What Young Adults Want– Relevant Homilies

Preacher2Yesterday, I was on the phone call with a young adult leader discussing topics for an upcoming lecture series, when he made the following comment:

“There are so many topics that the media talks about all the time, but those topics aren’t preached from the pulpit. So we’d want to hear about those.”

Yikes! Are Sunday homilies so disconnected from modern life? I would hope not, but this young adult makes me think that the answer is yes.

As an example of what he’s referring to, I went to a popular news website and browsed for some topics.

End of Life issues
Cruelty to animals
Prayer in public places
Financial hardship
Same-sex marriage
Climate change
War in Afghanistan
Just wages

It’s true – I can only remember one homily in the recent past that addressed one of these topics.

What can parishioners do to support relevant homilies? First, love your priests and deacons in Christian friendship. Secondly, give them feedback about their homilies and suggest topics that you feel are more relevant to modern life.

Here are two encouraging excerpts from the General Instruction of the Roman Missal:

29. Although in the readings from Sacred Scripture God’s word is addressed to all people of every era and is understandable to them, nevertheless, a fuller understanding and a greater effectiveness of the word is fostered by a living commentary on the word, that is, the Homily, as part of the liturgical action.

65. The Homily is part of the Liturgy and is strongly recommended, for it is necessary for the nurturing of the Christian life. It should be an exposition of some aspect of the readings from Sacred Scripture or of another text from the Ordinary or from the Proper of the Mass of the day and should take into account both the mystery being celebrated and the particular needs of the listeners.

6 Replies to “What Young Adults Want– Relevant Homilies”

  1. From my perspective, this is a terrible idea!

    A homily which is “relevant” on current events is more than likely to be either preaching to the choir, or seen as calling out people who hold differing views than the priest giving the homily as “anti-Catholic.” Abortion and euthanasia aside, most current issues are considered prudential – Catholics can disagree about them in good faith. If the pastor is seen as coming down on one side of an issue or another, it can be needlessly divisive or alienating. I’ve seen it happen from both the “liberal” and “conservative” points of view. At one Mass, the priest’s Christmas morning homily turned into an vicious anti-abortion harangue (which left my parents, who had just moved to the area, looking for another church – and they oppose abortion anyway!). Another priest’s homily in the lead-up to the Iraq war denounced people in the military for not “standing up to the politicians and refusing to fight for “injustice,” and led to me having to beg my dad (who served for 30 years in the military), not to get up and walk out of the church right then.

    We live in Washington, D.C., which is an inherently political town. We have it the worst when it comes to being political! Half the people at my Church are involved in the political process in some way – working on Capitol Hill, for political interest groups, or for government agencies. And it’s not for nothing that I say that conservative Catholics accuse liberal Catholics of ignoring Church teaching on sex, and liberal Catholics accuse conservative Catholics of ignoring Church teaching on money; the “culture wars” afflict us too, and create division where there should be unity. (The problem with making the personal political is that you make the political personal.) Making homilies “relevant” thus means making them political, in effect if not in intent.

    I think what many Young Adults are looking for in this town is a respite from conflict about politics and current events. Yes, discussion and debate is fine, but YA groups are about getting us to bring our faith out to the world, not dragging the world into our faith.

    And that’s what a homily is supposed to do. The best homilies that I have heard are those that don’t just “deal” with current events, but transcend them, endorsing neither side’s conventional wisdom. The recent financial crisis is a perfect example. I’ve heard a lot of conventional homilies saying, essentially, “oh, those rich people sure got what they deserved, ha ha, next time listen to Jesus!” True, if you’re of the right political bent. But isn’t there anything else to say? I heard one homily (if I remember correctly, it was a homily on story of St. Thomas’ doubting) take a different perspective – that people acquire things (homes, money, possessions) because they fear for the future and have lost faith, and God doesn’t want us to live like that, and Jesus came to us precisely so we wouldn’t have to live like that!

