The Archbishop of Minneapolis–St. Paul asked me several months ago to give a conference on the “nuts and bolts” of preaching a good homily rather than giving a lecture on the theology of preaching. It seemed to me that I should begin with composing a really, really poor homily for Mass and explain why it is poor. Here is the unmasterpiece as if I were giving a homily to my fellow priests on the role of obedience.
I know that most of you probably don’t really care about this topic, but today I want to talk about obedience to our bishop because he has demanded this task of me. I’ll try to make this as painless as possible for both of us.
As Paul Remilow says in his latest work, “Priestly life is a life of total obedience, following the path opened by Christ toward the Father for He said: I am the life.” And in the Gospel today, Christ speaks of the vigilance of this obedience in terms of preparedness when He said that we must “Gird your loins and light your lamps and be like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding.” Let us take a look at preparedness and obedience from two perspectives.
First, preparedness requires being tense before battle. Your obedience must be a habit that comes from the inside by acts of freedom and love ordered to the procession of the divine will. It is meant to be organic and violent because it works as a voluntary imposition that divides the self, that is, an act of intellectual self-mortification whereby you accept to agree with what you otherwise know is false. This doesn’t mean you understand everything you seek to do, or agree with all that the bishop thinks who commands you to do. But as Karl Rahner reminds you, you are called to think with the bishop’s mind. It certainly means that obedience is more often than not very difficult. But it also means that you recognize some very limited good of the command that is being applied each time you obey. As Jesus says: Love your neighbor.
An older, more spiritual priest than I once said to me that the key to the pastoral life is to treat it as an enemy even to the point of risking one’s comfort and very life. As Francis Conner says, you will thereby journey more quickly toward the summit of absolute perfection. Doing a lot each day, you will keep moving and keep changing. And while you are not yet at the destination, you will infallibly get there, which is why Jesus said to John: Behold your mother.
Second, obedience is related to hope. The theological virtue of hope, Torrell maintains, is related not only to the final end of eternal life, but also to the means or ways of handling the things of this corrupt world. You can then embrace by obedience the hope that God can and will use them to draw you closer to himself. You are meant to be beings of hope by the activity of the predestinating God who determines your wills. You are becoming filled with a sense of freedom by discovering God’s will in your will even though it evades your control.
In conclusion, you live in an ugly secular world in which people are, deep down, vulnerable to despair because it is impossible for them to believe that God can redeem their human situation. So you priests are enormously blessed in this respect by the virtue of obedience. Your day is composed of making the connection between the means and the final end. It is one of the key forms of witness you provide and testify to in this wretched world that does not know how to obey nor how to cope with hope either. Obedience is the bread and wine of your sacerdotal life.
Finally, your parishioners may be old and cranky; your bishop’s actions may be unintelligible; your poor limited mind and, worse, limited virtue; dry prayers; uncertain future; all may impinge on your lives. But you must accept these penances you don’t choose. You choose not to choose your own penances but the ones God has chosen for us. St. Paul has much to say about this in his letter to Philemon.
Finally, in heeding the command of the Lord, submit yourselves blindly, not brooding thoughtlessly to the governance of Mary speaking through your bishop as gifts and penances before God. Because the whole Church hopes that Mary the Mediatrix of All Graces and the Mother of obedience will continue to work on your priestly lives for the sake of her son through your complete self-offering. She will then bring greater grace into the world because where sin abounds, grace abounds even more. In conclusion let us pray then, that we may all grow in joy and magnanimity. Amen.
What is wrong here? First of all, the very beginning “Dearly Beloved” is ridiculous, culturally speaking, for one priest to speak to a group of priests. Second, one should never apologize for giving a homily, no matter how difficult it is, nor especially should one put the onus on the bishop for making you do something. Third, being a name dropper suggests you do not have any ideas of your own as well as snobbery (Remilow, Rahner, Conner or Torrell — I made them up). And the homily ends three times, if not four!
