmas coming.
For the next seven days, I’d like to share with you these antiphons that you will pray with them and they will help you continue to prepare for the Advent of our Lord. May they become part of your Advent tradition as they are becoming part of mine.

For December 17, the antiphon is based on Wisdom 8:1; Isaiah 11:2-3; 28:29, Proverbs 8:1-36 and John 1:1-5.

O Sapientia, quæ ex ore Altissimi prodiisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiæ.

O Wisdom, you come forth from the mouth of the Most High. You fill the universe and hold all things together in a strong yet gentle manner: come to teach us the way of truth. (Isaiah 11:2-3; Isaiah 28:29)

From Evening prayer
O Wisdom,
O holy Word of God,
you govern all creation with your strong yet tender care:
Come
and show your people the way to salvation.

From O Come, O Come Emmannuel:
Verse 2:
O Come, Thou Wisdom, from on high,
and order all things far and nigh;
to us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go.

Wisdom
In the ancient civilizations of the Near East, “wisdom” was first understood as the science and art of managing men. It meant the principles involved in “getting along” successfully oneself and in making the whole state function smoothly. In Israel, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the search for human wisdom became more and more oriented toward the supreme Wisdom of God by which He creates and governs all things, His hidden design for mankind and its mysterious ordering of everything to achieve His plan.

Christ our Lord is this eternal Wisdom incarnate. He clarified and carried out God’s plan to re-establish everything in Himself as head. May He come more fully to each of is and to the whole world this Christmas, to show us how we may take our part in carrying out that plan for our own happiness and for the happiness of all people.


(Reflection taken from Bible and Liturgy, a Sunday parish bulletin published by the Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minn. Edited by Rev. William Heidt, OSB. Published with the approval of Bishop Peter W. Bartholome of St. Cloud. Printed in 1959 by the North Central Publishing Company, St. Paul, Minnesota (c) 1959 by the Order of St. Benedict, Inc.)

What is a Catholic education anyway?

STUDENTS ATTEND CLASS AT SETON HALL UNIVERSITY IN NEW JERSEY

Regardless of background, ethnicity or faith tradition, almost everyone in our society today would argue that education is important.  We all acknowledge that becoming an “educated” person is worthwhile.  We spend a huge portion of our earnings and savings (or all of them and more!) on achieving that goal.  But, what does it mean to be an educated person?

This is an especially important question for those seeking a “Catholic” education.  What does a “Catholic education” look like in 2014?  What is its goal?  How is it unique?

There has been a trend, of sorts, developing in the area of Catholic institutions across North America and particularly in the United States whereby a school tries to be more Catholic by becoming more isolated or removed.  An attitude of protectionism from the disintegrating culture drives these initiatives.  Granted, there aren’t many of them, but there are enough to draw attention and sway popular opinion towards a presumption that the attitude behind them is, in fact, that of the mainline Catholic Church.

In his address during the plenary session of the Congregation for Catholic Education in February of this year, Pope Francis warned that this kind of isolationism is not the answer to the problems facing our societies today, but rather, Catholic institutions must “know how to enter, with courage, into the Areopagus of contemporary cultures and to initiate dialogue, aware of the gift they are able to offer to all.”  He went on to say that “education in our times is guided by a changing generation, and that, therefore, every educator – and the Church as a whole is an educating mother – is required to change, in the sense of knowing how to communicate with the young.”

When the topic of education arises, especially regarding Catholic education, it is important to be aware of these two approaches: the isolationist and the dialogical-adaptive.  Catholics must ask themselves – not least because we are frequently being asked by others – what is a Catholic education?  It is clear how Pope Francis would answer the question.

This question is also the theme of one episode of Salt and Light’s series The Church Alive.  In the episode, we go to the foundation of the Church’s teaching on education and discuss how it must adapt to the modern world in order to effect change.  This program is essential for educators at the high school and university levels, and for adult faith formation groups at parishes.

Purchase The Church Alive at the Salt and Light store

Deacon-structing: The Word Part Four

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Proclaiming the Word: Part Four

Last time we looked at why a homily must be scriptural, pastoral, catechetical and liturgical and that there should be one key message (focus) and one suggestion as to how we can respond to that message (function). These are great suggestions for organizing your text. However, no matter what, the preacher must ultimately stand in front of a group of people and communicate. This is where I see most homiletics courses failing (and I’m sad to say was missing in the preaching conference at St. Augustine’s).

