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Preaching, the Liturgy & the Faith

Why Does the Fire Go Out?

People have their reasons, but there is no good reason for leaving the Church. The majority in the area where I reside are probably Baptist and/or Evangelical. Some of these communities target Catholics and many Catholics marry non-Catholics. Not understanding their own tradition, many Catholics are inordinately moved by the music and preaching in Protestant churches. Catholic reformed rituals might not be regarded as very entertaining. Much of the music we sing is criticized as trite and unmoving. When we borrow Protestant hymns or sing Gospel, it is usually a pale imitation of what our separated brethren have to offer. Music enshrines preaching. Particularly in the African-American community, services can go hours. The importance of the minister is measured by his musicality and his effectiveness as a preacher. Our gravity is upon the formulae of liturgy, not upon preaching.


Preachers and Priests, No Comparison?

Many priests were trained to keep homilies or sermons to ten minutes or less. That is about the length of two or three MTV videos. Time-wise, it cannot compare to the formation of the media or to the teaching sermons of our separated-brethren. I knew one old man who went to Mass on Saturday night and to his wife’s Baptist church on Sunday. He told me that he went to Mass for Holy Communion and to the Protestant church for good preaching. This is a rather sad state of affairs. Are we fully feeding our people? Preaching outside the Catholic Church may be dynamic and meaningful; however, it is also fraught with religious error.

Sermons or Homilies?

I recall from preaching seminars that the priest should offer a homily based upon the Scriptures of the day. This focus was understandable but I found the focus too narrow and absolutist. The priest or deacon can preach upon the readings, the liturgical prayers themselves, upon the feast or memorial, or upon what his people (at that time and place) need to hear. I had a vigorous dispute with a liturgist when I suggested catechetical sermons. It was and remains a contention of mine that many people stray to other faith communities because they really do not understand Catholicism and the full significance of the Eucharist.

Can Father Talk Too Long?

How long should the priest or deacon preach? This depends upon many factors:

1. What is the type of liturgy?

2. What has to be said to make the message worthwhile?

3. What is the capacity in patience and in comprehension of the listeners?

Given that Catholic sermons are usually shorter than Protestant counterparts, the priest might be able to amplify his instruction by linking his sermons from week to week. He can also use the parish bulletin, special adult education and bible study, and invite people to use the cycle of readings themselves with missals they can take home. If people look at the readings before Mass, their experience will not be cold when the priest or deacon speaks about them. Instead of merely thinking about what Protestants have that we don’t, let us utilize our own strengths, the missal and the cycle of predetermined readings.

Catholics might also do well to getting used to longer liturgies. Of course, this runs counter to the Roman Rite tradition, known for being curter and more to the point than Eastern Rite liturgies and certain Evangelical Protestant services. There is a basic dilemma with longer sermons, and that is the balance and rhythm of the Mass. A long homily and a short Eucharistic prayer seems to switch the gravity away from the sacrament to the Word which is intended to dispose us for the sacrifice and Holy Communion.

I am concerning myself essentially with the Sunday homily. Given work concerns and strained time issues, weekday Masses would probably have to remain little more than basic exhortations. Such exhortations are similar to aspirations: Jesus, Mary, Joseph save souls! Do good and avoid evil! Keep faith and hope alive! Lord, have mercy on us! God will not abandon you!

Messages Should Comfort and Challenge

Homilies more strictly revolve the Readings; however, sermons can touch upon all sorts of relevant topics. Sermons might be moral exhortations, catechetical moments, inspiration rhetoric and stories, etc. However, they should always connect the lesson, whatever the source, to the lives of the people listening. The congregation should not be passive to the preaching but actively engaged. A topic is explored, the message is ordered for coherence, examples or illustrations are made, and there is the immediate appliance.

The words used in preaching vary upon the setting. When the clergyman marries a couple, he speaks about the joy and hopes of the couple. He might also challenge them to keep the marital act free from the corruption of lust and artificial contraception. However, many Catholic ministers are afraid to rock the boat. When a priest or deacon officiates at a funeral, his words emphasize the consolations of faith to those who mourn, the promises of Jesus our gentle shepherd in regard to eternal life, and the need to go on with our lives. Again, many Catholic ministers are afraid of the conflict that comes with challenging the congregation to see the death as a warning about their own mortality and the need to reform before it is too late. Even evil men are temporarily canonized and little is said about Purgatory. A number in the pews no longer even believe in Hell. Sunday homilies are often pampering and grossly approving because many clergy are afraid of alienating the numbers in the pews and depleting the money gathered into collection baskets.

