Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Homily Blues

One of the first books I bought and read after I returned to the Church in 2006 was Still Called by Name: Why I Love Being a Priest, by Dominic Grassi, a priest in the archdiocese of Chicago. I got this book because I felt called to be a priest myself but wondered how, in the Roman Catholic Church of today, one could answer this call and still fully be oneself. I hoped that Still Called by Name would enlighten me in this regard.

I love this book and I am full of admiration for Father Grassi, a man who is so fully in touch with and accepting of his own humanity that he can relate with unreserved compassion to the people to whom he ministers and with whom he shares a community. His honesty, integrity, and vulnerability make him a real pastor rather than an archdiocesan functionary or a mouthpiece for teachings that have nothing to do with the reality of people’s lives.

There is a chapter in Still Called by Name entitled “Dancing with the Word,” in which Father Grassi tells of how he learned to be an effective homilist. In the early days of his priesthood his sermons, which he memorized and recited word for word, were like “theology lectures” made up of “the stuff that had been poured into me in the seminary.” Fortunately, he listened to the feedback of his parishioners and of his own body and sought out “the best preacher I knew” for advice. As a result, he began to preach from his heart as much as from his head. Eventually, he experienced another breakthrough:

Fortunately I stumbled upon—or the Spirit kindly led me to—something called theology of story. At that time authors such as Jack Shea and others were creating a new way of looking at the story of what our faith means. Its premise, simply stated, is that to effectively share the story of salvation, of God’s love for us, that is found in Scripture and in our tradition, a preacher needs to get in touch with and be familiar with not only the word of God but also his own story of faith and the stories of the people with whom he shares his thoughts. I believe it was during that difficult period of growth that I first became a storyteller.

My homily eventually became a kind of spiritual dance, with my story touching the stories of the people to whom I preached. And together we explored and shared the mystery of the Story, found primarily in Scripture but also found in human history. What a difference this new approach made. No more headaches. Now I was eager to make those connections that were building up inside of me.

Over the years, Father Grassi has developed his storytelling skills and, to this day, continues to work on learning new techniques and improving his homilies.

Most important, however, I have learned that a good homily comes from the heart. Often I am preaching something that I myself need to hear. Anything less than complete honesty will not only shortchange the listeners but also will destroy the power of the message.

Apart from the homily, the liturgy of the Mass is for the most part a “set piece.” While the readings, prayers, and liturgical actions speak to each of us in different ways, they are prescribed by the national bishops’ conferences for every day of a three-year period. It seems to me, then, that the occasion of the homily presents an opportunity for the homilist to draw together the elements of the liturgy for that Mass and to tease out their relevance to the world of today and to the lives of the people in the pews.

A good homily is not a form of entertainment, designed to keep the congregation awake and to enhance the popularity of the homilist. I am certain that Father Grassi does not tell stories to entertain his parishioners. But stories—especially those that are well told—do have a way of engaging the listener, of touching his or her life, of raising questions that the listener is moved to consider.

Now there are didactic stories and mimetic stories. A ridiculously pious and condescending young priest in my mother’s parish once gave a homily in which he told the story of his attending an interreligious conference. At the conference were Anglican and Lutheran priests and ministers, whose liturgical rites are very similar to those of the Catholic Church but who tend to be theologically liberal. The young priest told us that he felt far more at home with the fundamentalist Evangelicals because their moral teachings were similar to those of Catholicism. This was a didactic story because it was—unsubtly—designed to teach us a lesson about the potential moral perils of ecumenism. Like all of this young man’s homilies, it was delivered to us as if we were participants in a children’s catechism class.

A mimetic story is one that gives an engaging picture of some vital aspect of life but allows us to ask our own questions and to draw our own conclusions about the issue presented. Most modern prose falls into this category. As a reasonably mature and intelligent adult, I relate more readily to mimetic than to didactic stories.

My bet would be that Father Grassi's stories are predominantly mimetic.

I am sure that it must be very difficult for a priest to come up with a fresh and inspiring homily every week, especially given the heavy workload imposed on today’s clergy. I am also sure that some priests just eventually give up. In my former church the pastor would usually tell a joke at the start of the homily and then read from a prepared text. He is not a native speaker, so his English is not always idiomatic or grammatically correct. Yet the (mercifully brief) homilies he read were in perfect English. This often made me wonder how it is possible to passionately communicate with the people in the pews using someone else’s words.

In a 2009 article in America entitled “Preaching in a Vacuum: Why Routine Feedback on the Sunday Homily is Essential,” South African Jesuit Chris Chatteris offers the following:

I can think of no greater service to the pastoral practice of the church than constructive criticism of preaching. If such a movement were to take hold among the people of God, there would be nowhere to hide for the unprepared, the hollow and the offensive.

Father Chatteris recommends that the people of God, in any given congregation, offer “straightforward and trenchant feedback” on the homily. This is contrasted with the “body language feedback”—glazing over of the eyes, close examination of the bulletin, fidgeting—that preachers often ignore.

One suggestion that Chatteris offers for the improvement of homilies is “the formation of a preaching committee—a group of parishioners asked to assist the priest, deacon or lay preacher in the preparation, delivery and assessment of the homily.”

The U.S. Catholic bishops have wisely written: “Only when preachers know what their congregations want to hear will they be able to communicate what they need to hear” (Fulfilled in Your Hearing, 1982). A preaching committee can help a preacher to discern a congregation’s needs and thus assist in finding helpful themes for homilies. Such a group can also break down the alienating sense of loneliness that can accompany the process of preparing homilies, an awful feeling of flying solo.

How much more uplifting and inspiring a Sunday Mass would be if the homily touched the hearts of the listeners in a way that left them wondering or marvelling or somehow motivated. How much longer the Mass would last in the minds of the congregation as they moved into their Sunday routine. And how deeply fulfilled the homilist would be knowing that on giving inspiration he received love in return.

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  1. A well written piece, keep up the great writing.

  2. Thank you for your kind comment, and for following.