Day Job Report

I was doing my day job on Sunday, attending the worship service at at Church of Christ. A preacher got up and gave a mini-homily before Communion, and had this to say about why the early Christians gathered together: “The central focus of coming together wasn’t the sermon, it was the supper. It meant something to them; it needs to mean something to us.” Which put me in mind of this bit from H.L. Mencken, recounted recently on Daniel Mitsui’s amazing blog, The Lion and the Cardinal:

“Rome indeed has not only preserved the original poetry of Christianity; it has also made capital additions to that poetry – for example, the poetry of the saints, of Mary and of the liturgy itself. A Solemn High Mass is a thousand times as impressive, to a man with any genuine religious sense in him, as the most powerful sermon ever roared under the big top by Presbyterian auctioneer of God. In the face of such overwhelming beauty it is not necessary to belabor the faithful with logic; they are better convinced by letting them alone.

Preaching is not an essential part of the Latin ceremonial. It was very little employed in the early Church, and I am convinced that good effects would flow from abandoning it today, or, at all events, reducing it to a few sentences, more or less formal. In the United States the Latin brethren have been seduced by the example of the Protestants, who commonly transform an act of worship into a puerile intellectual exercise; instead of approaching God in fear and wonder, these Protestants settle back in their pews, cross their legs and listen to an ignoramus try to prove that he is a better theologian than the Pope.

This folly the Romans now slide into. Their clergy begin to grow argumentative, doctrinaire, ridiculous. It is a pity… If they keep on spoiling poetry and spouting ideas, the day will come when some extra-bombastic deacon will astound humanity and insult God by proposing to translate the liturgy into American, that all the faithful may be convinced by it.”


  1. Matthew,

    Your pastor and Menken tickle a particular prejudice of mine against the flaccid, vanilla yogurt blather that passes for homeletics these days.

    Indeed, what B16 said in his address announcing the Year of the Priest also seems salient:

    "Saint John Mary Vianney taught his parishioners primarily by the witness of his life. It was from his example that they learned to pray, halting frequently before the tabernacle for a visit to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.[12] “One need not say much to pray well” – the Curé explained to them – “We know that Jesus is there in the tabernacle: let us open our hearts to him, let us rejoice in his sacred presence. That is the best prayer."

    Still, I can't help but think that in one way many priests today suffer from a paucity of words where they're most needed – in homilies on, to name a few subjects, sinfulness, divorce, contraception, abortion, fornication, pornography, homosexuality and, yes, especially, hell.



  2. Matthew Lickona says

    Thank you, JOB. A bleat, however: I dunno as I'd really want my four and five year olds, or even my six and seven year olds, learning about all those things you mentioned at Sunday Mass. Sin and hell deserve a mention of course, but the rest of it? I hesitate. Talking about fornication, abortion, homosexuality, and contraception to people without sex drives isn't necessarily a good thing.

  3. Matthew,

    The bleat is well taken, and neither would I.

    However, when placed within the context of the virtues, these topics can be safely raised, discussed, even in some detail and even by name (although there might be some argument when it comes to homosexuality – lets say, then, "adultery").

    (I think of St. Francis De Sales ability to speak of chastity and fornication, for example, through the example of gluttony.)

    Homeletics used to follow a two-part process – the spiritual demension and the moral demension of the life of faith. Now its all happy anecdotes and such. The candy of storytime is dandy, but the liquor of virtues and vices is quicker…

    I wonder, by the way, was it the fear of offending young ears which prevented priests from teaching Humane Vitae (or for that matter Casti Canubi) from the pulpit? It seems one should want to at least find a via media between the ultra-antiseptic homily and the inadvertently scandalous. I think it's possible and not only that, I think, in this day and age, it's necessary.

    (Of course, as you note in the original post, a sound liturgy will do more than a million Archbishop Sheens! This is, of course, B16's project, and it is what he will be remembered for – a sort of Pius X of the 21st Century…)


  4. notrelatedtoted says

    But, but……Father Bill is so funny!!!

  5. cubeland mystic says

    I don't think it is fear of offending young ears, but blow-back from the sheep and the hierarchy. My pastor brings the pain on the aforementioned and often finds himself in hot water. When he preaches on the evils of drugging your kids at the drop of a hat he especially gets it.

  6. Anonymous says

    The General Instruction for the Roman Missal (GIRM) #29 states that the homily is a part of the liturgy (also GIRM #65. A priest is supposed to give a homily on Sundays and holy days (GIRM #13), which follows the instruction of not only Vatican II, but also Trent.

    The Church says that the homily is necessary for the nurturing of the Christian life (GIRM #65)

    The GIRM says that the homily is a living commentary on the word (GIRM #29).

    The homily is supposed to explain the readings that were just proclaimed (GIRM #55).

    The Code of Cannon Law (CCC) gives official liturgical instruction (like the GIRM and the instructions in the Sacramentary and Lectionary) the weight of Church law. (Sorry I don't have the CCC in front of me so I can't give the #).

    Clearly the homily is not an added extra to the Mass, and the solution to bad, insipid, boring homilies is not to get rid of homilies but to work to improve the holiness and preaching abilities of our priests. And like St. John Vianney said, a homily need not be long or theologically complicated, but it should break open the Scriptures which are the living Word of God. It should always lead to an personal encounter with Christ.

    During this Year for Priests, this is an excellent thing for which to pray and sacrifice.

    Lansing Seminarian

  7. Interesting commentary. As a cradle Catholic turned Episcopalian, I can tell you that many Episcopal churches have preserved the reverence and beauty of traditional liturgy… my youth, I attended many guitar masses, (it was the 70's), in Catholic churches that looked and felt more Protestant than any actual Protestant church I have ever attended. Reverence for the liturgy, and belief in the real presence, are shared by at least a few other denominations. Just my 2 cents. In your capacity as a writer covering the topic of religion, have you either visited, or heard of, All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena? I would be interested to read your opinion of that congregation.

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