Derived from the Greek word homilia (verb form homilein ) that means primarily a being together, communion, social intercourse; the parallel Latin word is commercium. Homily connotes the idea of a meeting of minds and hearts and so it very soon took on the meaning of familiar speech with someone, of conversation, and of familiar discourse with a gathering. These still remain the basic notes of a genuine homily: a familiar (in the sense of fatherly) conversation with a group of people.
History. Although the etymology is an aid to understanding what the homily essentially is, a familiar discourse, it does not really give the specific Christian meaning of the word. For that one must look to the history of preaching and the use of the term in Christian literature. There the homily is a familiar discourse made by a pastor of souls to the people confided to his care, a conversational discourse that is given during the liturgical action upon a text suggested by the liturgy. This is the character of the genuine homily from the time it makes its first appearance in the 2d-century description of the Mass given by St. Justin down through the golden age of the homily in the 4th and 5th centuries and well into medieval times. This form of preaching at once so pastoral and so biblical has been revived by the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of Vatican Council II.
Beginning. While the remote origin of the homily may have been the commentary on the Scriptures that were read in the synagogue service, the Christian form was something altogether new. The Scripture commentary that formed part of the synagogue service was more didactic and explanatory whereas the Christian homily appears more as an exhortation based upon the text, or an application of the text to Christian living. The homily described by Justin in his first Apology is certainly more than a mere exegesis of the text: "After the reading of the Scriptures the president of the brethren exhorts us (or verbally admonishes us) to the imitation of these good examples (things) in a speech" (1 Apology 67; J. Quasten, ed., Monumenta eucharista et liturgica vetusstissima 19).
Patristic Period. From the 3d century onward the homily took more definite shape and this type of preaching reached its fullest development in the homilies of the Fathers of the Church, in both East and West. Normally the homily was given by the celebrant (who was usually the bishop) during the Eucharistic synaxis; in fact it was an almost indispensable part of Sunday worship. It consisted of an explanation and application of one or other of the texts read or sung in the liturgical assembly.
The great homilists among the Fathers were Origen, the Cappadocians, and John Chrysostom in the East, and Hippolytus, Ambrose, Augustine, Maximus of Turin, Zeno of Verona, and Leo the Great in the West. Origen himself shows that the homily is more than a mere commentary on the Scripture: "It is not a time to comment, but to edify the Church of God and to move inert and nonchalant hearers by the example of the saints and mystical explanations" (Hom. in Gen. 10.5; Patrologia Graeca, ed. J. P. Migne, 12:219). He was also the first to make the distinction between "logos" (sermo) and "homilia" (tractatus). The first was preaching in the style of the classical orations, while the homily was the form of preaching in which popular exegesis of Scripture was given.
Basil is remembered for his homilies on the Hexaemeron (six days of creation), on the Psalms, and on moral subjects. John Chrysostom commented upon Genesis, the Psalms, the Gospels of Matthew and John, the Acts of the Apostles, and the Epistles of Paul. In the West Hilary of Poitiers gave homilies on the Psalms. From Ambrose came homilies on the Hexaemeron, the Psalms, and the Gospel of Saint Luke. Augustine emerged as the greatest preacher among the Western Fathers. He commented in homilies upon the Sermon on the Mount, the Gospel of John, and the Psalms, as well as upon numerous other isolated passages in the Scriptures. Less well known, yet of considerable value, are the Biblical homilies of Peter Chrysologus, Maximus of Turin, Faustus of Rietz, and Caesarius of Arles. Gregory I kept up the patristic tradition of Biblical homilies.
Because the Scripture readings were, in due time, selected with a view to their appropriateness for the feast celebrated, the homily took on a new task, that of explaining the meaning of the feast. Consequently, many of the patristic collections of sermons center around the great feasts of the Church year. This is true both in the East and in the West. In the East John Chrysostom and the two Gregories are the most conspicuous. In the West Augustine is joined by Zeno of Verona and especially by Leo the Great. His sermons on the great feasts remain one of the best commentaries on the liturgical year.
The homilies spoken of up to this point were delivered by pastors to their flocks. They exemplify the principle that a true homily is a popular exposition and application of the Scriptures. There is another kind of homily however, delivered to a more select audience; this type had considerable influence on later spiritual writers. These were the monastic homilies, given to a community of monks by such leading writers as Jerome and Cassiodorus. Both of these men dealt with the Psalms in their homilies, but Jerome commented on the Gospels as well. Gregory the Great concentrated on the Book of Job, while the Venerable Bede dealt mostly with the Gospels. Some writers consider Bernard to be the last of the Fathers; in any case his sermons on the Church year and the Canticle of Canticles found many admirers and imitators.
In general one must say that the homilies of the Fathers from Origen to Bernard set the tradition for the homily for all time. For them the homily was essentially a popular exposition of the Scriptures read or sung in the liturgical assembly. The fact that they stayed close to the text and sought to make the Word of God the instrument for the spiritual formation of the faithful makes their approach valid in any age.
Medieval Period. The homilies of the Fathers set the tone for preaching right down to the 13th century. But with the coming of the friars the homily properly socalled declined, and it was replaced chiefly by the sermon, which developed more or less independently of the liturgical action.
The Council of Trent commanded pastors of souls to preach during Mass upon the text of the Mass, but it was not until the 19th century that the homily in the ancient patristic sense began to revive.
