Post 264

A Plea from the Pew: Reflections on Homilies

There is a moment during the Mass which occurs after the Gospel has been read. By this time, the congregation has sung (or heard, at least,) a few songs and heard the Mass readings read aloud. By this point, even the most distracted of parishioners probably has a few words, ideas or images in his mind that are worthy.

At this point, everyone is seated and waiting for the priest to begin his homily.

One hopes, at this point, that the priest doesn’t blow it. I often hope this.

After all, the very air is permeated with so many good ideas! Regardless of the visual setting for the Mass, the words we have heard sparkle and glimmer like many-sided gems. So many interesting themes! Three readings and a psalm to work with! Lush fruit hanging down, within easy reach and ready for the picking!

Now it’s time for a multiple choice quiz. What do you think is the best way for a priest to begin his homily?
a) with a joke
b) with a story
c) with a prop
d) with the Word of God

WHY, oh WHY, do priests insist on beginning their homilies with EVERYTHING OTHER THAN the readings?!?! They are given these beautiful words and treasure chests full of ideas and the first thing out of their mouths are references to — smartphones! Really! I kid you not.

Oh please, Father! Come on! Stop trying to “meet us where we are”! Stop trying to “get our attention”! You have it. Do you doubt this?

When a priest begins his homily, he has the attention of the congregation. The first five seconds are guaranteed. The priest is not a busker in a subway station, trying to grab the attention of commuters rushing for a train. The priest stands, generally, on a raised area, akin to a stage, above a group of people who are looking at him, and waiting for him to begin (and finish) talking. They are not even on their phones.

And indeed, the congregation is not only attentive, but has just been fed with the Word of God. It’s ‘prime time,’ you could say. The congregation is, figuratively, at the top of the mountain, or, at least, the top of the hill, depending on each listener’s personal disposition. Some people, you could say, are even in the clouds, in a good way.

Why, then, bring everyone down to the ground? Why begin by returning everyone to the everyday world of movies and work jokes and Reader’s Digest type anecdotes and Chicken Soup for the Soul stories? Why are you trying so desperately to talk about everything else other than the readings?

I know. I know why. You believe that we laypeople are in a different world and you will ‘break into’ that world by showing us that you are really kind of just like us. Sporty, like us. Connected, like us. Fun, like us.

Man.

STOP TRYING TO BE JUST LIKE A LAYPERSON!!!

Be different.

Be like, say, a priest. A priest should pour out of himself a love of Christ. His love for Christ should be almost contagious. It should radiate outwards and make him eager to seize every opportunity to tell everyone how sweet Christ is. It should make him eager to seize every opportunity to tell everyone how merciful and noble and loving and strong and brave and admirable Christ is.

Tell me, please, about Christ.

Tell me, please, why I should love him.

Remind me that he is the Light, the Truth and the Way.

Please.

Don’t begin your homily by wearing sunglasses. That’s just painful. Don’t begin your homily by whipping out your cell phone. That wasn’t pretty either. You don’t need props, Father. You don’t need to go for shock value or drama. You’re not an actor. You’re not, in fact, on stage. Further, this is not an interactive type of moment, in the sense that it’s not time to ask the congregation to repeat after you, to raise their hands or to take out their smartphones and look at their apps.

Most of the parishioners are at Mass because Sundays are days of obligation. You will not find most of these same parishioners at Mass on other days. This does not mean that they are bad people, or that those who attend daily Mass are holier than those who do not. It’s not as simple as that.

My point is that those people who feel obliged or drawn to Mass will be there, and they’ll listen to the homily. You’ve already got a subset of the population that is ready to accept a homily about God, Jesus, the Blessed Mother, saints and angels and demons and Satan. It’s okay to go there. It’s okay to start there.

Why start with some “cute” story about a little boy who whatever and whatever?

How many stories have I heard about “little Johnny’’ or “little Tommy”?

Enough, already!

You don’t need a new story when you’ve got the readings of the day. Let’s start there. Get on with it.

Currently, the situation is too often something like this: You show up at the dentist’s office. You are greeted by the receptionist. You sit down in the waiting area. You stand up again and go into the dental chair. You are given a bib, and possibly some sunglasses. You submit to x-rays. The dentist arrives and he asks you to open your mouth. You open your mouth.

He says, “You know, I went canoeing for three days, down the North Saskatchewan. “

Huh?

Is this what we’re here for?

Or – you go to the symphony. You take your seats and you are so thoroughly bored already that you turn to the program booklet as a means of some relief. The pianist enters. You clap. The pianist takes his seat at the bench, flipping the tails of his tux away as he does. His fingers are in position and he nods to the conductor. The conductor raises his baton in the air and . . .

. . . and suddenly turns to face the audience, saying, “A survey that was done recently showed that many teens want to become bloggers when they grow up.”

Wait a sec. Where am I again?

My point is that people who go to Mass are wanting God, in the same way that people who go to the dentist are wanting to have their teeth checked or repaired, and in the same way that people who go to the symphony are wanting to see and be seen.

It is a misguided notion that in order to ‘connect’ with the congregation, the priest should give the congregation more of what we already have — more references to the signposts of our everyday life, more reminders of the news or the tabloid headlines or the Hollywood products or celebrities, more topical topics about nothing.

Totally misguided.