Being a great writer of homilies and a great reader of texts, does not make one a great preacher. The first talk at the conference was by Fr. James Sullivan, OP. I will never forget when he said that, “to read someone else’s text is not preaching.” He added, “don’t read at all, even if it’s your own text.” I will deal with this during our last installment of this series.

Before we get to that, after we’ve zeroed in on a focus and function and have an idea of how to make it scriptural, catechetical, pastoral and liturgical, we still need to be able to communicate this message in a way that people will listen and can relate.

Fr. Guerric DeBona, OSB uses another homiletic model that he has taken from best-selling business and executive education writers, Chip and Dan Heath that is labelled, “SUCCESs.” This model is one that makes sense to me and so I’d like to explore how I can prepare a homily to make sure that all  (or most ) of the SUCCESs elements are present.

S – Simple: I have addressed this above. Focus on one point. This is the purpose of having a key statement or a focus. I must add that it does not need to be complicated. Sometimes the fact that it is just one idea does not guarantee that the message will be simple. I am a great fan of children’s homilies. I think most people are. The children understand. The teens understand. The parents understand. By force, these homilies have to be simple. It’s not a bad idea to keep this in mind.

U – Unexpected: This is a classic communications strategy. It is important to keep in mind that it is not done for the purposes of being gimmicky. It can only be done if it makes sense with the focus and function. I think the best example of using something that is unexpected is when a preacher does not have an answer, or begins a homily with, “I don’t understand…” or “I hate this about Christianity…” (I can see how I can “hate” having to love everyone, or the fact that being a Christian means that we will be criticised or persecuted, or that we have to carry our cross.) This can be an effective tool, because many people sitting in the pews will identify with our struggles.

C – Concrete: Again, having a clear focus will help with this. To me, being concrete means that the images and examples that I use have to be tangible. It is not very easy for people who are listening to grasp nebulous, abstract ideas or concepts. We have to give them concrete examples, things that they can relate to. For an idea or image to be concrete it has to be specific. It’s not enough to say, “In some countries they deal with some challenges when it comes to education.” That is too general. Tell them which countries and what the challenges are: “In Panama, most kids quit school before they get to highschool…” for example. Furthermore, it is my experience working in drama and as an actor, that when we have a concrete image of what we are talking about (as when speaking about something personal), it gets communicated best. It is as if the image that we have in our mind, is formed in the minds of the listeners. A good question to ask is, “how does this look, smell, feel, taste or sound.”

C – Credible: To me credibility has to do with the authenticity of the preacher and with the language he uses. If I am using words that no one can understand or language that is condescending or authoritative, I will not be credible. If I am not able to bring myself into my preaching (not that I have to talk about myself), then it will be hard for the listeners to believe me, to relate to me. In many ways, communication is about relationship and as such, a homily is not a monologue but a dialogue. People in the congregation may not verbally respond, but they are listening, reacting; images are forming in their minds. A good preacher is looking at them, his non-verbal language nuancing how his message is being received (this is why I don’t believe that reading a text, no matter how brilliant the text is, is good enough). The CATH White Paper suggests as one of the Preaching Competencies that a homily must be personal. I believe that this is what it means. It has to be authentic and loving.

E – Emotions: This is why movies, TV, music, video games, pictures and advertising are so effective: They are not intellectual; they are emotional. A good movie or song may have an intellectual message, but what makes it connect with people, what makes it move people, is that it speaks to the heart. Advertising works because people are not supposed to think about the ad. If people think about the ad, it no longer works. A good documentary or even newspaper story is most effective when it incorporates something emotional. The easiest way to use emotion is to be specific and to tell stories.

S- Stories: People love stories. Jesus himself used stories to explain ideas that cannot be explained. Some of the most memorable homilies for me have been stories (another reason why children’s homilies are effective).

The CATH White Paper lists that one of the Preaching Competencies, is “Clarifying.” While I have already covered elements of this category (doctrinal, pastoral, simple), I’d like to expand a bit, since this is an important goal of a homily: A homily needs to make a point that is worth making. It is not just giving good advice or a good bible study. A good homily helps the Word come alive in people’s lives and does so responsibly, pastorally and theologically. This is good news. It should be life-changing. People should leave the Church moved to action, like the wise men who “went another way” after they met the Christ, or the disciples of Emmaus whose hearts were burning within them.

