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Friday, January 15, 2021

The Homily Is Not Part of the Liturgy

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The Homily Is Not Part of the Liturgy

In his great work The Idea of a University of 1852, John Henry Newman at one point turns aside from his main point to explain the difference between a minister of the sacraments and a preacher:

In this respect the preacher differs from the minister of the sacraments, that he comes to his hearers, in some sense or other, with antecedents.

Clad in his sacerdotal vestments, he [the minister of sacraments] sinks what is individual in himself altogether, and is but the representative of Him from whom he derives his commission. His words, his tones, his actions, his presence, lose their personality; one bishop, one priest, is like another; they all chant the same notes, and observe the same genuflexions, as they give one peace and one blessing, as they offer one and the same sacrifice. The Mass must not be said without a Missal under the priest’s eye; nor in any language but that in which it has come down to us from the early hierarchs of the Western Church.

But, when it is over, and the celebrant has resigned the vestments proper to it, then he resumes himself, and comes to us in the gifts and associations which attach to his person. He knows his sheep, and they know him; and it is this direct bearing of the teacher on the taught, of his mind upon their minds, and the mutual sympathy which exists between them, which is his strength and influence when he addresses them. They hang upon his lips as they cannot hang upon the pages of his book. Definiteness is the life of preaching. A definite hearer, not the whole world; a definite topic, not the whole evangelical tradition; and, in like manner, a definite speaker. Nothing that is anonymous will preach; nothing that is dead and gone; nothing even which is of yesterday, however religious in itself and useful. Thought and word are one in the Eternal Logos, and must not be separate in those who are His shadows on earth. They must issue fresh and fresh, as from the preacher’s mouth, so from his breast, if they are to be “spirit and life” to the hearts of his hearers.[1]

In this passage, Newman strongly emphasizes—and evidently approves of—the “objectivity” and “instrumentality” of the minister. The minister’s personality and individuality are suppressed in his office, in the regimented words he is bidden to speak and the set actions he is enjoined to perform. No member of the faithful should expect to find creativity, spontaneity, social class distinctions, or educational levels emerging in the strictly ritual aspects of the priesthood or episcopacy. The vestments he wears show that he is acting the role of another; he “sinks” what is individual in order to be the “representative” of Christ. The great sign of this unity and universality is that all clergy “chant the same notes and observe the same genuflexions,” understanding that it is just such worship that is fitting in itself and useful for the people; there is no need to “change it up” for variety’s sake, as that would, in fact, weaken the beneficial effects of steady and constant ritual. The missal must be “under his eye,” that he may read off the words (never improvising), nor should he, a priest of the Roman rite, utilize any language “but that in which it has come down to us from the early hierarchs of the Western Church”—ecclesiastical Latin.


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How disconcerting it is that for the past few decades, and even today, most of Newman’s description of the cleric at public prayer would be well-nigh unrecognizable. This point is too obvious to require unpacking.

Second, and in sharp contrast, Newman describes the preacher as one who has divested himself of (at least some of) the symbols of his liturgical office, and now approaches the people precisely as an individual, as a man with his own mind, who strives to convey the message of the Eternal Logos to the congregation directly in front of him, here and now, drawing upon his own gifts and his knowledge of their needs. Whereas in ritual he enters into the age-old dialogue between the Bridegroom and the Bride, in the pulpit he brings to bear his mind upon the minds of his auditors. It is a horizontal relationship—in service of the truth, yes, but not an act of divine worship as such. For Newman, the faithful can “hang upon his lips as they cannot hang upon the pages of his book” (i.e., the altar missal). The missal’s words are “of yesterday,” they are not “fresh and fresh,” issuing “as from the preacher’s mouth” or “his breast.” It is crucial to see that this is no criticism of ritualized prayer on Newman’s part—ritual has its own requirements and benefits, and rightly is the priest’s eye glued to the Latin of the missal—but rather, a clear distinction is being drawn between the order of worship and the order of instruction. Godward adoration is one thing; teaching the people is another. The former may incidentally instruct and the latter may incidentally prompt interior acts of worship, but their natures and orientations are contrary to one another. Contrary, not contradictory.

In short, when the minister undertakes to preach, to some extent he puts off Christ and “resumes himself.” This is why, traditionally, the priest removes at least the maniple, and sometimes the chasuble too, prior to preaching, as a symbolic indication that he is “resuming himself,” speaking in his own voice, obviously (one hopes) not against the voice of Christ and the Church, as in the preaching of Arius or Luther, but not simply to be equated with them. The traditional liturgical rites really are the voice of the Church at prayer, and the gifts of her Lord in His providential governance of her rites over the course of time. We can and must say “lex orandi, lex credendi” (the way we pray declares what we believe), but we cannot and must not say “lex praedicandi, lex credendi” (the way we preach declares what we believe). For preaching is by no means guaranteed to be free of heresy, immorality, mediocrity, or irrelevance, whereas the traditional prayer of the Church cannot be tainted with any such faults. Let us not forget that many heretics, including Arius and Nestorius, have gotten their start down through the ages in the homilies they preached from the pulpit.

