Vision in a Homily

So your parish has a vision, and maybe even a catchy vision statement–now what?

Vision that’s not communicated broadly falls flat. Because the point of vision is that it guides everyone. Not just the elite. Not just leaders. Everyone.

How to communicate broadly in a Catholic parish?
The Sunday Homily.

I can hear the mental excuses now. All the reasons why your parish can’t communicate vision in homilies, how the people won’t like it, how it can’t be planned, there’s not enough time, etc. But, none of the excuses override the critical importance of preaching the vision, frequently and repeatedly, to the broadest parish audience.

As Fr. James Mallon, author of Divine Renovation and The Divine Renovation Guidebook, explains:

I remember catching myself saying once, ‘But I spoke about that in a homily last year.’ It is foolish for us preachers to think that most parishioners are going to remember something we said two weeks before, never mind a year before. In truth, if the sign on the bus is to be plainly recognized, we must speak about vision over and over again. In the last three years, I have committed myself to preaching some form of visioning homily at all the weekend Masses every three weeks. I am convinced that this is necessary (Divine Renovation, 255).

Sometimes it can be tempting to think, it’s in the bulletin right? We’ve got a sign up? The staff knows? It’s on the website? But that’s not enough, “there are no shortcuts when it comes to communicating vision: it takes time and intentionality” (DR Guidebook, 60).

Let’s start with the practical: what is a visioning homily?

  • not simply information, but the inspiration and motivation “to desire that preferred future and be wiling to make the changes necessary” (DR Guidebook, 60)
  • “A homily that attempts, in some way, to address the question of why are we here, where are we going and why we do the things we do, or are trying to do the things we are trying to do” (DR Guidebook, 62)
  • “Preaching about the mission of the Church and the future of your parish in a way that all your parishioners can hear and understand” (DR Guidebook, 62)

Does it really need to be repeated so often?

Answer: Yes. Here’s why: “If a parish is becoming truly missional and is innovating, there will be ongoing change within the parish. Change must always be explained in light of the vision” (Divine Renovation, 256). Most people don’t love change. By communicating the vision frequently (as Fr. James Mallon does, roughly every 3 weeks) the parish helps each and every person know and understand how concrete changes and decisions fit into the big picture, and help guide the efforts.

Okay, I’m ready. But what goes into a visioning homily?

Drawing from Divine Renovation (pg. 256-257), here are the key elements in a visioning homily, with examples from a visioning homily (Groundbreaking 05: Vision, April 24, 2016) at Church of the Nativity in Timonium, MD.

  • Answer: why are we here? Remind the listeners why the parish exists, what God has called you to, what your mission is. For Church of the Nativity, it’s growing disciples while growing as disciples. This gets mentioned twice in the first four minutes (at 1:50-2:08 and 3:50-4:04).
  • Name: what’s not right at the gut level. Scratch the point of dissatisfaction that people are experiencing. Help everyone feel the need. For Church of the Nativity, it’s that it’s “hard to invite people to come people to church when there’s no place to park and no place to sit” (4:30-4:45). This is something tangible. Lots of people in the parish may have experienced this…tentatively thinking about inviting a friend to Mass, but wary of doing so because of the seemingly crowded experience.
  • Explain: why the current situation or past models won’t work. This might include some transparency or vulnerability. Or showing how the parish has “done its homework” in trying to address the point of dissatisfaction in the past. Aim to be clear and honest about how a particular [old] way of doing things isn’t working, but without blaming people, staff, specific groups, etc. Since Church of the Nativity is addressing how to accommodate growth, the leaders share what they’ve done in the past or tried (different times, off-campus sites, etc), and how these solutions don’t effectively lead toward the parish’s vision (1:00-1:22).
  • Inspire: capture imaginations, invite people to dream. Encourage everyone listening to join in the “imagine if…” for the parish. What could it be? This is a time, not for information, but to make our hearts leap, make even the most change-averse person in the pew have a momentary optimism about the future. In the example from Church of the Nativity, Brian Cook reminds the community of pieces of plywood the parish had “filled with the names of all your friends, family members, co-workers…people you’re praying for, that one day they’ll come to church and meet their Heavenly Father…this project is about making room for them, all of them” (5:30-6:00) and continues to spur the imagination as to the wider significance of the parish’s direction, that “This new building can stand as a hopeful sign that intentional growth is still possible…that God is still using the local church to change lives” (6:10-6:41).
  • Share: the plan for how we’re getting to where we’re going. This part is the most intuitive. We like to talk about what we’re doing. But remember, this is just one of five key elements. Without the other pieces, this part of a visioning homily can quickly become a litany of information, rather than the transformation that’s at the heart of vision and change leadership. Church of the Nativity puts it concisely: it’s about “creating empty seats at optimal times” and that phrase is used at least four times in the 7-minute vision-casting portion of the Sunday message (remember, repetition works!). The “how” is that as the parish responds to the call to “invest your treasure in the Church” this will result in hearts “connected to the Church” and the “growth in faith that comes somewhere outside of your comfort zone.”

