Let’s be honest: We’ve all attended Masses with less than stellar homilies, right? Not all priests (or deacons) are naturally gifted orators, but when their monotone, let’s-repeat-the-Gospel message emerges, we tend to tune out. By the time Mass ends, we realize we may have missed an important point from the homily, but is the homily really essential to our participation at Mass? And how can we hone our listening skills so that we can at least glean some grain of wisdom from the mouths of our ordained ministers?
First, let’s be clear about one point: The homily is not the most crucial aspect of the Mass. So don’t sweat it too much if you miss the point. I can attest, as a mother of two small, wiggly, noisy children, that my husband and I have – on more than one occasion – missed almost entire Masses from having to remove said children from the sanctuary into the cry room and back again. We’ve had Sundays and Holy Days in which we return home and ask each other, “Did we really even go to Mass?” Rest assured, my fellow Catholics, that God knows our hearts. He realizes our fidelity to Him and our longing to receive Him in the Eucharist, and this intentionality does not go unrewarded in some way.
Still, it helps to have some sort of plan in place before getting our bodies into those pews on Sundays. Here are some helpful hints that might assist (and surprise) you in gaining some sort of spiritual insight from the homily, irrespective of the priest’s or deacon’s preaching ability, and ultimately find yourself getting more from the homily. I’ve informally adopted these habits so that I don’t leave Mass feeling discouraged that all I did the entire hour was discipline my kids or help them go to the bathroom.
Ponder the Scripture Readings Ahead of Time
Since I don’t always actually hear the Liturgy of the Word being spoken during Mass, I started a habit of perusing the biblical readings before we head out of the door for church. The Laudate app is super-helpful in this arena if you are tech-minded, but for a traditionalist like me, a subscription to Magnificat is my preferred means for visual liturgical organization. Either way, both are handy references to assist you in finding the appropriate readings for each day.
Catholic Exchange also publishes reflections each Friday to help you prepare for Sunday’s Mass. Mark Giszczak covers the Old Testament while Gayle Somers offers reflections largely based on the Gospel readings.
If you take the time to read ahead, you’ll have a fairly informed comprehension of what to expect during the homily. (Bonus tip: Pray before you read. Ask God, “What is your invitation for me today?” He just may surprise you with an unexpected enlightenment!)
Ask the Holy Spirit for a Word or Phrase from the Homily
Essentially you are doing two things here: One, you are offering a prayer to be granted insight into what is preached, and two, you are (at least subconsciously) accountable to listening with a bit more deliberation. If you are seeking something specific, you are more likely to notice something that strikes you about the homily.
It honestly helps if your priest or deacon is an excellent homilist, but this is not necessary. I have begrudgingly sat through painfully long homilies that were delivered entirely in monotone with flat affect in the visage of the priest or deacon, and yet I nearly always come away with a profound word about which I know God wants me to further reflect and pray. If I ask Him to open my heart to His message for me, He always answers in the most stunning ways and through the least astonishing messengers!
Recognize the Subtle Ways God Speaks to your Heart
This is obviously an everyday lesson, but in all actuality, it will help you tremendously in staying focused on a vapid and dreaded homily. If you know how God speaks to you, it is highly likely that you will recognize His voice through the instrument of your priest or deacon. Of course, some weekends this is more clearly understood than others, but the truth of the matter is that God speaks to us in the most unusual ways and during the most unanticipated times.
Don’t underestimate this. I have attended Masses during which my heart immediately sinks when I notice who the presider is going to be. Some priests I enjoy listening to more than others, but I have – more often than not – walked away stupefied (and humbled) when I receive profound inspiration from the very priest whose homilies I dread listening to.
The catch here is that you must always have the eyes and ears of your heart open. The Holy Spirit often nudges me interiorly. There’s a particular tug at my heart that I know comes from Him, and when it happens, I also realize it’s an opportune moment to listen and act. God certainly doesn’t operate in convenience for any of us, but when we open our hearts to Him with sincerity, He blesses us far more immensely than we could have initially fathomed. So don’t presume that the ungifted preacher has nothing to say to you. This is an invitation for you to listen more intently than if you were hearing the dynamic, zealous priest you love.
The homily can summarize, clarify or strengthen the Liturgy of the Word, but it isn’t the be-all-end-all for the Mass. Though we may struggle to find meaning in the message, we can be confident that, if we ask God what He wants us to hear and then listen with an open heart, we will receive His Word. That’s incredibly powerful and worth trying next time you prepare yourself for Mass.
I honestly can’t trump Pope Francis on the intent of homilies, so I will conclude with this poignant quote that showcases the necessity of everyone, everywhere living the Gospel in our daily lives: “The message of the Gospel…is not to be reduced to some aspects that, although relevant, on their own do not show the heart of the message of Jesus Christ.” Let us draw breath from the Word of God through the spoken message of His vicars on earth, and let us go forth to be witnesses of His love to an apathetic and confused world. That, my fellow Catholics, should ultimately be the driving force behind our intent to listen rather than merely hear the homilies presented to us.