Editors’ Note: We've asked a number of authors to discuss the state of the American parish and what it means to be church in a time of migration and movement. We also wanted to offer practical suggestions for how parishes can be more welcoming, just, and Spirit-filled in these times. Together, our contributors provide a picture of the U.S. church today, one not so much in decline as undergoing a profound transition. To read all the articles, see the entire collection, The American Parish Today.
Theologians are the worst people to sit next to at Mass. I know, because I am one, and so is my husband. The temptation to over-analyze the liturgy—and to armchair-quarterback the homily in particular—is difficult to resist. I’ve heard homilies that went on too long, relied on inappropriate imagery (hello, gory World War II stories at the children’s Mass), or failed to take the community into account. I’ve been at parishes where week in and week out the homilist grieves the availability of pornography. I’ve sat through more sports-metaphor-dependent homilies than I ever needed to. But complaining about bad preaching is easy, especially since, as a lay woman, I am barred from giving a “homily” in a liturgical setting.
About twenty years ago, when I was a grad student at Notre Dame, one of my professors was lamenting lay students’ relative ignorance of Scripture as compared to his own grad-school cohort. A fellow lay student noted that priests have to engage Scripture daily and weekly in preparation for Sunday Mass. This, over a lifetime, brings an intimacy with scriptural texts that lay people have to foster, if we can, on our own time. The professor, himself a diocesan priest, had never thought about it that way. Barring lay people from preaching deprives us of an opportunity to cultivate a closeness to Scripture that could benefit the whole church.
Over the past few years, I have been asked on several occasions to offer scriptural reflections in a variety of liturgical settings. These opportunities have given me a chance to reflect with empathy on the difficult task of regular preparation of homilies. The struggle is real: I read and reread Scripture, searching for an “in” or a hook; I look at exegetical essays and commentaries; I pray. It takes me weeks to get somewhere with a reading. I’m pained by how harshly I’ve judged the men who have been doing this on a weekly basis for a good portion of their lives. While I regularly deliver public lectures, preaching is a different skill.
Still, the classroom offers lessons that translate well to the pulpit. Both the classroom and the church bring together a community to serve a greater purpose. Both ask speakers and listeners to attend to the other. And both are spaces of learning. Most Catholics don’t have an opportunity to study theology after they are catechized, so the main way they access theological thinking is through weekly Mass. This doesn’t mean that homilies should be theological treatises. It means that homilies, like classroom lectures, require preparation—but also humility and love.