About 20 years ago, I remember talking to one of my brother priests who had recently done a survey in his parish. I don’t know the details of the survey, but he did it to gauge the faith of his flock, and I remember him expressing his surprise at the answer to one of the questions on the survey. The question, as I recall it, was to see what part of the Mass his parishioners thought was most important. To his shock, the overwhelming number of parishioners thought the homily was the most important.
|Father Richard Kunst
It is not. Not even close.
The most important part of the Mass is when you are kneeling and the priest is at the altar — the consecration, or the words of institution to be exact. If we could see with our eyes what happens at the altar at the point of the consecration, we would never even think of skipping Mass; we cannot fathom with our finite brains how much God expresses his love for us in the act of the Eucharistic Prayer, and so we kneel to express our humility in light of that reality.
So the homily is not the most important part of the Mass. In fact, it is possible to have a Mass without a homily, and maybe in some instances it is better that way!
All this being said, I do not want to shortchange the importance of the homily, because it is indeed important, maybe more important than you think. You might think the priest (or deacon) is the south end of a horse, you might think his homilies are too long and too boring, you may think his homilies are too hard to understand or follow. All these things might be true, but the fact is, because he is ordained, it is his responsibility and duty to preach. When a deacon, priest, or bishop are ordained, they are ordained in part to preach. It is an essential part of their duty as ordained ministers. This has always been the case from the very conception of the church, and it is rooted in scripture.
Writing to his younger assistant, Paul’s letters to Timothy are full of priestly advice, including advice concerning homilies. In the fourth chapter of his first letter to Timothy, Paul says, “Do not neglect the gift you have, which was conferred on you through the prophetic word with the imposition of hands by the presbyterate” (1 Timothy 4:13). The gift Paul is referencing is Timothy’s ordination, his priesthood. “The imposition of hands by the presbyterate” is the actual ordination rite both in the ancient church and today. This is why if you have ever gone to an ordination of a priest, you have seen all the other priests one by one lay hands on the head of the one being ordained.
Just a couple lines after Paul tells Timothy not to neglect the gift of his priesthood, he says, “Attend to yourself and your teaching; persevere in both tasks, for by doing so you will save both yourself and those who listen to you” (4:16). Read that line a couple of times, because it packs a punch if you understand it appropriately. Paul is stressing the huge significance of priests preaching of homilies, that they are preached in order to save the priest himself, as well as his listeners!
The first take away for me in this verse is that when we priests and deacons preach, we are also preaching to ourselves. Do not think for a moment that just because we are preaching, that we have it all together. We do not! I am very aware that I need to hear the words of my homilies as much if not more than anyone else.
But think of that when you hear that homily on the weekend. The end goal and purpose of that homily is to get you to heaven. That is a pretty big deal. For my part, I have always thought of my homilies as a five to seven minute chance to offset all the crud and junk we get exposed to all throughout the week, and because of this I have always taken the writing of my homilies to be of great significance in my own ministry.
By no means is the homily the most important part of the Mass, but it is indeed important because of its purpose, which is to get you to heaven. Even if the homily is long and boring, or you don’t like the priest or deacon, still pay as much attention as you can to get something out of it so as to get closer to Christ and be with him forever.
Father Richard Kunst is pastor of St. James and St. Elizabeth in Duluth. Reach him at [email protected].