Teaching & Preaching

What’s often missing from our homilies
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The Day of Discipleship, St. Joseph’s Parish, Amarillo, Texas (Bill McCullough)

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. 

Homilies, like classroom lectures, require preparation—but also humility and love

When I started teaching, I thought my role was to be a font of information about Catholicism for my students. After all, I had studied a lot of theology and could, if not “set them straight” on what they should know and think, at least nudge them in the right direction. But that was a fool’s errand. Teaching, I came to realize, is as much about learning from students as it is about imparting knowledge. You can have the perfect lesson plan, the perfect lecture, the ideal set of group activities, and the whole thing could flop. Or something can happen on campus that requires you to scrap your plan and start from scratch. As much as I stress coming to class “prepared” as a task for students and professors alike, part of the preparation involves cultivating a willingness to reach the objective in a way other than what you had envisioned. Professors—and preachers—should strive to be nimble.

One Sunday I was at a Spanish Mass at a Midwestern parish that was packed with families, most of whom had small children. There were babies in every row, it seemed. The presider, who was not a native Spanish speaker, launched into a homily about the evils of abortion. I looked around and thought, “Read the room.” He could have made the same point far better by acknowledging how the Holy Spirit was palpable in the cries and coos and chaos of families doing their best to worship together. Instead, he delivered a political diatribe.

[What elements attract parishioners to a parish? See the data here.]

Like professors, preachers should also practice humility. In any endeavor seeking an understanding of God, we have no choice but to recognize our finitude, our inability to fully grasp the incomprehensible mystery, much less communicate it to another. This might seem daunting, but it is truly freeing. We cannot say all that needs to be said; we must trust in the Holy Spirit to move between our words and the hearts of those who listen. But humility is more than a posture. We must take actions that show our humility before God and one another.

One way preachers can practice this kind of humility is by inviting lay people to reflect on Scripture at Mass. A preponderance of evidence indicates that college students learn best from diverse faculty. Having faculty from different racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds improves learning outcomes for white and nonwhite students in measurable ways. Learning from those who are different from ourselves expands the list of texts we understand as canonical. It also brings fresh perspectives to canonical texts to which we’ve grown accustomed. This can be true when it comes to Scripture as well. Lay people, including vowed religious, provide perspectives on Scripture that include parts of life that may remain hidden to the clergy. The difficulties of community living, the challenges of child rearing, the pressures of work-life balance, the annoyances of cooking or living with a spouse—all these experiences bring richness to our prayer lives, and can do the same for the church’s public prayer, the liturgy. After all, the scriptures weren’t written by clerics alone. We shouldn’t leave clerics alone to reflect on them every Sunday. Sharing the pulpit with the congregation builds community, engages marginalized voices, and has the potential to energize faith.

The final and most important touchpoint between the classroom and the pulpit is the importance of love. Teaching is an act of love; no professor who has contempt for their students is a successful professor. It may seem a cliché to say that I love my students, but I do. I love their insight and their potential, I love the adults they are becoming, I love their questions and their ability to see through me. I love their self-consciousness and their lack of self-awareness, their passion and their ambivalence. I sincerely want them to experience joy and peace, to experience the God of love.

This must also be true of preachers. A cleric who looks down on the laity cannot be a good preacher, because contempt is the opposite of love. Like teaching, preaching is an act of love, an attempt to break open God’s word in a life-giving way. Only when we approach these tasks with careful preparation, profound humility, and surpassing love can we hope to invite God to speak to God’s people through the preacher’s words.

Or at least make it less likely that I’ll be annoying to sit beside at Mass. 

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Natalia M. Imperatori-Lee is Professor of Religious Studies at Manhattan College in the Bronx.

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