The Words That Guide Us

Emulating Julian of Norwich?
Emulating Julian of Norwich?

Words can inspire and move. Words can teach and relay wisdom. Words can also sow confusion and discord. In particular, the words of a preacher in a homily are supposed to be chosen with care -and be helped along, God willing – by the Spirit. But, I’ve got to wonder at times. I’ve heard many, many wonderful things from the pulpit. I’ve also heard some ridiculous pronouncements, spoken as near-dogma, some unthinking, hurtful generalizations, and some repetitious personal themes, presented as the truth. Because I want to vent a bit, this post will be about the negative stuff.

We, the faithful, are rightly chastised for saying things that are insensitive and hurtful to others . Yet our priests may do the same thing, especially from the pulpit. Many times, though, the priests possess that element of authority and holiness that may make us feel reluctant to reject, question or criticize their words.

Even someone like Father Michael had his “bad days”. Yes, Father M was mostly excellent as a preacher, but sometimes he just blew it. When this happened, it was just a turn of phrase here and there-but to me, a few really stood out: One time he began his homily describing the return of someone who’d been away from the faith for a while. He talked about the man’s professional background and then declared “Oh, he was married, but the marriage was over. It had been over for a long time.” I was surprised by the flippancy of a Catholic priest using the words “the marriage was over” . I know that this is how our society would describe it, but I felt saddened and disappointed that a priest would refer to a marriage with problems this way. I instinctively felt empathy for the many, many couples(some surely there in church) who struggle through the bad times, to keep their marriages together. I thought these words were so thoughtless; they distracted me from hearing the rest of the homily.

Another time Father Michael was speaking about how he personally had the most trouble keeping his vow of obedience. In the course of explaining this he said “Sure, we all struggle with celibacy.”  Ok – we know celibacy is choosing to be unmarried and chaste. I think Father meant chastity, but whatever, once again he was flip about this-which set the crude tone for many loud and inappropriate conversations he conducted in the vestibule after Mass that day.

Then there was the time in the gospel where Jesus told of  getting the ox or donkey out of the pit on the Sabbath. Father Michael gave a few more examples showing common sense or kindness in conflict with ‘the rules’. He concluded his homily with a big grin saying “And so you see, my dear brothers and sisters, love ALWAYS trumps the law.” I looked up at him grinning there and just shook my head. We later had a discussion about this in our meeting. I told him I felt his generalization sounded nice, but was very misleading.  I gave him my own examples of how people, especially young people, could be influenced by a statement like that. Father M went on and and on about how  ‘we know Jesus was a man of the law’. And I said “Yes, of course , but you never said that !!!”  He was very upset, but he finally got the message. But those hearing the homily?  We’ll never know.

Another priest in our parish seems to have a penchant for using the words “anger, bitterness and resentment” in homilies. He often talks in his homilies about our hearts being full of those three emotions. It is a recurring theme that gets tired. Of course he always encourages us to rid ourselves of these attitudes. As a person who sometimes feels all three, I’d welcome a little instruction on combating them and a little compassion for what caused them in the first place.Scolding doesn’t do it for me. It’s just not that simple to say “Be gone !”  I think I am ripe for inspired instruction.

The same priest seems to equate an outgoing, chatty, ‘people person’  with the ideal Christian. He talks in homilies about how we should all be of service, and seems to feel that socializing in any way possible is the only sure way to the Kingdom. He doesn’t seem to understand that there are other, less ‘in your face’ ways to practice one’s faith.You know-like prayer-which he hardly ever mentions! If I had been alive in Christ’s time on earth and perceived Him as an over-the-top extrovert, I would NOT have followed Him.  Not everyone’s a party animal. That surely can’t be ‘the Way’.

And another priest tends to re-use the same homilies for some of the bigger feasts and solemnities. You would think he’d at least change the jokes. Those make the repeat homilies more recognizable! I remember the jokes. He also has a tendency to refer to the Prodigal Son story a lot. He talks about the older son ‘creating his own hell’ by deliberately separating himself from his father and brother.Good one to fall back on, I guess.

Well, that’s enough complaining, though I may do it again sometime as the Spirit moves me! FYI- the positives in preaching really do outweigh the negatives-most of the time.