20th Century Developments. The 1917 Code of Canon Law enjoined the homily upon pastors of souls at the principal Mass on Sundays and feast days. But it was not until the liturgical movement began to take hold in Europe that the homily was revived in many places. It was the Second Vatican Council which gave the impetus needed for the restoration of the Homily to its privileged place within the Eucharist and, indeed, within the liturgies of all the Sacraments.
The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of Vatican Council II not only enjoined the homily upon those who have the care of souls but it also restated and amplified the traditional concept of what a homily is. Never before in any official document has there been so clear a statement of the nature and aim of the homily. The homily is "an exposition of the mysteries of faith and the guiding principles of the Christian life expounded from the sacred text read in the liturgy during the liturgical assembly"(52). It is "a proclamation of God's wonderful works in the history of salvation, the mystery of Christ ever made present and active within us, especially during the celebration of the sacred liturgy" (35). Consequently, the homily is "part of the liturgy itself" (52), "part of the liturgical service" (35). To this end, the Constitution decreed: (1) "more ample, more varied and more suitable readings from Sacred Scripture," and (2) a sermon or homily drawing its content "mainly from scriptural and liturgical sources" and directed toward a deeper understanding of "the mystery of Christ ever made present and active in us," especially in the liturgical celebration itself (34).
United States Bishops on the Homily. The 1982 United States Bishops' document, Fulfilled in Your Hearing: The Homily in the Sunday Assembly unfolds and develops the theological principles and pastoral norms on the homily that were enunciated in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, incorporating the "reading of the signs of the times" motif from the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. In doing so, it speaks of the homily as "a scriptural interpretation of human existence which enables a community to recognize God's active presence" (Fulfilled in Your Hearing 29). It reiterates the point that the homily does not primarily concern itself with a systematic theological understanding of the faith, because the liturgical gathering is not primarily an educational or catechetical assembly, but a worshiping assembly (Fulfilled in Your Hearing 17–18). The document defines the homilist as a "mediator of meaning" (Fulfilled in Your Hearing 7), who "does not so much attempt to explain the scriptures as to interpret the human situation through the Scriptures" (Fulfilled in Your Hearing 20). It explains that the preacher "represents this community voicing its concerns, by naming its demons, and thus enabling it to gain some understanding and control of the evil which afflicts it. He represents the Lord by offering the community another word, a word of healing and pardon, of acceptance and love" (Fulfilled in Your Hearing 7). Therefore, the primary responsibility of the homilist is not to explain but to interpret for the benefit of the liturgical assembly.
The Homily is conceived of not merely as a catechetical instruction located within the Eucharistic Liturgy; rather, it is conceived of primarily as a pastoral reflection on the mystery actually being celebrated in the liturgical event, an event which is a kind of peak moment in the ongoing mystery of the believer's new life in Christ. This same view of the importance and the chief function of the Homily has prevailed in the post-conciliar development of the other Sacraments; it is reflected in the postconciliar rituals for Baptism, Penance, Matrimony, and the Anointing of the Sick. The ritual for each of these Sacraments calls for a Homily following selected scriptural Readings, based on the Readings, and directed towards a greater understanding of, and therefore a greater participation in, the sacramental mystery itself. The new regime of the Sacraments, therefore, calls for the closest possible integration of the ministry of Word and Sacrament, in order to bring about a more perfect interiorization of the Christian mystery itself, a mystery revealed in the Word, symbolized in Sacrament, and lived out in the faith-life of a believer continually inspired and energized by Word and Sacrament.
Bibliography: e. echlin, Priest as Preacher (Cork 1973). j. hofinger, Evangelization and Catechesis (New York 1976). bishops' committee on priestly life and ministry: n.c.c.b., Fulfilled in Your Hearing: The Homily in the Sunday Assembly (Washington, D.C. 1982). y. brilioth, A Brief History of Preaching (Philadelphia 1965). k. rahner, ed., The Renewal of Preaching: Theory and Practice (New York 1968). w. skudlarek, The Word in Worship: Preaching in a Liturgical Context (Nashville 1981). t. k. carroll, Preaching the Word (Wilmington, Del.1984). r. p. waznak, Sunday After Sunday: Preaching the Homily As Story (New York 1983). r. p. waznak, Like Fresh Bread: Sunday Homilies in the Parish (New York 1993). r. p. waznak, An Introduction to the Homily (Collegeville, Minn. 1998). p. janowiak, The Holy Preaching: The Sacramentality of the Word in the Liturgical Assembly (Collegeville, Minn. 2000).
[w. j. o'shea/
t. d. rover/eds.]
hom·i·ly / ˈhäməlē/ • n. (pl. -lies) a religious discourse that is intended primarily for spiritual edification rather than doctrinal instruction; a sermon. ∎ a tedious moralizing discourse: she delivered her homily about the need for patience. DERIVATIVES: hom·i·list / -list/ n. ORIGIN: late Middle English: via Old French from ecclesiastical Latin homilia, from Greek, ‘discourse, conversation’ (in ecclesiastical use, ‘sermon’), from homilos ‘crowd.’
So homiletic XVII. — late L. — Gr. homīlētikós, f. homīlētós, vbl. adj. of homīleîn consort or hold converse with.