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Intelligent and prepared, but no feeling


This is the final article in a four-part series. Each article 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 gathering Sept. 21-24 in Cincinnati. The first article appeared in the Aug. 1 issue.

This suburban Washington church is long and thin with floor-to-ceiling geometrically-patterned stained-glass windows that end at the start of the supporting roof arches. This is an extremely wealthy area -- a handsomely landscaped church plant -- but the wealth is not reflected in the sound system, which was inadequate.

The rear half of the church apparently was served by only one speaker and that high in the roof. As church populations age, even without going to Dolby Stereo many Catholic churches need to go back to the drawing board on their sound systems.

If the priest never said "good morning" (or smiled) after processing up the aisle, it might have been because one-third of the congregation -- and the Mass started 10 minutes late -- arrived between the Kyrie and the gospel. A significant number, perhaps a third, left after communion. To a backdrop of saints, anchored at various heights to the wall behind the altar, the liturgy unfolded.

At the Gloria, the fine choir and organ provided a concert rather than music in which the congregation was expected to participate. There was no cantor and little encouragement to join in.

The first reading was a composed though relatively expressionless act by a woman; the second reading was by a man whose understanding of and enthusiasm for the content seemed to stem from his having almost memorized the account. The value of preparedness was doubly underscored when the same man came to read the petitions and stumbled through them as if seeing them for the first time.

The homily theme was Jesus' identity.

The celebrant explained that the three readings played into that theme but left the question: Is Jesus' identity clear? "Not very," said the priest. " 'Who do you say I am?' And some say Elijah, and others John the Baptist. Even Peter mistakes him and falls on his face."

The homilist was evidently comfortable and conversant with his theme, which flowed smoothly, learnedly and sometimes in a slightly droll manner, as when he remarked, "In the New Testament people are always falling on their face in shock. Whenever he says, 'It is I,' they fall down."

Of the first theme, "Who is Jesus?" the priest said, "We get the story in 20- to 30-minute lessons, and it takes three years to tell the whole story. What we miss doing it that way are the connections -- the similar references -- Moses and the Burning Bush, 'I am who I am.' "

The second theme, he said, was mystery and darkness "of cosmic proportions" -- Jesus in the storm-threatened, fisherman-filled boat paired with God calling Job to task. "Job is saying all of us have our down days," said the celebrant, "and clearly is not tempted to answer who God is and remains silent."

The storm faced by Jesus and his companions, the priest said, "evokes the Old Testament and the other theme: 'Who is Jesus who can calm the storm?' But Jesus always backs away from the question. He chastises the storm and they says, 'Who can this be?' We also ask that," said the homilist.

He continued that unlike Job, we are supposed to have Old Testament answers. "We know the ritual answers. But 'Who am I?' is not clear. It is not clear in our lives, and he leaves us confused."

In Jesus' own lifetime, the celebrant said, "Jesus terrified people and was asked twice to leave town," and he stressed the "real power" with which Jesus spoke and contrasted it with the "Hallmark Cards spiritual sentimentality" of the day "for which you do not put people to death. Jesus is not the sweet boy next door.

"We domesticate the scriptures, ignore things we cannot understand." By doing that, he said, we remove something, "the terror, the ghosts, the spirits, the chaos, the fear, the mystery. With the Old Testament," he said, "if you are not terrified, you've missed the story." The implication being, "Because you are terrified you will change your ways.

"Jesus brought love to help us face the terror and not fear God and not be overwhelmed by the power of the Old Testament even while, as humans, we seek the favor of God," said the priest.

From his seat toward the rear, Bill Graham had this view: "This was more knowledgeable, had more structure, more care in the preparation of the thought than I'm accustomed to. But, I want, first, that sense of personal witness, speaking from faith rather than knowledge. This was speaking from knowledge.

"In terms of the idea," he continued, "it was very good, but I can't say how that idea -- unless I made the application -- touches me. I want the communicator to use stories, illustrations, images that can connect with my life experiences.

