Tag Archives: Protestant

The Benefits of Bad Preaching

8 Feb

It is the essence of the Church to have a lot of low masses
and no sermons (Hilaire Belloc).

bored-congregation-1872-granger_zps80a6eeccIt’s a truism to say that the pulpit is at the center of most Protestant worship whereas the altar is at the center of the Mass, but nothing drives that point home better than a bad homily.

When my non-Catholic friends express curiosity about Catholic worship, I struggle to help them understand that Mass is first and foremost about fulfilling an obligation, and what we might get out of it is of secondary consideration. I’ll explain that liturgy is, quite literally, the “work of the people,” and it’s no secret that human work can be kind of routine and even boring sometimes. Yes, we always receive Jesus in spades at every Mass, wonder of wonders!, but our first purpose is to go and bend the knee – it’s a Commandment after all.

My Evangelical friends just don’t get this, and so I’m always happy when they join me at Mass to experience it for themselves – although I know what the fallout will often be: Scrunched up faces and raised eyebrows as they suffer through seemingly mindless ritual, rote prayers, and the occasional lousy sermon.

“Is the preaching always this bad?” they might ask.456px-Alonso_Cano_-_St._Vincent_Ferrer_Preaching_-_Google_Art_Project

“Sometimes worse,” I’ll offer gleefully. “Or, on weekdays, sometimes we luck out and get no sermon at all!”

“Then,” they’ll wonder aloud, “why go at all?”

Ah, there’s the nub, and it’s why bad homilies played a role in my conversion. As an Evangelical inquirer, I recognized very early on that the Mass was the heart of Catholic faith and practice, so I went as often as I could – daily even after a while. I endured many a bad sermon in those days, especially at the weekday liturgies, but they helped to cement the idea in me that the Mass is a numinous encounter that does not depend on clever preaching whatsoever.

Instead, it’s an encounter that is much more rich and profound and (most importantly) dependable than mere sermonizing. It’s an encounter borne of proclamation of a written Word and, more particularly, celebration of a Sacramental drama, the Eucharist. The setting might be a gorgeous cathedral with beautiful music accompanied by a well crafted and scintillating sermon, or it might be a drab suburban chapel with an off-the-cuff homily from a harried priest who spent the night at the bedside of a dying parishioner. No matter: Jesus will show up at both. Sure, we’d prefer inspirational and energetic preaching, but it’s not at all necessary.

Indeed, there’s a benefit to mediocre preaching once in a while, and it’s this: The faithful will be all the more likely to focus on what’s most important in the Mass if they aren’t distracted by the brilliant homily. “A preacher may be able to hold the attention of his listeners for a whole hour,” Pope Francis wrote in Evangelii Gaudium, “but in this case his words become more important than the celebration of faith.”

pope_francis_01The Holy Father went on to stress that the “homily cannot be a form of entertainment,” distracting us from Jesus as he comes to us in Word and Sacrament, “yet it does need to give life and meaning to the celebration.” It’s a tricky balance, no doubt, so be on your guard if you’ve developed a taste for great preaching. A diet of superb, memorable homilies might tempt those in the pews to grow attached to the homilist, and the last thing the Church needs are personality cults, sermon groupies, and church-hopping in search of jazzy hermeneutics and/or rhetorical pyrotechnics.

How do I know that? Easy. Those are precisely the things we converts left behind when we joined the Church – and we don’t miss them at all.
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A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Philippine Epiphanies

14 Sep

Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim
till all the world adore his sacred Name.
~ G.W. Kitch­in and M.R. New­bolt

“The BBC,” the voice-over asserted. “The world’s radio station.”

It was a spot on “All Things Considered” the other day – our local NPR station carries the BBC daily from midnight until 5 a.m. – and it brought on a flood of memories.

I used to listen to those broadcasts driving home after evening shifts as a new nurse, but I’d already developed an affection for the BBC decades before while in the Philippines as an intern with Wycliffe Bible Translators. Jeff, another intern, and I were assigned to a mission up in Mountain Province – literally out in the “boondocks” (a Filipino word) – and the radio was our one routine connection to the outside world, a kind of electronic comfort food.

In the late evenings, after the dishes were done and the chores complete, the missionaries would fire up their shortwave radio, and we’d all gather round to listen in. It was the summer of “Ebony and Ivory,” by Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder, as well as John Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane” – constants on Voice of America every time we tuned in. The BBC was always meatier fare, and Carabao in rice field, near Baler, Aurora, Luzon, Philippineswe’d look forward to updates about the Falklands conflict as well as other international happenings, all while swatting mosquitos, shooing away geckos, and cooling ourselves with jury-rigged fans.

What an eye-opener that summer was – showering in swimsuits under drenching rain, enjoying strong, fresh coffee near the very tree that produced it, carabaos wandering freely about outside our nipa hut day and night.

And the people, of course. Filipinos are known the world over for their cheerfulness and hospitality, and we experienced it firsthand. The villagers could always scrape up a meal for Jeff and me when we came around visiting – even if it meant, as it did on one occasion, serving rice and “wild bird” (which turned out to be bat meat). The local folks were often initially shy in the presence of us Westerners, but once that stage was passed, they loved to hear about our lives back in the States – especially snow. It seemed like the Filipinos in our mission area could never hear enough about snow, and the postcard of the snowcapped Rocky Mountains I’d brought along from home was a huge hit.

