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People in pews await a life-giving word

The lucky among us have experienced it: a great preacher holding a congregation in the palm of her or (more likely, the church being the way it is) his hand. Sadly, though, this is more the exception than the rule.

The life-transforming sermon, the memorable homily, the electric moments in church are not what they used to be, if they ever were. Indeed, let's face it, preaching is in the doldrums.

Earlier this year, I invited comments and/or samples of excellence. Some came in from friends or fans; others were sent by the orators themselves. I frankly expected more passion here: higher praise or sharper criticism. An amazing phenomenon takes place weekly, when homilists (usually priests) have so many millions of well-meaning, sincere, searching, confused, depressed, patient, eager people at their mercy, people waiting for a magic word that might spring to life and grow legs and head and heart and cheer up the world.

And that sometimes happens. All praise to those who make it happen.

I can also think of plenty of excuses for those who can't make it happen.

One writer, who must be nameless, writes: "For six years we had a wonderful homilist." This man "challenged us, often using props, acting and, during the week, dialogue Masses." Then he moved on, replaced by one who is "good at telling us what bad people we are." Surely he doesn't mean it.

Jeff Gerst wrote from Fargo, N.D., to recommend the homilies of Fr. John Sandell, which are on the Web, Gerst says. The letter offers several teasers, such as: "[We can] no longer simply stand in awe, even reverent awe, at the wonders Christ performed, and the impact he had on his society. Now we must set out to continue those wonders on [our] own, to have [our] own impact on [society]."

Speaking of Christ's impact: I don't think his feelings would be hurt if I said that some of his preaching was quite average -- apart altogether from the views of the Jesus Seminar scholars and such to the effect that he may not have given all those sermons in the first place.

This in turn raises the issue of whether a homily should be judged in black and white: whether reading does it justice or whether you had to be there to get the tone, the contact with the audience. It's like some of the best plays having more grunts than flowery speeches. A homily that may be electric in its rapport with the audience may fall flat on the page.

Donna M. Cedar-Southworth of Sterling, Va., asks, "Why does no one feel the urge, as I do, to write down some of what our priests say to us at Mass?"

Eileen Moran Fortunato, who writes from Plymouth, Mass., got a chance to strut her stuff as a "pastoral intern" while working on a degree in pastoral ministry. "It is such an awesome privilege to share with others how the word becomes flesh," she writes. An excerpt from one homily:

"Growth has come by making prayer more of an integral part of my day. I praise God as I witness the sunrise on my children's early morning paper route. I ask for mercy as I open that paper with its First World ads and read of the poverty and despair in Third World countries. I thank God as plentiful hot water pours forth from the shower. Growth has also come from not talking so much as listening -- acknowledging what is, good and bad, opening myself to what could be. I take time apart to lift up the people with whom I am struggling or am concerned, to surrender the problems and worries that pepper my life, to shut down my mind and open my heart.

"I would be less than honest if I did not mention that tears are sometimes a part of the process -- tears of sorrow for weakness and sin exposed, tears of joy for goodness and acceptance encountered, tears of fear for what may be expected. Even so, I find that when I attempt to strip myself in this way for even a short time during the day, the rest of it flows more smoothly. I hear things in a new way, I see things with new eyes, I feel things get done with less distress. It's not that life becomes perfect -- in fact, sometimes the chaos can seem to increase -- but pervasive is the promise that all will be well."

We will publish a few longer samples of other homilies on this page, starting today with that of Ruth McDonough Fitzpatrick, former national coordinator of the Women's Ordination Conference, who lives in Fairfax, Va. Fitzpatrick says she composed and presented this as part of a recent credit course in preaching. (Ask your pastor when he last took a course in preaching.)

"One thing I learned," adds Fitzpatrick, "is that sermon is out, homily is in." I feel in no position to argue with someone who so recently took a course, but I must speak my (untutored) mind: Ever since I first heard the word homily, at about the time of Vatican II's first trickles of reform from Rome, I have grown to associate it with a lazy rehashing of scripture (although it may well be that the same rehashing takes place under the banner of sermon). I mean: The homilist reads the gospel of the day; then he paraphrases the gospel; then he explains the paraphrase. This becomes a lazy circle of platitudes and generalizations. I have experienced this a million times; or approximately 99 percent of the homilies I have heard.

The gospel is told in the context and idiom of the first century. Unless it is translated, "updated," rendered contemporary, it is no more than waffling with vague words like love and Good Shepherd -- and everyone knows how many shepherds you will find at the average suburban Mass.

Wanted: passion, conviction, imagination.

In the April 11 issue, in Paul Wilkes' article about Presentation parish in Upper Saddle River, N.J., amid the vagaries of writing and editing we neglected to note that in addition to Pastor John McDermott, Presentation also has a parochial vicar, Fr. Jerry Hahn.

Among life's ironies: As Chicago's new Archbishop Francis E. George has moved higher and higher in the church -- undoubtedly soon to join the College of Cardinals -- his brother Oblate, Fr. Tissa Balasuriya, has been brought low. Dare we hope that George, apparently a man of generous heart, might use his contacts in Rome, his pastoral sensitivities and his mediating skills to get the excommunication of Balasuriya repealed? Balasuriya told NCR that George had visited Sri Lanka when he was vicar general of the Oblates. "But that was before my troubles began," Balasuriya said.

And thanks to Sarita Cargas, graduate theology student at Aquinas Institute in St. Louis and daughter of longtime NCR contributor Harry Cargas, who, at NCR's behest, combed the St. Louis University library in search of George's published writings.

-- Michael Farrell

National Catholic Reporter, April 25, 1997