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Critic hears well-developed homily in Virginia

NCR Staff

Note: This is the first in a series of four reviews of homilies.

A disembodied voice wished everyone a quadraphonic "Good morning." Eerie -- no one to reply to, at least no one visible from the transept.

Then came organ music, pleasant, not overpowering. All involved in the liturgy, choir included, began processing in, with a pleasing ease rather than a fussy formality. There were no female altar servers in the group -- this is the Arlington, Va., diocese.

The congregation looked like mainly professional, middle-class families; average age appeared to be just under 50 with a strong contingent of elderly. The large urban-suburban church was possibly 80 percent filled, the makeup primarily white and about 55 percent female, with a few black, brown and Asian faces.

The presider had a pleasant and welcoming visage, a slightly Anglican sound to his rolling oratory. The congregation came through with strong responses. The church had an echo. There was one reader, a male. During the reading from Psalms one could hear every word and there was a strong Alleluia. A deep-voiced deacon read the gospel. Good intonations.

The homily dealt with the individual's concepts and self-image and what role God played in our self-image.

"Who do we consider ourselves to be?" the priest asked. He added, "We have a tendency to become whatever we consider ourselves to be."

But we did not make the decision alone, he said, rather in reaction to something or someone. We could be reacting to a father we could never please or a mother who was overprotective, "leaving you with more than your share of self-doubt and fear, or a teacher who never saw your potential and blamed it on a lack of ability."

While some of us recognize ourselves in these descriptions, he continued, it leaves us confused as to who we are and we need a different way of seeing ourselves.

We are much more what God says we are, a thought strongly backed by the readings of the day from John and Paul, "that we are God's children.

"What about our sins? Some are so caught up in guilt," said the priest, that we clog the confessionals with nonsense sins.

"Sin is not the defining reality of our lives."

God, he said, always sees the individual's potential, much as we see the potential of an infant we've taken into our arms. By understanding our capacity as Christians to change and be changed, "our true identity comes with being one of God's children, and that means with the business of being more like Christ."

Dominican Fr. John Burke was elsewhere in that same church, taking notes, watching, listening, preparing to deliver his critique.

In the 1950s, the Korean War period, draftee John Burke was in uniform in Germany. Later, with a BA and MA in drama from The Catholic University of America, he became an NBC television associate producer and, later still, a member of the Dominicans, also known as the Order of Preachers.

In preaching workshops, in contrast to his ebullient colleague Bill Graham, the low-key Burke makes his point with quiet comments and a quizzical expression that semaphores to the preacher-cum-student that all is going well. Or not.

A jogger and an indefatigable preacher himself -- he preached parish missions almost nonstop from ordination until the late 1970s -- Burke admits to being a woefully slow homily preparer. Learning that the North Virginia priest he had just heard took five hours to prepare his homily, Burke said, "[Jesuit Fr.] Walter Burghardt told me he takes 60 hours to prepare a homily. I don't take that long, but I do take a long time."

Why does Burke, author of books on preaching, think he's a good teacher of preaching? Caught off guard and a bit embarrassed by the question, he replied, "My students, by and large, are very good." He said, "I have confidence that what I'm doing is good teaching."

How good was this day's preaching?

"Good pastoral practice," said Burke, "is when the preacher has an empathy with his audience, understands and communicates a sense of interest in them and their needs. He is able to articulate what their needs are and at the same time give a gospel message that will meet their needs."

Often that doesn't happen, said Burke, and the congregation hears the opposite, a homily "up there in the abstract, too academic.

"This man was very down-to-earth. He did identify the need very well, the idea of who am I, the self-identity. He used very good, homey examples that people could immediately connect with. I could imagine that most people in that congregation had one or the other of the experiences he mentioned -- mother, father, teacher. Absolutely."

Burke said he thought the priest had an excellent basic statement, that "we are children of God. A basic statement in 10 words or less is the unifying principle of the homily.

"His flip side was, 'that's hard to believe,' but he developed it well, supported with scripture what he said, and held the whole thing together," Burke said, "in a tight structure."

The homilist did build to a climax, Burke said. "Also, another good sign the people were with him -- he got laughter. A joke goes flat if they haven't been listening." This was a read homily, "but well read," said Burke, "and I have no problem with that. You know darn well it's been prepared."

As for delivery, the homily did seem "to go along on the same note and at the same pace, though not seriously." The sentences were a bit long -- "not more than 10 words [is recommended] for a nice, punchy oral style, and always Anglo-Saxon vocabulary, and not Romance language vocabulary.

"And he could have used pauses better," said Burke. "He had some wonderful lines there that if he'd just thrown them out and maybe lifted the voice, then taken a pause after them ... " And, "finally, a little thing. I don't think he was sensitive enough -- perhaps not even aware of it -- that he used nothing but male pronouns and male examples. I think he could have better recognized that there are in fact two sexes in the world."

This homilist, said Burke, "had a nice voice, pleasant and with a resonance that carried well, one in which you put confidence, and it was relaxed. He had good energy, wasn't dragging. Consequently he made us interested in his well-developed, well-delivered homily."

National Catholic Reporter, August 1, 1997