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Archive for the ‘Homilies’ Category

I am slowly deciphering some of the written materials left by the late Msgr. William J. Awalt. For review and comments, they are being posted at my BLOGGER PRIEST site.

http://bloggerpriest.com/category/awalt-papers/

Msgr. Awalt was the pastor of St. Ann’s Church in NW Washington , DC for just over 30 years, retiring in the year 2000. I was honored to preach at the Mass celebrating his 60th anniversary as a priest in 2007. His pastorate was marked by a deep devotion to the Eucharist and a never-ending preoccupation with preaching the Gospel and teaching the Catholic faith.

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Why Does the Fire Go Out?

People have their reasons, but there is no good reason for leaving the Church.  The majority in the area where I reside are probably Baptist and/or Evangelical.  Some of these communities target Catholics and many Catholics marry non-Catholics.  Not understanding their own tradition, many Catholics are inordinately moved by the music and preaching in Protestant churches.  Catholic reformed rituals might not be regarded as very entertaining.  Much of the music we sing is criticized as trite and unmoving.  When we borrow Protestant hymns or sing Gospel, it is usually a pale imitation of what our separated brethren have to offer.  Music enshrines preaching.  Particularly in the African-American community, services can go hours.  The importance of the minister is measured by his musicality and his effectiveness as a preacher.  Our gravity is upon the formulae of liturgy, not upon preaching. 

Masolino_Peter_Preaching2

Preachers and Priests, No Comparison?

Many priests were trained to keep homilies or sermons to ten minutes or less.  That is about the length of two or three MTV videos.  Time-wise, it cannot compare to the formation of the media or to the teaching sermons of our separated-brethren.  I knew one old man who went to Mass on Saturday night and to his wife’s Baptist church on Sunday.  He told me that he went to Mass for Holy Communion and to the Protestant church for good preaching.  This is a rather sad state of affairs.  Are we fully feeding our people?  Preaching outside the Catholic Church may be dynamic and meaningful; however, it is also fraught with religious error.

Sermons or Homilies?

I recall from preaching seminars that the priest should offer a homily based upon the Scriptures of the day.  This focus was understandable but I found the focus too narrow and absolutist.  The priest or deacon can preach upon the readings, the liturgical prayers themselves, upon the feast or memorial, or upon what his people (at that time and place) need to hear.  I had a vigorous dispute with a liturgist when I suggested catechetical sermons. It was and remains a contention of mine that many people stray to other faith communities because they really do not understand Catholicism and the full significance of the Eucharist.

Can Father Talk Too Long?

How long should the priest or deacon preach?  This depends upon many factors:

1.   What is the type of liturgy?

2.   What has to be said to make the message worthwhile?

3.   What is the capacity in patience and in comprehension of the listeners?

Given that Catholic sermons are usually shorter than Protestant counterparts, the priest might be able to amplify his instruction by linking his sermons from week to week.  He can also use the parish bulletin, special adult education and bible study, and invite people to use the cycle of readings themselves with missals they can take home.  If people look at the readings before Mass, their experience will not be cold when the priest or deacon speaks about them.  Instead of merely thinking about what Protestants have that we don’t, let us utilize our own strengths, the missal and the cycle of predetermined readings. 

Catholics might also do well to getting used to longer liturgies.  Of course, this runs counter to the Roman Rite tradition, known for being curter and more to the point than Eastern Rite liturgies and certain Evangelical Protestant services.  There is a basic dilemma with longer sermons, and that is the balance and rhythm of the Mass.  A long homily and a short Eucharistic prayer seems to switch the gravity away from the sacrament to the Word which is intended to dispose us for the sacrifice and Holy Communion.

I am concerning myself essentially with the Sunday homily.  Given work concerns and strained time issues, weekday Masses would probably have to remain little more than basic exhortations.  Such exhortations are similar to aspirations:  Jesus, Mary, Joseph save souls!  Do good and avoid evil!  Keep faith and hope alive!  Lord, have mercy on us!  God will not abandon you!