*            *            *

Now let us consider the situation “on the ground” in the mainstream of the Catholic Church. First, the rituality of the ritual has greatly suffered: the idea that the priest is an animated instrument or tool who simply ought to “do the red and say the black” is rarely accepted. The ars celebrandi and the ars praedicandi are seen as two sides of the same coin: the clergy are (contrary to Newman) to personalize the liturgy just as they are (in accord with Newman) to personalize the message from the pulpit. Second, there is no meaningful distinction between the manner in which the Word of God is proclaimed and the manner in which the homily is delivered. Third, no sacred garment is removed before the priest delivers his homily, since the maniple has been treated as if abolished (although it is not), and any priest who decided to remove his chasuble before preaching would quickly earn a reputation for eccentricity and an appointment with the local Ordinary. The general inflation of the ineptly-named Liturgy of the Word has brought about a situation where the homily has acquired too great an importance, while the general decline in theological literacy has evacuated homilies of orthodox and nourishing content.

A friend once wrote to me the following insightful email, to the content of which I am sure many readers can relate:

We just returned from vacation in [——] where we attended a Novus Ordo that was a noisy, irrerevent affair. As the chatty priest said from the altar, it was a “celebration.” However, he gave a rock-solid, orthodox homily. I had an epiphany at that Mass. Up to that point, I had never understood why so many of our Novus Ordo friends church-hopped because of the quality of a priest’s homily. To me, the deciding factor was always how reverently he offered the Holy Sacrifice. But at this Mass in [——], I realized that our friends do this because the homily at the N.O. is the most significant element. The form of that Mass itself is not beautiful and rarely has artistic beauty attached to it, so that is not what attracts the faithful. The Mass barely conveys the fundamental theology of sacrifice, so there is little or no sense that one is at the foot of the Cross with Mary and John. There’s little or no focus on adoration, because the Real Presence is downplayed, and most don’t believe in it. So, it’s the homily that ends up feeling like the meat of the Mass. Contrast this with the TLM, where you get the full banquet: the ritual is obviously a sacrifice; it is beautiful and permeated with adoration.

My final thought is that until the Novus Ordo is suppressed, there will be no unity in the Church. This vacation Mass—which, I have to say, was pretty typical of what I’ve experienced at any time in my life—was like a prayer service at a Protestant church. It wasn’t even akin to a Novus Ordo in Latin and was nothing like a TLM. It didn’t seem Catholic at all. How long will we pretend that the Church can remain one, while celebrating a pluralistic, metastasizing liturgy?

Leaving aside his other comments on which one could profitably dilate, my friend was absolutely right in speaking about the dominance of the homily. Karl Rahner and members of the radical wing of the Liturgical Movement before the Council wanted exactly this Protestant shift to “the Word” (or, as they always liked to say, the Kerygma) and the preaching of it to “Modern Man.” The sacrificial stuff, to them, reeked of the Middle Ages and superstition. Luther’s long-overdue vindication was finally at hand.

Downstream, we are reaping the fruits of these treasons and stratagems. How often have we had to suffer through an interminable flood of words, in which one drowns, by which one is suffocated, with no relief? Always being talked at, as if the whole point of being at Mass is to be addressed, the sole occupation of the Christian to be informed at every moment of what is happening. It turns the whole Mass into a homily. The homily lengthens and spreads out until it consumes the entire body of the liturgy, with mini-homilies popping up here and there like weeds in the springtime.

It’s a curious thing—I have heard very lengthy sermons preached at traditional Latin Masses, and yet they didn’t seem nearly as long as the same preaching would have felt at a Novus Ordo Mass. I think the crucial difference is that the old Mass can “hold its own” against long homilies; its own silence, its ceremonial, its chants, have a greater power than any human speech and therefore relativize it. But the Novus Ordo throughout is largely in the same mode as the homily—verbal, verbose, always “out loud,” making the liturgy seems like a long preparation for the homily, and then a long coda or afterthought tacked on to it. The homily, rather than the Canon, becomes the center of gravity, which is helped along by the way the clergy treat the homily: they are thinking of it as a high point (it’s what they have typically put the most time and effort into), and they expect the congregation to do the same.

