Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Good Homilists Don't Always Go by the Book

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Good Homilists Don't Always Go by the Book

Article excerpt

TO PARAPHRASE THE TITLE OF THE MUSICAL comedy song, the homilist's lot is not a happy one. Our hearts should go out to priests (and other clergy persons for that matter) who must dazzle--with substance, of course--their congregations 52-plus times every year.

Along about Thursday each week those who do prepare must look at the assigned texts, gather appropriate sources, and implore the Holy Spirit for inspiration. Some homilists rely on the Holy Spirit exclusively and just wing it on the weekend with results that aren't necessarily inferior.

When the Second Vatican Council and other liturgical moniti told priest-homilists that their homilies must be based on scriptural texts chosen for the Mass at hand, their congregants were at least spared from hearing rambling discourses about Notre Dame football, the World Series, or current naughty movies. Granted those were worst-case scenarios that were the exception, not the rule. Still, allowing the homilist to freelance was not without peril. A homilist might occasionally take flight to give his own bowdlerized version of what he believed ailed the souls of the faithful. Or he might choose to ride a favorite hobbyhorse that, however worthy, revealed a one-track religious mind.

But tying the homilist to specific biblical texts has its own problems. Some texts, for example, don't present accessible handles to get a hold of. Bible scholars often warn that the texts they study aren't always easy to understand.

With some notable exceptions--the two great commandments, the parable of the good Samaritan, for example--scriptural texts may leave even students of them hoisted on a petard of bewilderment. And the poor homilist, scratching to offer some enlightenment to the people in the pews can, like Sisyphus, find that the stone that he pushed one foot upward slides two feet downward despite his best efforts.

Beyond the difficulty of massaging scriptural texts meaningfully, there is, it seems to this observer, another problem for these homilists. A case in point: the Madman in Baghdad is revealed to possess gallons of chemical and biological weapons that he threatens to use if the Great Satan USA doesn't talk nice to him. Relatively small quantities of these weapons, we are authoritatively told, are sufficient to kill every man, woman, and child on our planet. …

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