Using the above model, in preparing for a homily, I will always ask myself, is it simple, is it unexpected, is it concrete, is it credible,  is it emotional and did I use stories. Lastly, I will ask myself, is this a message that I would like to hear and that is news to me. I have amassed quite a list of questions to help me prepare, but I think that it is a good way to stay focused on the purpose of a homily.

Come back next time and I’ll give you some tips that I learned in Theatre school about communicating a message and bringing a written text to life.

Deacon-structing: The Word Part Three

Last time  I wrote about what makes a good homily and what is an image of a preacher.  At the preaching conference, most of the presenters dedicated their talks to how a homilist should prepare. “Prepare the homilist; not the homily” was a phrase used by Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto during the keynote opening address. This, of course, does not mean that a preacher should not prepare the homily. Here’s how I think a homilist should prepare.

A good preacher must first be a person of the Gospels. Both Fr. Guerric DeBona, OSB in his book Preaching Effectively, Revitalizing Your Church as well as the USCCB publication, Fulfilled in Your Hearing speak of being “listeners of the Word” and “listeners of the people.” Not only do I have to be knowledgeable of Scripture, but I must pray the Scriptures. I must let the Scriptures speak to me – not just while preparing a homily, but all the time. The practice of Lectio Divina and the Office of Readings as is the Liturgy of the Hours, are an integral part of this. In fact, out of the eight presenters during the conference, five of them spoke of the importance of Lectio Divina.

When I approach the Scriptures I am not just reading and/or praying. I also go to the Scriptures to look for hope. I must ask myself, where is the hope in this reading? Where is the good news? Fulfilled in Your Hearing suggests that preachers go to the Scriptures asking four questions:

1-What is the human situation to which these texts were originally addressed?

2-To what human concerns and questions might these same texts have spoken through the Church’s history?

3-What is the human situation to which they can speak today? And

4-How can they help us to understand, to interpret our lives in such a way that we can turn to God with praise and thanksgiving?

In order to help the People of God find meaning for themselves in the Gospel message, I must ask these questions. I must ask these questions every time I read Scripture, so that they become second nature to my relationship with the Scriptures.

But, I began last time, by defining a homily as a witness that is honest, truthful and authentic. It needs to be clear, simple and concrete. It also needs to be pastoral, sacramental, liturgical and doctrinal. And so, I need to ask myself all these questions. I also need to zero in on the key message that I hope to share. This will force me to have one message and not a confusion of ideas. I need to think of concrete ways to share and interpret this message. It may require research. It may require looking at current affairs or examples from popular culture. The key message needs to be something about Christ or God. It is not enough to say, for example, that “today’s message is that we need to go to confession.” That is not Christ-centred. The Christological message about confession is that Christ forgives all our sins! That is good news! But, it may not be sufficient to say that Christ forgives all our sins – how do we respond to this good news?

And so an important approach for me is to find a key message. Fr. DeBona calls it the “pearl” or “focus.” The focus has to be about Christ or God. Then I have to find what Fr. DeBona calls the “function.” The function has to be an action with which the congregation can respond to the “focus.” For example, if the focus is that Christ forgives all our sins, the function can be that we need to be repentant and approach the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

In 1999 the Catholic Association of Teachers of Homiletics (CATH) updated its 1992 “Report on Homiletics Curriculum and Preaching Professor Certification”. The resulting document is titled, Roman Catholic Homiletic Preaching Competencies, but is referred to as the “CATH White Paper”. According to the “white paper” the homily needs to be sacramental and liturgical. One way of achieving this is to find part of the “function” (the response to the “Focus”) in how we respond through the Sacraments and through the Liturgy. It is always appropriate to lead out of the homily inviting people to enter into the next movement of the Liturgy. This should not be hard if the homily is indeed inviting us to praise and thanksgiving.

Lastly, I think that the homily needs to be doctrinal. This can simply mean that the truths that are being shared are not the preacher’s personal truths, but the truths of the Church. We have to be sure that what we are sharing is part of the Teaching Office of the Church. And so, to use the above example – to tell people that Christ will forgive our sins in the quiet of our bedroom, may need some further explanation if we are to be true to the fullness of the Church’s Teaching on the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Being doctrinal may mean, on occasion, that the preacher has to teach an important point of doctrine. This sometimes takes place on a special feast, where it may be appropriate to share briefly about a historical point (why we celebrate the Triumph of the Cross, or the Chair of Peter, for example). It is important, if we do so, that this is not the main focus of the homily. We have to remember that the focus needs to be Christ or God-centred.