Need for Courage and Trusting Providence

I knew a priest in the South who tried to integrate the two churches he pastured, one white and the other black. White parishioners complained to the bishop and the man found himself stripped of his parish, reprimanded for making trouble, and reassigned to a teaching position in a college far away. Decades later he was still not allowed to return to parish ministry. But God writes straight with our crooked lines. This priest ended up teaching seminarians. He inspired another generation of men in ministry to struggle for social justice.

How often have we heard certain priests speak about artificial contraception, abortion, divorce and remarriage, or even about fornication and cohabitation? Some men in ministry are afraid. But what chance do God’s people have when their shepherds are passive and fearful? The late Pope John Paul II echoed our Lord’s words of wisdom, “Be not afraid.”

It may be that the priest shortage and the clergy scandals have drained the energy resources and joy of our priests. This needs to be remedied. The core message of the Gospel is not exhausted or angry. Priests who show enthusiasm or excitement about the Catholic faith and Gospel are the most effective. It is also a mentality which breeds vocations. Young men do not want to join a confraternity of tired old men who only go on because of cold duty and obligation. We have to be on fire with the faith if we want those in the pews to ignite! It is very hard for a priest to give what he does not have. God’s servants should be so in love with God that this love spills over in their service of others. Preaching should reflect a life of prayer and a drive to save souls!

The preaching should move God’s people to greater faith and acts of service to our Lord and neighbor. It assists everyone to better understand the Eucharist and disposes us to receive the Blessed Sacrament. We take what we have been given in Word and sacrament as we go out in mission to the world around us.

10 Responses

  1. At this point, it’s history. I don’t even know if the priest who said the Latin mass is even still alive – I think he was retired from active ministry when all this happened.

    There have been several instances of theft in my diocese which led to much stricter accounting procedures – all good. In addition, the diocese audits parishes regularly, something that didn’t exist until about five or six years ago, when the audits were usually when a change in pastor was made.

    Any way, we are so off topic and I apologize.

    I will be off to mass soon. It is deacon preaching weekend and I am looking forward to this week’s homily.

  2. Hi Ellen,

    I am moved by your experiences and those of your friend in this parish and at what seems the hands of an unapproachable priest or possibly worse. And
    if this other priest really did steal the money collected at Mass then the Police should be involved, at least that is what we would do here, but if the offerings at Mass were “Votive offerings to have the Mass said” and the parishioners gave their offerings either for that or for his stipend then he probably did nothing wrong as long as it was accounted for. I gather from your statement that he simply ‘pocketed’ the money without record, which is, of course, a crime. It is always difficult to know the truth especially, as you said yourself, you don’t go to that Mass.

    And all the other issues that have affected you, gosh, it’s so much more than him just being a poor preacher and not inspiring you with his homilies. It seems that there is something like a whole can of worms to be opened up and looked at.

    All I can do is wish you peace as there so much more that is not right for you than just this one issue, and, when I have struggled in the past, especially with personality clashes as well as principles I have simply had to “Let go and let God”

    With best wishes,

    FATHER JOE: Sorry, but it still sounds wrong to me. Votive offerings (as with candles) must also pass through the parish books. A Mass stipend is between $5 to $10 and is a gratuity. It is said for a particular intention. A parish might give another $25 to $50 to a visiting priest for his time and trouble, but this is with a church check. There must be a paper trail. Further, a priest can only take one stipend a day, regardless of how many Masses he offers. There are strict rules in place to prevent trafficking in Masses and the alienation of the parish’s financial resources.

  3. Fr. Joe – I know that it is stealing. This happened about 10 years ago. Several years after the mass was stopped (because the pastor who started the mass was retired for health reasons and his replacement discontinued the mass), I volunteered as the accountant for the parish, so I became familiar with the rules regarding collections, stipends, etc . The pastor we had prior to the merger was a stickler for following the rules, including collections being placed in sealed, pre-numbered bags by the collectors and opened by counters.

  4. Paul,

    I appreciate your thoughtful words. I’m always happy to have insight from others.

    To clarify, my e-mails and phone calls were to request a face to face meeting. As were my husband’s. Apparently, our concerns were not deemed important to him.