Messages Should Comfort and Challenge

Homilies more strictly revolve the Readings; however, sermons can touch upon all sorts of relevant topics.  Sermons might be moral exhortations, catechetical moments, inspiration rhetoric and stories, etc.  However, they should always connect the lesson, whatever the source, to the lives of the people listening.  The congregation should not be passive to the preaching but actively engaged.  A topic is explored, the message is ordered for coherence, examples or illustrations are made, and there is the immediate appliance.

The words used in preaching vary upon the setting.  When the clergyman marries a couple, he speaks about the joy and hopes of the couple.  He might also challenge them to keep the marital act free from the corruption of lust and artificial contraception.  However, many Catholic ministers are afraid to rock the boat.  When a priest or deacon officiates at a funeral, his words emphasize the consolations of faith to those who mourn, the promises of Jesus our gentle shepherd in regard to eternal life, and the need to go on with our lives.  Again, many Catholic ministers are afraid of the conflict that comes with challenging the congregation to see the death as a warning about their own mortality and the need to reform before it is too late.  Even evil men are temporarily canonized and little is said about Purgatory.  A number in the pews no longer even believe in Hell.  Sunday homilies are often pampering and grossly approving because many clergy are afraid of alienating the numbers in the pews and depleting the money gathered into collection baskets. 

Need for Courage and Trusting Providence

I knew a priest in the South who tried to integrate the two churches he pastured, one white and the other black.  White parishioners complained to the bishop and the man found himself stripped of his parish, reprimanded for making trouble, and reassigned to a teaching position in a college far away.  Decades later he was still not allowed to return to parish ministry.  But God writes straight with our crooked lines.  This priest ended up teaching seminarians.  He inspired another generation of men in ministry to struggle for social justice. 

How often have we heard certain priests speak about artificial contraception, abortion, divorce and remarriage, or even about fornication and cohabitation?  Some men in ministry are afraid.  But what chance do God’s people have when their shepherds are passive and fearful?  The late Pope John Paul II echoed our Lord’s words of wisdom, “Be not afraid.”

It may be that the priest shortage and the clergy scandals have drained the energy resources and joy of our priests.  This needs to be remedied.  The core message of the Gospel is not exhausted or angry.  Priests who show enthusiasm or excitement about the Catholic faith and Gospel are the most effective.  It is also a mentality which breeds vocations.  Young men do not want to join a confraternity of tired old men who only go on because of cold duty and obligation.  We have to be on fire with the faith if we want those in the pews to ignite!  It is very hard for a priest to give what he does not have.  God’s servants should be so in love with God that this love spills over in their service of others.  Preaching should reflect a life of prayer and a drive to save souls!

The preaching should move God’s people to greater faith and acts of service to our Lord and neighbor.  It assists everyone to better understand the Eucharist and disposes us to receive the Blessed Sacrament.  We take what we have been given in Word and sacrament as we go out in mission to the world around us.

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June 28, 2009 – Sunday, Week 13

Wisdom 1:13-15; 2:23-24 / Psalm 30 / Mark 5:21-43

frjoepul

Death is a consequence of sin or rebellion. It is on the human side of the equation. We are told that “God formed man to be imperishable.” But God would not abandon his people to sin and death. He would break the devil’s hold upon us. He, who was rich, made himself poor for our sakes. Jesus became one of us to save us. Just as we see in the Gospel, our Lord wants to bring healing and life. We beseech his help in prayer, “Hear, O LORD, and have pity on me: O LORD, be my helper. You changed my mourning into dancing….”

The case of the synagogue official Jairus is evidence that some of the Jewish religious leaders placed faith in Jesus, albeit his daughter’s illness and death gave the incident a particular urgency. The insertion of the secondary story about the hemorrhaging woman is also significant, particularly in terms of our Lord’s overtures to women and the alienated. The Gospel selection is important as a collaboration of several Catholic teachings.

While the characters make direct overtures to Christ, the two incidents speak about Christian prayer and petition:

1. We can pray both for ourselves and for others. Some contest the Catholic view that we can pray for others and insist upon a radical personal relationship with Christ. The woman seeks healing for herself, but the synagogue leader sought healing for another, his daughter.

