Fr. Jim Martin’s recent article recounting the worst homilies ever heard sent an all-too-familiar chill through my born and bred Catholic bones. Unfortunately, I’ve also sat in the pews many times thinking that I’d rather eat paste with kindergarten children than listen to another second of a preacher’s mindless drivel.
While I try to support my parish community as much as I can, I do so under certain conditions. I’ve determined that my family can afford to give $20 a week as our offering. (I’m a lay minister and my wife’s a teacher—you do the math.) But after sitting through countless bad sermons I decided to take matters into my own hands. Let’s face facts, in American culture performance is often linked to incentive. If you’re working on a six-figure deal for your boss in which you’re going to receive a hefty commission or a generous raise, you’re going to work that much harder to make sure the job is well done. So why not add this same approach to the liturgy? In the great American tradition of incentive-izing, I now base my weekly contribution on the quality of the homily. I’ve come up with a sure-fire formula for categorizing several homily styles from the divine to the dopey and contribute to the collection according to which category that day’s homily falls into. Which homily did you get this week?
The $25 Heavenly Homily: This homily breaks the bank (notice that I’ve provided an extra $5 tip over our allotted amount). I’ll eat ramen noodles all week if a preacher can cover these points:
- Does it step into the Present? The stories of scripture are over 2000 years old but that doesn’t mean that it was only relevant then. What implications does the story have for us in the 21st Century?
- Did I learn something new? A preacher should never reach into the file cabinet for the “canned homily” they gave last year. If I have to hear Fr. Tony’s story about his grandmother one more time during lent, I’m going to rush the pulpit and sack him.
- Is it based on the scriptures of the day? The priest who went over the new mass practices issued by the Bishops during his homily took the lazy way out.
- Did it mention Jesus Christ at least once? Hello? Isn’t this obvious?
- Does it contain an element of challenge? (see the “Snuggles Teddy Bear Homily” below).
- Is it vibrant and engaging. If Father talks in a low monotone he shouldn’t wonder why Timmy’s asleep in the 5th row every week. It’s called a public speaking class—find one.
The $20 “Where’s Waldo” Homily: This homily is well prepared and relevant but leaves you searching for one of the elements above. Perhaps there was a good message but the delivery was off. Maybe the homily was relevant to the experience of the congregation but the preacher never made a link to Jesus Christ. In any case, the homily was fine as a whole but some essential element was missing.
The $10 “White Men Can’t Jump” Homily: Remember in the movie “White Men Can’t Jump” when Woody Harrelson tries to slam dunk and misses and Wesley Snipes says “Dude, you were almost there…” This is the type of homily that just falls short. For example, at a recent mass the priest began to talk about how the miracle of the loaves and the fishes is not really a miracle. He talked about how the people in the story were hording food, but Jesus calls them to share with those with whom they usually don’t share food. So the real miracle is the miracle of human kindness. The priest then promptly sat down. No challenge, no explicit relevancy to my life…but certainly a good new engaging rendering of the story of Jesus. In short, he missed the dunk. He had me on the edge of my seat only leave me stranded in the desert of scripture.
The $5 “Snuggles Teddy Bear” Homily: Remember the cute, cuddly teddy bear from those fabric softener commercials that made you want to get out a butcher knife and get medieval on his fluffy, down-stuffed ass? Well, I do… This homily has disguised itself as that bear. It is filled with happy words that are nice and warm but neglects that the words of scripture are also harsh and challenging at times. Being a Christian isn’t always a “happy, happy – joy, joy” experience. It’s spiritual naiveté at its best and a homily at one of its worst.
The $2 “Fr. Cranky” Homily: There is no good news in this homily. Its focus is on how evil the world is and how horrible we are as people. Scripture only has a harsh message and not a loving one. The priest acts like an angry, bitter, old man who finds the world a scary and mean place. Sometimes there’s even a racist or exclusivist remark thrown into these homilies. A priest in my parents’ parish once told us that we were lucky to be in a nice Italian parish “instead of a drunken Irish one.” (My Irish father got up and left alongside Sr. Caroline O’Meara). I’ll give this priest two bucks hoping he’ll take the money and head for the subway.
The “I spit in your collection basket” Homily: Preachers are human and occasionally make mistakes. Sometimes though, their words are simply blasphemy. Discerning the difference is usually difficult but the priest who said that “Jesus wants you to suffer” or the one who claimed that “Mary would’ve nailed Jesus to the cross” in Jim Martin’s article is a clear indication to me that they know little about theology. You might want to throw him a quarter and hope that he buys a clue. Or you may want to simply take the usher’s long-handled collection basket and hurl it like a spear in the general direction of the altar and hope it hits its mark.
Always Leave Something for Them to Notice
If you don’t leave a tip in a restaurant the staff might just think you’ve simply forgotten to tip. In your weekly envelope always leave something. A quarter… a penny… a stick of chewing gum… something. I once left a post-it note with the title of theologian Karl Rahner’s Foundations of Christian Faith on it and the message:
“Read Chapter Three and then re-read the crappy blasphemy you wrote for today!”
You are thereby intentionally making a statement that the preaching was poor.
You might ask what I do with the remainder of the money that
I didn’t contribute to my parish. I usually find another worthwhile charity and write them the check.
In case you think I’m being harsh in my criticism of homilists,
consider what one priest-friend once told me, “There’s nothing worse than someone shaking my hand at the end of mass and thanking me for a great homily when I know that I sucked that week. We sometimes need to hear the harsh words of criticism as priests. Parishioners need to stop being nice and start telling us when we don’t serve their needs in preaching. If that hurts my feelings—good—it probably should.”
So I feel somewhat justified in my incentive based weekly donation criteria. Perhaps Father needs to sing for his supper a little bit.
Otherwise the rest of us will remain spiritually starved.
Mike Hayes usually sits in the seventh row on the left side at St Paul the Apostle Church on Sunday.