Sacraments of Initiation
Part 2 History

Chapter i20 Summary History of  Christian Initiation








The Reconciliation of Penitents
Part Two:  Story Telling

Chapter 5 Homily

Historical Survey


Pastoral Reflection

Suggested Questions for Discussion

Historical Survey

At each Mass, the presiding priest breaks the bread so that it can be distributed and consumed. The image of "breaking bread" is helpful in describing the function of the homily. In addition to Holy Communion, we are also fed at the "table of God's word". A homily is like the breaking of the bread in that it takes the word of God proclaimed in the Scriptures and makes it "receivable" and "consumable". It takes the word once preached long ago in a life-context other than our own and makes it current for us today. To give a good homily, one must be in touch with the Scriptures and the here and now congregation. As one great preacher put it: the homilist must have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.

The homily brings the word of God to the present assembly. It is a continuation of the preaching of Jesus.

Even before the period of canonical penance, preaching was an important part of the liturgical assemblies, especially eucharistic and baptismal assemblies. As early as about 150 Justin the Martyr tell us how, following the reading of Scripture, the bishop would instruct and encourage the assembly to imitate the things they had heard in the readings. During the period of canonical penance the penitents would be encouraged and strengthened in their penance by the homilies and instruction of the bishop following the readings at the Sunday assembly. There was no homily associated with tariff penance or with the modern practice of confession because there were no scripture readings.

During the time when the sacrament of penance was evolving to its modern form, preaching was in decline at both Eucharist and Baptism. The catechumenate disappeared and infant baptism became the common practice, often unaccompanied by ongoing catechetical instruction. The homily at Mass was replaced by a simple moral exhortation. When visiting early New England churches, we often find on their front walls three large plaques containing the texts of the Lord's Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the Apostles' Creed. These would often serve as the text of the sermon.

In the Roman Catholic Mass, preaching was often considered something apart from the liturgy. The liturgy, after all, was in Latin and preaching was in the vernacular. Every word of the liturgy was determined by the liturgical books, whereas preaching was not done from a prescribed text.

The Second Vatican Council directed that the proclamation of the word of God and the homily be restored as integral parts of the liturgical action.

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Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy

35. That the intimate connection between words and rites may stand out clearly in the liturgy:
1. In sacred celebrations there is to be more reading from holy Scripture and it is to be more varied and apposite.
2. Because the spoken word is part of the liturgical service, the best place for it, consistent with the nature of the rite, is to be indicated even in the rubrics; the ministry of preaching is to be fulfilled with exactitude and fidelity. Preaching should draw its content mainly from scriptural and liturgical sources, being a proclamation of God's wonderful works in the history of salvation, the mystery of Christ, ever present and active within us, especially in the celebration of the liturgy.

52. 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; as part of the liturgy itself therefore, the homily is strongly recommended.

General Instruction of the Roman Missal

41. The homily is strongly recommended as an integral part of the liturgy and as a necessary source of nourishment of the Christian life.

97. The homily is given at the chair or at the lectern.

Rite of Penance

2 cont. The Son of God made man lived among us in order to free us from the slavery of sin and to call us out of darkness into his wonderful light. He therefore began his work on earth by preaching repentance and saying: "Repent and believe the Gospel" (Mk 1:15).

This invitation to repentance, which had often been sounded by the prophets, prepared people's hearts for the coming of the kingdom of God through the voice of John the Baptist, who came "preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Mk 1:4).

Jesus, however, not only exhorted people to repentance so that they would abandon their sins and turn wholeheartedly to the Lord, but welcoming sinners, he actually reconciled them with the Father.

9a. The Church exercises the ministry of the sacrament of penance through bishops and priests. By preaching God's word they call the faithful to conversion; in the name of Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit they declare and grant the forgiveness of sins.

25. The homily, taking as its source the scriptural text, should lead the penitents to examine their conscience and to turn away from sin and toward God. It should remind the faithful that sin works against God, against the community and one's neighbors, and against the person of the sinner.

Therefore it would be good to recall:
a. the infinite mercy of God, greater than all our sins, by which again and again he calls us back to himself;
b. the need for inner repentance by which we are genuinely prepared to make reparation for sin;
c. the social dimension of grace and sin whose effect is that in some way the actions of individuals affect the whole Body of the Church;
d. the duty of expiation for sin, which is effective because of Christ's expiation and requires especially, in addition to works of penance, the exercise of true charity toward God and neighbor.

52. The homily which follows is based on the texts of the readings and should lead the penitents to examine their consciences and renew their lives.

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Pastoral Reflection

The inner dynamic of the proclamation of the scriptures at a celebration of reconciliation, as described in the general overview of this part of the sacrament, is that as we hear the word of God and recall God's love for us, we are confronted with our own lack of response to that love and thus we are, from within, as it were, convicted of sin. It is important then that those who are planning the celebration take care that the assembly actually hear the word in such a way that the wonders of God's love, especially as manifested in Jesus, are clear and compelling. The readings and the homily speak of the constancy of God's love. Then the compelling presence of Christ in the liturgical word draws us to conversion and repentance. This movement is aided by the witness and prayer of the assembly. We participate in celebrations of reconciliation not only to repent of our own sins, but to give witness and support to our sisters and brothers, and to make visible a community that acknowledges its continuing need for purification. This inner dynamic is usually best achieved during times of silence and intense prayer.

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Suggested Questions for Discussion

What do you consider to be the main differences between a sermon and a homily?

If the homily is to speak to us of God's love, when will the parish ever hear about sin?

Should those planning the liturgy of reconciliation also plan the homily?

Is there a place for members of the parish other than the priest to witness to God's love and forgiveness?

In your parish is the homily followed by a sufficient time of silence?

Of what use is it for a person to participate in a parish celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation when he or she does not personally feel any need for reconciliation at this time?

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Copyright: Tom Richstatter, Franciscan Province of St. John the Baptist, Cincinnati Ohio, Order of Friars Minor. All Rights Reserved.  This page was created by Fr. Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M.  Every effort has been, and is being made, to acknowledge sources when the ideas are not my own.  Any failure to comply with the United States Copyright Act (Title 17, United States Code) will be corrected immediately should I become aware of it.  This site was updated on 03/20/15 .  Your comments on this site are welcome at