The welcome and embrace of the Filipino people was the best part of that summer intern experience, but the actual missionary endeavors we’d come to further turned out to be quite troubling – at least for me. After the Wycliffe organization had accepted my internship application, I set about learning as much as I could about the land I’d be traveling to and the people I’d be evangelizing. I dug into the history of the Philippines, as well as the current political tensions during those waning days of Ferdinand Marcos’ reign. I also researched the cultural and religious character of the multi-island nation, with its minority Muslim population in the south and the rest overwhelmingly Catholic.

Wait, Catholic? Weren’t they already, well, kinda’ Christian already? Why was I going all the way across the ocean to bring the Gospel to people who already knew it quite well?

I kept these unsettling thoughts to myself as I completed Wycliffe’s orientation at their Texas Summer Institute of Linguistics early in the summer, and continued to quietly harbor them as I traveled with my fellow interns overseas. It never occurred to me to share them with anybody associated with the trip – why invite scrutiny? I figured at some point I’d just “get” it, and the perplexing dimensions of our journey – a handful of zealous, young Christians flying to a country full of Christians to teach them about Christianity – would dissipate and fade away.

But it didn’t. In fact, when I got to Manila, and before we were shipped up to our rural mission placement, the question became all the more disturbing. I encountered evident faith and piety at every turn in that crowded city, and I witnessed a passion for Jesus and his Blessed Mother that made my cautious evangelical sensibilities seem anemic by comparison.

Further investigation was clearly warranted, but I had to act fast. Our days in Manila were few, and they revolved around jet-lag recovery, a few touristy jaunts, and more orientation. So I got up my courage and approached the Wycliffe staffer assigned to our team.Manila_Cathedral_Facade

“About worship on Sunday…,” I tossed out vaguely.

“Did you have something in mind?” she asked.

“The Cathedral,” I replied, then adding cautiously, “I’d like to find out more about the local culture.”

She was surprised by the suggestion, but she agreed to accompany me there. The other interns turned down the offer to join us, choosing instead to worship with the missionaries at the compound. I didn’t mind. It was already a quixotic quest, and having to share it with the Wycliffe staffer was going to be awkward enough.

After a jeepney ride or two, we got to Manila Cathedral, and nothing could have prepared me for the cross-cultural jolt I received there. Even if I’d arrived in the Philippines a lifelong, born and bred Catholic, I would’ve still gaped at the Cathedral scene: People coming and going indiscriminately, in and out of pews, in and out of the building; worshippers praying at side altars, lighting candles and saying rosaries; folks talking and laughing and wrangling children inside the church, men (mainly) talking (and smoking) outside the church. All of that while the priest and his retinue were praying the Mass in the clouds of incense up front around an elevated altar.

I was captivated.

What’s more, I was convinced. The practices and postures were foreign to me as an evangelical Protestant, and the Sabbatarian informality made me very uncomfortable, but I knew these people were already Christians, and I had very little to offer them. Moreover, I suspected (rightly, as it turned out) that I’d encounter the same level of passion and piety in the mission area to which I was being sent to evangelize. Yet, even then, I was yearning to receive evangelization myself from those people, to know Jesus as familiarly as they did, to know his mom and his friends, to feel at home in his house. It was all backwards, and the summer ended up a disaster as far as the internship was concerned.

It wasn’t a total loss, however, because the experience planted seeds – seeds of curiosity and longing that, in time, led to my reception into the Catholic Church. Plus, it was an object lesson in an organic missiology that seemed revolutionary to an impressionable Protestant missionary intern at the time – the idea that drawing others to Christ could be accomplished simply by living out the faith, regardless of whether the Gospel was verbally proclaimed or not. Avant-garde, to be sure, and radically effective as well.

It was the missiology at work in the lives of people like St. Francis of Assisi and Dorothy Day – to proclaim Jesus by being Jesus. It’s the philosophy of Catholic Relief Services and the Catholic Near East Welfare Association today. And it was Tamanrassetthe guiding light of Blessed Charles de Foucauld, the hermit of the Saharan desert who converted no one, but whose remarkable life of heroic witness continues to inspire so many today. Of his missionary approach, he wrote:

In order to save us, God came to us and lived among us, from the Annunciation to the Ascension, in a close and familiar way. God continues to come to us and to live with us in a close and familiar way, each day and at every hour, in the holy Eucharist. So we too must go and live among our brothers and sisters in a close and familiar way.

This is precisely what the Church teaches us with regards to how the Church goes about doing missionary work. Here’s the Catechism’s summary of that teaching in its section on Missionary paths:

By her very mission, “the Church . . . travels the same journey as all humanity and shares the same earthly lot with the world: she is to be a leaven and, as it were, the soul of human society in its renewal by Christ and transformation into the family of God.” Missionary endeavor requires patience.

Yes, it requires patience, but not like we might think. It’s not the patient waiting for the heathen to respond positively to our Gospel proclamation, but rather the patient perseverance required in our own personal conversions. Here’s Bl. Charles again:

Everything about us, all that we are, should ‘proclaim the Gospel from the housetops’. All that we do and our whole lives should be an example of what the Gospel way of life means in practice, and should make it unmistakably clear that we belong to Jesus. Our entire being should be a living witness, a reflection of Jesus.

In that sense, we’re to be like mini-BBCs, don’t you think? Broadcasting Jesus wherever we go – around the world to the boondocks of the Philippines, if we’re so called, but even more importantly, right here at home.

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A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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