A well-crafted visioning homily weaves these elements together, independent threads yet repeated and interrelated. There’s a logical flow from reminding who we are, to identifying and understanding the “situation” (Name & Explain), to inspiring, and only then speaking the plan.

A visioning homily doesn’t need to take a lot of time. While this entire message from Church of the Nativity is “long” (20 minutes in total) by most Catholic standards, the vision casting portion is solidly within the first 7 minutes. Visioning homilies can be done in any Catholic parish on a regular basis.

The other lesson from the Church of the Nativity example is that a parish need not have a singularly incredible, awesome, best-preacher-ever to communicate vision. Brian Cook, Tom Corcoran, and Fr. Michael White (the 3 speakers in the Church of the Nativity message) are ordinary folks, just like you. They stumble on their words (as we all do). It’s not always the most beautiful language. And think about it–if you’re preaching on vision once every three weeks, not every one is going to be your personal best. The point is, they commit. They do it. One doesn’t have to be an especially-gifted dynamic preacher to communicate vision. Check out their book, Rebuilding Your Message (and related podcasts) for practical tips on how any disciple of Jesus Christ can grow as a communicator.

Do you have a great visioning homily to share? Post a link in the Comment section to help us all grow in this essential area of parish ministry.

p.s. Download the “Groundbreaking 05: Vision” example I used here. All vision casting elements are present within the first 7 minutes. I’m not sure how long beyond March 2017 the download will be available, but all key excerpts are in this post–viewing is optional 🙂


Rebuilding Your Message: Big Idea #3, Even the Best Can Rebuild

Digging deeper (beyond a review and key takeawaysBig Idea #1: Series, and Big Idea #2, Always Be Evangelizing) with Fr. Michael White and Tom Corcoran’s Rebuilding Your Message (2015), today I’m pulling highlights about the systematic side of regular preaching–stuff that can benefit even the most spiritually graced preacher with natural and developed talents. These are ideas that can help a parish with a prayerful and gifted preaching pastor (or pastors) move from a place known for transformative and authentic individual Eucharistic homilies, to a place where that powerhouse preaching of the Word of God spills over, shapes, and colors entire systems within the parish.

communicationCommunication is always a two-ways endeavor. The best preaching (on paper/in theory) isn’t the best if it’s not fully heard in a way that leads to life-changing shifts in attitude or action. The most gifted and well-formed preachers and communicators can benefit by considering the process and systems for communication as a whole in the parish. How does the Sunday Eucharistic homily connect to everything in parish life?

Key Lessons for Great Parishes/Preachers from Rebuilding Your Message:

1. Have a Preparation Process that’s More than One. Outstanding preachers already know that preparing takes time.  But what about when there are more and more demands on your time (especially as a priest)? Have a process. “If you develop a basic process for preparation and presentation, you will find it much easier to survive and even thrive in communication” (41). And, bring all of your assets into this process/system, “while only [Father] Michael can preach it [Eucharistic homily], several people help to write the message” (41). This sets the conditions for sustainable quality.