    How many times in the Gospels did the Pharisees come to trick Jesus into taking one side or the other of an ideological dispute? And how many times did He give them an answer that they didn’t expect and defied all the conventional wisdom? That’s what good homilies do. They force us out of ideology and conventional wisdom and get us to focus on the things we’re overlooking. A good homily isn’t about being relevant, it’s about giving us that insight into ourselves and others that the world would otherwise ignore.

    Pardon the rant. :

    1. I think your response is very well thought out. I too am a bit troubled by the request. I don’t mind the call for relevance but I was a bit troubled by some things on the list. Much of it is a bit out of my area of expertise and, as you note, reasonable people will differ as to the particulars of many of the issues (esp. global warming). I prefer to preach principles and as you note include current events but try to transcend mere opinions or take side on current issues. At any rate you will note viz a post I just made (August 16) that I tried to take a stab at the “animal cruelty” issue that was on the list. It is my hope that I tried to address the issue in a way that stays in my area of expertise, namely, Scripture and Church teaching. But I would value your input there too as to whether or not I sucessfully stayed in my lane!

    2. Great conversation! I absolutely agree that we are called to “bring our faith out to the world”!

      A few clarifications:

      First, the topics I listed were randomly pulled from headlines on a popular website, not suggestions of me or the young adult leader.

      Second, I don’t think this young adult leader was asking for “vicious” homilies or homilies that “denounce” people. That’s not Christian, and I would hope that a parishioner would be loving enough to let a priest know if his preaching was unchristian.

      Third, I don’t think this young adult leader was asking for a liberal or a conservative homily. I think he was asking for an orthodox homily that is relevant. From Merriam-Webster: Relevant: having significant and demonstrable bearing on the matter at hand. Therefore I disagree that “Making homilies ‘relevant’ thus means making them political”.

      Now, I think the deeper question here is: What does the Catholic Church teach? What are the over-arching principles that are relevant to modern life? The answer to this question is what the young adult leader was asking for.

      As an example, I want to refer to “Caritas in Veritate” the Pope’s newest encyclical. While people may term some of its sections conservative and others liberal, it simply presents orthodox Catholic principles that are relevant to modern life. Additionally, the seven principles of Catholic Social Teaching are also very relevant to modern life. There are many issues besides euthanasia and abortion that are not simply prudential, and it would be greatly beneficial if they were preached more often.

      (As far as homilies go, I don’t see anything wrong with “preaching to the choir”. No matter where the “choir” is in its spiritual journey, it always benefits from preaching. I also don’t see anything wrong with preaching to people who “hold different views from the priest”. If the priest is preaching the orthodox view of the Catholic Church, then the homily is a perfect opportunity to explain why the Church holds that view.)

  2. I generally agree with Jon; many times the Church doesn’t tell us how to think, but rather gives us the tools so we can form our own opinion, and so She transcends the temporary issues. Nonetheless, I find nothing wrong in being reminded of the issues at a homily. Quite often we try to stay away from certain things and become oblivious of what’s happening in our communities (both small and large communities.) If a certain issue is relevant enough, I’ll gladly listen to a homily that challenges us to think and reflect about the issue, without needing to tell us what to think.

  3. Yeah! We Catholics are not clones of one another and in our solutions to this list of topics we can see it. Jon: thanks for posting! Your opinion helps us try to understand the deeper issues Laura’s blog presents.

    Jon says:
    “The best homilies that I have heard are those that don’t just “deal” with current events, but transcend them, endorsing neither side’s conventional wisdom”.

    Well, I am not a Young Adult but my guess is that some YA who want to be faithful to God’s will for their lives would want to have some guidance related to these current, “political town” daily converstaion topics. Jon, there been times that I have wanted a break from this issues (and I do not work in Capitol Hill!!), especially if people of faith take the role of surgeons that want to amputate from the body any member who is still struggling or plainly confused about these issues. There is where I see the role of the homily clearly. What is the Word of God is saying to us today? When He walked among us, the times were no different. Back then, the topics were not in the Media per say, but thanks to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the evangelist recorded some basic issues for posterity. If I read the Gospels, I find Pharisees, Sadducees, Publicans, common social sinners and private sinners making the “News”.