2. We can pray or intercede for both the living and the dead. Jesus was willing to go to Jairus’ house even after the news came to them that the little girl was dead. It is also interesting that Jairus still seems to believe that Jesus can make a difference.

The two stories are quite interesting. Both require a little defining. There are cultural elements we might miss.

The poor sick woman believed that if she just touched the tip of Christ’s clothes, she could be healed. She has suffered for years and none of the doctors could help her. No doubt she had spent a small fortune and only got worse. She touches Christ’s cloak and she is immediately healed. Jesus turns around and asks who has touched him? She comes forward “in fear and trembling”. According to Jewish law, her issue of blood made her perpetually unclean. This was detrimental to all social congress and even marriage. She saw herself as cursed. Touching Jesus would make him unclean and was a criminal act. But Jesus does not condemn her. Rather, he commends her faith and says that it has saved her. Now she can finally take her rightful place in the community. He tells her to go in peace.

The story of the father and his dead daughter is particularly poignant. People are making a commotion at the house, weeping and wailing. These were not necessarily people who loved and cared about the child. These were probably professional mourners. The Jews believed that no one should die unlamented. Some made a business of mourning tragedy and death. They knew the little girl was dead. But Jesus insisted that she was only sleeping. They mocked him, not only because they thought they knew better but because they hope to get paid. If she was not dead, they would get no reimbursement. The closest thing I have seen to this practice in our culture is in regard to certain funerals in the African-American community. Doing many funerals, I noticed that some used a woman dressed as a nurse. Another lady would sit up front, wail loudly and then collapse. Poor woman I thought, but then I saw the same routine in several funerals— often the same pair, sometimes others. I doubt any money traded hands; I suspect that people were moved by such expressions and made sure to invite the one and maybe employ the nurse. Unlike the Gospel story, all the dead for whom I have offered funerals did not get up. Our Lord tells the child, “Little girl, I say to you, arise!” Not only does the child get up, she walks around. She is alive and perfectly well. Jesus says to give her something to eat. This is another sign of life, just as with our risen Lord eating a fish along the shore with his apostles. The dead do not eat, only the living.

Jesus makes possible our life beyond the grave. This past week a number of celebrities have passed away. Johnny Carson’s sidekick Ed MacMahon died. He was a decorated Veteran and successful announcer. Okay, he went through several marriages and had his money troubles, but he was also a Catholic. I remember seeing him years ago with his friend the late Father Hartke at Catholic University. When it came to charity work he was often very generous with his time and talent. I am reminded of Cardinal McCarrick’s words, “Charity covers a multitude of sins.” Rest in Peace. Farrah Fawcett also died. A lot of us who were teenage boys in the 1970’s had her poster on the wall. She was a pretty girl. The media easily exploits pretty girls. Sometimes they let themselves get used. Ryan O’Neal had been with her for decades. He said if she would wake up, he would marry her. She did not awaken, at least not in this world. There is sadness about this. Despite his own addictions and troubles O’Neal stayed by her and suffered in her hospital room. The last few years she proved in several films that she really could act. She made a real contribution to our appreciation of abuse in our society. She showed certain courage in fighting her cancer. The image that will remain with me will not be her poster, but that of her praying her rosary beads. Sickness and death can strip away all that does not matter. A priest came to her bedside and gave her the last rites. Rest in Peace. Then there was the tragic loss of Michael Jackson. We were the same age. No, I could not begin to do the Moonwalk. Maybe it was all too much for him and he should have slowed down? He was an incredibly gifted but also wounded man. I do not know what religion he claimed. He started out Baptist, became a Jehovah Witness and purportedly ended up as a Moslem. But his life was so bizarre at times, who can know for sure? He was half a billion dollars in debt and had devastated his handsome face. Sometimes he forgot modesty when he danced. But there was also a peculiar childlike innocence about him. Were the people with whom he associated really his friends? Like Elvis Presley before him, could the right friends have saved him? It is too late now. All we can do is commend him to the Lord. Rest in Peace.