But, don’t let it end with proximate preparation for a Eucharistic homily. Have a system for the message to overflow! [Patrick Lencioni does a great job describing this in The Advantage, naming it cascading communication.] “Regardless of the size of your parish, and the size of your staff, a team of people is the key to effective communication” (202). “This requires internal communication that precedes your general or church-wide communication” (202). The odea is that every children’s liturgy of the word leader, every usher, every deacon, etc. are all on the same page about the key messages of a particular homily/series

2. Use Series (p. 128-129). Now, we’ve talked about series in general before (and here’s Fr. White’s personal blog-pitch) but what I want to emphasize here is that using a series is not a crutch. Not some type of aid for those who “aren’t good” at preaching God’s Word. Taking the time to systematically plan series of sermons into the liturgical year is about the hearers, especially the unevangelized or those needing to take further steps as disciples. Here’s why: a) series develop into conversations among hearers–conversations keep the message in our minds and spur us to go deeper, b) a single message rarely converts minds or hearts (see strategy # 7 here), and c) a series creates alignment and focus in the parish, to “move the parish in a disciplined direction,” with a series (vs. a stand-alone, one Sunday theme) adult formation, youth ministry, and children’s formation can all move together, so that families and friends can support each other–so that synergy happens. It takes momentum to get things rolling in people’s lives, and the power of a series theme to align everything in parish life for a particular season helps create that momentum.

3. Plan Long Term. “You should plan all your communication as far in advance as possible. If you’re preaching, plan out a season or even an entire liturgical year. If you’re teaching or responsible for adult faith formation, look ahead each semester to the next semester (56).” This ensures all of the communications (preaching and teaching especially) tend toward a central vision, and every key leader in parish life can align their work and ministry to support it optimally. This also saves time–since by having a “lens” of a long term plan, staff and key volunteers can be on the lookout for examples and opportunities to connect to preaching themes. [Because seriously, emphasizing local testimonies or examples is way better than using an Internet search engine to find “off the shelf” pastoral examples for preaching!]

4. Resound the Message. Find ways to re-emphasize and repeat (with slightly difrerent messengers, twists, formats, etc.) your well-planned Sunday Eucharist messages. One of my favorite ways Church of the Nativity (the authors of Rebuilding Your Message) do this is by using what they call endnotes. Endnotes happen after Mass and include another statement of gratitude and encouragement to visitors, “sum up the homily,” and “remind people what our basic message was and the challenge offered to them in the message”–“a bottom line that they can carry with them out of Mass and into their week” (108-109). Usually this  includes a concrete action-step, something that week they can do that supports the main message of the homily. For example:

  • A prayer card after a message on worry
  • Breakout talks/sessions on relationship issues (i.e. married couples, caregiver relationships, parents of teens, etc.) after a homily series called “Tough Love”
  • Invitation cards to hand out to unchurched friends after a homily series on evangelization

Endnotes are rehearsed, not a reading of announcements (at Nativity this happens before Mass, since “regulars” more so than guests are likely to be there early and have a need to hear announcements). The speaker for Endnotes is polished and is aiming to make a solid impression. It’s key that the speaker (ideally) not be the celebrant or homilist–since having different faces and voices for the same message helps it to resonate more, to be more memorable, and to potentially give an alternate path to “hearing” if someone had a “block” (of language, internal bias, etc.) that impacted the hearing of the homily.

5. Integrate Concrete, Local Action. Let the Eucharistic homily truly be for this particular community. If a homily is about relationships in the Christian life, talk about small-groups (and ideally be having small-group launches soon in your parish!). If it’s about repentance, talk Confession times, etc. (162).

6. Go from Audience to AudiencesSpeak to different places of faith. “Comfort outsiders” by acknowledging them, but also making it clear what’s not for them–i.e. discerning percentile giving (aka tithing), praying about how to take a step into local mission, etc. (182). Say it aloud. This is not for you. On the other hand, make it clear that for longtime parish attendees, you’re asking them to take concrete steps in discipleship, to commit to prayer, to serve, etc. Don’t be afraid to speak to different audiences (i.e. youth, parents, etc.) in giving applications for a homily focus (198).

Interested in learning more? Check out these podcasts and share your insights in the Comment Box.

Rebuilt Podcasts (related to this post):

Image Credit:  “uncoolbob” via Flicker, CC BY-NC 2.0


How long should Mass be?

 In Divine Renovation: From a Maintenance to a Missional Parish, Fr. James Mallon offers these insights and reflections for figuring out what’s right for your parish community when it comes to Sunday Mass:

Worrying about Mass as a production is the wrong concern. He writes, “to the accusation that everything is a production, I am tempted to say, ‘Thank you, I’m so glad you noticed.'” While Mass isn’t a “production” in the literal sense of the term, it should be treated with the utmost planning and concern for quality and transformation of those present.

