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    Fr. Joseph Jenkins

  • The blog header depicts an important and yet mis-understood New Testament scene, Jesus flogging the money-changers out of the temple. I selected it because the faith that gives us consolation can also make us very uncomfortable. Both Divine Mercy and Divine Justice meet in Jesus. Priests are ministers of reconciliation, but never at the cost of truth. In or out of season, we must be courageous in preaching and living out the Gospel of Life. The title of my blog is a play on words, not Flogger Priest but Blogger Priest.

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The efficacy of the Word and the sacrament does not absolutely depend upon the holiness of the minister.  Christ and his Church insure that the sacraments are genuine.  The Word has its own compelling power. However, as the scandals have made evident, while our Lord can work through bad or even faithless priests; more so than not, the possible damage done by such clergy is incalculable. He must proclaim the Gospel with both the truth and with integrity of life.  The vocation of the homilist or preacher is to transmit and translate the Gospel in such a way that the story of Jesus might fully intersect our own stories as a community and as individuals. 

Pope Francis directs priests to preach in a manner that will feed souls and not put congregants to sleep.  He even urges that homilies be kept to no more than ten minutes.  However, I would take exception to that, especially if one is a particularly good speaker and if the message demands more time.  Indeed, certain ethnic communities actively promote longer homilies. African-American congregations in particular have been heavily influenced by Protestantism in the Deep South where the intensity is upon preaching and the congregation joins in with acclamations like AMEN and ALLELUIA.  Finding a balance between preaching and with ritual or sacrament is the constant challenge in these faith communities. Mixed congregations can be particularly trying, as many faith traditions and languages come into play. 

Despite the various styles and length of homilies, what remains constant is the need to communicate the GOOD NEWS.  While bible commentary is valuable, the reading must not be rehashed.  The task is how to reach people’s hearts and assist them in becoming saints. Congregants should come to Mass having already read the assigned Scriptures.  Now they are ready to hear them again and how they might make the message their own. The homilist has a duty to be prepared.  Even a short homily would likely require hours of study, prayer and composition.  I know one priest who spends over twelve to twenty hours a week preparing for his fifteen minute Sunday homily.  He reads the Scriptures and then seeks out commentaries for his own basic understanding of the texts.  Then he reviews what others have said about them.  Despite the temptation, he uses pre-written sermons as a source for ideas and does not give in to the lure to use them verbatim.  He spends time praying and reflecting upon the texts, particularly in front of the Blessed Sacrament during his daily Holy Hour.  I know another priest who shares his thoughts and sermons with friends or parishioners during the week.  He swallows his pride and humbly takes their advice and criticism to heart.  He ponders what the Word means to him and then tries to draw connections with the lives of the people he serves.  Some preachers will discuss ideas much as a classroom teacher. Others will tell interesting stories that amplify the Gospel story.  The preacher might relate things in his own life that parallel the reading.  Another priest often uses song and draws a parallel with music.  Priests and deacons are urged to avoid props in their preaching. Many liturgists argue that the homilist should restrict himself to the readings of the day.  This is good but sometimes there is a strain to make thematic associations when clergy string together a sequence of daily or weekly homilies on a given subject. Homilies today may signify ongoing formation or evangelization or needed catechesis.  The preacher may opt to speak from the liturgical ritual of the day, referencing the Collect or another part of the Mass.  The minister takes his guidance from his bishop and the teaching Church but he also requires space for personal initiative so as to understand the subject matter and the particular needs of the faith community. 

