Everyone’s a critic. When it comes to preaching and to homilies, it has got to be tough to get up in front of the community and be inspiring and insightful if you’re under-slept, overworked, rushed or maybe even going through a rough time yourself. But this aspect of a priest or deacon’s life is so very important that it can seriously help or hinder the faith life of those present to hear it.
You can’t say that about committee meetings.
We expect so much of our clergy, whether diocesan or religious. There are a thousand important things to do. I would assert, though, that preaching (which comes with its own requirements such as preparing ahead of time and prayer) probably should go pretty high up on the priorities list.
I have been very fortunate to hear some truly exceptionally wonderful homilies. There are some priests who are extremely gifted (and probably work hard at it too) and who manage to crowd the church with people who just want to hear them expound on the readings of the day. At my parish we had a visiting priest, a Jesuit named Fr. John Murphy, SJ, who used to come out to say Mass sometimes. His preaching was so profound and remarkable that you could hear people in church whisper that what they were hearing was amazing. One relative of mine would bring a tape recorder to the church so she could play the homily back later. (How many people in the pews want to hear the same homily a second time?)
Unfortunately, sometimes – albeit very rarely – homilies are not just bad, but they are destructive. Luckily this is very very seldom the case, but if it happens to you it’s not a small deal. It can be a very big deal and it can risk alienating one from the faith.
When I reference destructive homilies I don’t mean that they were uninteresting or uninspiring. I mean that whoever is preaching is off base theologically or pastorally – and significantly – and it causes unhealthy, unproductive problems for the listeners. Not challenges, which can be uncomfortable, but actual alienation. (I ran into this once in this diocese with a visiting priest and one other time saw a priest in southern California who was saying Mass while apparently stoned. I hope that both of them got help. I complained about the former and should have about the latter for his own sake.)
What can you do if you bump into this part of our faithful and have this sort of terrible experience? It’s happened to me and I have a few thoughts.
- Remember that priests or deacons are human and they are sometimes confused, distraught, unwell, having a bad day, theologically under-educated or immature. This is NOT the majority by any means but it is helpful to remember that not every priest is perfect, and neither will the preaching be. (If his theology is off, so too will his preaching be. If he is immature, so too will his homily be.)
- A very smart priest once explained to me that most of the time, those who preach are speaking first and foremost to themselves. So if you run into a priest who constantly preaches on the same topic, that’s his issue (it may not need to be yours).
- Theology is complex, but often getting a sense for what’s healthy or unhealthy theology isn’t so difficult. If you hear something that strikes you as misguided but you can’t articulate it, listen to your gut. Often it is possible to have a “taste” for good theology even when you cannot quite put your finger on why that’s the case. This is just as true if you’re channel surfing your television and there’s a TV preacher expounding what’s what. Listen to your gut. Then check it out….
- If something you hear seems wrong, check it out: ask another priest, deacon, pastoral minister or someone else with good theological formation to talk it through with you. It is exceedingly rare that a priest will say the wrong thing from the pulpit, but I have unfortunately been a witness to it myself on rare occassion.
- Don’t forget to pray for those who preach and minister. They need our prayers and God’s help to do a good job in a challenging world.
- It may or may not help to talk with the priest (or deacon) who has said something offensive. If you do try, remember to be polite since no one responds well if under attack. This may or may not work but if you do your best to understand (or possibly to correct), and you do it with charity and a good attitude, at least you’ll know you’ve tried no matter what the outcome is.
- If you have heard something truly egregious, or experienced something tremendously out of bounds, and if talking with him wasn’t productive, you can then talk with either the bishop’s office (if he’s diocesan) or with his religious superior if he’s a member of an order. I would hope that you would never need to do this, but it’s good to know what the next step is if that is the case.
My biggest concern is that harm will be done from the pulpit and those listening won’t know it’s wrong and will be damaged on account of it and become alienated because someone is preaching something that we as a Church do not believe. The myths can be very powerful even though they’re wrong.
I hope that this is never your experience or that of anyone you know or love. But when you meet people who say “I used to be Catholic until…”, some of those stories involve their being told something that actually isn’t true by a supposed authority and the end result was a separation from the church that was permanent or at least long-standing. It is imperative to be able to think for yourself so that if you hear something screwy, even if it’s from someone who looks authoritative, you can recognize it.
Listen to your gut.