And so we agree that the preacher has to be a man of prayer and a man of the Gospels. I spoke the first time that the preacher has to also be a listener of the people; the preacher must know his congregation. Today we looked at some ways a preacher can help focus on what the message of a particular homily is. Next time we will look at some more tips for making your homily effective and memorable.

Deacon-structing: The Word Part Two

As I wrote last Sunday, last week I attended a preaching conference as part of St. Augustine’s Seminary 100th anniversary events. It was a who’s who in preaching, with all the talks by homiletics experts from all over North America.

I think about homilies all the time. Not so much because I have to prepare one at least once a month, but because I have to listen to one at least once a week. I’m also a public speaker, and TV and radio host, so I am thinking about communication all the time.

After the conference I dug out a paper I wrote when I was in formation for the Permanent Diaconate for our homiletics course. One of the main questions we had then (and that I still have now) is “what is a homily?”. How would you respond to that question?

Here’s my definition: A homily is a joyful, loving, passionate, clear, simple and concrete teaching/learning, challenge and witness that empowers and encourages to action and to growth the people of God through the power of the Word. A good homily needs to be truthful, authentic and honest, as well as sacramental, liturgical, scriptural, pastoral, doctrinal and Christological. Our homiletics professor, Deacon Peter Lovrick thought that was a tall order.

But I think that an outstanding homily has to be authentic, personal, loving and honest. If I want to be an outstanding preacher, I need to speak with authority and joy. I have to use concrete images, stories and other tools, such as music or art to share the Good News.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has a very helpful little document on preaching called “Fulfilled in Your Hearing”. According to that publication, a preacher is a “mediator of meaning, representing both the community and the Lord”. This makes sense to me. It means that the preacher is so much more that someone who interprets Scripture: “The preacher acts as a mediator, making connections between the real lives of people who believe in Jesus Christ but are not always sure what difference faith can make in their lives, and the God who calls us into ever deeper communion with himself and with one another.” The document continues, “Especially in the Eucharistic celebration, the sign of God’s saving presence among his people, the preacher is called to point to the signs of God’s presence in the lives of his people so that, in joyous recognition of that presence, they may join the angels and saints to proclaim God’s glory and sing with them their unending hymn of praise.”

To me, while the above deals with the purpose of a homily at a higher level (that a preacher’s job is really to lead people to thanksgiving and praise) the role of the preacher is much more specific. Homilies that move me are ones that are personal and spoken with honesty and truth. They are pastoral in that they help me make connections between the realities of my life and the realities of the Gospel. A good homily doesn’t always give answers, but helps us see how God is present and acting in our lives, in the midst of whatever reality we may be facing. Fulfilled in Your Hearing clarifies this: “What the Word of God offers us is a way to interpret our human lives, a way to face the ambiguities and challenges of the human condition, not a pat answer to every problem and question that comes along.” In this way, in order for a homily to be pastoral, it has to be scriptural and also Christological.

I was eager to meet Fr. Guerric DeBona, OSB at the conference because we studied with his book Preaching Effectively, Revitalizing Your Church. In it he offers four models of preaching, as described by Robert Waznak (who has written many books on preaching, the most popular, An Introduction to the Homily). The four models are: The Herald; the Witness; the Teacher and the Interpreter. (Preaching Effectively, pages 156-162)

HERALD: The word herald is taken from the New Testament Greek word, “kerusein”, which literally means, “to proclaim”. I like the image of the proclaimer (more so than the word herald) which really does not mean much to me. After all, Jesus himself sent us to the ends of the earth to proclaim the good news (Mark 16:15) and the Second Vatican Council Document, Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, states clearly that the primary duty of priests (and deacons) is the proclamation of the Gospel to all. (Chapter II, Section 1, #4)

John the Baptist is the image of the herald for me. While other prophets, like Isaiah or Jeremiah are also proclaimers of the Word, John the Baptist literally proclaims THE Word, who is Christ. He is the voice crying out in the wilderness. (Mark 1:2-3) Like John the Baptist, a proclaimer is more than just someone who speaks. To proclaim is to announce passionately; to declare publicly. Proclaim it from the housetops  (Matthew 10:27) was Pope John Paul II’s message in 2005 to those responsible for Communications. (Apostolic Letter, The Rapid Development, John Paul II) and a message he repeated to pilgrims at World Youth Day 2002. To proclaim requires something important that has to be said. We cannot proclaim in secret. Proclamation requires a large voice, for the message is monumental. If proclamation required a musical instrument, it would not be a flute, but a trumpet!

