Preaching is such a mainstay of our existence that it boggles the mind to think how many homilies we present in a given week. There is the Sunday homily as the centerpiece of all preaching. Additionally, we may share a few words at the daily Masses commenting on the saint of the day or the readings. Then there are the funerals and maybe the wake the night before. Also, the weddings you might have this Saturday and the baptism after the last Mass on Sunday. The next day the school Mass or a prayer service. The total of all these reflections can be quite hefty when added up.
Energy and Satisfaction
Preaching is typically listed near the top of the list when priests are asked, ‘‘What part of ministry do you enjoy the most, what part gives you energy and much satisfaction?’’ It is a privilege when you step back and think about the enormous responsibility we have. I still am amazed that, every Sunday, people all of a sudden sit down and listen to me for the next eight minutes. There is a high expectation placed upon us to do this well. Because it is enjoyable to present and gives us much energy, it is a mixed blessing when we do not have to preach on a weekend. The break can be a welcome change. But the break can leave the week a little empty. I say this not because the homilist that week was not nurturing, (although that does happen from time to time, reminding me what others may experience from time to time from me) but because of the preparing and preaching was not there to energize and to enjoy for our own sustenance and nourishment. It takes effort each week to carve out the time and do the basic Rs of preaching: Read, Reflect, Research, wRite. Actually giving the homily is the fun part.
An interesting phenomenon that happens to all of us occurs when the homily into which we put much preparation — the one we think has a great message — just seems to be ‘‘seeds that fall on the road and nothing happens.’’ Then there are the days when we don’t think the homily is one of our best but after Mass people mention what a great message it was. Even more perplexing are those moments when people mention what they like about the homily and you have no idea how they got that message from the homily. But somehow they needed to hear that message whether you said it or not. We just never know how God is going to use us this week.
That Brick Wall
Then there is the week we hit that brick wall. Saturday morning arrives and we still have no idea what we are going to say for those eight minutes when we walk into the pulpit eight hours from now. These feelings are frightening. It is these moments when the phenomena of preaching is not energizing and uplifting. It can be a stark reminder of what a responsibility this is. The reasons for the absence of message can be legion.
We all have read readings and at first glance thought, ‘‘Oh my, what in God’s name (literally) am I going to say this weekend?’’ It is even more frustrating if we have done our due diligence by reading the Scriptures early in the week, pondering them, paging through commentaries and still nothing has materialized in our heart and soul to preach as Friday night or Saturday morning arrives. We would like to call the deacon and surprise him with the task, thinking he might have beginner’s luck starting fresh and under pressure. Sometimes nothing of substance does come and we know we cannot dismiss the task lightly since there is a rightful expectation on the part of parishioners to hear a message about the Word. As the hour to preach gets closer, Plan B needs to be set in place.
Plan B Rule of Thumb
Often another plan gives us permission to relax from the responsibility of giving a fully developed homily. A rule of thumb in these moments is to keep the homily short, concise and to do no harm. The worst thing is stretching an underdeveloped thought into eight minutes; that is painful for everyone. Plan B may be that the Sunday homily becomes weekdayish. Most weekday homilies are a simple, though meaningful thought, when we take one phrase or word from the pages of the lectionary and expound on it. Those quick three-minute reflections in the middle of the week often have a surprisingly good message in them, which even surprises us since we, too, are probably hearing it for the first time as the people in the pew are hearing it. Plan B will take as many forms as there are lifelines out there. While having dinner on Friday night with priest friends, we might admit having no idea yet for the weekend homily in hopes of having a morsel tossed out, (like pearls to swine), as a friend gives an idea that you take and develop it yourself. We may resort to the Web to see what prepared homilies are out there for the taking. Now Plan B (no matter what the plan might be) can be pulled off well only if executed on that rare occasion. It is OK to rest on our laurels now and then — but only now and then.
The bigger concern is when these brick-wall Saturdays keep occurring, becoming more the norm than the exception. Then the ‘‘B’’ in Plan B becomes ‘‘Beware.’’ It is one thing when nothing is there. It is another thing altogether when we do not apply due diligence to the task properly. Plan B can still be used, but for how long can this continue? The homily may be short and concise, but now harm may be setting in. Those bricks in the wall you keep hitting may actually be ‘‘preaching’’ something to ‘‘the preacher.’’ The dry spell may be a symptom of other things that are being manifested in this way. Is the dry spell an indicator that certain things are out of order in one or all aspects for our life (e.g., spiritual, physical, and pastoral)?
What is going on in our life? Maybe without knowing it, personal things such as parents’ health, family situation or personal health are taking their toll and it is affecting us more than we are able to admit. Our day-to-day patterns may be off-center because of these concerns, and their emotional toll can be exhausting!
The dry spell may be less personal and more vocational. The year-in-year-out sameness and the routines of parish life and priestly ministry are not prompting the zeal they once did. Activities which were once seen as priestly ministry are now seen as routine chores to check off the list. A chronic despair that is masked by keeping the routine going and the to-do list checked off is now speaking out in the silence of nothing to say on this and most weekends. The flame of faith is flickering; the spirit of ministry is waning. Unveiling these masks of emotional exhaustion or spiritual malaise needs to come from within the man, or from those who care for him. Priests live such ‘‘Lone Ranger’’ lives that often those closest to them wait far too long to name what the priest himself cannot articulate. Others see it, and though it may be a passing low point, it may not be just passing.
On a lighter note, the brick walls may just be the growing pains of the pastoral duties of a new assignment or another assignment or both. The time constraints of new or added duties may simply be in that awkward ‘‘learning phase’’ — that time when we need to give ourselves the space to figure out how we are going to manage this new task into our already busy schedules. The week flies by and Saturday morning comes before you know it and before you have a homily prepared. Unfortunately, the first thing we typically cut is homily preparation. We might end up short changing the preparation due to some public ministry. Maybe Plan B during this learning curve is to turn the pages in The Priest magazine and borrow some ideas from Father Steiner. Sometimes God provides in the most obvious of places and we are too busy to notice.
Father Carrion is the pastor of Holy Cross, Our Lady of Good Counsel, Mt. Mary, Star of the Sea in Baltimore, Md., and is the director of the Deacon Formation Program for the Archdiocese. Send column topics you would like to see to PCarrion@archbalt.org