What is the purpose of the homily at Sunday Mass?

    What is the homily? What should it do?
    After hearing the Word of God in the Readings, Responsorial Psalm and the Gospel, the congregation sits for a reflection on the Word of God offered by the bishop, priest or deacon.  This reflection is known as the homily and is required for every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation, but is encouraged at all Masses (Canon 767).
    The tradition of reflecting on the Word of God is an ancient one, and the inclusion of such a reflection in the midst of Mass is just as ancient as can be seen from the works of the fathers of the church. Their own sermons and reflections upon the Word of God are preserved within the body of their works and give us an example and a model of the early church’s understanding of what the homily should do. These venerable fathers always based their reflections on the sacred Scripture and used the scriptures to catechize the faithful gathered for the Mass.
    The word “homily” means “explanation” in Greek. This was done usually by drawing out the meaning of the passages in Scripture, which can be difficult at times to interpret, and then by applying these meanings to the current situation in which the faithful find themselves. Since Scripture is not a dead letter, it continues to speak to us both in catechesis and in application. In this way, the homily fulfills the mandate of the Second Vatican Council in “Dei Verbum”: “By the same word of Scripture the ministry of the word also, that is, pastoral preaching, catechetics and all Christian instruction, in which the liturgical homily must hold the foremost place, is nourished in a healthy way and flourishes in a holy way” (24).
    Who can give the homily? Why?
    As we have already mentioned, the homily is reserved to an ordained minister of the church – bishop, priest or deacon. If, on a rare occasion, a member of the lay faithful is to offer a reflection at Mass, it is to be done after the Prayer after Communion (GIRM 66). This tradition is also venerable and ancient, but its purpose has been lost as reference to it has been all but forgotten. The bishop is considered to have the “fullness of priesthood” by virtue of his ordination as a successor to the apostles (CCC 1557). The priest and deacon share in the ministry of the bishop. This sharing in his ministry can be seen theologically as an extension of the ministry of the apostles. By reserving the homily – which serves as a catechetical tool in order to evangelize and spread the Gospel – to the ordained ministers of the church, it signifies that this teaching is a faithful passing on of the faith of the apostles in an authentic way as a fulfillment of Christ’s mandate to them in Matthew 28:18-20.
    Why do some priests give their homily behind the ambo, while some stand in the middle of the sanctuary?
    Traditionally, the homily is given from a fixed place – usually the ambo. However, there has been some recent leeway given in this regard. The “General Instruction of the Roman Missal” states, “The Priest, standing at the chair or at the ambo itself or, if appropriate, in another worthy place, gives the Homily” (136).
    What do I do during the homily?
    Ideally, the homily should be engaging as it nourishes the faith of both the homilist and the faithful gathered in prayer. However, despite his ordination, the ordained minister is still human. Every homily will not be the best we have ever heard, and this is OK, but it does not give us permission to disengage ourselves from the liturgy. We must remember that God speaks to us through every single event of our lives, including a lackluster homily. If we are honest, once we disengage ourselves from the homily, it becomes very difficult to refocus on the rest of the holy sacrifice of the Mass, breaking our interior participation in this great sacrament. As prudence dictates, it is also possible for us to offer helpful suggestions to the ordained ministers in our parish, as long as what we say is in the spirit of true charity.
    Ian Bozant is a second-year theologian studying for the Archdiocese of New Orleans at Notre Dame Seminary. He can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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