Yesterday I talked about the new papal encyclical on the environment and the need to study the document critically. So I was surprised to see that my New York Times carried a story today about the limited discussion of the encyclical from the pulpit. Reporters interviewed churchmen and worshippers around the world and noted that Laudate Si was not mentioned in many big city Masses, including unidentified ones in North Carolina and Rhode Island. In the peculiar ways of journalism, the story actually hones in on preachers who did address the encyclical, noting that some clerics had prepared to address the subject when first news of such an encyclical went out months ago.
The famous late Speaker of the House Thomas “Tip” O’Neill would have understood. He is reputed to have coined the phrase, “All politics is local.” Very often the same can be said about preaching. Since my wife is still away on mission, I have been going to Mass in smaller, more rural settings which I prefer, and this weekend past I returned to the church I pastored for a decade. The pastor there now is an old friend of mine who served in my present parish for many years before heading out to the “foliage capital of the world,” as our town here used to be called. He did not preach on the encyclical, but on the Charleston tragedy, which is totally understandable. At the end of the sermon a gentleman behind me said to someone in a whisper, “good talk.” It was, as this sad American experience is indeed a teachable moment, a catechetical one if you will, that screams for acknowledgement and prayerful reflection.
Not to repeat myself from yesterday, but I don’t know exactly how one would preach on the encyclical several days after its release. At some juncture this year some commentary from a pastor on the existence and importance of the document is appropriate, virtually mandatory. But the “preaching call” so to speak is study and prayer over a magisterial or official Church teaching document. Documents have a life all their own and it remains to be seen how Catholics (and the general public for that matter) will receive, interpret and implement Pope Francis’ teaching.
In fact, I wonder if such teachings are more appropriately suited to the catechetical ministry, which is the forum of study, prayer and service. The Times story links to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops or USCCB, which has a study guide web page on the encyclical. I looked at it and my first impressions are favorable; the pastoral guide does merge lofty ideals with practical living recommendations. It also struck me that the catechesis process will need to begin ground zero with a strong orientation to the biblical nature of creation, because some of the USCCB talking points are significantly counter-culture to United States customs. For example, participants in the USCCB study program are encouraged to use mass transit over individual autos. It doesn’t take a Tip O’Neill to quickly see a link between papal teaching and state and local tax policies. Our new Orlando Sun Rail, presently a north-south only artery, lost $27 million in its first year.
The USCCB site gives a general outline of the encyclical; from my cursory look I would say that the message and goals here are so extensive that the best hope for its implementation is its integration into Catholic teaching programs, texts, and the regular Sunday preaching. It may be that this is what the pope intended, that this document is his Catechism of the Catholic Church, so to speak. The length alone reminds me of the old saying about the literary classics: “the greatest books that everyone claims to have read but no one has.” This is not a document of solitary inspiration, but rather, it is an exhaustive world vision. I think that there will be a lot of committee work at all levels of Catholic education and faith formation about how to integrate Laudate Si into current curriculum and practice.
From what I am reading from a number of commentators I trust, the encyclical draws together the Lordship of God over all creation, the dignity of every human life, and the moral need to reorder the management of the planet in a way that reflects the worth of every human life. If I am right, this message will be heard as hopeless utopianism, clerical Marxism, or a brilliant practical faith and morals agenda for the baptized, and all those of good will.
Preaching does matter, so long as it is not cherry picking from a document whose ink is still wet. It is from the pulpit that we are roused from hopelessness and resignation over today’s evils to joyful expectation and creative energy. It is in the pulpit that utopianism is translated into Christian eschatology of a Kingdom here but yet to come in its full glory. In truth, this is always what preaching should be, Sunday after Sunday. But perhaps, just perhaps, Francis has given the liturgical experience a precious jump start. We will see.
Today I was out on the road again for the diocese, teaching a course on Church History for our school teachers. This marks the end of the courses I will be teaching this summer, and it means among other things that I can get out tomorrow and finally get this computer situation straightened out. I appreciate your patience.
I note with some humor that I am finding the purchase of this office equipment more troublesome than buying a car, which is a truly major investment. Actually my last purchase of a car required no trouble. My wife was getting her Kia serviced when a carrier of Sportages pulled on the lot. She called me and reported that she had found just the car for me. By sunset it was in my garage.
Speaking of my wife, she called me while I was driving home today. She is in the Dominican Republic at our diocesan mission there. This is her third day and she has a week to go. God bless her. She reports torrential rain.
Aside from trying to squeeze too much material into seven hours, my course today was very enjoyable. Many of the students were exceptionally well read and I felt badly I couldn't give free reign to some lively budding discussions. Prior to the course several asked me to devote more time to Vatican II, which to much of the class was indeed ancient history, as they were born years after its conclusion in 1965. Someone asked me my impression if I thought Vatican II had been a success. Now there's a tough question. I did say that I didn't think anyone at the pastoral level was prepared to roll out the new agenda in the late 1960's, particularly in the area of liturgy.
Some students picked up on this and observed that they were frustrated over the wide diversity of liturgical and pastoral practice even between parishes in the present day. I agreed and quoted the old Reformation saying about present day pastors, "Cuius Regio, Cuius Religio." Translated roughly, this equates to "whoever is king picks the religion."
I did say in class and I would say this anywhere that I am very disappointed with the national conference of bishops, our USCCB, which can agree on nothing but mom and apple pie declarations. On issues of major significance in parishes, such as the sequence of initiation sacraments for children, or standards for certification of catechists, the bishops will not take a stand. The reason? Most bishops (not all, thankfully) want total autonomy in their dioceses to do as they please. Like I said, "Cuius Regio....."
Sometimes the best catechetical lessons come unexpectedly, like grace itself. The homily of the funeral Mass of Vice President Biden’s son, Beau, is now available on YouTube. The homily was preached by whom I assume to be the Bidens’ Catholic pastor, Father Donovan.
Father Donovan was not blessed with rhetorical flourish, but rather, with a good pastor’s heart. His own grief was honest and evident, he has a genuine love of his parishioners, and he never lost sight of his homiletic responsibility to bring the sad solemnity of the moment into the full light of Scriptural faith. He understood, like Lincoln at Gettysburg, that brevity brings extraordinary focus. This homily was delivered in about nine minutes, but its power was all the more enhanced because of that.
On a pastoral note, Catholics will forgive almost any shortcoming of their local parish if their priest and ministers are there for them in times of death.