03 June 2009

Questions and more questions

The Question Box has been full to overflowing lately. I've been pecking away on this post for weeks, here's a stab at trimming the pile a bit:

1). You're a priest! Should you be criticizing President Obama?

As I have noted many, many times before: I did not renounce my American citizenship when I took solemn profession as a Dominican nor when I was ordained a priest. I have exactly the same free speech and exercise of religion rights as any other U.S. citizen. Since I do not believe that Catholics are morons, I am not even a little worried that my political opinions will unduly influence readers. My readers are perfectly capable of making up their minds and will do so.

2). Where do you get ideas for your homilies?

There are a few hard and fast rules that I follow when composing homilies. First among these is a near maniacal adherence to the lectionary readings given for Mass that day; that is, the assigned readings themselves always, always form the foundation of my homilies. I do this not only b/c this is what the Church asks priests to do but also b/c I am convinced that (as a Dominican) my principal task as a preacher is to give the gospel a contemporary life within the long-lived wisdom of the Church. Also, I get ideas from the literature I read, from the daily news, from classes I teach and attend, from readers. Basically, as Catholics we are called to be in the world living our faith openly and eagerly. Anything that happens in the world is fair game for a homily. You may have noticed that I ask a lot of questions in my homilies. This is more than a rhetorical technique. These are questions I am asking myself. . .the homily is one way I am thinking through the answers.

3). My pastor is a good man. He's thoughtful and compassionate. He's a good businessman with the parish money. But he's a horrible preacher. Is there anything we in the parish can do to help him?

Yes. If he knows that he's a bad preacher there's help for him. If he thinks he's a wonderful preacher, then you are going to have problems. It's important for him to figure out exactly how he's a bad preacher, meaning what does he fail to do? If the content is good, is it the delivery? If the delivery is good, is the content superficial or heretical? Or is he just bad all around? I think preachers tend to make three basic content mistakes: 1). the homily is my chance to show these people how wonderful I am by telling jokes, stories, Hallmark scenarios, etc.; 2) the homily is my chance to pound on my pet issues to a captive audience; 3) the homily is my chance to settle scores and nurse grudges against my enemies. And there are three basic mistakes made with delivery: 1) Fr. Oprah chit-chats on nothing in particular; 2) Fr. Hollywood takes the place by storm like Jerry Springer in vestments; 3) Fr. Professor reads his homily like a paper given at the Annual Meeting of Professors of Ancient Greek Prepositional Phrases. Any combination of a content mistake and a delivery mistake is deadly. I would argue that there are a few givens to good preaching:

1). Stick to the assigned readings as your basic content. Use the images and language of the readings in your homily.
2). Keep stories, jokes, antecdotes to a minimum and make them directly, painfully obviously relevant. Don't tell a joke just to get a laugh.
3). Ask questions. Give answers. I have a pet peeve about purely rhetorical questions. The answers you give don't have to be blindingly brilliant, but asking a purely hetorical question always sounds slightly dishonest to me. . .if you have the guts to ask the question, answer it. . .even if only tentatively.
4). Preach and teach what the Church preaches and teaches. Why? Well, beyond the simple fact that this is what you promised to do at your ordination, you might find that consistently preaching and teaching the truth of the faith improves your preaching overall! Nowadays, the really radical preachers are the ones who are dissenting from the Received Wisdom of the Dinosaur Left and preach a counter-cultural gospel.
5). Delivery style is highly specific to the preacher, obviously. You must do what you are most comfortable doing. Delivery should be transparent, that is, how you deliver the homily should not be the point. Running around the church, yelling into a microphone, and acting like an idiot will not improve bad content. Good content, however, can be ruined by bad delivery.
6). If, like me, you write your homilies out, write for the ear not the brain. Academic papers are meant to be read silently. You can go back and refer to sentences or paragraphs. Papers are intensely logical, usually linear from Point A to Z in clearly defined steps. Homilies are heard. You need certain rhetorical devices to help the hearer. Most useful here is the repetition and the alliteration. Make a single point and repeat it. When making important points make them in a way that's memorable: alliteration or a lively metaphor.
7). Finally, ask for honest feedback and be prepared to change. Many Catholics see homilies as necessary evils to be endured. Few Catholics come to a parish Mass just to hear the preacher. This is very common among Protestants.

To those who must endure Catholic homilies: your pastor will not improve his preaching as long as he thinks you're happy with what he's doing. Silence = approval.

4). You haven't said anything about Judge Sotomayor. What do you think? Good choice?

Yes and no. Strictly speaking, she is not the most qualified candidate out there. To the degree that B.O. chose her b/c for gender, ethnic, ideological reasons, he's being predictably irresponsible. I don't think she will be the radical leftist that some are predicting. From a purely political standpoint, I would rather have a mediocre liberal on the Court than a brilliant one. B.O. is not going to appoint a constructionist, so I would rather he appointed a dull liberal than a charismatic leftist like Brennan. Her Catholicism seems to be irrelevant. If she's confirmed, she and the other five Catholics might have plenty of opportunities to defend the faith against B.O.'s determined efforts to undermine religious freedom.

