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Where a Homily Should Be Given

Date: August 29, 2021
Author: Fr. Edward McNamara, LC

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: Should a priest give his homily from the ambo, or can it be from the altar? -- S.W., Masai, Malaysia

A: The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) is rather sparse regarding this point.

No. 136 says: "The priest, standing at the chair or at the ambo itself or, when appropriate, in another suitable place, gives the homily. When the homily is completed, a period of silence may be observed."

It would probably be an excess of legalism to interpret "standing" as meaning necessarily immobile or fixed in one place.

The reason for mentioning "standing" is far more likely to distinguish the priest's posture from that of a bishop, who may preach while seated in his cathedra, or throne.

Preaching while seated symbolizes the bishop's role as teacher and guide of his people. This was the customary posture of teachers since ancient times.

Although it does not address this particular question, the 2014 homiletic directory emphasizes the homilies’ liturgical setting, and this should help us to distinguish it from other forms of preaching. To wit:

“4. The unique nature of the homily is captured well in St. Luke’s account of Christ’s preaching in the synagogue of Nazareth (cf. Lk 4:16-30). After reading a passage from the Prophet Isaiah he handed the scroll back to the attendant and began, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’ (Lk 4:21). When we read this passage reflectively, we can sense the excitement that filled that small synagogue: to proclaim God’s Word in the sacred assembly is an event. As we read in Verbum Domini: ‘the liturgy is the privileged setting in which God speaks to us in the midst of our lives; he speaks today to his people, who hear and respond’ (52). It is a privileged setting, although it is not the only setting. Certainly, God speaks to us in many ways: through the events in our lives, through our personal study of Scripture, in times of quiet prayer. But the liturgy is a privileged setting because it is there that we listen to God’s Word as part of the celebration that culminates in the sacrificial offering of Christ to the eternal Father. The Catechism states that ‘the Eucharist makes the Church’ (CCC 1396), but also that the Eucharist is inseparable from the Word of God (cf. CCC 1346).

“Because the homily is an integral part of the liturgy, it is not only an instruction, it is also an act of worship. When we read the homilies of the Fathers, we find that many of them concluded their discourse with a doxology and the word ‘Amen’: they understood that the purpose of the homily was not only to sanctify the people but to glorify God. The homily is a hymn of gratitude for the magnalia Dei, which not only tells those assembled that God’s Word is fulfilled in their hearing, but praises God for this fulfillment.

“Given its liturgical nature, the homily also possesses a sacramental significance: Christ is present in the assembly gathered to listen to his word and in the preaching of his minister, through whom the same Lord who spoke long ago in the synagogue at Nazareth now instructs his people. In the words of Verbum Domini: ‘The sacramentality of the Word can thus be understood by analogy with the real presence of Christ under the appearances of the consecrated bread and wine. By approaching the altar and partaking in the Eucharistic banquet we truly share in the body and blood of Christ. The proclamation of God’s word at the celebration entails an acknowledgment that Christ himself is present, that he speaks to us, and that he wishes to be heard’ (VD 56).”

This emphasis on the homily’s liturgical setting should help us to interpret the brief mention in the GIRM. Although it does not forbid using the altar or perhaps moving around while preaching the homily, it certainly indicates a preference on the part of the Church that the homily is preached from a stable position.

The “suitable place,” mentioned in the GIRM, along with the importance of the liturgical setting would generally exclude the use of the altar since the liturgical norms are quite clear that the altar should not be used until the presentation of gifts. Therefore, apart from the ambo and the chair, a suitable place could be the center of the presbytery in front of the altar or in some cases even an old pulpit if this helps communication of the Word.

As I mentioned, the liturgy does not seem to favor the practice of wandering around while preaching the homily. This may be because it can give rise to theatrics that distracts from the message. Such theatrics are often inappropriate in the context of the entire celebration as there is a danger of converting the Mass into a kind of show and might make it difficult for people to regain their recollection and prepare themselves to participate in the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

At the same time, it must be recognized that the liturgy’s preference for a stable location for preaching may be also due to historical conditions. Until the advent of the microphone, it would have been nigh on impossible for a preacher to move about and make himself understood.

Hence, it is not possible to make categorical statements on this point. Some priests have particular talents in this regard and use such preaching methods to great spiritual effect, especially in Masses for young people.

Getting the message across to the best of his ability has to be his priority. If his oratorical resources tend to draw attention away from the message and toward his personality, then in some way he is not completely fulfilling his mission. 

As the above-mentioned directory states:

“Furthermore, the preacher needs to speak in such a way that his hearers can sense his belief in the power of God. He must not lower the standards of his message to the level of his own personal witness, fearing that he will be accused of not practicing what he preaches. Since he is preaching not himself, but Christ, he can, without hypocrisy, point out the heights of sanctity, to which, like every other individual, in his pilgrim faith he is aspiring.”

There may be more precise norms given by the local bishop which should be followed. As mentioned in the instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum, No. 68:

"The diocesan Bishop must diligently oversee the preaching of the homily, also publishing norms and distributing guidelines and auxiliary tools to the sacred ministers, and promoting meetings and other projects for this purpose so that they may have the opportunity to consider the nature of the homily more precisely and find help in its preparation."

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Readers may send questions to zenit.liturgy@gmail.com. Please put the word "Liturgy" in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city, and your state, province, or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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