27 January 2014

In Praise of Bad Homilies.

I have decided, as my title says, to write a few words in praise of bad homilies. I say "bad" homilies in the terms of style as opposed to content which can and occasionally does slide into the heretical. For homilies that preach heresies I make no exception, no quarter. Such homilies are not bad, they are evil, though they be couched in the eloquence of angels.

I saw this post over at NLM which discusses the issue of terrible preaching in Catholic churches. My initial instinct was to roar full throated approval and write a post which says, more or less, "Darn tootin' it's lousy!" and then go on to list many examples which display just how bad the preaching is that I've witnessed.

But this goes against my better judgement, the kind that comes from sober second thoughts. It seems to me that perhaps someone should speak a word in praise of bad homilies, and praise them not because they are bad, but because they are at all. I think it must be unbelievably tough to be a priest, and I can't imagine how hard it must be to stand in the place of Christ, the alter Christi, and have a bunch of yahoos (myself included) rating and critiquing every single move I make. I have enough headaches just from being involed in the music. From that experience I know that for every difficult and challenging job there are only a few willing to step forward and take on the responsibility, but there are dozens, nay hundreds, who are willing to stand on the sidelines and complain loudly about how they are doing it wrong. For a priest, that feeling must be multiplied exponentially. Knowing that, it is amazing to me anyone answers the call at all, and even more amazing that those who do don't throw up their hands and walk away in disgust.

So when a priest is giving a homily that doesn't quite measure up to orations like, say, the Gettysburg Address, or MLK's I Have A Dream or Pericles' Funeral Oration or Winston Churchill's wartime addresses, I try- I sometimes fail- but I try and remind myself to, first and foremost, be thankful that this man has answered the call against all odds and is being a priest for us. I remind myself that it is better to pray for these men rather than critique them.

However, if I was ever asked my opinion about homilies and how they should be done, I would answer witha a list of points that is partial in every sense of the word. I would say a few things like it isn't always necessary to start every homily with a joke (some do, up to and including Good Friday homilies). I imagine whoever teaches homilitics at the local seminary insists on it. I would also say it isn't always a good idea to tell a story to try and illuminate the message of the homilies. I've heard many stories that are sort of like but not really the message of the gospel. It ends up being confusing. Related to this was a priest I once knew who loved making symbolic gestures, which I, to put it mildly, did not like. He once explained the mystical body of Christ by showing us a quilt his grandmother had made and explained to us how the little pieces are all lovingly stitched together to make this beautiful whole. Some people loved it, but it gave me the impression that the Mystical Body of Christ was warm, fuzzy, and fades in the sunlight.

I would say that if you don't have time to really prepare something, I would advise you not to speak off the cuff. The irony is that if you want to speak extemporare you have to be twice as prepared. Be lazy and make notes. I would also say be brief, but not everyone has that gift. I knew a priest who could make a solid point in five minutes. I knew a priest who could not make a point in twenty. I would say: jump into the topic, make a few points, and conclude.

But I would also say that this is my list, and I have known people who love the very things I don't. I imagine it is blindingly obvious to any priest who has been ordained longer than a few hours that there is no one thing that will satisfy everyone. Even the worst non-heretical homily I ever heard (it was a deacon who spoke on the Sunday before the release of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. He eschewed speaking about the readings and the gospel altogether and instead explained why he would never see that movie and encouraged us all to not see it as well. It was an amateur movie review given by a man who had not even seen the movie.) was loved and appreciated by much of the congregation.

So even when I am listening to a poor homily, I try and pull the good out of it. I try and remind myself to be glad and say a prayer of gratitude that at least there is a priest giving that homily. I think that even though I may not be getting much from it, perhaps there is someone who is, and I hope that maybe next week he'll throw me a bone. Sometimes he does, and I am all the more grateful for that. So the next time you hear a bad homily, give thanks, if not for it, then for the one who, against all odds, stands to deliver it.

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