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Bishop and young people preach this homily

This is the second article in a four-part series. Each opens with a description of a liturgy and a summary of the homily. A preaching expert's critique follows. The critics, Dominican Fr. John Burke and drama professor William Graham, teachers of preaching, are cofounders of the National Institute of the Word of God in Washington, which will mark its 25th anniversary at the National Conference on Preaching Sept. 21-24 in Cincinnati. The first article appeared in the Aug. 1 issue.

NCR Staff

This is an inner-city church. Plaster and paint are peeling off the walls -- the improvement fund chart shows a long way to go -- but the people flocking in for the 11 a.m. Mass are cordial and welcoming. Everyone is family. And looking their best. It is confirmation Sunday.

The congregation appears to be entirely African-American and numbers about 125 people, including the nine candidates for confirmation and the people on the altar. The church is barely a third full. The priest is white.

"Good morning," he says into the microphone, before the proceedings get underway. And when the response is not loud enough, he repeats sternly and louder, "Good morning!" which has the desired effect.

He then rehearses the congregation in the hymn "City of God" to a piano accompaniment. It is written in 6/4 time, quite lively. He rehearses it at a funeral dirge pace.

The Mass starts with everyone processing in from the rear, including the auxiliary bishop, on hand for the confirmation. The priest blesses the candidates who give the readings. A deep-voiced deacon reads the gospel, the one from Mark 3 with the chilling caution against blaspheming against the Holy Spirit: "I tell you solemnly, all men's sins will be forgiven and all their blasphemies; but let anyone blaspheme against the Holy Spirit and he will never have forgiveness; he is guilty of an eternal sin."

The pastor praises the catechetical coordinators and religious education teachers -- there are two black women religious in the church who undoubtedly had much to do with the preparations. The bishop takes a sip of water, and the priest declares the candidates "ready" and says the faith community "willingly presents them to you, the shepherd of Jesus Christ."

The auxiliary bishop, a man with a pleasant demeanor, brings greetings from the cardinal and explains that with 140 parishes the cardinal cannot personally conduct all the confirmations, so the bishops do them, too.

"Jesus Christ lives. Jesus Christ is alive. Jesus Christ rose from the dead, and because of this, death has no power over us," he says. And then, well aware of this parish's location in a tough Washington neighborhood not immune to drug and gang wars, he says, quite tenderly, "You have many people who have died by one means or another. Untimely deaths. I hope you all believe that Jesus Christ has died to bring us eternal life."

The bishop talks to the congregation by addressing the candidates, young men and women who seem to be in the range of 14 to 16 years old. He says Jesus' instructions were to follow him and to be good and pray to God. He asks if Satan "is alive in our lives." A young woman in white stands and says yes, in greed and hate. What has Satan to do with our personal daily lives, he prods, and is told that Satan shows up in peer pressure, to do things like smoke. The bishop remarks, not as a putdown, that this is a minor evil compared to some but that smoking "offends your body." He then asks, Which commandment deals with the body? "Thou shall not kill," replies the young woman.

"It is good to remember in our lives that we have to be strong, not discouraged," says the bishop, acknowledging the severity of the daily lives of many in the congregation, including the candidates, "because Jesus said he will always be with us."

That means, says the bishop, "we need to know what to accept, and to reject what we know is not good. What are some of the things we accept? Confirmation -- this is your family," he says, indicating the people, who support with "piety, fortitude and strength. What else did Jesus give us?" Up stands another candidate: "The sacraments."

The church applauds, as it does each time one of the young people pop up to demonstrate how well they are schooled. "Triple A," the bishop tells her.

The bishop's pattern is established. His homily style is to raise a topic integral to confirmation and, with a willing boy or girl responding, lead the discussion. The answers come voluntarily, spontaneously, even if the respondents are at times shy or hesitant.

They touch on prayer and the actions that follow the profession of faith. Such as?

"Service," he is told, "like cleaning the house and helping out with brothers and sisters."

