On a fine sunny Sunday in May, the priest in the pulpit was talking about the everyday beauty that may have escaped the attention of some of the busier people in the pews, but clearly not his. With the precision of an amateur botanist, he described the magnificence of the dogwoods, lilacs and cherry blossoms that decorated the hillsides along a nearby highway. Before the highway was built, he noted, these colors were invisible, for the trees and plants were deep in a wooded tract. But, ironically enough, the bulldozers that so violently changed the landscape of this corner of New Jersey also exposed beauty few had seen before.
This year, the priest added, for reasons we can appreciate if not understand, a cold, wet spring had delayed the early bloomers. So now, in May, everything is blooming together.
Did we notice? We would now, if we hadn’t before.
I would hardly claim to be an expert on the art of the homily, although I surely have heard enough of them to be considered, at the very least, a student of the subject. And that recent Sunday reflection on the related subjects of blossoming trees, hidden beauty and the people of God was certainly among the most poetic and best delivered I’d ever heard. I left church that Sunday inspired and renewed.
Good preaching will do it every time.
Amid all the made-for-television speculation about Pope Benedict XVI and the impact he will have on the church in the United States, few lay commentators dared to suggest what ought to have been obvious to the average churchgoer. Most people in the pews are not regular readers of papal writings. Maybe they should be, but they’re not. But every week, whether they like it or not, they get their instruction, guidance andwith any luckinspiration from their humble parish priest. And how he teaches, how he preaches, how he relates to this diverse collection of souls known as the people of God is no less important than anything issued from Rome.
I would like to think I am the first to make this observation about the importance of good preaching, but readers of this magazine know that I’m just rehashing an argument the Rev. Andrew Greeley has made in these pages. (Among the many differences between my observations and Father Greeley’s is that he, being a social scientist and not a dilettante, had actual data to prove his point: fewer than 20 percent of Catholics who responded to a survey had a favorable opinion of their local clergy’s preaching.)
Of course, I have never had, and never will have, the opportunity to address a congregation and attempt to explain the word of God. I have never stood on an altar and stared into the abyss, watching people averting their eyes or nodding off or hushing children while I tried to find a new and interesting way of reflecting on Gospel stories we have heard dozens of times. I can only admire those who take on this challenge week in and week out.
That said, I think I have some insight into what makes a good homily. True, I’m neither priest nor preacher; I’m just a church-going journalist. But then again, lots of non-journalists, including the occasional priest, seem to think they know how to do my joband are not particularly shy about saying so!
So, a few observations from the pew.
People like to be surprised. When they hear something other than what they’re expecting, they can’t help but pay attention (unless, of course, their children are less than impressed with the presentation).
When my parish priest opened his sermon the other day by talking about blossoms along a local interstate, he seemed to have everybody’s attention. Why? Because every person in that church knew the reference point and could nod in agreement as he described the lovely landscape that would make his larger theological point.
It was a terrific device, from which he segued into a reflection on the young Rev. Joseph Ratzinger’s book, Introduction to Christianity. Be assured that had he opened his sermon by saying that he had come upon an interesting passage in an old book by Pope Benedict XVI the other day, well, the level of interest simply would not have been the same. That is no reflection on the work itself, of course. It’s just an acknowledgment that few, if any, people in the congregation were familiar with the book. They are now.
Historical explanations are also crowd-pleasers and pretty good story-telling devices. So who were those Philippians and Thessalonians anyway, and why was Paul always writing to them? How were they like us, or how are we like them?
Should we remember these recipients of Paul’s letters from our religious education classes? Yes. Do we? Not always. Not even often.
Not long ago, I was being interviewed by a documentary filmmaker who asked me to comment on some aspect of George Washington’s life. I explained, off camera, that I really knew only the basics, and surely everyone else knew what I knew. You don’t understand, the producer said. People have to be reminded.
We in the pews have to be reminded about some of the basics, too. We ought to be reminded every now and again of why we believe what we believe. Knowledge that priests and religious take for granted often can be a revelation to the rest of uslike the blossoms along a New Jersey highway.