Remember the 80/20 rule. In most parishes, “the only time we see 80% of our people is on the weekend,” yet what proportion of time goes into preparing for this crucial weekly moment?

“The Church is, of course, not a mere business, it is mystery, but grace still builds on nature and there is an essential truth here. The priority of any parish, and any priest, ought to be about preparing for and celebrating the Sunday Eucharist to make it the best possible experience for the maximum number of people.”

Mass might need to be longer than you think. Or like. Or are comfortable with. Fr. Mallon observes, “The days of the 50-minute get-it-over-and-done-with Mass must end…if the weekend celebrations are to be a priority, then we must have sufficient time on Sunday mornings to gather, celebrate and connect afterwards…We need to honestly look at our Mass schedules, and ask what we truly value. Do we value meaningful and transformative celebrations of the Eucharist, or is our primary value convenient and static Mass times?”

In the end, it is not really a question of how long the Mass ought to be or could be, but whether this value leads us to health. I believe it does not. It contributes to a “get it over and done with” mentality that turns our Eucharistic celebrations into something to be endured rather than something that endures.

What values does your Mass schedule, length, and culture project? Fr. Mallon asserts:

Minimalism and convenience cannot be the primary values of a healthy church. Minimalism and convenience have no place in the life of the disciple who is called to save his or her life by losing it. Someone once said that Jesus doesn’t ask for much – he asks for everything. If our liturgies are to be meaningful and transformative “productions,” they need to be able to breathe and not be constrained by a rigid one-hour rule. Likewise, there needs to be enough time between Masses so that those who are hungry for God are able to linger with one another after Mass to encourage and support one another.

In summary, I think a key is moving from the question how long should Mass be? or how long should a homily be? to addressing the intended outcomes. What is Mass to do? What is the outcome of the homily? Then, work backwards to determine how much time this takes in your setting and context. At the same time, begin to consider how to assess if these desired outcomes, effects, and fruits are happening among those present to worship. Challenging, but worth it to unleash the full power and fruits of the Eucharist amid our worshiping assemblies! 😀

Want to read more? Check out these longer excerpts from Fr. Andrew Carrozza, read Divine Renovation yourself, or listen to Fr. James Mallon’s podcasts on topics related to this great ministry book!

Rebuilding Your Message: Big Idea #1, the Series

As promised back in September, I wanted to dig a little deeper (beyond a review and key takeaways) with Fr. Michael White and Tom Corcoran’s Rebuilding Your Message (2015) and keep this important conversation on preaching going.

One of the interesting things about Rebuilding Your Message is that some big, systemic, significant ideas were embedded within the practical mini-chapters (in an understated way). White and Corcoran (probably wisely) choose not to dig into these since additional depth would distract from their primary focus. However, I think they’re worth pulling out here for furthering discussion.

Big Idea #1 — Message Series

The Rebuilt Parish books have mentioned message series again and again. Series are important for preaching in our cultural context. White and Corcoran advocate for the use of series since it enables a preacher/staff to:

  • avoid starting from a blank slate each week (tie it into something larger)
  • promote conversation among the assembly/parishioners (since they can remember central themes)
  • move the parish in a disciplined direction
  • emphasize liturgical seasons
  • go deeper into specific topics while repeating key themes (128-129).

While Rebuilding Your Message provides lots of short tidbits on crafting sermon/message series, I think given how rare they are in Catholic preaching, a more comprehensive “how to” would be in order. Church of the Nativity has, I recall, devoted a podcast episode to the nuts and bolts behind series planning, but a sequel book from them might be in order to really share this with the wider Catholic community in the United States.

There are some excellent resources on this from our Christian brothers and sisters (I’ve found Adam Hamilton‘s insights into sermon series planning very useful), but a comprehensive guide from a Catholic parish might be what’s needed to spur this forward in more parishes. This guide could discuss liturgical seasons, discerning the local “calendar” and cultural context, relationship to other ministries in the parish, and more.

Using this Big Idea as a discussion springboard:

  • What do you think of sermon series? (in general, at Mass, in any Catholic context?)
  • What hesitations do you have or what holds your ministry back from experimenting with a series?
  • Why do you think that the idea of a “series” has become typical in many growing non-Catholic congregations, yet is startlingly rare in Catholic settings?

Eucharistic Homily: To Sanctify and Glorify

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.

–Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments,

Homiletic Directory (2014), §4

Spot On: Church Revitalization, Evangelization, and Discipleship

H/t to Church of the Nativity in Timonium, MD for this short and simple list — Church Revitalization: 5 Reasons It Works When It Works.

Breaking apart the post, Fr. Michael White offers 5 critical factors that are present when church revitalization occurs, the parish:

1. Acknowledges that they have a problem.
2. Approach the problem in prayer.
3. Preaches the Gospel (evangelization/discipleship).
4. Lives evangelization and discipleship.
5. Have a clear, consistent, and challenging discipleship path.

The all important “step zero” is that fundamentally, the parish realizes that the only true revitalization is exactly what the Church has proclaimed for centuries–evangelization that necessarily includes discipleship. I have observed situations where parishes do mistake revitalization for something other than evangelization and discipleship (for example, boosting Mass attendance, a building project, a successful fundraising campaign, increasing engagement and participation of parishioners, etc.).

Praise the Lord, I believe more and more Catholic parishes are realizing Steps 0, 1, and 2, named above.

Steps 3 and 4, however, are a bit more elusive and challenging because they are inherently zero-sum propositions. To preach and live evangelization and discipleship means that, practically speaking, other things must go. This can be hugely challenging. A stumbling block that prevents parishes from making past steps 1 and 2. 

What is this “preaching the Gospel” all about, as Fr. White explains:

Preaching the Gospel, of course, automatically means an emphasis on evangelization and discipleship that begins in the pulpit. And these churches keep the message focused and simple.

There’s only so much “pulpit time.” Yes, it can (and should in many cases!) be expanded in parish life (see here and here).  But assuming the weekly pulpit time isn’t changing in a parish, then an emphasis on evangelization and discipleship means that some style of preaching, content, and forms the parish is used to, probably have to go.

Which leads into the challenge of #4,

Preached simply enough and often enough, the parishioners will get it, and live it. They don’t just talk about evangelization, or form a committee to talk about it, or confuse it with other things they are already doing. They do it. They intentionally share Christ with others, and make invitations to their unchurched friends to come to church.

Thinking the New Evangelization is complete by merely “talking about evangelization” or making (usually well intentioned, yet shallow/surface-level) changes to things the parish is already doing is a real temptation. It’s amazing the number of initiatives and programs that seem to be re-named or re-branded as “evangelization” over the past few years, as evangelization and discipleship have become the pressing and prominent topics they always should have been in parish life.

If a community truly recognizes #1 (we have a problem), then it’s not about making small changes or surface changes–fundamentally some activities of the parish need a new intentionality, a difference substance, purpose, and direction. Again, for most people and parishes, there’s the reality of limited time and resources–so the question becomes what can’t we do anymore, if we are to live evangelization and discipleship as the simple and driving principles within our church? I find Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger’s alignment principle to be especially helpful here. Also, take heart! This is hard for leaders outside of the ministry world as well, as parish minister Michael Gormley shares.

Making room for true priorities is not an easy conversation for any organization, much less a parish to have–but it’s a critical conversation that needs to be had in order for the New Evangelization to be more than a theological concept, but clearly and vibrantly lived in a parish, so that no one can miss it!

Thoughts on Tim O’Malley’s “Liturgy and the New Evangelization”

Recently I’ve seen some rather passionate discussions surrounding the relationship between liturgy and the New Evangelization, especially in response Fr. Michael White and Tom Corcoran’s Rebuilt (Ave Maria Press, 2013). I’d been a bit dissatisfied by the tenor of the discussion, and so I’ve been looking forward to reading a new book by Timothy P. O’Malley, entitled Liturgy and the New Evangelization: Practicing the Art of Self-Giving Love (Liturgical Press, 2014).

O’Malley lays out three central purposes. First, he reminds us that the New Evangelization is not to be reduced to the discussion and implementation of pastoral practices. That it’s a call to a “transformation of all culture, of all human existence, spurred on by an counter with Christ himself” (p. 2).