*            *            *

In the spirit of parrhesia or Christian boldness on which Pope Francis has insisted and which has been practiced by Archbishop Viganò in his essays on the Second Vatican Council, it seems to me that this false exaltation of Scripture, isolating it from its traditional liturgical context, and the parallel inflation of the place of preaching, can both be traced back to the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. Regarding Scripture, enough has been written here and elsewhere about the systemic flaws of the new lectionary and its principles. Regarding the homily, here is what Sacrosanctum Concilium says:

Homilia, qua per anni liturgici cursum ex textu sacro fidei mysteria et normae vitae christianae exponuntur, ut pars ipsius liturgiae valde commendatur; quinimmo in Missis quae diebus dominicis et festis de praecepto concurrente populo celebrantur, ne omittatur, nisi gravi de causa.

By means of the homily the mysteries of the faith and the guiding principles of the Christian life are expounded from the sacred text, during the course of the liturgical year; the homily, therefore, is to be highly esteemed as part of the liturgy itself; in fact, at those Masses which are celebrated with the assistance of the people on Sundays and feasts of obligation, it should not be omitted except for a serious reason. (n. 52)

For all the reasons given thus far, this assertion cannot be correct as formulated. The homily is not “part of the liturgy” as such, for the liturgy is the solemn official public prayer of the Church, fixed and determinate and free from error, and the homily is an insertion into the liturgy of a period of instruction by the preacher, who thereby steps outside of cultic worship.[2] Indeed, section 7 of Sacrosanctum Concilium seems to undermine the claim made in section 52. Having noted that “Christ is always present in His Church, especially in her liturgical celebrations,” section 7 continues:

He is present in the sacrifice of the Mass, not only in the person of His minister, “the same now offering, through the ministry of priests, who formerly offered himself on the cross,” but especially under the Eucharistic species. By His power He is present in the sacraments, so that when a man baptizes it is really Christ Himself who baptizes. He is present in His word, since it is He Himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the Church. He is present, lastly, when the Church prays and sings, for He promised: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20).

Notice that nowhere is it said that Christ is present in the preaching. The reason can be inferred from the words that follow:

Rightly, then, the liturgy is considered as an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ. In the liturgy the sanctification of the man is signified by signs perceptible to the senses, and is effected in a way which corresponds with each of these signs; in the liturgy the whole public worship is performed by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the Head and His members. From this it follows that every liturgical celebration, because it is an action of Christ the priest and of His Body which is the Church, is a sacred action surpassing all others; no other action of the Church can equal its efficacy by the same title and to the same degree. (Ibid.)

None of these descriptions can be applied to preaching. Every part of the Mass can be considered an “action of Christ the priest and of His Body” except the homily—for obviously, here the priest is neither identifying himself with Christ, nor representing the people to the Father. He is addressing them as a man appointed to teach addresses his pupils. If he is a good, intelligent, and holy man, his teaching will be effective and build up the Church; if he is not, it will be useless or harmful. But in no case it is a liturgical action. Henry Sire treats us to a more vigorous statement of the same idea:

The sacraments, and especially the Mass, are gifts whose efficacy is from the intrinsic power of God. Preaching has no such guarantee; it may be ineffective, and it may be actively pernicious. It is, moreover, a ministry that does not depend on the priestly character and cannot therefore be part of its essence. To put the preaching function of the priest before the sacramental is a monstrosity in antithesis to religious realities.[3]

The same view is implied in the Congregation of Bishops’ Directory for the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops, published in March of 2004, where we read:

The Bishop should consider his responsibility for divine worship to be his pre-eminent role: his other activity as teacher and Pastor is ordered to this sanctifying function. Although closely united by nature to the ministries of teaching and governing, the sanctifying role is distinguished from the others insofar as it is specifically exercised in the person of Christ, Eternal High Priest, and insofar as it constitutes the source and summit of the Christian life. (Apostolorum Successores, n. 142)

In other words, the sanctifying office (munus sanctificandi) alone is specifically exercised in the person of Christ, not the ministries of teaching and governing. This, again, should be obvious because of the absurd consequences that would flow from maintaining that all three roles enjoy this prerogative.[4]

One who grasps that liturgy is the stable, public, formal, solemn ritual of the Church, and, for that reason, not anything any individual does acting on his own initiative and by his own lights, will not be able to fathom, much less accept, the view that the homily is an intrinsic part of it. Not in a million years will the homily be a part of the liturgy; it is essentially different. Useful it can be; important in passing on the faith; but not liturgical as such, not an act of worship like offering up the sweet-smelling oblation of the chanted Lesson and Gospel, or the still sweeter oblation of the all-holy Lamb of God.

