Monday, August 13, 2012

Sermons: Seizing the opportunity!

This is a post that has been revised and abridged. It is due to be published in the Catholic News Agency column section this Friday, August 17 2012.

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 have their 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, which can serve as a third party perspective, 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 a parish priest for the simple reason that he or she does not want to offend him.

With that said, for decades there have been a general consensus among the laity that the preaching from the pulpit has struggled to be relevant; this, by not appealing to the day to day circumstances of the lay world. I include those sermons given by orthodox, Christ-centered priests. In many Catholic parishes across the country, Catholics hear few references to everyday problems and current events. For instance, I remember attending Mass on the Sunday after September 11, 2001. However, not a word was spoken about it during the sermon even though America was still feeling the traumatic effects of the terrorist attacks. Although this may have not been the case in every parish that Sunday, my experience on the Sunday after 9/11 seems to be emblematic of what regularly occurs at Mass.

Lay people read and hear about pressing issues during the work week all the time but yet very few words, if any, are spoken about it from many pulpits. 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 those issues make the front page of the newspaper, are rarely given a Catholic interpretation from the pulpit on Sunday morning.

Americans are consumers of current 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 -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, sermons from pulpits (and even church documents) are primarily topic-driven. To be fair, it is not practical nor is it desirable to get away from topics altogether. No doubt, spiritual and moral topics provide a depth that is rarely addressed in current event-driven news. After all, the Catholic Catechism is topically arranged and for good reason. 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 the events they encounter; this includes the news they hear and read about during the week.

Western Civilization, as with most civilizations in world history, is currently on the decline from moral decay. The moral causes are easy to identify:

•Sex outside of marriage
•And supporting politicians, institutions and programs that advance the abovementioned sins.

Indeed, the decline of our civilization can be traced to these sins. Yet, these sins, as with current events, are rarely mentioned during Sunday sermons. As such, the world has been given the opportunity to shape people’s attitudes and beliefs about the most important issues of life. It is not enough that we read the truth about morality from papal encyclicals, pastoral letters or even parish bulletins. We need to hear it from our priests and bishops “in person.” And as a son of the Church, it is my prayer that they begin, with greater urgency, to seize the opportunities that are given to them. After all, if the Church does not expose specific sins by name and those sins that lead to our spiritual death and cultural demise, no one will.