Most Catholics only get exposed to Bible at Mass, so homilies need to hit the mark: US cardinal

22 Oct 2008

By The Record

US cardinal says priests must prioritise, devote time to homilies.

Cardinal DiNardo

ROME (CNS) – Although today’s priests often are burdened by heavy schedules, they need to make Sunday preaching a priority and take the time to create intelligent and inspiring homilies, said Texas Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston.
He said the improvement of homilies was one of the biggest concerns to emerge during the first half of the Synod of Bishops on the Bible.
Better homiletics courses in seminaries have been suggested, but at a more basic level the solution requires a time investment by priests, the cardinal said.
“I think a priest is going to have to understand that even with all his activities during the week, which are important, he probably won’t reach as many people as he does in his Sunday homily,” he said. “And therefore the preparation of his Sunday homily is an extremely important aspect of his ministry of interpreting God’s word.”
A good homily will require the priest to think through the theology of scriptural texts and make the connection between the text and people’s lives, Cardinal DiNardo said. “I don’t know that there’s a magic wand for that,” he said. One important element, he said, is prayerful reflection, and another is practice – bouncing ideas off other people to see what works and what doesn’t.
The synod has heard several participants say that homilies must not be limited to historical insights on biblical texts, but should reach for deeper meaning that reflects Catholic understanding of Scripture as the living word of God.
Cardinal DiNardo offered an example, Chapter 1 of the Gospel of Mark. A good homilist, he said, will notice that this account of the beginning of Jesus’ activity with his apostles is marked by moments of deep prayer to his father – in a sense, Jesus opens their eyes to how God is working in the world. That’s something worth highlighting in a homily, he said.
“That God’s agency in the world can be clear with the eyes of faith, in my mind is still pretty important, especially in our secularized culture,” he said.
Nonliturgical preaching is not limited to priests, and Cardinal DiNardo said lay catechists are a good example of a “critical group that is involved to a certain extent in preaching God’s word.” Therefore, the solid formation of catechists, religious education directors and youth ministers is essential, he said.
That’s one reason Cardinal DiNardo suggested to the synod that a compendium be drawn up to highlight useful methods and approaches for reading, interpreting, praying and living the word of God. It would be addressed primarily to the faithful, not experts, he said, adding that one thing the compendium could explain is what the Church means when it says Scripture is truly the word of God but is also the words of human beings. That’s an issue that can arise between Catholics and evangelical Protestants in the southern and midwestern United States, he said.
“We will probably have our tensions” with Christian fundamentalists on discovering how the human author conveys God’s message, he said.
He said fundamentalists also have trouble understanding Catholic ecclesiology and how the church’s history of interpretation plays an important role in its understanding of Scripture.
“There’s a deeper spiritual meaning that all the Scriptures have, that can only be read in light of the whole teaching of the church,” he said. This “bigger picture” will probably be missed by people who simply open the Bible and start reading it, he said.
On the other hand, Cardinal DiNardo said, fundamentalists and evangelical groups have kept alive the idea that God speaks to people through Scripture and is active in the world.
“I think the notion of divine agency in the world is something we can agree with them on. And that’s not unimportant, because the secularist mindset is that anyone who would see God’s agency in the world is naive, and it would ridicule such points of view,” he said.
Cardinal DiNardo said that among Hispanic Catholics he has found a relatively greater reception to the “miraculous” in daily life and therefore an openness to the narrative of Scripture as a living reality.
“Within the Hispanic community the whole sense of life every day is much more filled with what I call God’s direct presence. And that’s beautiful in terms of reading Scripture,” he said.
The Anglo culture tends to be more reserved about God’s direct intervention, he said, adding that one rather unexpected issue that has come forward at the synod is the lack of translations of the Bible in local languages, especially in Africa and Oceania.
“With 7000 languages and only a few hundred with full translations of the Bible, obviously the bishops are concerned that there be access to the Scriptures,” he said.
Biblical translation takes time, and the Vatican’s approval process can take years.
He said some have suggested the establishment of schools of translation in or near Rome, so that people can be trained to do the translations in these minor languages and so Vatican approval can be expedited.