    As further example, I have neighbors who’s son contracted H1N1 last year and wound up on a ventilator in a children’t hospital. There was a chance that he might not have survived, but thanks be to God, he did. He was a student at the Parish elementary school. When the father called the pastor, he was not offered counsel, a visit to see the child for anointing or even to pray for the child in church. In his upset state, my neighbor didn’t request this, but you would think that the pastor would have seen his state of mind and offered. Or at least offered to have the associate visit. And this child was in a sacramental grade.

    As far as Latin Mass, I grew up with it and didn’t like it then and do not care to return to it. My parish, years before the merger, had a Tridentine mass that caused a lot of problems as far as use of the church, etc. The priest who came to say the mass would keep the collection as his “payment” for saying the mass. Not envelopes mind you, but any loose cash, which was considerable because it was the only Latin mass in the area. Plus, the church was a mess after the mass and no one cleaned up, put things away, etc. While I have no problem with a Latin mass being said, I have a problem with trying to change an entire parish to a Latin mass parish when it is the only parish in a community and is well established.

    I pray for my parish and the pastor. But at this point, my prayer is for a new pastor.

    FATHER JOE: It is mandatory that money collected at Masses pass through the parish bookkeeping. Neither the celibrant nor any parishioners have a right to pocket the money. Was that reported to the diocese? Around here that would be regarded as stealing. A parish can pay a priest a stipend, but it must be strictly recorded and amounts are regulated. Hope things improve, peace!

  5. Hi Ellen,
    I’m still browsing these writings for a little while longer yet, and I noticed that you said that this Pastor (Priest) was very unkind to you when he arrived, and that he’s ignored your emails and messages on the answer phone. When I asked if you had spoken to him I did mean just that, face to face, when it’s without interruption, and you could use the opportunity to tell him how you felt you have been treated by him since his arrival.
    I usually stay well away from forums and these types of communication because of the terrible inadequacy of the medium, but I was in much distress and need myself when I found this site and it has helped me, but I would never use an answer phone or email to try to deal with something very important.
    This guy might well be just a nasty man and a not very good priest, and you mentioned that he’s from Queens and perhaps that’s the reason why he doesn’t mesh, as you put it. I wonder what he might feel, possibly that the folks from Philidelphia don’t mesh with him? I wonder just what his feelings might have been; possibly a bit of a denisen, and maybe that’s why he wants something familiar for him.
    When you said that you didn’t mind having the Latin Mass in the parish ‘for those that like it’ I assume that you don’t, so there’s a real difficulty to begin with. As I see it the Latin Mass is not a concession to the modern litergy, rather the opposite, the Latin Mass is still a (the?) true Sacrifice of the Eucharist, and the Vernacular simply another, equally valid, form.
    It does sound as if this guy might be struggling and, you know, there are certain Biblical justifications for his rather, seemingly, ultra right disposition. In 1 Peter 3 Vs 3+4 He tells the women of the Church to not adorn themselves outwardly by braiding their hair and by wearing gold ornaments or fine clothing. And not only that in 1 Corinthians 26 Vs 34-36 Paul specifically determines that women should be silent in the churches…………
    Now that’s bound to bring comment and counter arguement, and I’ve heard Rowan Williams (head of CofE) use justifications of the church having to move with the times with the appointment of homosexuals as ministers, so all I can really say is that everyone is different and that there is often something hidden or partially hidden behind the mask.
    One suggestion that has often been thrown at me is: “what has been my part in all of this?”, and I wonder if there is any little thing that you might have done to cause him to treat you so badly right from the start. Perhaps not, and perhaps this guy is not really suited for the job as a parish priest, he might find more comfort in an enclosed order, or perhaps he’s struggling with what he sees as predujice towards him because he’s out of town.
    I still feel a face to face meeting with the man where experiences can be shared and what has been unsaid up till now can be voiced, not to the Bishop, but to the man himself, is possibly the best way forward, and also a bit of humility (and that’s a very difficult one for me so I do know it well!),to accept his authority as an ordained Priest and successor in title to the disciples, and that what he teaches is what the Church teaches also.
    Our Parish Priest has upset a friend of mine, also an animal lover and also having to euthanase one of her dogs, and she’s sent him to coventry because of his attempt at humour by offering to bring a spade and dig the hole. Sometimes when we use humour, especially inappropriately, it can be because we are struggling with something unresolved deep within ourselves. I don’t know his story just as I don’t know yours, but he (our Parish Priest) might well have lost a loved dog or other pet when he was growing up and not put it fully to rest and so, in the present, his response to a parishioner in her time of sadness was not as compassionate as she had hoped. Or possibly he hates all dogs, and that, too, is OK. I see it as sad that my friend has, by her action, or rather, inaction, cut herself off from that previous closeness that she did have with him. She, too, was a reader and Eucharistic Minister up till then. It’s odd also that our Priest is rather conservative, and has introduced the Mass in Latin at 6pm on Sunday which I usually go to, and she can’t stand it and thinks it should be stopped, and she, like myself, grew up with The Original Rite of Mass in Latin.
    “In my father’s house are many mansions” and although I say it with obvious tongue in cheek, it may well be necessary!!
    With Best Wishes,

