Sunday, January 2, 2011

Sermons: The Storeroom of the New & the Old

"...every scribe who has been instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old." (Matthew 13:52)

Experience can work to our advantage. Most people see it as such. However, what people miss sometimes is that experience can be a liability; a handicap of sorts. For instance, when a couple experiences troubles within their own marriage, it is often the case that they are the least qualified to see the troubles as they really are. Quite often, the culpability of the husband escapes the husband and the culpability of the wife escapes the wife. Hence, a third party is invoked; usually a friend or a marriage counselor who can make an evaluation and then offer guidance with some degree of objectivity about the problems at hand.

This is why two celibate bishops like Fulton Sheen, author of Three to Get Married and Pope John Paul II, author of Love and Responsibility, were able to provide deep and practical insights into love and marriage. Their contribution to the topic derived from the countless couples they counseled. And having been the "third party," these two bishops were able to arrive at helpful solutions to the common problems of romance, sexuality and marriage; this, precisely because they were free from certain blind spots which naturally sprang from these problems.

It is to be expected, therefore, that the clergy has its own blind spots as well. Like any married couple, they can become too close to their own problems. Chief among them are the sermons they deliver to their parishioners. A lay perspective, a third party, if you will, can be of great service to the priesthood. After all, lay Catholics are the "customers" or the intended beneficiaries of sermons delivered during the Liturgy of the Word. As with any service people receive, Catholics have formed opinions about the sermons they have had heard over the last fifty years or so. Dissatisfaction among parishioners with sermons is rarely communicated to the parish priest for obvious reasons.

With that said, it is universally acknowledged among lay Catholics- with some exceptions of course -that the preaching from the pulpit in recent decades has struggled to inspire and educate the faithful. Here, I include those sermons given by orthodox, Christ-centered priests. To be sure, sermons in parishes across the nation have also struggled to be relevant in that they make few references to every day problems and current events. For instance, I remember attending Mass the Sunday after 9/11. Not a word was spoken during the sermon about the trauma America was still feeling over the terrorist attacks. Although this may have not been the case in every parish that Sunday, my experience seems to be emblematic of what regularly occurs at Mass. Lay people can be reading and hearing about a pressing issue 24/7 during the week and yet very few words, if any, are spoken about it by the priest or the bishop. It is no exaggeration to say that what is talked about at the kitchen table, or what is discussed around the water cooler outside the office, or even what issues make the front page of the newspaper, are rarely given a Catholic interpretation from the pulpit on Sunday morning.

Americans are consumers of event-driven news. They take interest, not so much in topics, but in what is happening today. The Second Vatican Council- as if prompted by the Holy Spirit in a kind of anticipation of how people would receive information in the future -gave an exhortation that the preaching of the Gospel should illuminate and interpret the circumstances of daily life and the current events which surround it:

"To carry out such a task, the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel. Thus, in language intelligible to each generation, she can respond to the perennial questions which men ask about this present life and the life to come, and about the relationship of the one to the other. We must therefore recognize and understand the world in which we live, its explanations, its longings, and its often dramatic characteristics."(Guadiem et Spes, article 4)

Still, the clergy and even some Catholic media outlets, are primarily topic-driven. As for speakers, evangelists or teachers in Catholic forums, it is not practical nor is it desirable to get away from topics altogether. However, what the Holy Spirit seemed to have been saying through the Second Vatican Council is that in an event-driven, media-driven society, the preaching of the Gospel must involve explaining people's experiences and interpreting events that are meaningful to them. This is the "new from the storeroom" that needs to be brought to the fore.

Part II on the next blog-