While there are skills that can be developed for preaching; the homilist must always remember who he is and what he is about.  The homily is not a time for complaining or telling off-topic jokes.  He must be humble enough to step back and know that it is all about Jesus, not about him.  If he points the finger then he should humbly make clear that he counts himself as the first among sinners.  Speaking about the congregation as “you plural” detaches them from himself; he would better make the reference “we and us.” We are all dependent upon Jesus.  While the homily types vary and they may have elements of a lecture or catechesis, they are primarily a means to bring the people of God into a deeper and extended conversation with the Lord.  This accompaniment with each other and the Lord will hopefully culminate with the oblation of the Mass and the reception of Holy Communion. Participation in the Mass allows us as a community to walk with the Lord.  Just as the preacher must do his best and then in humility hand it all over to the Lord; the congregation should be sufficiently receptive and respectful.  Every man who stands at the ambo or the altar has his gifts and his limitations. There should be nothing of celebrity worship or bias. No one should expect every message to confirm prejudices or to be comforting. Indeed, the message of the Gospel is often challenging and makes us signs of contradiction to the world.  I suspect this is why Jesus tells us that we must take up our crosses to follow him. The message we preach is not the prosperity gospel of millionaire ministers that pacifies the wealthy and either gives false hopes to the struggling or curses the poor as lacking divine favor.  Ours is the message that there is a preferential option for the poor and many a rich man walks away sad because his belongings are many. We may have possessions but we cannot allow the possessions to have us.  The doctrinal truths of the Gospel are forever entangled with the social mission of the Church and the commandment of love. We are called to imitate Jesus in going out to the oppressed, the poor, the hurting and the afraid.  We are commissioned to take the message outside the church doors to the world around us.  We will be given the Eucharist as food for the journey.  The hunger and thirst of the world can only be satisfied by Jesus Christ.

We may hear but do we really listen?  The congregation needs to be attentive.  Struggling with the message is okay— at least that means we are taking it seriously. But we also have to ask to whom do we belong?  Today there is a revisited tension between God and Caesar. Dissent poisons discipleship and political leaders seek to enforce allegiance to themselves as personalities and to their causes, even those that would trump the Gospel and commandments. Many priests are wary or afraid of preaching about the moral life. Nevertheless, enabling or supporting abortion constitutes the grievous sin of murder.  Distortion of gender and sexual promiscuity outside of marriage damages the value of marriage and family life.  Failure to attend Mass on Sunday violates both a precept of the Church and the commandment to worship Almighty God— matters that bind us under pain of mortal sin.  It must be said as well that while patriotism is regarded as a virtue, recent expressions of nationalism (my country right or wrong) is regarded as terribly wrong and sinful. False freedoms are given weight over true liberties. Many of our own people buy into antagonism with the Church and instead of supporting clergy they are mocked and vilified instead.  A man answers the call to holy orders out of a love for God that spills over to neighbor.  He wants to be an instrument for the forgiveness of sins.  But because of the misdeeds of a few and the general atmosphere of aspersion or slander, many priests and deacons approach their ambos or lecterns with trembling hands and wobbly knees. We all want to be loved and well received. But the homilist must remember our Lord’s words, “If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, the world would love its own; but because you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you. Remember the word I spoke to you, ‘No slave is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. And they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know the one who sent me” (John 15:18-21).

The true faithful look for insight from the weekly homilies.  They are open to guidance. Preachers, especially young priests straight out of seminary, frequently use jargon that is nonsensical to those in the pews.  While homilies based on lawful authority were once prevalent; today, people want reasoned positions.  It is not enough to say believe or do such and such because I told you. Rather, the connection with biblical truth and common sense reasoning needs to be pursued. Good people want to understand, not just go through the motions. 

I know one priest who makes me laugh despite myself.  Why?  He has an entirely different voice in preaching than when he ordinarily speaks.  He preaches in an officious way with sermons peppered with “thee and thou.” I may be wrong but I suspect he would do much better just to use his regular conversational voice.  At least that is my opinion. Pomposity turns people off; humility invites them.

Even the darkest of matters should not destroy the “goodness” of the Good News. The proclamation of the Gospel is a positive and not a negative operation.  The priest or deacon must not lose sight of the fact that he is preaching Christ and what the Church believes. He should never dissent or challenge the faith from the pulpit.  No matter what his personal ideas might be, the congregation is listening not for what he thinks but for what the Church teaches.  There are two themes that are threaded throughout my many homilies and all of my moral exhortations: the dignity of persons and the sanctity of life.  These provide the two signposts where we can extract something positive and compelling from what would otherwise be a manifesto of negativity. Remember, the Gospel is not centered upon lamentation and reproach but about a Good News that sets us free and gives us joy and hope.  

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