For those of us actively engaged in evangelization, this may seem like a rather mundane point–clearly communicated in the Venerable Pope Paul VI’s Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975) and many Church documents since then. But, I can say from some recent experience of leading a discussion with a mix of paid parish lay ministers and interested faithful, that there is a surprising amount  of confusion, curiosity, and ambiguity about what the New Evangelization is. Most did not know what made the new evangelization “new” and many had the sneaking feeling that it was some sort of trend, rather than at the heart of the Church’s identity. O’Malley’s work clearly and concisely makes this point, drawing from Church teachings of the past 50 years. From this angle, I’d  strongly recommend this book for anyone who feels like they have a theological gap when it comes to knowing what the Church has taught about evangelization and the liturgy since the Second Vatican Council, and doesn’t have the time to wade through hundreds of pages of Vatican documents 🙂

O’Malley’s second main observation is that despite all of the liturgical debate over the past few decades, formative liturgical prayer is a still “rather elusive reality” in our context, and we need a “liturgical education that is evangelical, transformative of history, culture, and each individual life” (p. 3-4). I’ll buy that. Though many in the Church are experiencing liturgical prayer as a wellspring of grace, a continuous renewal of God’s promises to us, and a place for intense encounter with Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, two of the audiences of the New Evangelization–the baptized but not practicing/evangelized and those who have not heard or responded to the Gospel of salvation–are likely not experiencing liturgical prayer in this way! And we should all care, since the liturgy isn’t just extra smells and bells for those who like those sorts of things, but experiential formation, fundamental worship, encounter with Jesus Christ, and more.

In short, great need exists. There’s clearly a chasm between what we believe liturgy to be, and the actual experiences of most Catholics or seekers. O’Malley does a great job (in Chapter 2) of placing Church teaching in the context of secularizing cultural forces, helping us to understand some of the specific context of the New Evangelization that’s relevant to how people experience the liturgical life of the Church.

O’Malley’s third and final purpose is to emphasize that liturgical prayer has a formative role for evangelizers like us, as it “inspires the Christian toward a mysticism of the ordinary, to an offering of the return gift of our very lives as an act of love” – and love is of course central to evangelization, as we must love others enough to risk rejection by sharing the Gospel with them, and love others in a way that reflects, ever so slightly, the saving love of Jesus Christ  (p. 4).

Of his three main points, I think this third one has the most staying power. It reminds me of the instructions given in the Decree on Ecumenism, that a primary duty of Catholics “is to make a careful and honest appraisal of whatever needs to be done or renewed in the Catholic household itself, in order that its life may bear witness more clearly and faithfully to the teachings and institutions which have come to it from Christ through the Apostles” (para. 4). Before we can invite others into the liturgical life of the Church, to experience the gift of the liturgy, we must first be renewed by the liturgy ourselves as evangelizers. We must be formed by the liturgy.

So at this point, I was pretty excited to dive into the remaining chapters and gain some insight into practices and mindsets that might help bridge this gap between formation and reality. And, I think that was my biggest disappointment with Liturgy and the New Evangelization–I felt like it never fully made the leap from beautifully summarizing and synthesizing theology to concretely unpacking “practicing the art of self-giving love” with regards to the multiple situational audiences of the New Evangelization. Now to be clear, O’Malley lays this out early on, explaining that his “essay in liturgical evangelization will not address every facet of how liturgical prayer is integral to the new evangelization.” Instead his hope is that you and I “might encounter in this text a renewal of one’s own imagination regarding the formative and thus transformative potential of liturgical prayer int he life of the church” (p. 5). Fair enough. I still can’t resist wishing there were some more chapters or a sequel to this book so I could consider some of his imagined ideas, and not just my own 😉

With that expectation management in mind, here’s what was in the rest of the book…in Chapters 3-5, O’Malley covers the Liturgical Homily (primarily as the Eucharistic Homily), the “Eucharistic Vocation,” and Rites of Return.

Chapter 3 is at its best as a sustained reflection on the USCCB’s Preaching the Mystery of Faith with more direct connections to history, doctrine, and the place of human experience. It’s an important companion chapter to Preaching the Mystery of Faith, in many ways, as that document does not incorporate the vision of the liturgical movement as fully. However, this chapter, much like Preaching the Mystery of Faith, seems to avoid of the tension between our theology of the Eucharistic homily and the actual spiritual state of people in the pews. In short, many of us struggle with a reality I sum up as, “Mass is not a seeker-service. Except when it is. And then what?” Though this aspect of liturgy in relation to the New Evangelization was outside of O’Malley’s particular parameters, it would be great to hear from more liturgical theologians on how to navigate this challenging area.