5). A lady in my parish told us recently that we are required by the Church to believe in the revelations of Fatima. Is this true?

No, absolutely not. You are required to believe the revelations of scripture as understood and taught by the magisterium of the Church. Private revelations like Fatima, Medujorge, Lourdes, etc. are strictly optional. Church approval of private revelations means nothing more than that the contents of the revelation do not contradict Church teaching.

6). How much should a family give to their parish? Do Catholics tithe?

Always a difficult question! Protestant churches have long advocated tithing, i.e. "giving ten percent." This is definitely biblical and was even traditional in the Catholic Church for centuries. The problem comes when tithing runs up against your duty to your family. Can I really tithe to my parish if it means not paying my utility bill? I would argue that tithing should be done gradually, that is, start with a fixed amount and slowly increase over time until the ten percent is reached. This gradual approach allows you to adjust other expenses to compensate for the ten percent outlay. I found this lots of good info on Catholic tithing here. One related practice that I have argued against is withholding donations to the parish or diocese as a form of protest. This is profoundly anti-Catholic and smacks of the heresy of "Americanism." Attempting to influence parochial or diocesan politics through donation manipulation is simply vile. The parish should be your Christian family. Do you deny your family support? I understand that pastors and bishops often do and say things that upset the faithful, but voting with your pocketbook is not the Catholic way of settling disputes. I know I'm going to get blasted for this. . .oh well.

7). How public should my acts of charity be? How obvious should I make them?

Two principles apply here: 1) our witness should be readily identifable as Christian and 2) our witness should always, always point to God and His holy work. So, ask yourself before undertaking any public work of charity: am I doing this work for the greater glory of God and will the work point others to God? If the point of the work is show the world how holy you are or what a great person you are, don't do it. If the point of the work is to outdo the Baptists and showup the local Hindus, don't do it. If you can do the work in genuine love with your heart open to channeling God's mercy and care into the world, then go for it! Be very careful of what I call "passive-aggressive charity." This is charity work done to show others what needs to be done and how they aren't doing it. I find this sort of thing all the time on the religious left. There's a deep self-righteousness about how the Church is not "doing enough" for X or Y or Z, so I'm going to go put in a token afternoon so I can crow about the Church's deficiency at the next parish council meeting. Yea, whatever.

8). Aren't priests supposed to be kind and caring and not smart-alecks like you?

Hey! Smart-aleck priests can be kind and caring. We just limit ourselves to being kind and caring to once a month so we don't burn out. I get some variation on this question about once a week. It touches on people's expectations about how priests ought to present themselves as priests. I find it highly amusing that the people asking this sort of question seem to think that all priests should be little more than a religiousy version of a social worker or a therapist. Priests are supposed to be open, non-judgmental, good listeners, and above all, welcoming. Now, all of these are perfectly good characteristics for a priest to possess. However, we all know that words don't mean much these days, so each of these characteristics really hides an agenda that most certainly does not describe a good priest. For example, "non-judgmental" really means "don't tell me that I have sinned." "Welcoming" here really means, um, "don't tell me that I have sinned." And, of course, "good listener' really means. . .ermmm. . ."don't tell me that I have sinned." Basically, when I hear that someone thinks I am not being "pastoral enough," I take that to mean that I am telling the truth and someone doesn't want to hear the truth. Since I believe that the truth is always pastoral, I always tell the truth! Admittedly, I sometimes (only very rarely) throw in a little humor, or perhaps a tiny little smart-alecky comment. I must be forgiven! My whole family is a veritable three-ring circus of smart-alecks. . .I come by it honestly.

9). Catholics drink and smoke and cuss. Is that Christian?

I get this question a lot when I go home and hang around my Baptist family and friends. A lot of evangelical Protestants operate on a quasi-puritanical spirituality that sees the body as corrupting. Prohibitions against smoking, drinking, etc. are usually loosely grounded somewhere in scripture, but for the most part these prohibitions arose in the temperance movements of the 18th-19th centuries. Now, there are certainly puritanical elements in Catholic spirituality, but these tend to be exaggerated and often lead to heresy. For Catholics, the rule of thumb is: all things in moderation unless clearly morally prohibited or illegal. A nightly tumbler of bourbon is fine. It becomes a problem when you can't function without it, or when you are ignoring your responsibilities. Spending your last $10 on beer instead of food might be considered immoral. Failing to provide basic necessities for your children in order to play the ponies. . .big problem.

10). My son/daughter wants to go to the University of Dallas. Do you recommend it?