WITNESS/TEACHER: If the Gospel of Mark ends with Jesus‚ command that we are to proclaim the good news to the whole creation, (Mark 16:15) the Book of Acts tells us how we are about to do this. The author of the Book of Acts describes the same event slightly differently: Before his ascension, Jesus tells the disciples, that they will be clothed with power from on high and they will be his witnesses throughout the ends of the earth. (Acts 1:8) If Mark says that we are to proclaim, Luke in Acts tells us that we are to do so by witnessing! Fr. DeBona uses a wonderful explanation of the power of witness, taken from Paul VI’s On Evangelization in the Modern World. Paul VI wrote that people are looking for authenticity, truth and honesty and therefore they respond more to witnesses than to teachers. In fact, if they respond to teachers, it is because these teachers are witnesses first. While the image of teacher is not entirely a bad one for me, sometimes we associate teachers with someone who is authoritative and who speaks above the listeners. Sometimes teachers are more concerned with being heard and with teaching than they are with relating. It is because of this that I prefer to use the image of proclaimer and witness, than that of teacher, although, I do believe that there is a place for teaching during a homily.

INTERPRETER: The last image Robert Waznak proposes is that of an interpreter. This is an image that is also found in Fulfilled in Your Hearing, as we saw above. While the meaning of the word may be accurate, it is not an image that for me conjures up warmth and relationship. To me, an interpreter is merely someone concerned with meaning and ideas. I think that a preacher is much more. A preacher interprets the Gospel into the realities of the listeners, but more importantly does so in a spirit of hope.

ANOTHER IMAGE: The end of the Gospel of Luke leaves us with a wonderful image of a preacher: Jesus himself. On the road to Emmaus, Jesus opens up the Scriptures to the two travellers. (Luke 24:13-35) At the end, they were left with hearts burning within them. (Luke 24:32) Every outstanding homily has left me with my heart burning within me. How do we do this? I think that first of all the preacher’s heart has to be burning. Fr. Guerric DeBona offers a wonderful image: John Wesley was once asked about the source of his effective preaching. Wesley said, “I set myself on fire and people come to watch me burn.”

MY IMAGE OF PREACHER: To me, a preacher is like a bon-fire that signals to a great distance and also gives warmth and invites people to gather. A preacher is also like a trumpet playing a warm melody. It carries importance and royal authority. His message is moving and touches the heart. It proclaims and witnesses to the good news. For these reasons, the word that best conjures up the image of a preacher for me is evangelisor.  The word evangelisor, by definition, is someone who shares or spreads the good news, the Gospel. An evangelisor is a proclaimer and a witness. An evangelisor sometimes teaches and sometimes interprets (as Jesus did on the road to Emmaus). I hope to be a preacher who, first and foremost is the bringer of good news. But not just any good news: the Good News of Jesus Christ. I hope to proclaim it, as it is the most important news there is to share. I hope to do so passionately and with joy. I hope to be a voice crying out in the wilderness. I hope to set myself on fire with the Word and, by the Grace of God, this fire will spread to those all around.

Come back on Sunday to find out how I think all homilists should prepare and please, tell me what you think. What do you think defines a good homily? What is your image of a preacher? Share your thoughts with us.

Deacon-structing: The Word Part One

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Pope Benedict wrote in the Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini that “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.” (VD 59) Add to that the 18 pages that Pope Francis dedicated to preaching in his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. In it he writes: “The homily is the touchstone for judging a pastor’s closeness and ability to communicate to his people. We know that the faithful attach great importance to it, and that both they and their ordained ministers suffer because of homilies: the laity from having to listen to them and the clergy from having to preach them!” (EG 135) It was with these thoughts in mind that I attended the preaching conference held at Toronto’s St. Augustine’s Seminary last week. The conference was titled, “How to Make Catholic Preaching Better.”

