We all go through different seasons in our faith, and in each we see that faith, and its practice, differently. There have been times when I went to Mass looking for insight, looking for an idea or a clarification that might help my faith survive the assaults of doubt and difficulty for another week. There have been times when I would go for an hour of peace, or for the people I knew would be there, or even simply to be seen.
Now, I go to Mass with my wife and our 1-year-old. It is a huge hassle to squeeze it in between naps, but we go, not always knowing why. I am grateful that we do, mostly, and the kid sometimes seems to love at least parts of it. But a few minutes into the homily, the squirming can become especially intense. Among the various churches we have visited in his early and so far well-traveled life, I have frequently wondered whether maybe priests should talk less.
On Christmas Eve, at the church we attended in Columbus, Ohio, we experienced this kind of mercy. The priest, an elderly man I have come to know, a man of many ideas, got up after the Gospel reading and offered only one lovely idea—a couple of minutes, max, an observation that even though we celebrate Jesus’ birthday each year the Christ child remains eternally young. Then he stepped back and got right on with the Creed.
That reminded me of the weekday Mass homilies, and often the Sunday ones, too, given by the priest who baptized me in college. They were of the same character: Just a seed. He left it to us and God and time to do the tending. These men are good priests. They have a lot to say; have a meal with them, and you hear it. But at Mass they’re different.
Normally, at the various parishes I stumble through these days, I am used to a different formula. The homily begins with some story from the priest’s life, usually one you have already heard if you’ve been going a few months or years, and probably one based on circumstances pretty unlike the lives of most people in the pews—because priests choose to lead unusual kinds of lives. Yet the story is somehow supposed to make the whole thing more relatable. Then, more or less successfully, he finds a way to connect his story with the Gospel reading, or one of the other readings at least. Finally, there comes some kind of practical encouragement or instruction, which may or may not have anything to do with one’s life or needs at that given point.
I get it. The idea is to make the homily more down-to-earth, more human, more in the trenches of the everyday. I appreciate that. But I suspect this familiar formula is at least in part an inappropriate imitation of Protestant preaching, in which the sermon is a service’s main content and event, in which the Word is only a text, not flesh. I do not think that is true for Catholics. For us, the Eucharist is the main event, and the Mass is a journey by which the community makes its way there. In that context—especially at a beautiful evening candlelight Mass—the homily risks charging in as an interruption. It risks getting in the way of Christ.
I like priests. Several of them have guided me to drastically change my life. I like learning from them, and I appreciate the treasure in their training and their ways of life. But I worry priests sometimes take on too much—as C.E.O.’s, as officiants, as psychologists, as poets, as memoirists. They simply do not need to be all those things, especially when there are people in the community who can do those things better. Priests have a glorious ministry, in offering the sacrifice and shepherding the flock, but good shepherds tend to guide gently. The sheep (as this particular metaphor regards the rest of us) mostly know where they need to go.
This is especially the case in the middle of an ancient, familiar, theatrical, sacramental journey like the Mass. What we do teaches us at least as much as anything that is said. By that logic, of course, sometimes a long and dense homily makes sense—such as in Masses orchestrated to hit more verbal or intellectual registers. Maybe, in the midst of some particular crisis or challenge confronting the community, it is worth the risk of offering more because people need more. Like any performance and gift, it is all about context. But on the whole, I suspect many priests might benefit from taking on less. Keep it short, enough to offer just a single, simple insight. Retain the rhythm of the rest of the Mass—don’t interrupt. When more needs to be said, invite other voices to participate, emphasizing that we share the Mass as a community.
Some communities send children away for part or all of Mass. That’s tempting. But another part of me trusts my kid’s squirms. There is something not right when a baby is not following the action in awe. And it’s rough on the parents. Help us out.