Column: ‘If a sermon goes on too long…’

Published on December 24, 2013.

Before you listen to tonight’s Christmas Eve homily, you may want to prepare for the ordeal with the following joke. “We know… that both [the faithful] and their ordained ministers suffer because of homilies: the laity from having to listen to them and the clergy from having to preach them!”

Ah, you might say: That’s exactly how I feel. Or perhaps: I didn’t realize the priests themselves dreaded the sermon. But the passage’s puckish note almost gives the author away. In a year of papal surprises, Pope Francis wrote an extraordinary document, classified as an apostolic exhortation in the Vatican’s elaborate schema, that enjoins all Catholics to rediscover and share the “joy of the Gospel”—and was itself proof of that joy, rediscovered and shared.

Much of the coverage I’ve seen or read on the Pope’s apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium,” however, focuses on the startling denunciations of consumerist capitalist culture to be found in it. One of the most quoted passages is a stinging rhetorical question: “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” (I am humbled that Francis’ first example of what he calls “an economy of exclusion” involves the use, or misuse, of journalistic judgment.)

While both John Paul II and Benedict XVI have offered deep criticism of the failures of capitalism (as well as of its alternatives), Francis’ critique has a pastor’s clarity: “some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.”

A passage of 70 words, but only one, “sacralized,” has the rarefied air of classroom theology. (Its meaning becomes fully clear two paragraphs later, when he writes of those which are “defenseless before the interests of a deified market.” Conscienceless profit-making has become a god.) The bias in the presentation is also clear: “The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption.”

These and similar passages have been the subject of many news stories and analytical pieces; indeed, Time magazine’s explanation of its choice of Pope Francis as Person of the Year in 2013 seems to think that was what the new papal document was all about. “He released his first exhortation, an attack on ‘the idolatry of money,’ just as Americans were contemplating the day set aside for gratitude and whether to spend it at the mall.” In fact, Thanksgiving, that American holiday, had nothing to do with the timing of the release (that Time thought so, or saw meaning in the coincidence, only betrays its American orientation). And in fact the first exhortation was not simply an attack on the new golden calf.

It was obviously that, too, but it was also much more.

As the title of the exhortation makes explicit, it is about the Pope’s attempt “to encourage the Christian faithful to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by this joy [of the Gospel], while pointing out new paths for the Church’s journey in years to come.” It is, in other words, less denunciatory and (to borrow a concept I learned from the philosopher Leo Garcia) more “annunciatory.” The project is something that John Paul II started, and which Benedict XVI gave a somewhat more Eurocentric cast to. With Francis, however, the new evangelization is an urgent task around the world—but it is one which must be carried out, perhaps can only be carried out, with a deep sense of that “joy brought by the Lord.”

What makes “Evangelii Gaudium” distinctive, different from other appeals to action made by previous popes and at the same time characteristic of Francis, is its specific, practical nature. (At one point, Francis writes, disarmingly: “I have dealt extensively with these topics, with a detail which some may find excessive.”)

Hence, the section on homilies. (He touches on several other topics with equal or greater attention.) “The homily is the touchstone for judging a pastor’s closeness and ability to communicate to his people,” Francis writes. “We know that the faithful attach great importance to it, and that both they and their ordained ministers suffer because of homilies: the laity from having to listen to them and the clergy from having to preach them! It is sad that this is the case. The homily can actually be an intense and happy experience of the Spirit, a consoling encounter with God’s word, a constant source of renewal and growth.”

A few suggestions from the Pope: “The homily cannot be a form of entertainment like those presented by the media, yet it does need to give life and meaning to the celebration.” And: “it should be brief and avoid taking on the semblance of a speech or a lecture.” And more: “If a homily goes on too long, it will affect two characteristic elements of the liturgical celebration: its balance and its rhythm.” And: “The Lord truly enjoys talking with his people; the preacher should strive to communicate that same enjoyment to his listeners.” And after discussing the need for a preacher to offer his own synthesis of scripture and experience: “Where your synthesis is, there lies your heart.”

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Religion

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