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Rocky Homilies

May 28, 2016 Featured Today No Comments


(Editor’s Note: Deacon James H. Toner, Ph.D., serves at Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church in Greensboro, N.C.)

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The Holy Father’s admonition in Amoris Laetitia that priests must understand that the moral law should not be thrown at people as if it were so many stones (n. 305) is, or ought to be, intuitively obvious. Loveless comminations must never be confused with preaching the Gospel.
As critical as it is to be kind, though, such compassion must not be purchased at the price of truth — any more than, say, “pastoral sensitivity” ought to be practiced regardless of the jeopardy it might pose to what is morally right. There are times when honeyed homilies are as spiritually perilous as the fire-and-brimstone sermons of yesteryear, reminiscent of the psalm’s warning: “their throats are yawning graves; they make their tongues so smooth!” (5:9 Jerusalem Bible; cf. Romans 3:13).
The traditional Spiritual Work of Mercy calling upon us to admonish the sinner is out of favor today. The Catechism of the Catholic Church omits it in referring to the works of mercy (n. 2447), although “fraternal correction” is mentioned, gingerly, elsewhere (n. 1435, n. 1829). There is, in short, a time for homilies to be “rocky” (cf. 1 Cor. 10:4); there is a time for priests to proclaim Gospel truth, even if that message is inconvenient (cf. 2 Tim. 4:1-5), unpopular (cf. Gal. 1:10), or “politically incorrect” (cf. John 18:37); there is a time for the very stones of the moral law to cry out (cf. Luke 19:40), even — or especially — if homilists shirk, or shrink from, their ordained duties.
Failure to speak the truth in love — the refusal to reprove sinners — is known in theology as material cooperation with evil. To ignore evil is to facilitate it; to ignore evil over time is implicitly to endorse antinomianism. Admonition, after all, means both reminding and instructing. Another Pope, St. Peter, reminded his hearers that that they were morally blind if they stubbornly refused to conform themselves to divine virtue: “I intend always to remind you of these things” (2 Peter 1:12).
St. Padre Pio once warned a man in Confession to change his lifestyle because he was in danger of going to Hell. Surely, St. Peter and St. Padre Pio were not throwing philippic stones — but speaking the truth in love.
Knowing how (and when) to admonish, and how (and when) merely to coach, console, or converse, are the core of “verbal prudence.” St. James teaches us never to “speak evil against one another” (4:11), while assuring us that bringing a sinner back from “the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (5:19). St. Paul suggests that correction must be accomplished and sinners restored “in a spirit of gentleness” (Gal. 6:1). The stones of the moral law may be hard, but they may be thrown gently!
Complaisant and inconsequential homilies are moral failures. The Old Testament Book of Lamentations condemns such feckless homilies: “Their preaching deceived you by never exposing your sin. They made you think you did not need to repent” (2:14; cf. Ezek. 33:7-9).
St. Paul tells us how vitally important it is for us to call out to our Lord, but plaintively asks: “How can they call out to Him for help if they have not believed? And how can they believe if they have not heard the message? And how can they hear if the message is not proclaimed?” (Romans 10:14).
“Millions of Catholics do not know what their Church teaches…[and] they do not know the reasons for…Church teaching,” writes Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ, in his fine book, Doctrinal Sermons on the Catechism on the Catholic Church. The homily is not a replacement for a vibrant and orthodox parish program in adult education (see CCC, n. 2223), but good homilies are complementary and supplementary to such a program.
Of course, not every priest is St. John Chrysostom or Servant of God Archbishop Fulton Sheen. The priest’s first duty, though, after offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, is preaching. That means hours of preparation for his ten-minute sacred talk. One of the best Catholic teacher-priests in the country told me that, in decades of preaching, he has never presented a homily without having written it out on paper. (He doesn’t read it but, instead, uses it as a “talking paper.” This helps ensure his thorough preparation.)
Practice and preparation are necessary, but insufficient for preaching. They mean nothing if the preacher is heterodox or even personally churlish (cf. 2 Tim. 2:24). In Brian J. Gail’s novel Fatherless, a good priest constantly “pulls his punches” in his, well, entertaining homilies — until it finally dawns on him that his key preaching responsibility lies in the hard sayings (cf. John 6:60), precisely about those matters which may make us uncomfortable (see CCC, nn. 407-409). The prophets, after all, comforted the afflicted, and they afflicted the comfortable.
Fr. Sweeney, in Gail’s novel, comes to the realization that he had not been preaching the hard things, “because I was afraid my parishioners would turn against me.” But he realized that if he continued to preach popular, if futile, homilies, “God would hold me responsible for their sins….He would also hold me accountable for every time one of my parishioners, after committing one of these serious sins, ate and drank unworthily — lacerating His Sacred Body all over again” (p. 533). Fr. Sweeney began, at last, to throw a few stones in his preaching.
Some years ago, in another diocese and in another state, I was at Holy Mass, and the first reading concerned the fire of Jeremiah: “My message is like a fire and like a hammer that breaks rocks in pieces” (23:29). The priest’s whole homily that day concerned the next parish ice cream social. I whispered to my wife: “The fire of Jeremiah had been extinguished by ice cream.”
The desire to be liked and appreciated is natural and normal. There are times, though, to resist that desire. No preacher should ever love “the approval of men rather than the approval of God” (John 12:43; cf. 1 Thess. 2:4). This is exactly is what is done when the emphasis is on “happy” homilies that are full of entertainment but empty of parrhesia, which means “boldness in speaking.” Christian parrhesia finds its model in the way our Lord openly proclaimed His message to a hostile world (John 7:26; 18:20). Catholic preachers must follow His example.
“The necessary precondition for the development of true freedom is to let oneself be educated in the moral law,” explains the Catechism (n. 2526), in speaking of the danger and darkness of moral permissiveness.
From the time of Plato to the present, the image of darkness has been used to illustrate the moral confusion of the day. Rescuing people from the dark is a primordial Christian responsibility (n. 2105); no one should underestimate its difficulties or expect to be successful without supernatural help (cf. Isaiah 42:16).
We live at a time and in a place of grave moral chaos. Too often our thoughts, words, and deeds are influenced, if not governed, by intellectual and spiritual disorder. Too often we slip into the darkness of what is wrong rather than emerge into the light of what is right.
As Brian Gail points out, we all need fathers — but by “fathers,” he means preachers who speak the truth; he means priests — fathers — whose homilies are powerful witnesses to Christian truth in a society which, much too often, rejects the Gospel because that holy Gospel insists that we conform to it (cf. Romans 12:2, CCC n. 144, n.1269); he means fathers who, with paternal patience, will “preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort” (2 Tim. 4:2; cf. Eph. 5:6). He means fathers whose preaching has “stones” from The Rock (cf. Psalm 18:2).
In 1917, Pope Benedict XV, in Humani Generis Redemptionem (1917), wrote: “Therefore it is clear how unworthy of commendation are those preachers who are afraid to touch upon certain points of Christian doctrine lest they should give their hearers offense.” The Holy Father, even in the midst of World War I, blamed ineffective preaching by priests for the decline in morals and civilization’s backsliding into paganism.
Pope Benedict XV died in 1922; what would he say about today’s triumphant neo-paganism and the stoneless preaching which abets that evil?

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