"This guy had a very good eucharistic prayer in terms of his command of the idea," said Graham, "though he was still not allowing himself the experience. But when it came to the Creed, he had the worship book in his hand trying to find the Creed while we were talking without the book. Bizarre. It was almost like a takeoff on rubric."

Yet it is not the priests' fault, contended Graham, because in seminary "they're not taken through the experiential dimensions of nonverbal rubric." Graham gave as an example -- familiar to anyone who has been through a Burke-Graham preaching workshop -- the priest who buries his nose in the book when he prays to God or Father, with Graham standing there asking, "Is that where God is? Down there? In the book?"

Are we, when we're at Mass, sort of watching a play, as in John Millington Synge's line, "In a good play every speech should be fully flavored?"

No, said Graham, we're not watching a play, but the principle still holds: Each unit must blend. And he repeated what he has said many times, "It should flow in a seamless kind of way so when we come to the eucharistic prayer, our hearts and minds should be prepared to give thanks because of what we experienced in hearing the word of God, in what God has done for us -- not what we have to do -- and for which we give thanks.

"But a play? No, because there's no intrinsic conflict, no development of character," said Graham. "There is, however, a through line, a theme expressed. And parts. And each part -- especially in the Liturgy of the Word -- each part can sound like every other part. The Responsorial Psalm often sounds like a reading instead of a psalm with a sense of praise and lift and poetry."

On this Sunday, he said, the presider was caring, intelligent, personal -- knew who the people were -- and the gospel reading was good. "Anyone who came to listen would hear a meaning in the reading. And that's not always true. Then," said Graham, " 'Who is Jesus for us now,' making the connection between Old Testament and New Testament, I thought that was very good.

"I became aware about halfway through, however, that we're not going to get to personal experience, because of the steadiness of his tone and tempo. I knew," said Graham, "that in his own mind he has explained something, that he has prepared thoroughly, a teaching mode, a lecture. An educated person informing the uneducated -- 'We have to remember ... Therefore we should try ...' That kind of thing.

"Most telling, if I heard correctly, Job was full of awe. I saw very little sign or sense of awe in this preacher. Which I find as such a contradiction. Communication with God -- suffering -- isn't that awesome?" asked Graham.

"The man was passionless when there was an opportunity for him to say, 'Is this not a mystery, folks?' This was descriptive rather than experiential," continued Graham, "instruction without inspiration -- when we're looking for an inspiring insight, the meaning of which I can experience in my life.

"The presider was not speaking from his faith to my faith," Graham insisted, "but from his understanding to my faith. And he was a 'dwipper.' D.W.I.P. -- Downward Inflection Pattern, going down and out, dropping energy, volume and pitch at the end of a thought. And when that happens repeatedly, then I know that the man's not moved by what he says."

Some sources:
  • In his forward to a book on preaching by Catholic women, Jesuit Fr. Walter Burghardt wrote, "You don't have to be ordained to be invited to preach. You just have to be good." The book, Extraordinary Preaching: 20 homilies by Roman Catholic Women (Resources Publications, 96 pages, $13.95), edited by Rosalyn Karaban and Demi Mack, includes homilies at priestless chapels, interdenominational services, weddings, funerals and retreat houses.
  • Burghardt's own latest book, Preaching the Just Word (Yale University Press, 1996, 150 pages, $22.50), deals with four themes: preaching the just word in scripture; preaching the just word in tradition; preaching the cry of the poor; and three social issues on an upsurge -- gays and lesbians, the role of women in the Catholic church and assisted suicide.
  • The National Institute for the Word of God, 487 Michigan Ave NE, Washington D.C. 20017. Phone: (202) 529-0001. Dominican Fr. John Burke.
  • The Center for Continuing Formation in Ministry, University of Notre Dame, 1202 Hesburgh Library, Notre Dame IN 46556. Phone: (219) 631-5328. Fax: (219) 631-6968. Fr. Eugene F. Lauer.
  • Information about the National Conference on Preaching in Cincinnati Sept. 21-24 can be obtained from Lauer at the above address.

National Catholic Reporter, September 5, 1997