  6. Fr. Joe –
    Thanks for your kind words and suggestions. Unfortunately the pastor was very unkind to me when he first came and I was working in the church office of my former parish until the “official” merger. I tried talking to him, but my e-mails and phone messages went unanswered, so I knew, that for my personal sanity, I had to let it go. I addressed the issue with our bishop, as did my husband (he too tried to approach the pastor and was also ignored), and other than acknowledging that he was aware of the problem (apparently we were not the only ones expressing concern), nothing was done.

    I don’t mind having Latin Mass in the parish for those that like it, however his wish was to turn the parish into a Tridentine only parish.

    I have, on occasion, filled in for a missing lector, always at the last minute, and even then, when the pastor was saying mass, he barely acknowledged my existence.

    What I find so interesting is that the associate, who in spite of being difficult to understand, has told us that he and the pastor barely speak – only when absolutely necessary.

    Sometimes I think that part of the problem is that the pastor is a New Yorker from Queens and he just doesn’t mesh well with a group of people from just out side of Philadelphia!

    If you could find a moment, would you please say a prayer for my college roommate’s husband, a Presbyterian minister, who had a bone marrow transplant on Monday for leukemia and is suffering with some pretty serious side effects from the massive amounts of radiation and chemotherapy?

    FATHER JOE: I will place him in my intentions for Night Prayer this evening. God bless!

  7. Ellen,

    My parish has wonderful women functioning as Readers, Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion and girls assisting at Mass as Altar Servers. Having said this, many clergy would have preferred restricting the altar servers to the boys, not because of prejudice, but because it functioned as a traditional source for the next generation of priests. Church law still requires that formally installed Lectors and Acolytes be male. Except for Lincoln, Nebraska, these ministries are often bypassed in parishes. The altar server and parish Reader are not “officially” installed. I am surprised that your pastor told you that he would prefer to abolish the involvement of women. You have to help him appreciate the level of service that women offer and how they make a tangible difference in the life of the community. In other words, try to win him over. Priests are not perfect but many are overworked. I suspect that in time he will come to appreciate how women make his life easier or more manageable.

    As for the old Latin Mass, there is nothing wrong with it. If there are people in the parish who would find spiritual support in that manner of liturgical worship then they have a right to petition the pastor for it. I would argue for openness to both the old and new forms. I am thankful that Pope Benedict XVI firmly believes in “freedom” in this regard. However, if the pastor bad-talks the reformed liturgy, then you may have a problem on your hands.

    I would question the prudential decision not to take advantage of an Adult Formation leader in the parish. Volunteers in this regard can be a great resource. Does this mean that there is no RCIA program or other efforts at continuing religious education?

    Sorry about the problems which came with the two parishes merging. Such is often the case that one dominates the other. There is also a grieving about the communities that are lost and changed. A new pastor suffers from not being a part of the past history.

    Despite tensions with the current pastor, I would suggest staying as active as possible. Pastors are shepherds of churches but we come and go. Most often, the churches remain. There is no guarantee that the next pastor will be any more to your liking. In any case, some pastors remain in assignments for long periods of time, thirty years or more. You might be upset with his ideas, but he still respected you enough to share them with you. There are a number of men who would not do that.


  8. Paul,
    Thanks for your comments and suggestions. Unfortunately, our pastor is extremely unapproachable. While he is relatively newly ordained – about 6 or 7 years – he is older and very set in his ways. Unfortunately for the parish, he would prefer to eliminate women as EMHC’s, Lectors and young women as altar servers. I know this because he told me shortly after he was appointed. In addition, he would like us to return to pre-Vatican II Latin Mass. I was in a class in our diocese to become certified as and Adult Faith Formation leader. He was unsupportive and told me that we would not be doing AFF in our parish. And true to his word, we have not done any AFF programs in the almost three years he has been pastor.