Absolutely! If they have the high schools grades and the SAT scores, they can't do much better than U.D. for a rigorous Catholic lib arts based education. Some have asked me to distinguish Christendom College and U.D., or Steubenville and U.D. I really can't. I know U.D. but not the others. From what I have gathered from U.D. students, they see the primary difference as one of how Catholic culture is taught and lived. While other small Catholic lib arts colleges and universities have strong Catholic identities, some of them tend to expect students to live rather monastic lives, sometimes downright puritanical lives. Strict dress codes, visitation rules, mandatory Mass attendance, etc. There's nothing wrong with any of this, of course. Some students need this level of structure and it should be available to them. U.D. takes a different tack. The Catholic culture at U.D. tends to be very Aristotelian in a healthy, southern, conservative sort of way. IOW, most of what the other schools impose as moral absolutes, U.D. students tend to discern and follow as a matter of right reason and good conscience. Yes, there are rules. And yes, the students bark and snipe at them like students everywhere do. But this isn't the distinguishing feature of U.D. What makes U.D. standout is the hardcore, kick-butt, take no prisoners academic atmosphere. If your son/daughter is not prepared to work like a cheap mule on a canyon tour, they need to apply somewhere else. The core curriculum is based on the literature, philosophy, theology of classical western culture (Homer, Virgil, Dante, Milton, Augustine, Aquinas, etc.). They will write, write, write. And they will study like they have never studied before. In the first semester, they will see their heads grow by an average of 3%. U.D. students tend to be brilliant, funny, well-mannered, intellectually curious, a tad bit geeky, and highly talented in the creative arts. Most are Catholic, some not. There are non-Catholic Christians on the faculty and non-Christians. And there's a healthy percentage of Virtuous Pagans around too. Everyone--regardless of religious belief--believes in the value of the Core. If your child is looking for a college version of a CCD class, they will need to look elsewhere. U.D. faculty teach the western tradition--warts and all--and eagerly locate the Catholic faith within that tradition--warts and all. This does not mean that faculty dissent from Church teaching or rabble-rouse against the Holy Father. Hardly! It means that students do not get the sanitized P.R. version of Church history or philosophy or theology. They get the Truth as it is best known in the western tradition.

I love teaching at U.D.! (NB. I think they should hire me permanently. I mean, they would get a literature Ph.D. and philosophy Ph.D., a Dominican priest, a decent preacher, and an all-around swell guy! And the being smart-aleck only helps at U.D.)


  1. Since you ended your questions with one about University of Dallas (whenever I see U.D. I think University of Dayton) I have another one: Does UD have any scholarships for the children of permanent deacons?

  2. 8). Aren't priests supposed to be kind and caring and not smart-alecks like you?


    for the record...it takes a smartass to reach a smartass!

    To prove the point I offer 2 FAMOUS Fr Philip quotes in my house.

    #1 comment left on my hubby's blog when he lamented that his newbie RCIA wife didn't let him weasel out of Christmas Day Mass

    "Good thing you're used to taking orders"

    (not the sympathy he was looking for)

    #2 to me when I lamented having to use up PTO days in order to make it to all those services during Holy Week.

    "Christ died for your sins, take the PTO!"


  3. Anonymous9:51 AM

    I think you meant "tack."

    "Some students need this level of structure and it should be available to them. U.D. takes a different tact. "

  4. Thanks...imagine the fun I have with "affect" vs. "effect"!

  5. Great post. Thanks.

  6. In regard to tithing: you write about tithing to your parish. That's new to me. I tithe, but only half goes to the parish. The other half goes to the Archdiocese, a Benedictine monastery, Thomas Aquinas College, EWTN, and similar organizations - and occasionally directly to a person or family in need. I'm curious about why you specify tithing to the parish.

  7. Elizabeth, the question I was asked specified tithing to a parish, but tithing to other worthy organizations is commendable, of course.

  8. Just a small point - I appreciate your choice to maniacally preach only from the scriptures, but point out the church's mandate to her homilists is a bit broader. We are not sola scriptura...and the norms directly state that homilists should consider the liturgical texts (prayers, etc) as texts for their preaching. And that is a much neglected zone...

  9. But Michelle! Almost 90% of our liturgical text are scriptural!


    When I say "stick to the lectionary text" I mean "don't use a novel or a movie or your latest trip to your shrink as a text"...

  10. Well, yeah :)

    ...but I bet 90% of Catholics are not aware of that. Hence my wish there was a bit more preaching that pulled it in. To add to your list of what the homily is not:

    not disconnected from the rest of the liturgy OR the last line should not feel like "and now we return you to our regular programming"!



  11. Anonymous10:25 PM

    I have two relatives who opted NOT to go to UD because of your smart alecky attitude.

    If one comes from a family of prostitutes, it's okay to be a prostitute? You're just a juvenile little prick.

    Who turned two enormously bright students away. They are now "Ivy League." Perhaps you did them a favor.

    Clare Steuben

  12. Clare,

    You kiss your mama with that mouth?

    Details, details. Who? What? When? Where?

    Otherwise, I have no reason to believe you...