The Vanilla Sermon
I am pleased to announce that all three of my old seminary high school buddies lifted off from Orlando International Airport around lunch time after a very full weekend of activities. After two spring training baseball games we changed the pace yesterday (Sunday) and I successfully produced several wild gators for them to photograph on the shores of Lake Apopka.
Before our Crocodile Dundee exploits, however, we attended yesterday’s 8 AM Mass at my home parish. This is the earliest one offered; one of my friends lives in the Philadelphia area and lectors regularly at 6 AM Mass at home. As we were participating in the Mass of the Fifth Sunday of Lent, I had time to reflect upon the several in-depth discussions we had shared during the reunion about religion and the Church. I don’t think it would surprise many readers that we four are at different places with Catholicism. My 6 AM lector buddy has a deep devotional faith and is a regular at the Right to Life March in D.C., among his other “faith in action” good works. I am a practicing Catholic and faith formation minister, among other things, but with the critical eye that comes, I guess, with higher studies and a few too many wounds from administrative malfeasance or infighting. Another remains Catholic but worships from time to time in the faith communities of his children, which seems very reasonable to me. My final buddy is from Boston, the epicenter of the child abuse scandals in 2002. No thoughtful Catholic in Bean Town looks at Mother Church as a comforting bosom after those days.
Along with my wife, the quarter-century Catholic school principal whose faith life has been built around parish community wherever she has lived, we as a group represented a pocket of distinct individuals in a good sized early morning congregation, whose faith needs and personal imperfections were as varied as the species of birds along Lake Apopka. Later in the day I remarked to someone that I could never go back to being a pastor again, in large part because “I wouldn’t know how to do it.” I meant that as a homilist I would have a great deal of difficulty finding common ground in personally addressing the hearts and minds of my hearers, which is what I have always understood the purpose of good preaching to be. Somewhere in our conversation later the term “vanilla preaching” came up, which seemed to embody our general concern with liturgical preaching in general. One of my classmates had discussed this with his own pastor at some length.
Philosophically I have battled with this before, frequently, in my own mind. My better angels tell me that worship is for God, not for my needs du jour. However, the Eucharist is structured precisely to meet human need. Vatican II defines the Eucharist as the source as well as the summit of Christian life. The Penitential Rite, for example, does indeed forgive sin, except for those defined as mortal, because the participants need forgiveness. Holy Communion is a real feeding of the sacred species to meet the hunger of our souls for life. And the homily? Karl Barth, the twentieth century’s greatest evangelical Protestant theologian, spoke of preaching with the “Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” Put another way, Barth and the great preachers of all faiths—and that would include Catholicism’s Fulton J. Sheen—proclaimed the Gospel message to this world, at this time, in a language marked with clarity, passion, and motivation. In the best of all worlds, we meet the Christ of March 23, 2015 in a homily preached today with the same sacramental intensity and effect as we would in receiving the bread and wine of Real Presence.
Real preaching is hard to deliver and hard to hear; the naked truth is always hard to hear. I have long suspected that potentially effective preachers are not actively recruited in seminaries because of a kind of ecclesiastical fear of the “fuss” they would create in grounded Catholic parishes. Also, the good potential homilist brings to the admissions office a resume of skills that might make him suspect—critical thinking, an insatiable curiosity, interdisciplinary and interfaith tendencies, imagination, a sense of the poetic, and a fearlessness that would look for all the world like insubordination to a local bishop.
That said, Catholics still need to be fed, even if many are content with a steady diet of vanilla pudding. In an early morning walk with one classmate, I talked about my teaching efforts to introduce catechists, for example, to the variety of Catholic religious experiences of longstanding. We, of course, both came from Franciscan rooting, but I shared with him my growing interest in Benedictine writing and spirituality, for example, and how such reading was at least partially feeding my hungers. We agreed that in parochial life continuous and predictable reaffirmation of “the good, the true and the beautiful” might not be enough for a genuine New Evangelization. The task falls to the catechist and faith formation personnel to awaken the power of the Gospel until the Lord comes again, teaching a Gospel that, in another scholar’s words, is nothing less than a two edged sword.
(Oh yes, although it’s been many years since the four of us saw the inside of a seminary, the training never disappears…the only evidence of four days of celebrating was one stray almond on the living room floor.)
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