Busted Halo
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October 2nd, 2004

True Tales from the Pews

The Worst Homily Ever

 
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Would you believe that a priest actually preached about the dangers of contraception to a group of nursing home residents?

Not long ago a member of my Jesuit community recalled that back in the 1960s, he and his pals initiated an informal survey designed to answer the following question: What was the worst homily or sermon ever preached?

The Survey Says!
When he announced this wholly diversionary contest to various friends, responses poured in, as he said, “from around the globe.” There were fruits from a variety of sources: priests, women religious, theology students, lay preachers and the like.

My first reaction was that this would be a nearly impossible category to judge. Wouldn’t one need to recall accurately a homily from years before? Would the Worst Homily (or sermon, I use the term interchangeably) have to be poorly conceived, poorly delivered, and poorly understood, or would just one of these requirements suffice?

As I listened to my friend’s memories of this contest, however, it quickly became clear that notion of the Worst Homily hinged instead on a particular insight or phrase that so impressed itself on the listener’s ear as to be irremovable or at least unforgettable. This made the contest eminently easier to judge.

“So what was the winner?” I asked.

I Kid Thee Not…
The Worst Homily, he declared, was one in which the homilist turned his attention to the question of salvation. (And, believe it or not, the following stories are neither fictional nor intended to be irreverent. All were actual homilies.) “The death of Jesus was pre-ordained by God for our salvation,” explained the homilist, “and the person who understood this better than anyone was Mary. In fact,” he continued, “Mary was so intent on our salvation that, if the centurions hadn’t nailed Jesus to the cross, Mary herself would have done so.”

“You’re kidding,” I said.

Mary…You Go Girl!
“Ha!” said another Jesuit. “That’s nothing.” He then related the tale of a priest concelebrating a Mass, who heard the presider note in his homily that Mary was so powerful that she could “rescue anyone whom God had condemned to hell.” After Mass, the presider asked the priest how he had enjoyed the homily. In response, he gently expressed surprise at the presider’s comments about Mary. “Oh, of course, that was incorrect,” said the homilist. “What I meant to say was that Mary can rescue from hell anyone who was unjustly condemned by God” leaving the concelebrant now even more perplexed about the existence of an unjust God.

Another friend recounted a story of a Christmas Eve homily he had heard years before, on the very Christmas-y topic of contraception. “Reflect for a moment,” thundered the preacher, “what would have happened if Mary had used birth control!”

Father, Don’t Preach

Now, all of this could be seen as a sad commentary on the state of Catholic preaching. (Or, likewise, the sorry state of the understanding of the theology surrounding Mary.) But it should be noted that all of these samples are taken from many years back and there has been a renewed emphasis recently on preaching in Catholic seminaries and theology schools. So such homilies (I hope) are on the wane.

Ironically, then, hearing these stories can prompt gratitude: ‘Boy, at least mine aren’t that bad.’ Likewise, if you’re sitting in the pews on a regular basis, you might think: ‘At least the preaching here is better than that.’

After hearing these stories, I decided to start collecting my own Worst Homilies (that is, of course, not including ones I have delivered myself). Since then I have heard of homilists preaching about abortion at a confirmation, terminal illness at a marriage, and–my personal favorite–contraception in a nursing home. “Who did he think he was preaching to?” said the bemused senior citizen.

Last year, while visiting a community of elderly women religious, I was told of a priest celebrating Mass in their house who had preached on the quote, “Go and sin no more.” Father suggested that what Jesus really meant was, “Go and sin no more, or something bad will happen to you.”

The homilist then proceeded to, as one of my theology professors liked to say, “actualize” the text for this group of middle-aged sisters. “And if any of you sisters sin and break your vows of chastity…you’ll get venereal disease!”

As the women laughed over this memory, one eighty-year old sister said, “Maybe he knew something we didn’t!”

 
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The Author : James Martin, SJ
James Martin SJ is the culture editor of America magazine the national Catholic Weekly published by the Jesuits. He is the author of numerous books including My Life with the Saints and The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything but is perhaps best known as "chaplain" to The Colbert Report due to his frequent appearances on the show.
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