"And reaching out to the elderly," the bishop responds, "and helping in the neighborhood. God will ask us on that last day how we treated the people in the neighborhood, in church, at home."

He looks at his watch.

"Two o'clock already," he says. Everyone laughs. Only 25 minutes have elapsed.

The confirmation and Eucharist took place with much ceremony.

On the other side of the aisle, preacher teacher Bill Graham was impressed. "This is a very small parish," he said, "very small. To have any kind of prepared liturgy in a parish this size is to me impressive. I've seen much larger parishes with less concern for ritual.

"Getting those young people together, telling them, 'stand in line, be together, this is what is going to happen,' that's what impressed me," he said. "Time had to be taken in a very small parish to prepare a ritual of that scope."

The other thing that impressed him, he continued, was the way the bishop interacted with the young people. "I've been to a number of functions where a bishop is presiding and he is not always engaging, personal or pertinent."

As a preacher, while the bishop was personable and held attention throughout, said Graham, "the main thing lacking was what it means to enflesh the Word that is preached, proclaimed and prayed."

The absence of that "enfleshing the Word" is "always disturbing because there is no other tradition," said Graham, and it is absent, he said, because the modeling of the last 30 years (since the Second Vatican Council, 1962-65) has been that "we changed the language but we didn't change the habit of the mind, the imagination and the body when we entered into the vernacular. We simply changed from Latin to English."

What was Graham looking for?

"After we change the mind," he said, "we have to develop the habit of experiencing the meaning that's in the mind and in the heart. We could change the minds. We'd have to introduce folks to what it means to give yourself permission to experience the meaning and the value of what you're saying or praying.

"It's almost un-American to say that," Graham contended, "or at least it's un-Catholic, because we're so determined to avoid emotionalism. That's true of many black churches and nearly all white churches -- this was a conservative black church. It's not true of Hispanics."

Graham was further impressed by the ritual itself, however, in which the meaning of the incense, the procession to prepare the altar and the various items and gifts carried up were explained.

"Somebody wrote that commentary," he said. "That seldom happens. We burn incense in many churches before the gospel, but does anyone know what it means or why we're doing that? What do odors have to do with proclamation of the Word? What does commentary and incense have to do with what will be preached?" he asked. "Well, nothing. But the more you ritual physically, the higher the demand for the Word to be 'a burning Word' that comes to full life."

Was this "burning Word" well-preached?

It was effective, given the meaning of the event -- confirmation in the eucharistic setting, Graham said. "I thought he did very well for this reason. It's the first time in my memory that we have a presiding bishop and something like a dialogue homily, engaging the candidates. I thought it personal and pertinent.

"His tempo was measured, somewhat slow and unvaried, but he did have and hold the attention as he reviewed with the teenagers the gifts of the Spirit, the sacraments, the commandments, the power of prayer and bearing witness out of love as a way of professing their faith. All of which directly related to confirmation," said Graham.

The bishop's topics -- crime, drugs -- were "terrific" because they were directly connected to the living experience of the people gathered, Graham said, and he was moved by these "nine young adults, at their age, ready to commit in what is not likely to be a receiving and welcoming neighborhood.

"Yet among their peers they're coming forward to be confirmed -- and they're not 7 years old," he said. "They're 14 to 17. Their willingness to come forward by itself moves me, because I'm pretty sure they'll all get dumped on for the dumb Catholic church they belong to."

Finally, the young people themselves made the homily because, he said, they responded to the bishop's questions, which is very difficult for most people, and especially teenagers, who are inclined to be more self-conscious.

One thing that stood out as odd was the music. "Maybe the priest normally has a cantor there," said Graham, "but a white priest functioning in a black parish and singing not his specialty, and whose body will not enter into the joy, the praise and the prayer, I could not understand why he would not have a black parishioner do it."

Overall, though, said Graham, "I was impressed. And moved."

National Catholic Reporter, August 15, 1997