Honestly, I try to be fair about this, but I really don’t understand why Catholic priests apparently find it so difficult to preach well.
Of course, our definitions of “preaching well” may range all over the map – what’s riveting to you may be lame to me and vice versa. But in general, what I’m looking for is not entertainment, education or even inspiration, as commonly understood. I’m looking for help in making the connections between the reality of Jesus – present in Word and Sacrament - and the reality of my life. That’s it. And not in any earthshaking way every time. Give me one simple point of reference and reflection. Give me one little nudge to open myself more fully to the Jesus I’m about the receive in Eucharist. That will do.
The evident challenge of this task puzzles me because it’s not too far off from what I’ve been doing for a living for years. I did it while teaching theology, I do it in my writing. Not that I do it well all the time, and not that I meet my own standards. But thinking in those terms – how can I unravel this mystery in a way that’s understandable and helpful to my audience – just comes naturally to me. It’s a challenge, but it’s a good challenge, and I like it. So I really don’t understand why so many priests, who spend many of their waking hours in close proximity to the most pressing needs of the human soul – don’t seem to view their preaching in the same way, and don’t seem to welcome the gift they have – standing in front of hundreds or thousands each weekend – as an amazing opportunity to share the richness of Christ in a way that really connects with the hearts and yearnings of their listeners.
Sunday morning, a case in point.
Here’s a synopsis of the homilly:
You know the phrase, “been there, done that.” Too many of us have that attitude towards Lent. Funny, we don’t have the same attitude towards Christmas, but strangely enough, once or twice through Lent strikes a lot of us as plenty.
Take fasting. No one sees the sense of fasting and abstinence any more. It’s seen as old-fashioned. Well, read the Catechism. It’s all there. Read about the spiritual value of fasting and abstinence.
Oh, and by the way, did you know that contrary to popular opinion, all Fridays during the year are still days of abstinence unless you choose to take up another form of penance to mark the day? Yes. No one knows that.
So let’s make this a good Lent, because we all need to repent.
Now listen, when our relatively new pastor appeared last fall, I was initially pleased – his first few homilies did exactly what I sketched at the beginning of this meandering, and rather well. But then…things deteriorated, and the only thing I can think of is that as the only priest in the parish, he’s simply run out of time to prepare. And perhaps he’s run up against some problems of some sort, because Michael went to Mass here one recent weekday morning, and the homily, preached to bleary-eyed folk on their way to work at 6:30 am, we an energetic defense against those who criticize him for putting other parish’s and schools notices about their fund-raising events in our bulletin.
And that’s too bad, because he’s clearly capable of more.
I mean, let’s look at this homily. First – and I’m not kidding – there was absolutely no reference at all – beginning, middle or end – to any of the Scripture passages. None. Which is especially odd since the Gospel was, of course, about fasting, and more precisely Jesus explaining why his disciples didn’t need to fast while he was with them.
So we listen to this Gospel, then listen to Father blast us for not fasting well enough and not understanding it, and we’re left thinking - huh? What’s the connection?
Secondly, I’ll just tell you what was running through my mind as he preached – other than Joseph be quiet:
Actually, people do fast in the modern world. They fast all over the place. People deny themselves food in general, food with too much fat, food with carbohydrates – yes, people certainly do fast and abstain, and many people are pretty obsessed with it.
Quite often they distance themselves from food because of either general or specific health concerns, but most people do it because they want to look “good.” They want to match themselves up with the ideal body image of the 21st century West. And in the end, they want to “feel good about themselves.”
Which shows us, in the end, that there is a connection between body and spirit. We are not bodies housing an imprisoned soul – we are whole creatures, body and soul, in which one affects the other. Our physical state impacts our emotional state. Maybe it shouldn’t. We definitely shouldn’t allow the fact that we don’t have “ideal” bodies to affect how we feel, but we do.
And somewhere in there is the groundwork for understanding the discipline of fasting and abstinence. It’s not just to “show God how much we love him” (a common understanding that kids have) – it’s to help us draw closer to God. Governing what we put in our bodies impacts our spiritual lives.
How? The ways are many and varied. The two that make the most sense to me are these: first, by fasting and abstaining, I am doing without something that is not God, and something (ideally) that brings me a sort of material happiness or satisfaction. (why we give up something that we like for Lent). By doing without those things, I am deepening my dependence on God. I am schooling myself in the lesson that I don’t need those things to be happy. If I never had another Diet Coke or Cheese Nip or never spent another hour on the computer the rest of my life, (ah..the “fasting” of the 21st century! I should be ashamed…and I am) – I could still be happy, because my joy depends, not on those things external to me, but on the mere fact that God is and God fills me with His love. And that's the life I need to be working towards - indeed, stripping it of all but God, because in the end, that's all there will be anyway.
Secondly, fasting and abstinence is a called a discipline, and for a good reason – it instills discipline in us, and that is something we all sorely need. It’s an aspect of the spiritual life that has just been totally lost for us moderns, which is tragic, because it leaves us prisoner to our feelings and our desires, and no relationship can grow and deepen in that context – not a human relationship, not a relationship with God.
There are many other reasons, all excellent, and all worth thinking about, and none of which were mentioned in this morning’s homily. It’s also worth noting that, of course, fasting is a discipline that is universal – is found in all world religions – every one. What does that tell us?
No, that’s not my homily, but threads of it are there. The point is not to blast people for not immersing themselves in this discipline, but to seriously think about why they don’t (which includes the fact that they’re not taught about it), and to bring out one or two compelling points explaining why this is a valuable thing – it’s not the be and end all of Christian spirituality, as Jesus tells us in the Gospel – but it has a value, and that value really isn’t all that foreign to even our modern experiences.
Help people connect. Don't blast them for not fully grasping what they should be doing, expecially when you represent the reason - Church leadership and catechetics - they don't grasp it in the first place.
But, you know, we really do try avoid Lit Crit (Liturgical Criticism) in this house, especially since the point of Michael’s most recent book is to help the reader get beyond such matters and give herself more deeply to Christ during every Mass, no matter what. But still…it’s hard, especially when one’s experience of Mass is constrained and hampered by a restless toddler, and you just really want everyone to get to the point and give us a little help here.
But, in the Lenten spirit, I end this complaint by turning it around. Which one of us answer his or her call flawlessly and perfectly? Answer: none. The priest may not be giving me what I think I need out of a homily, but what would my children say if they were asked how attuned to them and their needs at any given hour of the day their mother was yesterday? Probably that sometimes I was there in the right way, and sometimes I wasn’t. My interest in David’s preparation for his Academic Team match probably drifted from concern to nagging, Katie didn’t deserve to be snapped at just because her hairbrushes regularly disappear into some chasm in her room every two weeks, and Joseph…well, he got a solid thirty minutes of story-reading in the afternoon and another good thirty minutes at bedtime, but I’m sure I neglected him at some point during the day, too.
So yes – God calls us all to live so that our lives are like the ideal homily I described above – to let the reality of Christ’s love be revealed through our actions and words. I struggle to do so in the midst of the pressures of life and my own limitations, as does the priest. And you know what Paul says. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God… We’re one in the faith, and we’re one in the struggle to live it.
On second thought…maybe I did get something out of that homily after all.