Thursday, June 9, 2011

Sermons: The Storeroom of the New & the Old

Originally posted in January of 2011:

"...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.

Second Post:

It seems as if the Catholic Church is a two-story building; the laity being on the first floor and the clergy on the second. Each story has its distinct subculture; the differences of which are profound at times. This bi-level Church we belong to- each level having its own language, interests and ways of looking at the world -is nothing new. As a matter of fact, it is several hundred years old. Arguably, the trends which divided the clergy and the laity into separate subcultures emerged in the Middle Ages; and it never completely went away. Catholic historian, Christopher Dawson, wrote that during the Middle Ages "the rise of a new lay educated class brought with it an independent ideal of lay culture. The consequent division of culture into two halves corresponded to the social division between clergy and laity." He continues: "While the clergy studied the Bible and the Fathers, the laity studied the classics; while the clergy studied the history of the Church, the laity studied the history of the State; while the clergy studied the traditional Christian philosophy, the laity studied the philosophers of pagan antiquity and the natural sciences."

Today, this dichotomy between the laity and the clergy expresses itself along similar lines. Lay people are consumers of internet news, cable news, and talk radio. They get their information with imagery, in quick sound bites, or in well crafted advertisements which speak directly to desires and needs. In any given message, relevance is critical. On the other hand, papal encyclicals and Church documents are usually long and academic. To decode some of the theological jargon, one needs a B.A. or an M.A. in theology at the very least. Moreover, these instruments of passing on information within the Church are, as I said previously, more topic-driven and abstract. The average person, however, has been groomed by the media to want current event-driven information. For this reason, Catholic documents and books penned by Church officials are not frequented by many people. It simply takes too much time to read and the language is too elevated for the average person to appreciate.

We need to remember the words of St. Paul who became disillusioned with the elevated and sophisticated language of the Greek philosophers of his day. In his second letter to Corinthians, he wrote: "For we write you nothing but what you can read and understand." (1:13) Brevity, simplicity and charisma are not only the marks of the New Testament epistles, but they are also the marks of modern communication. But as it appears, the clergy has not yet adapted to the twenty-first century consumer mentality and the way people are accustomed to receiving information. This is why sermons are all the more important! Yet, the time allotted for sermons during the liturgy are too often missed opportunities.

Western Civilization, as with most civilizations in world history, is currently on the decline from moral decay. The moral causes are easy to identify: Contraception, sex outside of marriage, divorce, cohabitation, homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia etc., just to name a few. North America and Europe are literally dying because of these sins. However, due to the silence of the clergy, the world has been given the opportunity to shape our attitudes and beliefs about the most important issues of life. It is not enough that we hear or read the truth about morality from the heights of Vatican Hill. We need to hear it from our priests and bishops. In the forty-plus years of my life on earth, I can count on one hand the number of times I heard words like "birth control" or "cohabitation" mentioned during a sermon. Yet, the Catholic Church is the most qualified agent to set the record straight and thus stop the social hemorrhaging. But she must begin by preaching about these issues specifically and concretely; not guised in general references. By doing this, the Church- the oracle of God -will bring the Light of Christ to these dark crevasses of society.

There is, no doubt, a price to paid for speaking the truth. This is why Christ exhorted his followers to rejoice when they are persecuted for His sake. Perhaps a disgruntled Catholic will reproach a priest after Mass; or maybe friendships and alliances will be compromised at the parish level. These possibilities quite often serve as a pretext for saying little to nothing about such sins from the pulpit. Nonetheless, it is important that everyone, not just the priest, know that for every person we offend with the truth, we are apt to attract three or more souls to Christ. Yet, the offended person is much more likely to be vocal about his opposition than the person who has been won over by it. Because of this recurring dynamic, Catholics- both clergy and laity -perceiving that the offended person represents the majority, retreats and says no more about the truth. But when the clergy or lay religion teachers do not speak the truth about the above mentioned sins- out of fear of a backlash -then the Church at large will have to pay a much greater price downn the road.

To be sure, the reluctance of the Catholic clergy to address the specifics of the moral law, especially with regard to sexual sin, has left a void in our culture. Let there be no doubt, the silence and timidity of priests who stand behind the pulpit every week has only made room for sin, false ideologies, and destructive behaviors to flourish all the more. But as our Lord said, "A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden." A lamp is placed on a "lamp stand, where it gives light to all in the house." But when the lamp is put under a bushel basket, darkness ensues. Indeed, it has never been so unclear as to what a Christian really is or even what the nature of marriage really is.

The priesthood, that is, the spiritual fatherhood of society, really does set the pace for the people. The supernatural order is the cause; the natural order, the effect. When priests do not speak to the truth about specific moral behaviors which determine the quality of life and the longevity of civilizations, then the powerful and influential people of society- be it politicians or celebrities -will define how we shall live and how we shall die.

For the third post please go to the archives of January of 2011 and click on Sermons: The Storeroom of the New and the Old III