Let’s say that I take you to lunch at a really fancy and expensive restaurant. The bill amounts to $125. I had prepared for the day by saving money for a few weeks. Now the waiter, supposedly doing his duty, presents the bill after some hesitation. When he brought the change, it was only $25. Now, I had given him two $100 bills and so I was willing to do a little math to make sure everything turned out right. Finally, I couldn’t stand it anymore and called the waiter over. I asked him if there was a mistake and he said, “No, Father. I didn’t think you would mind since most of the time that’s the way I feel after hearing your sermon. I feel shortchanged.”
Happily, this is a fictitious story and this has never happened to me - except for one guy who went the grocery store after Sunday Mass. He was one of those much appreciated and respectful parishioners who always wore a coat and tie, but on this occasion his appearance was a set up. The checker couldn’t help asking if they had been to Mass. And with a big grin revealing confirmation to the answer, “Yes, Ma’am. I never miss a Sunday.” You would never allow this opportunity to slip by but you did and she had you. “And what was the sermon about? Not to be outdone, he fired back. “Well, I’m not sure but I do know how many pieces of stained glass are in the window over the altar.”
Some wise soul needs to sit down and write a survival guide for getting through the homily. Actually, there was a time when people made jokes about Catholic homilies. Things are better now, at least in my estimation but the survival guide might still be a good idea.
My own experience of preaching has a few rough spots. I used to pride myself as an almost exclusively extemporaneous preacher. Time has changed things and I can’t do that anymore. I really love the priest who can shine outside the pulpit. For me, however, I have had to adopt a new set of rules, to learn a new way of preaching.
Here is a sample of the new rules:
1. Don’t waste everyone’s precious time. Spend a little more time preparing. For every minute in the pulpit, spend an hour in study.
2. Make it relevant. Choose as possible subject matter something that will help people live better lives, be better people.
3. This is important: The future of the souls of those gathered is at stake. In other words, heaven or hell is the destination. But it depends on you (and me.)
4. Start looking at the Gospel (primarily) and the other readings starting Monday morning.
5. I hope style is not that important, because I don’t believe that it is. Don’t be theatrical!
6. The job or goal of a preacher is to point to Jesus present among us. You will know that you are successful when the people no longer see you standing there. The words are God’s Word.
One of the most interesting priests in the diocese was Fr. Mary Philip, a Carmelite. He would have a hard time answering you when you greeted him because he would have to straighten up a bit. The first and perhaps the only time I ever heard him preach I had no idea what to expect. When he opened his mouth I thought immediately of St. John Chrysostom. “Chrysostom” literally means “golden mouth”. Fr. Mary Philip, though in appearance and delivery was not attractive, not flashy, with no discernable “style,” when he opened his mouth, he poured out pure Gold. Substance over style!
Occasionally someone will make their confession by saying that their mind wanders during Mass. Perhaps that is a small sin when it involves spending more time thinking about someone’s big hat. If it is an expression of our imagining the scene of the Gospel, it is hardly a sin, at all. We need to relearn how to listen to homilies with our eyes wide open.
Here is one final point:
Arrive for Mass five minutes early. Pray for the homilist and pray that you will be moved by the homily. Especially pray just as the homily begins. Ask that your mind be clear, and free of distractions but ready to hear a message that is meant only for you. I have a lot of stories about this one point, that what is going on has to do with prayer. So many times I have had the experience of someone thanking me for what I said when all the time I never mentioned what they had heard. How humbling! The preacher is a broken vessel, a leaking wineskin. The Word of God is the bridge and he waits for us to hear him calling our name in the homily.