A good homily requires closeness to Sacred Scriptures and to the people

This is the Final Part of the talk given by Archbishop Joseph Marino, Apostolic Nuncio to Malaysia, to the clergy at the 1st Malaysian Catholic Clergy Assembly (MCCA) on July 16 at Majodi, Plentong.

Sep 14, 2018

My brother priests, Pope Francis dedicated an entire chapter in Joy of the Gospel to the question of the homily, what it is and how to prepare it. In short, he wrote that there are two sources of the homily, the Word of God, specifically the readings of the liturgy, and the lives of the people. The genius of a homily, that is, a homily which will truly resonate within the hearts and lives of the people, is one which connects, in an inspiring manner, the Word with life. Such a homily requires that we be close to the Sacred Scriptures and close to our people.

Our preaching must resemble “the preaching” of Jesus when he spoke on the road to Emmaus. His words caused the hearts of the disciples “to burn” (Lk. 24:32). Our preaching must be like those of the apostles which “cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37).

Pope Francis put it this way: “The homily is the touchstone ‘for judging a pastor’s closeness and ability to communicate with his people’ (EG, 135). In the homily, we can see how close we have been to God in prayer and how close we are to our people in their daily lives” (Chrism Mass, March 29, 2018).

And let us not forget the sound recommendation that the Holy Father gave us, the homily should not last more than ten minutes.

There is another obstacle that impedes us from being close to the people, namely, when we “fall into the temptation of making idols of certain abstract truths” (Chrism Mass, March 29, 2018). On this point, Pope Francis said that such idols can make us comfortable and give us prestige, but they are only imitations, which “dress up the words of the Gospel, and do not touch the heart. Much worse they distance ordinary people from the healing closeness of the word and of the sacraments of Jesus” (Chrism Mass, March 29, 2018).

It is exactly what the Holy Father denounced in the Joy of the Gospel. There he critiqued “spiritual worldliness” and described those as having a feeling of “superiority to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past. A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelising, one analyses and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying. In neither case is one really concerned about Jesus Christ or others” (EG, n.93).
He continues and writes: “In some people, we see an ostentatious preoccupation for the liturgy, for doctrine and for the Church’s prestige, but without any concern that the Gospel have a real impact on God’s faithful people and the concrete needs of the present time. In this way, the life of the Church turns into a museum piece or something which is the property of a select few (EG, n.94). From these descriptions, not only are we not close to people, we exclude and distance people from the Family of God.

It is always so reassuring to hear about the enormous number of people coming into the Church at Easter, and for that, you are to be truly congratulated. However, do we have statistics on how many people have left the Church or distanced themselves from the Church?

And if people are leaving, we must ask some self-reflecting questions on why they are leaving, and I have proposed these questions in other settings: How many people have left the Church because we pushed them away? How many people have left the Family of God because of a harsh judgment from us as priests or Bishop? How many people have left the Church because the door was closed in a particular time of need? How many people decided to join other groups or religions because they found no comfort or mercy in our community? How many people were never attracted to the message because we ourselves distorted the message, by forgetting that God is love, rich in mercy and slow in anger? How many people have turned from us because we turned from them and left no place for them at the table? How many people said goodbye, when they discovered that bureaucracy is more important than the human person and, more tragically, more important than his or her spiritual needs, which often are urgent and vital?

Perhaps, this is what our Holy Father had in mind when he said in the Joy of the Gospel: “We must recognise that if part of our baptised people lack a sense of belonging to the Church, this is also due to certain structures and the occasionally unwelcoming atmosphere of some of our parishes and communities, or to a bureaucratic way of dealing with problems, be they simple or complex, in the lives of our people. In many places, an administrative approach prevails over a pastoral approach, as does a concentration on administering the sacraments apart from other forms of evangelisation” (EG, n.63).

Closeness is what makes us attractive, and it is the key to mercy. It is only by being close to God and his people can we, another Christ, assure that “the balm of mercy reaches everyone” Misericordiae Vultus (MV), (MV, n.5).

My brothers, we can never tire of being ministers of mercy. We can never be stingy of giving mercy. We cannot hold back the mercy of God, which we ourselves receive over and over again. Mercy would be an abstract thought if it were not given by the touch of the priest and a kind and reassuring word from us. To be merciful means to be ministers of discernment, walking with our people, listening to our people and gently pointing them to the ever-refreshing joy of the Gospel, which alone has the power to fulfill the aspirations and yearnings of the human heart.

To be close to the people means to put into practice, what Pope Francis calls “the logic of mercy” which signifies to show compassion, to reach and find those who are marginalised and to reinstate them. That was the ministry of Christ, and we who are another Christ must be compassionate, seek and reinstate. We can only do that by being close to the people, physically, humanly and emotionally.

In this same line, the Pope said in a homily to new Cardinals in 2015: “There are two ways of thinking and having faith: we can fear to lose the saved or we can want to save the lost” (Homily of February 15, 2015). However, he went on to say: “The Church’s way … has always been the way of Jesus, the way of mercy and reinstatement” … “rolling up our sleeves and not standing by and watching passively the suffering of the world. The way of the Church is not to condemn anyone for eternity but, rather, to pour out the balm of God’s mercy on all those who ask for it with a sincere heart. The way of the Church is precisely to leave her four walls behind and to go out in search of those who are distant, those essentially on the ‘outskirts’ of life’” (Homily of February15, 2015).

At the end of the Audience, which I had with Pope Francis last March 15, I wanted him to bless two small crosses which I intended to give to two people back in Kuala Lumpur. I had trouble getting them out of the pocket of my cassock. As I was searching for them, I told the Holy Father that I wanted him to bless these crosses, if I could find them! He softly said: “For the people, anything.” Let us make those words our own; yes, let them be the motto of our priesthood: “for the people anything.”

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