It is, further, a misguided notion that in order to ‘connect’ with the congregation, the priest should become personal, and tell us what he did lately. Part of the problem with doing so is that these tidbits are almost too interesting, and distract from the liturgy. So if you’ve gone camping or shopping or travelling and didn’t wear your clerical collar for two weeks (is that like a married man not wearing his wedding ring?), tell that to me in a chat after Mass; the story about how for the last two days you didn’t get a good sleep because you were at two retreats, the first one being the priest’s conference and the second one being a retreat for the next World Youth Day to be held in Panama, because it was “too hot and too cold and too hot and too cold” and sometimes it was too noisy because people were walking around and that as a result you were awoken every hour, and a lack of sleep can make you feel grumpy, is a story which is not actually going to illuminate the readings of the day. It might help us get to know the priest’s personal life and personal preferences better, but since when has this been the goal? No matter how great the priest is, Jesus is better. Let’s get to know him instead.

The homily is a chance to talk about the supernatural world, using the readings as the starting point. We’ve just heard the readings, so now let’s talk about them. We’re prepped. We’re wearing our bibs and we’re tuned in.

It’s your chance.

Tell me what the readings mean. Tell me what they show, prove and suggest about God and Jesus and supernatural things. If you do it well, you’ll make me fall in love with Jesus all over again. I’ll be full of ardour and eager to receive him in the Eucharist.

You see?

It’s like a date, and you’re the matchmaker. Tell me why God is worthy of my time. Convince me that God is good and that God has a plan for me and my life. Tell me that God loves me (even if you don’t). Tell me that heaven is real and tell me that Mary is my mother. Yes, I know it, but remind me. Remind us. It’s only once a week, and Church is the one place we can go to hear it again.

Show me that this week’s readings are beautiful because they show the mercy of God, or his generosity or his justice. Show me that Christ is loveable and that he’s the best friend in the world. Bring me into the readings in a deeper way. Don’t tack them onto your blog-post style homily as an afterthought or cleverly work them into an unrelated topic, such as why I need to give 10% of my income to the Church (seriously – a priest referred to “our tithing,” as if it were a given). The readings themselves are supposed to point the way for the homily. They are the jumping-off point. Moreover, the readings are connected to each other; often the New Testament readings clarify or answer questions raised by the Old Testament reading. They aren’t placed together randomly. Show us themes in the readings, if you can. But no matter what, show that the readings are an invitation or an appealing challenge to do better, to be better, to refresh our relationship with our Maker.

Today’s readings, for instance, were very interesting. The first was about the prophet Ezekiel. He was told that if he knew of wrongdoing, then he must speak. If he knew of wrongdoing, and did not speak, he was partly responsible.

The word of the Lord was addressed to me as follows: ‘Son of man, I have appointed you as sentry to the House of Israel. When you hear a word from my mouth, warn them in my name. If I say to a wicked man: Wicked wretch, you are to die, and you do not speak to warn the wicked man to renounce his ways, then he shall die for his sin, but I will hold you responsible for his death. If, however, you do warn a wicked man to renounce his ways and repent, and he does not repent, then he shall die for his sin, but you yourself will have saved your life.’

— Ezekiel 33:7-9

The second reading was about true love, which suggests to me that true love has to do with telling the truth. After hearing the first and second readings, I thought to myself, I wonder what the Gospel reading will be? Will it run parallel to what I’ve already heard, or will it run perpendicular, seeming to ‘contradict’ what we’ve already heard?

Well, how about if you take a look? The Gospel reading today was this:

Jesus said to his disciples: ‘If your brother does something wrong, go and have it out with him alone, between your two selves. If he listens to you, you have won back your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you: the evidence of two or three witnesses is required to sustain any charge. But if he refuses to listen to these, report it to the community; and if he refuses to listen to the community, treat him like a pagan or a tax collector.

‘I tell you solemnly, whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven.

‘I tell you solemnly once again, if two of you on earth agree to ask anything at all, it will be granted to you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three meet in my name, I shall be there with them.’

— Matthew 18:15-20

Do you see? The theme is there. In this case, the theme has to do with being responsible to your brother by calling a spade a spade. The Gospel repeats, with emphasis, the notion of speaking up in the face of wrongdoing.

As Christians, this is more important than ever, in light of everything that the Catholic Church has learned from the scandals she has endured. Shame on us if we are afraid of saying that a sin was committed. Shame on us if, out of fear of offending those who are ‘holy’ or ‘good’ (which is often another way of saying ‘powerful’ and ‘connected’ in Catholic circles), we silence ourselves, afraid to question words or conduct that is suspicious or obviously wrong. Indeed, silence in the face of sin is the basic recipe for what ultimately becomes a scandal. Consider every scandal the Catholic Church has had. In how many cases were there others, both clergy and laity, who noticed that something was amiss but who closed their lips? How many innocent people were harmed due to the shortage of people willing to speak out and challenge those “good” priests? The Catholic culture cannot and must not be a culture of silence, where we tremble to say that something isn’t right. If it’s not right, it’s not right, and those who say so should not be intimidated into silence. In the first reading, God says that Ezekiel is “the watchman,” (or “the sentry,” depending on the translation used) but the Gospel expands this, and says that we are all called to challenge our brother. We are all asked to take the position of Ezekiel, to warn and admonish our brother when warranted.

That was the theme for today.

In other words, the theme for today had nothing to do with camping.

The camping Gospel comes later, on The Feast of the Transfiguration:

Then Peter said to Jesus in reply,
“Rabbi, it is good that we are here!
Let us make three tents:
one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

— Mark 9:5