Friday, November 8, 2013

A View from the Pew: Why a Homily Makes All the Difference

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. —James 3:1

My grandmother is a wonderful, inspiring woman whom I look to as a mentor in my religious journey, and I love it when she visits me. When I was a bratty six-year-old and a hell-spawned teenager, I dreaded her visits for one reason, and one reason only:

Every Sunday, Grandma would make me… GO TO MASS!

I hated going to church on Sundays, and what’s more was that there was no way to get out of it. It didn’t matter that I would whine and try to argue my case logically. I was forced to wear a silly dress and girly shoes and sit in church for an entire Mass.
Me: “But Mom, I go to Catholic school. God is essentially teaching me; why do I have to go on Sundays, too?"
Maternal Parental Unit: "Because it makes your grandmother happy, and God wants you to make her happy."
Me: "But then, why aren't you going?! Don’t you want to make Grandma happy?"
Maternal Parental Unit: "Grandma knows how I feel about church. Besides, she thinks it’s good for you."
Me: "But that’s not fair!"
Paternal Parental Unit: "Shut up and go get ready, before I give you a real reason to pray!"
And so, with both Parental Units not budging on their decision, I begrudgingly got dressed and went to Mass with my grandmother. For over an hour, I sat in the pew going through all the motions, wishing I were anywhere but there. My ever-patient grandmother would try her best to get me to engage in the Mass. She would open the Missal to the appropriate page and encourage me to follow along with the readings. 

I didn't mind the readings. Even at the age of six, I liked reading passages from the Bible and trying to piece together what they meant to me. The music was not too bad, though there were some church hymns that I can't stand even to this day. The part that I dreaded above all else was that moment that the priest finished reading the Gospel and we all sat down to listen to him deliver his homily.

The priests at my parish were very nice men, but I could never pay attention when they spoke. It always seemed to me like they were just working through a monotonous routine, the way I brush my teeth every morning. When I was a teenager, I actually made an effort to listen to what they had to say. It generally left me bored and confused, more the latter than the former.

I remember one homily in particular that followed the Gospel where Jesus went to Gethsemane. The entire homily was the priest reading off a paper listing the different ways we could pray. The paper was a packet that my class received earlier in the week during our religious studies class. Reading the full packet took over forty-five minutes; though it felt like two hours. The kid in front of me hid an Archie comic book in his Missal and just read that through the whole homily, while I glared at him with envy while simultaneously trying to read the comic. 

That long Mass haunted me, making me refuse to attend the rest of my teen years and reluctant to go to church, even on the holidays. I just didn't see why I should have to listen to the priest talk about things I learned in religious studies anyways.

Fast forward five years: I am now in my sophomore year of college. I had started to explore my faith again, at my own pace and comfort. I was sitting at Chapel at my university a little before 7 p.m., waiting for Catholic Mass to start. This was my first real Mass in five years, and I was as nervous as I was when I stood in line for the Tower of Terror in Disney World:

What if I didn't like it? What if the priest had a voice like Ben Stein? Or has a super thick accent so I won’t understand a word he says? What if the homily was so long that I won’t get home till midnight? What if the guy in front of me didn't have a comic book?

The choir started singing the opening hymn, and I stood up and watched the priest who would oversee the Mass, Father Brian, walk to the altar. I went through the motions of Mass on my best behavior. I earnestly prayed; I read all the readings as they were read. My attention never shifted away for even for a second. I was determined that no matter what, I was going to give church a chance.

Then it came: The priest finished reading the Gospel, and we all sat down. I braced myself, waiting for that defining moment. Father Brian walked to the side of the lectern and looked around the room. "Since I was a kid, one of my favorite actors ever was John Wayne," he began. People who had been coming to Mass smiled, as if they knew what was coming, while I sat there with what I am sure was a look of bewilderment on my face.

"I liked him because every character he played lived and died by a moral code, just like Jesus did." Two sentences in, and I was hooked. I listened to him speak about how Jesus lived by a code and how He wanted us to do the same. I was enraptured by the passion Father Brian had about his faith. I heard it in his voice, his words, even his demeanor. It was the first time ever where I realized that priests can make jokes during the homily, and it was okay to laugh at them.

I left Mass that night feeling lighter than I had ever felt before. I could not believe how much I enjoyed Mass and how I was even disappointed that it was over. Days later, I learned that a different priest would be leading the Mass the following Sunday, and again, I found myself worrying that I wouldn't get the same feeling of lightness that I got from the previous Mass.

I worried for nothing.

In my years at college, I was very blessed to get to know priests who had an infectious love and devotion for Christ and the teachings of the Catholic Church. Because of them, I found my own passion for my faith. 

And the homily became my favorite part of Mass.

Maybe I matured into it, or maybe I finally let myself appreciate the lessons that are taught in the homily. I couldn't tell you for sure one way or the other. 

I do know that it is important for anyone who is exploring his or her faith to be excited about the journey and lessons that come with it. Letting your love for God shine through in your words and your actions draws people in and makes them want more. Going to weekly Mass is something we should all be excited for, and let's be honest, it's hard to do that when you feel like the priest leading the Mass isn't really excited to be there.

Priests are the teachers of the faith, in persona Christi, or the Person of Christ. That's a really big role to take on. Everywhere Jesus went, He drew people in with His words, showed them God's love for us in every action, and made believers out of doubters. In today's world of cynicism, bringing people into the Faith is harder than ever. We need that element of human touch that makes the Church seem more real and relevant in our lives. 

Just as Jesus used parables to connect to the people of His time, priests need to find that common ground to connect people to the Truth. Some priests use current events in their homilies to connect people to Christ. Others use pop culture or funny stories about their families to draw people in and connect them to their faith. 

I think that sometimes people forget that even though Jesus is the Son of God, He is also human. He had troubles, got angry, wept, laughed, and loved, just like us. It's easy to forget that because, come on, He loved so much that He willingly died for our sins. That's why I think a homily is so important; it gives the priest a chance to remind us that as amazing as Jesus is, He's still one of us and knows the struggles we face in life.

I am pretty sure that if you told my thirteen-year-old self that ten years later, she would go to Mass voluntarily and love it, she would have spouted a sarcastic comment and flipped you off. I like to think that if as a kid I had met a priest as excited for Christ and the Church as I did in college, my religious journey would have reached its height a lot sooner. For me personally, and I'm sure many others, a homily made all the difference.

Comic courtesy of

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