What is wrong with the content? It is a pastiche of links. Second, no one can agree with something he thinks is false, even though one can obey with difficulty. Third, thinking with the mind of the bishop and loving one’s neighbor also do not link up immediately. Fourth, the pastoral ministry is not an enemy which will hurry up one’s perfection, a contradiction, and Our Lord’s words to Mary in this context have nothing to do with the false point in the first place. Fifth, the next paragraph is absolutely confused because it mixes up predestination, determination of the will, and freedom. Sixth, the world is neither ugly nor wretched, and absolute obedience is not the bread and wine of the priestly life but a union of many other virtues, one of which is obedience but not as this homily has it. Seventh, regarding the difficulties of the pastoral ministry has nothing immediately to do with St. Paul’s letter to Philemon, and sometimes one must choose one’s penances as did St. John Vianney. Finally, not all obedience is blind because sometimes what is asked by higher authority is ill-timed and ill-conceived, which someone should advise the bishop. Mary, Mediatrix of all graces, has nothing to do with the subject in this context. She brings many graces of her Son regardless of a particular priest’s obedience. Nor does praying for joy and magnanimity have anything to do with the whole homily.
A homily has to be a work of beauty with a beginning, a middle, and an end, that teaches, delights and inclines the audience to virtue. It needs harmony of part to part, unity of part to whole and splendor of form in terms of conceptual clarity. Without these characteristics, none of the results occur unless one is a saint, which most of us are not.
In addition, I think it is important for a priest as preacher to make a good examination of conscience now and again about his art or craft of preaching. Here is the one I gave as a handout to the priests:
Preacher’s Examination of Conscience
1. Does my preaching material lack unity?
2. Is my homily coherent, that is, harmonious?
3. Do I emphasize every sentence equally?
4. Am I being myself, that is, natural, when I preach, or do I put on a persona?
5. Do I too often fill my homily with platitudes or trite sayings such as “God cares for you,” “Jesus loves you?” Perhaps, I am afraid to say that “God is hate” on occasion and explain it correctly?
6. Do I have a good introduction and a conclusion? Do I simply repeat the Gospel as if no one paid any attention? Do I have many conclusions and take off again each time?
7. Concerning variation of my voice:
a. Do I keep it too high or too low?
b. Am I loud and bombastic or histrionic? Am I too slow?
c. Is my homily completely intense or do I ever modulate emotionally?
d. Do I occasionally pause or at least pose a question now and then?
8. Do I preach too long on Sunday or even weekdays so that the people can see how well-educated I am?
9. When I’m in the pulpit or in front of the altar:
a. Do I remain in an immobile position?
b. Are my gestures overworked, that is, the same ones? Do I gesture too much?
c. Am I too casual in my voice as if I were in a bar or a restaurant?
d. Am I afraid of smiling now and again, or is my face always kind of stern?
10. Am I able to deal with surprises: a bird flies in, a dog gets loose in church and barks, babies scream, fire sirens roar by, someone yells at me during the homily or leaves his cell phone on?
11. Do I make eye contact not only with the first few rows but with all the rows in my church.
12. Am I such a perfectionist that I am afraid of making a mistake or losing my train of thought if I am not using notes and the like?
13. Have I learned how to tell a joke and relate it to the Gospel I have just read?
14. Do I read my written homily from intellect to intellect rather than preach from the heart? If I must read my homily and cannot remember my points that I want people to learn, how can the people in the pew remember what I have said?
15. Do I conceive my role as a homilist as that of a teacher or as that of a sanctifier? Someone with a theological degree can teach, but it takes someone who has been ordained to speak in the person of Christ the head and bridegroom to sanctify or be a source of grace that prepares people to worship and receive the Lord Jesus in Holy Communion.
Recently I gave a conference to a group of laypersons on the spirituality of the Order of Preachers. One of the questioners opined that our order needs to change its name because the word “preacher” is something very negative.
I pushed him further and asked him to explain. He said that it is a bad word because we have all heard such dreadful sermons and homilies from preachers that the Word has lost is sheen or radiance. Perhaps this small article may help upgrade the role of the priest as preacher of the Word Most True and Most Beautiful. TP
FATHER COLE, O.P., is associate professor at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., and is the author of The Hidden Enemies of the Priesthood (Alba House, 2007. $22.95 pb. 1-800-343-2522).