Better Preaching

I would like to participate in the discussion regarding the preaching in our parishes after the events of Sept. 11 (Letters, 11/26/01). I was not scheduled to preach on the Sunday immediately following the tragedy. I did preach on the Sunday following that with readings that were sharply focused on social justice. The prophet’s call to stop exploiting the poor led me to explore in my homily how unfettered capitalism wreaks havoc in third world countries. I lightly connected the anger of much of the world at American obliviousness and arrogance to the events of Sept. 11. I challenged my congregation to rethink their assumptions about the way our world economy works without haranguing them. Many parishioners welcomed what I said and some hated it. Those who hated it told me that they had come to church that morning seeking words of comfort for their pain but found instead my personal political agenda. I struggled to listen to them without being defensive.

In hindsight, I think my parish did not respond well to the tragedy in those early weeks. No parishioner of ours was killed at the Pentagon, though dozens work there and lost acquaintances. Some parishioners clearly were grieving more deeply than we realized. We should have done more in those first weeks to comfort them. Why couldn’t we?


One reason was the overwhelming media coverageit went on 24 hours a day, day after day. The same video and commentary footage was relentlessly repeated. A bit of new news grafted onto what was already known passed for a major story. I know that I got to a point where I could not stand to hear about it, watch it or read about it any more. The last thing I wanted to do was to reflect on its meaning and preach about it. I should have been able to push through this exhaustion with the topic, but I couldn’t.

A second and more difficult reason: whose pain are we talking about? The monolithic and transparent parish of old bears no resemblance to St. Camillus in Silver Spring. Our diversity in race, income, language and age means that any assumptions about what our parishioners are feeling are going to miss the mark for many or most. One quick example: some of our parishioners are low-income men and women who are in this country without documentation. Their jobs in hotels and restaurants were tenuous before Sept. 11, and they disappeared almost overnight. They are in a great deal of pain. They cannot use the immigration system to become legal as they used to be able to do (with difficulty), and they are out of work besides. Their pain is very different, however, from the pain of white middle-class persons like me, whose stable and comfortable world has been shattered. Whose pain do I address when I look out at a sea of very different faces ready for an eight-minute homily? I should have found a way to address it all, but I couldn’t.

A third reason we hesitated and failed, I think, was based on a reluctance to offer superficial comfort. It is better to simply say, I am very sorry about your loss and to stop than it is to continue and deliver platitudes. We should be capable of deeper words of comfort, but I found them hard to find in those days.

Finally, our training is at least partially responsible for our good and bad performance. It is so ingrained in me to preach from the text and only from the text that I rarely consider the possibility of doing something else! I think that this very fundamental insistence rooted in our homiletics training is responsible for helping to gradually raise the quality of preaching in our Catholic parishes, but it comes at the cost of reducing our ease in responding to external events and other situations. I hate preaching on Mother’s Day, the Fourth of July and similar days because of the normal incongruity between the readings and the theme. I should have broken free and reacted, but I couldn’t.

Should’ve, would’ve, could’ve. I am trying to learn from my failures and to continue to grow as a preacher and as a person. May we all respond better in the future to the situations of our people and our world.

(Deacon) Peter Barbernitz
Silver Spring, Md.

Church Leadership

Renée LaReau articulates concerns that older Catholics need to hear (Reflections of a Catholic, Female Generation Xer, 12/24/01). One sign of hope: women are finding many more opportunities to exercise leadership in the church. Last March the Bishops’ Committee on Women convened a first-ever consultation with women who hold diocesan leadership positions. Representatives from more than 120 dioceses-chancellors, school superintendents, chief financial officers and many others-discussed their experiences as women in church leadership and offered recommendations. Many participants stressed the need to bring younger women into church leadership, especially through education, internships and mentoring. I hope that when women church leaders gather again Ms. LaReau and her peers will be well represented.

Sheila Garcia
Washington, D.C.

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