For me, the importance of this challenge and tension was most on display in the sample Christmas homily provided at the end of the chapter. It’s a beautiful sermon. And beauty indeed evangelizes. But, I don’t think it evangelizes in the same ways for the various audiences of the New Evangelization. I found the Christmas homily very appropriate for those who have been evangelized and are in various stages of initial and lifelong catechesis and formation (the second setting of the New Evangelization, based on the order of audiences presented in Prop. 7 of the Episcopal Bulletin of the 2012 Synod on the New Evangelization) . However, it’s too abstract for seekers–for the pre-evangelized and those who have not yet responded to the initial proclamation, who are certainly part of the New Evangelization. There’s lots of multivalent language and phrases, and little concrete guidance or suggestions for what to do with this hearing, how to respond. I tried to imagine how this sermon might sound to someone who had not yet heard the Gospel, or how it might resonate with a “Christmas-only” Mass attender and bring them back in January. And I struggled with imagining the process of response. My uneasiness is that without abandoning the authentic purpose of the Eucharistic homily in the history and teaching of the Church [for the converted] we do need to somehow make specific applications for seekers during unique opportunities like Christmas. I think exploring this tension would be a good addition to Chapter 3, but unfortunately it was outside the focus of this book.

Chapter 4 is where O’Malley’s third point about the formative power of the liturgy for evangelists is demonstrated most fully. And it’s a fantastic chapter for anyone looking for a handle or entry point to more prayerfully and authentically be swept up in the liturgy and begin to find the Eucharistic prayers especially as a unique moment where heaven and earth mingle and meet.

Chapter 5 is creative and intriguing. And it ends with an interesting description of  an imagined seeker-focused ministry of daily preaching and prayer in a small (100k) rust-belt city in rural northern Indiana [South Bend]. I can’t not like this section 🙂 because it’s practical and stretching beyond formation for the evangelized to some outward movement [aka moving from the second setting of the New Evangelization to the first (those who haven’t heard the Gospel) and third (baptized but unevangelized or distant from the Church) settings as well]. Every parish in the U.S. should consider this imagined ministry and reflect on how the same need can be met in their own community and cultural setting. At the heart of the New Evangelization, and Pope Francis’ use of the term “missionary disciple” is the truth that every person and every parish has a responsibility to proclaim Jesus Christ in all three settings of the New Evangelization–and as O’Malley compellingly explains, creating realistic invitation and opportunity to enter into the liturgical life of the Church is an essential, not optional part of the New Evangelization.

On the whole, I’d recommend this book with the important reminder that O’Malley is leaving much of the imagination to us, and instead providing inspiration for renewal.

The best parts of this books are the many valuable chapters for those seeking to better understand the theological underpinnings of evangelization and liturgy. In fact, I’d say that in terms of getting a good feel for liturgical theology in a short number of pages, in a way that could translate well for communicating among the evangelized in parish life, this is probably one of the best books out there. [The other great way to get a quick feel for liturgical theology would be to read these 200 key points from David Fagerberg. Being greatly indebted to both Fagerberg and O’Malley for my own formation in liturgical theology, I can’t really choose whose writing style is better 😉 ]

When it comes to reading this book for a comprehensive look at the New Evangelization, I wouldn’t give it as strong of a recommendation [though as I stated earlier, it would be a fine starting place theology]. The focus seems almost entirely on the faithful being formed in the life of the Church, and so “Liturgical Catechesis for the New Evangelization” would seem to be an equally accurate title. While this is certainly part of the New Evangelization, I worry that the equally important audiences of those who have not responded to the Gospel or are baptized but distant from the Church might get lost in the mix.

In the end, what I’d love to see is Tom Corcoran and Fr. Michael White in conversation with Tim O’Malley on the topic of liturgy in the New Evangelization. I’d even pay if they promised to talk to each other and engage with each other, rather than politely and respectfully talking past each other with each sticking to their own areas of expertise and comfort. 🙂 Earlier this month (judging from social media), I think that coincidentally Fr. White and I were both visiting the University of Notre Dame (where O’Malley teaches) during the same couple of days. Had I only read this book earlier, maybe I could have thrown up some fliers and gotten to hear this imagined talk 🙂 (just kidding, I’m sure they were all busy).

Note: sections of this essay originally appeared at