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Comfort and Challenge

After teaching eight years at New York's Saint Joseph's Seminary, Dunwoodie, I began an eight year period of teaching at the Maryknoll School of Theology. Though only thirty miles apart, they were, in those days, different theological worlds.

The first time I had occasion to preach at Maryknoll, it occurred to me that I would preach the same text differently in each seminary, because, at least in my discernment, the challenge of the Gospel would take on a different thrust in each context.

These thoughts came back to me after a wonderful dinner conversation last evening with two very committed parishioners. We were speaking, naturally, of Pope Francis and the effect he was having on so many. The words that came to my friends were "comforting" and "consoling." I agreed, but suggested it was necessary to complement them with "challenging."

Some of that challenge is present in the Pope's homily in Saint Peter's this morning:

In the passage from Saint Paul which we have heard, the Apostle tells his disciple Timothy: remember Jesus Christ. If we persevere with him, we will also reign with him (cf. 2 Tim 2:8-13). This is the second thing: to remember Christ always – to be mindful of Jesus Christ – and thus to persevere in faith. God surprises us with his love, but he demands that we be faithful in following him. We can be unfaithful, but he cannot: he is “the faithful one” and he demands of us that same fidelity. Think of all the times when we were excited about something or other, some initiative, some task, but afterwards, at the first sign of difficulty, we threw in the towel. Sadly, this also happens in the case of fundamental decisions, such as marriage. It is the difficulty of remaining steadfast, faithful to decisions we have made and to commitments we have made. Often it is easy enough to say “yes”, but then we fail to repeat this “yes” each and every day. We fail to be faithful.

And I ask myself: am I a Christian by fits and starts, or am I a Christian full-time? Our culture of the ephemeral, the relative, also takes its toll on the way we live our faith. God asks us to be faithful to him, daily, in our everyday life. He goes on to say that, even if we are sometimes unfaithful to him, he remains faithful. In his mercy, he never tires of stretching out his hand to lift us up, to encourage us to continue our journey, to come back and tell him of our weakness, so that he can grant us his strength. This is the real journey: to walk with the Lord always, even at moments of weakness, even in our sins. Never to prefer a makeshift path of our own. That kills us. Faith is ultimate fidelity, like that of Mary.

About the Author

Rev. Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is Associate Professor of Theology Emeritus at Boston College.



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Dunwoodie and the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers (former site of the Maryknoll School of Theology) are only 19.7 miles apart.  I attended MST for a semester (sadly after your departure, Fr. Imbelli) and recall getting to class from the Bronx in less than a 1/2 hour without traffic.  I wanted to check your mileage estimate to make sure I was not so blatantly breaking the speed limit! 

Mr. Marth,

I would go by way of Arthur Avenue to pick up some fresh mozzarella for lunch – adding exactly 10.3 miles to the journey!

I often compare notes with friends after the Sunday homily and it has become clear that the (good) preachers tailor their message to the assembly. It's particularly obvious between France and the US. For example, for the Lazarus gospel, in France the homily addressed the question (that presumably troubled people here): "How come God, who is kindness itself, does not forgive and let the rich man come to him?"; and in the US the homily addressed the question (that presumably troubled people  there): "How come Lazarus gets to be with God in spite of not having done anything for it at all as far as we can tell?"

But how would you preach the same text differently in those seminaries?



without going into specificities of text and occasion, I think my concern is analogous to the post below on "Self-gerrymandering." We repeatedly retreat into our "comfort zones." And the Gospel challenges us not to settle down in what Pope Francis in Assisi called our favorite "pastry shop" or to switch the image (as above) to "makeshift paths" ["la strada del provvisorio"] of our own devising.

Here are a couple of brief  passages from "Fulfilled In Your Hearing: the Homily in the Sunday Assembly" that touch on tailoring a homily to a community, and how challenging that can be:

"First of all, we can point to the great emphasis which communication theorists place on an accurate understanding of the audience if communication is to be effective.  Unless a preacher knows what a congregation needs, wants, or is able to hear, there is every possibility that the message offered in the homily will not meet the needs of the people who hear it.  To say this is by no means to imply that preachers are only to preach what their congregations want to hear.  Only when preachers know what their congregations want to hear will they be able to communicate what a congregation needs to hear.  Homilists may indeed preach on what they understand to be the real issues, but if they are not in touch with what the people think are the real issues, they will very likely be misunderstood nor not heard at all.  What is communicated is not what is said, but it is what it heard, and what is heard is determined in large measure by what the hearer needs or wants to hear."

The Eucharistic assembly that gathers Sunday after Sunday is a rich and complex phenomenon.  Even in parishes that are more or less uniform in ethnic, social or economic background, there is great diversity: men and women, old and young, the successes and the failures, the joyful and the bereaved, the fervent and the halfhearted, the strong and the weak.  Such diversity is a constant challenge to the preacher ... one of the principal tasks of the preacher is to provide the congregation of the faithful with words to express their faith, and with words to express the human realities to which this faith responds.  Through words drawn from the Scriptures, from the church's theological tradition and from the personal appropriation of that tradition through study and prayer, the preacher joins himself and the congregation in a common vision.  We can say, therefore, that the homily is a unifying moment in the celebration of the liturgy, deepening and giving expression to the unity that is already present through the sacrament of baptism.





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