This is why I (and I think it’s fair to say the majority of the laity) so love Masses without homilies. There is something refreshing about going to Mass just for the Mass, that is, the divine, infallible, heavenly meat of it, leaving aside the merely human, fallible, and earthly side-dish. Based on my experience and what I have gleaned from others, most weekday traditional Masses around the world—whether offered by clergy of the FSSP, the ICKSP, or another community, or by a diocesan priest—will not have a homily or sermon. The priest will finish reading or chanting the Gospel and then proceed directly to the Offertory (or the Creed if called for). The seamless garment of worship is not torn, the priest clad in the vesture of Christ and acting in persona Christi capitis never steps aside to speak for himself. The Mass is ad orientem through and through.

How many priests today, having learned the usus antiquior, are discovering for themselves the truth of Fr. Ray Blake’s moving words:

True worship leads us to contemplate the God who is always beyond us, the God before whom Old Testament patriarchs and prophets fall on their faces in worship. Practically at every Mass I have celebrated over the thirty years I have been ordained I have felt the need “to break the bread of the word,” to preach—except at the Traditional Mass, where all I want to do is adore the Father through the Son, in the unity of the Holy Spirit.

I am beginning to believe that if the Word of God does not lead us to the act of worship, there is something wrong in its presentation, and if the Mass does not lead us to fall on our knees to be fed by God, there is something wrong here, too. Contemplating the Mystery of the Trinity should lead us to be lost in the immensity and beauty of God, realising His greatness and our nothingness, desiring only to abandon ourselves to Him, crying out with Christ: “Father, into your hands I commend my Spirit.” If this realisation is not the result of worship, perhaps we are not worshipping at all! [5]

Newman has helped us to see why the traditional custom of removing the maniple before preaching (and even the chasuble) is laudable, and, one might even say, crucial at this point in time, if only to make clear what is happening—and what is not happening. The priest is putting off his sacerdotal identification with Christ the High Priest, he is stepping aside from the total conformity to Him that he exercises in offering the sacrifice, to address himself to “the hearts of his hearers” with a message that will, please God, draw them closer to the Lord.



[1] This passage is contained in my anthology Newman on Worship, Reverence, and Ritual (Os Justi Press, 2019), 424–25.

[T]he Saints insist so expressly on the necessity of his addressing himself to the intellect of men, and of convincing as well as persuading. “Necesse est ut doceat et moveat,” says St. Francis [It is necessary that he teach and move]; and St. Antoninus still more distinctly: “Debet prædicator clare loqui, ut instruat intellectum auditoris, et doceat” [The preacher ought to speak clearly, so that he may instruct the minds of his listeners and teach them]. Hence, moreover, in St. Ignatius’s Exercises, the act of the intellect precedes that of the affections. Father Lohner seems to me to be giving an instance in point when he tells us of a court-preacher, who delivered what would be commonly considered eloquent sermons, and attracted no one; and next took to simple explanations of the Mass and similar subjects, and then found the church thronged. So necessary is it to have something to say, if we desire any one to listen.

[2] See comments of Martin Mosebach about why the interruption of the homily is so unsatisfactory from a liturgical point of view: The Heresy of Formlessness, rev. ed. (Brooklyn: Angelico Press, 2018), 28–30.

[3] Sire, Phoenix from the Ashes, 321.

[4] A complementary way of arguing the point is to note, with the Rad Trad, that preaching sems to be more properly an episcopal affair than sacramental worship:

The idea that a sermon is part of Mass is vastly accepted, well ingrained, and totally wrong. A sermon, or homily if I must [use that term], is part of the fundamental teaching authority of the bishop, not of a parish priest or curate. Priests were not permitted to preach without the explicit authorization of their ordinary until after Trent, and even then the faculty was used prudently. The bishop pontificates from a chair because the power to sit and speak—to pontificate—is proper to him and all responsibility for teaching the faithful eventually descends upon him, not the priest, whose main duty is to celebrate Mass, baptize, and absolve sins in the bishop's absence. One could argue quite well that a sermon is a fundamental part of a pontifical Mass in the bishop's home diocese. To require a priest to preach at every Mass on every Sunday or Holy Day is to make him the bishop of his own parish, something Apostolic Succession says he is not.

[5] Text slightly modified. Compare the observation of Robert Louis Wilken in The Spirit of Early Christian Thought:

Before there were treatises on the Trinity, before there were learned commentaries on the Bible, before there were disputes about the teaching on grace, or essays on the moral life, there was awe and adoration before the exalted Son of God alive and present in the church’s offering of the Eucharist. This truth preceded every effort to understand and nourished every attempt to express in words and concepts what Christians believed.

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Last modified on Tuesday, January 19, 2021
Peter Kwasniewski, PhD

Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, Thomistic theologian, liturgical scholar, and choral composer, is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and The Catholic University of America. He has taught for the International Theological Institute in Austria, the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austria Program, and Wyoming Catholic College, which he helped establish in 2006. He writes regularly for blogs, magazines, and newspapers, and has published nine books, four of which concern traditional Catholicism. Visit his website at