I’m a deacon. I am the minister of the Word. I think homilies are important. But before I was a deacon, I thought homilies were important (I went to theatre school and have spent the last 30 years of my life doing live theatre, film and TV, so I’ve always been a bit critical of public speakers in general) and I suspect that most of you “attach great importance” to the homily, but did you know that according to the Church, preaching is the main duty of deacons, priests and bishops? Fr. Guerric DeBona, OSB of St. Meinrad Seminary made this point very clear. In the Vatican II decree on the ministry and life of priests it says, “The People of God are joined together primarily by the word of the living God. And rightfully they expect this from their priests. Since no one can be saved who does not first believe, priests, as co-workers with their bishops, have the primary duty of proclaiming the Gospel of God to all. In this way they fulfill the command of the Lord: “Going therefore into the whole world preach the Gospel to every creature” (Mk 16:15) (Presbyterorum Ordinis #4) On the last day of the conference, Toronto Auxiliary Bishop, John Boissoneau reminded us that since the Council of Trent it has been the primary duty of Bishops to proclaim the Word of God.

So why is it that so often we come out of the Liturgy of the Word uninspired and unmoved? When was the last time you heard a good homily? Or better yet, what is a good homily? Toronto Deacon Peter Lovrick, who organized the conference began by telling us the results of a survey of  conference participants: 50% said that generally in North America preaching needed improvement; however 43% of the respondents claimed that their preaching was “good”. Fr. James Heft, SM of the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies of the University of Southern California also shared the results of a survey he used to do with seminarians. Commonly they would say that 90% of homilists were poor preachers. At the same time, 90% of these same seminarians would often claim that they were good preachers.

When Cardinal William Levada was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith I heard him say that a good homily had to be scriptural, catechetical, pastoral and liturgical. That means that first, it has to be based on the readings of the day. Not necessarily that they have to be a Bible study, but it should be rooted in the readings. But it also has to be an opportunity for teaching us something about our faith and our relationship with God. They need to be pastoral because everything we do as ministers of the Word (which is not just preaching, by the way) is pastoral. That’s why Pope Francis keeps reminding us that we need to smell like the sheep. The pastoral component of the homily is the part that connects with the listeners, helping them make sense in their lives what is being proclaimed. Lastly, the homily is not separate from the liturgy. There’s a reason why the homily happens in the Mass; it’s not just a speech, lecture or sermon. The homily should invite us to respond to the Word through the Sacraments and through the Liturgy. It is always appropriate to lead out of the homily inviting people to enter into the next movement of the Liturgy. This should not be hard if the homily is indeed inviting us to praise and to thanksgiving. Outgoing rector of St. Augustine’s, Mons. Robert Nusca reminded us in his talk that a homily is not an academic exercise; it is rather a conversation between Christ and the people. The homily should lead to prayer, but also to thinking. Many of the other presenters said the same thing.

In Verbum Domini Pope Benedict also wrote: “[The homily] 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.” (VD 59) I guess that’s why I’ve been trying to say.

Several of the speakers at the conference made the point that while the preacher must be a listener of the Word, he must also be a listener of the people. A preacher must know the congregation. A preacher must be with the people; a shepherd must be with the sheep. Fr. Guerric DeBona who is also the author of the homiletics book that I studied with, Preaching Effectively, Revitalizing Your Church (Paulist Press), said that the shaping of your homily text must be determined by who is listening: “If the text is not geared to the particular congregation, the word is not “fulfilled in their hearing.” He added that the text needs to be brought to life. The preacher needs to put flesh and bones to the message for that particular congregation. It sounds like something I would have learned in Theatre school.

The opening keynote address was given by Toronto’s Archbishop, Cardinal Thomas Collins. One of his comments was that we must prepare the homilist before we prepare the homily. In fact, most of the speakers dedicated their talks to this very thing: helping prepare the homilist. The homilist has to be a man of prayer. The homilist has to in relationship with Scriptures. The homilist must be in constant study and prayer with the Word. As well as Cardinal Collins, four other of the eight presenters spoke about Lectio Divina and how important such type of prayer is for a homilist. Lastly, as I just wrote above, the homilist must be with the people.

The main question that I still have is what makes a good homily. I’m curious to know what you think. Do you believe that content is more important than style; that the medium is the message? Is it enough to have a great message if the preacher is not a good communicator? To read or not to read? To walk around or to stand behind the pulpit? If you are a preacher, how do you prepare? Write a comment; share with us what you think.

Attending the conference made me go back to a paper that I wrote for our homiletics class while I was in formation for the permanent diaconate. Come back on Wednesday and I’ll share with you what I found.

 

To listen to a conversation I had with Fr. Guerric DeBona on this very subject, listen to the May 31, 2014 edition of the SLHour.


Photo credit: Jesuit Father Gregory C. Chisholm, pastor at St. Charles Borromeo Church in the Harlem section of New York, delivers a homily at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)