    Adding to the issue is that our parish is a recently formed parish from two parishes in a town that were “rivals” for lack of a better word. My former parish was an ethnic parish, small and looked down on by the parish we were merged with. Consequently, the parish leaders from my original parish have not been included in the leadership of the new parish.

    I have thought about leaving the parish, but after much discernment, I have decided that I will attend church there and not be involved in any capacity – I was formerly the Religious Ed coordinator, was a Lector and EMHC and on the finance board. And most probably, he will be gone sooner than later.

  9. Greetings Ellen,

    I read your message and wondered if anyone from the congregation has been able, or had the courage to simply and respectfully tell the priest just how it is for them. I say this because we had a very fervent young priest, newly made, and filled with zeal, preach a sermon by reading from his notes for about half an hour, and that half an hour was worth at least one plenary indulgence for the souls in Purgatory. I went up to him after Mass and said how it was for me, that I found his enthusiasm was powerful and energetic, but that he had a whole lifetime to teach us all the doctrines of the Catholic Church, not just this one day, and that unless he could get his message for that particular day across in not more than 6 minutes then he should practice some more. He thanked me at the time, and has always been a real pleasure to listen to ever since.

    It seems that the days are gone when the Church was assured a good attendance, with coffers filled to overflowing, by simply teaching that unless ALL Catholics attended Mass EVERY Sunday they would go to Hell. That was a very powerful motive to attend. I don’t quite know what has happened over the last several decades, but appeals for reasonableness and then money usually fail to swell the congregation. I remember going to Mass in The Bahamas in a sort of wall to wall carpeted flying saucer, and the priest, with an Irish sounding name, was yet again asking for more money. I took the liberty of approaching him after Mass and simply said that Jesus told us not to worry about money, and where the next meal would come from, just as the birds of the air have no care for such things. We just need to be faithful and trust in Him. After all He told us that many would be called but few would be chosen, and it’s very difficult to make those words any more politically correct than it is to tell a ‘modern Catholic’ that the wafer they now choose to receive in their hand rather than on their tongue really is The Body of Christ.

    If Priests and Deacons (whatever that might be) can be courageous enough to follow the example of Jesus Himself, it’s up to us to follow. He used parables to get over a very simple message, because that is the way the people thought and understood and it’s much the same today. The admonition is still the same: To look lustfully at another is to already to have committed adultery. To covet another, and even for a Priest to covet another’s congregation, is another sin, but to find a precious pearl having searched for a very long time and after having giving up everything else for that very precious thing, is the objective of all Catholics.

    Jesus was never going to ‘water down’ any of the teachings of the Law, and as He fulfilled the Law by His birth and death, death on a cross, it was set in stone just as firmly as the Ten Commandments were by the very Hand of God Himself. There will be a revival within the Church itself and it will not be by adopting strange practices and upbeat tempos and messages, it will be by a return to the real values of Universality and Truth. And as for these others, did Jesus not tell us to shake the dust from off our sandals and turn and walk away?

    With Love, Paul

  10. Thank you for addressing a rather important issue. One that is often ignored.

    I always thought that the homily is a teachable moment – whether a reflection on the readings or on the catechism. Of course, either way, the homilist should be prepared.

    My parish has two priests and three active deacons (one deacon is quite frail and does not serve actively). The deacons are great homilists and the two priests are not. Unfortunately, the deacons only preach one weekend a month.

    The deacons come with a well prepared homily. They do a wonderful job of tying the readings with every day life, or with teachings of the church. They are interesting, to the point and usually last no longer than ten minutes.

    Our priests, on the other hand, use brief notes, stray way off the topic they started with, speak for twenty to twenty five minutes and more often than not, tie most homilies into a lecture on going to confession. And on top of that, one priest is foreign and is extremely difficult to understand.

    At first I thought it was just me, but as I look around church, I see people writing notes to them selves or writing checks and filling envelopes, sleeping, leafing through the missalette and looking at the windows or the ceiling (it’s painted with saint names and their symbols). Even the older parishioners lose interest after the first five minutes. In fact, when the pastor came two years ago, he had the ushers hold the bulletins until after mass because most people were reading them during the homily. And while most people comment to the deacons that they really liked their homily, I have never heard that said to either of the priests.

    Our last pastor was a very good homilist. He too was foreign, but his English was good, he spoke clearly, was well prepared and I always came away feeling that I learned something.

    Sorry to rant, but I wish our two priests would read your posts. Not that I think either would get anything out of it, but maybe they would.

    I enjoy reading your posts. Thanks for giving me so much to think about.

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