    My point is that the current topics the Media is talking about all the time, which we people want to hear in the homilies are like the question they posed to Jesus and the apostles. Why does your Master do not pay taxes, is it lawful to divorce a woman, should we stone this woman caught in adultery, and is the tragedy of a tower falling on many people and killing them God’s way to punish sinners.

    Are we expecting too much from the Sunday homilies?
    Msgr. Pope, thanks for asking for feedback (I checked one of you homilies from a previous blog link and it was very inspiring. Could you post the link again?) I know people have different preferences, like traditional values and order, rational principles, even more beautiful and artistic expressions of our faith, but here is an idealistic opinion.

    What do I want to hear in a homily? I want to hear Jesus once again calling US (and it does not mean ‘fire and brim storm’ tone of voice), to look deep into our hearts. To remind us to ask our Father for the faith and the grace to work on these issues that cause pain and suffering to our brothers and sisters and to all God’s creation, reflecting first in our part (plank) and then helping others with theirs. I want to hear our Lord once again remind US that the Holy Spirit has given us gifts and talents to heal the wounded cure the blind and release those in prison… and that He would love to see us do even greater things. In other words, I think we are in a war against evil and I long to hear that I have two or three weapons of love in my arsenal that can defeat evil and bring God’s peace. But what I really long for is for my parish to be a lamp on a hill, the salt the earth, to belong to a community of believes that are in the fight against evil in union with the Lord: do you reject Satan! DO YOU BELIEVE IN GOD?

  4. Hi everyone! Thanks for the thoughtful responses! I had originally e-mailed this to Laura privately, because I’m still skittish about putting my real name to anything on the internet… Anyway, for the record, I’m on the steering committee of the Young Adult Community at Holy Trinity Parish (one of the ADW’s two Jesuit parishes) in the Georgetown neighborhood of DC.

    Fr. Pope: I commented on your homily on animal cruelty. I thought it was very well done! 🙂

    Laura: I don’t think any parishoner would ask for a vicious homily, or a political one. Those are the sorts of things that creep into homilies by stealth, without anyone meaning to. But I still believe that relevance on a contentious issue is inextricably bound up with what the politics of that issue are, particularly because 1) the natural source of information on these contentious issues is the news media, which thrives on controversy and is not above creating it where none exists to make a quick buck, and 2) the 24-hour news cycle encourages instant reactions and thoughts, not reflective ones. As Fr. Pope noted, priests are not experts on most events, so in their quest to be relevant they will naturally turn first to the media, where the politics and attitude of contention will stow away amid the noisy distraction. Homilies should take more than the media’s standard of 10 minutes to write. (From what priests tell me, it usually takes far, far, longer…). A college professor wouldn’t prepare for a lecture on an unfamiliar topic without reading broadly and thinking deeply on the topic, and neither should a pastor. But when I hear the word “relevant,” I can’t help but associate that with “immediate.”

    Catholic Social Teaching is important, but, if I may borrow an analogy, remember that the shepherd’s crook can just as easily be used to beat on the sheep as guide them (and remember that the sheep may not know the difference. Because they’re sheep, and sheep are not bright.). The homilies that I mentioned above – the first from a parish in Ohio, the second from a parish across the river in Virginia – were both echoing Catholic Social Teaching, respectively, the dignity of human life and just war theory. The problem is that even though the homilists were clearly passionate about their subjects, both came across as an exasperated j’accuse that diluted the truth that was being spoken, and needlessly angered those hearing the message. Perhaps where they stepped over the line is in going from the ends of Catholic Social Teaching – (protecting human life and a just world order) to favoring for specific means to get there (demanding that Roe v. Wade be overturned, and urging members of the military to disobey our elected leaders.)

    I do not doubt that there are times when a strong, defiant tone is needed, but pastors, please, measure your strength, and careful where you swing the crook! (Remember: you’re a shepherd. We sheep spook very easily.)

    Maggie: Thanks for your response. Maybe we are expecting too much from homilies. Fr. Pope is probably shaking his head down in the rectory… 😉

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