None of these people would classify as saints worthy of canonization, but they were sinners like us who need the mercy and healing of God. It is not our place to judge them. We leave that to God. What is left to us is prayer.

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June 26, 2009 – Friday, Week 12

Genesis 17:1, 9-10, 15-22 / Psalm 128 / Matthew 8:1-4

frjoepul

God tells Abram to walk blamelessly in his presence. Like a well designed shoe, the Psalm fits the elderly patriarch perfectly: “Blessed are you who fear the LORD, who walk in his ways! … Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine in the recesses of your home.” Some years have passed and now Abram is 99 years old and his wife is 90. Throughout misfortune and struggle, he has kept faith with God. Now, God makes his covenant with Abram and gives him a new name, Abraham. Despite his wife’s age, now renamed Sarah, God promises a son through whom nations will arise. It is a pretty tall order. Abraham is naturally a bit incredulous, but while he questions, he does not argue. God promises not to forget Ishmael but insists that his covenant will be through Isaac. (Curiously, the name changes really bring no change in meaning, “exalted father” and “princess”.)

God comes across as quite outrageous. Abram has been given the promise that his progeny will endure, become countless and a great nation. But he is old. His wife is old. If the rendering for his age is accurate, he should be preparing for death, not fatherhood. But the gift of children is the chief way that God rewards his people. Further, any claim to a divine calling has yet to be ratified by a child of promise. Unless there is an heir, Abram’s decision to separate his tribe from the others and his claims of God speaking to him become suspect.

Notice that there is a two-fold movement. God comes down from his heaven, but Abraham is also called out to walk with the Almighty. There is never once the illusion that they are equals. But there is a sense that the two walk together. It parallels the scene in the primordial garden when God summons Adam: “Where are you?” We read that God moved about the garden like the blowing wind. However, in that case Adam hid himself because along with Eve, he had eaten from the Forbidden Tree. Adam had sinned grievously and knew he was not worthy to be seen by God. Of course, nothing was hidden from God. Both as blessing and punishment, Eve would become the mother of all the living, knowing the pain of childbirth. Abraham, like all men since, was born in sin; but God calls him nonetheless to “walk in [his] presence and be blameless.” The time for hiding is over. The God who created man from the dust of the earth can certainly make a barren woman fruitful. God restores his covenant which will one day culminate in the new covenant of Christ. In Jesus, men and women can truly know the forgiveness of sins and walk in holiness before the Lord.

Jesus did a great deal of walking, as did those who regularly followed him and those who sought him out. Of course, in Jesus God was not simply a voice or the blowing wind, but the incarnate deity. He called sinners to himself and made possible the forgiveness of sins. Today, we know his presence, not by sight but by faith. We are all called to know and to love him. Like the men on the road to Emmaus, we are to walk with the Lord.

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June 25, 2009 – Thursday, Week 12

Genesis 16: 1-12; 15-16 / Psalm 106 / Matthew 7:21-29

frjoepul

Given our sensibilities about right and wrong, there is probably a lot about the first reading that we find blatantly offensive. We have to approach the story by appreciating that this is a most primitive period in the history of salvation. God has called a people to himself; but, for the most part, they are much like the pagan tribes around them. They believe that there are no gods to compare with theirs, but even a strict monotheism is still in the making. Morals are pretty much what the ruling patriarch decides. Divine favor and rewards revolve around this life; there is little talk about an afterlife. Now, add to this that we can only perceive the divine will (at that time) through the prism of their eyes. They were children just making the first steps to real faith.

Sarai feels ashamed about being barren and has apparently despaired of having a son. She does something that we as Christians find hard to stomach. She gives Abram her Egyptian maidservant, literally a slave, for the sole purpose of impregnating her and claiming her child. After Hagar gets pregnant, Sarai interprets the poor woman’s joy as incrimination against her. She abuses the pregnant woman so badly that she tries to run away. God stops her along the way and tells her to go back and to take the abuse, but to take solace from the fact that she is going to have one badass of a son. Sarai berates her husband for the situation she orchestrated. The whole business is not unlike a seamy soap opera. One could almost envision the whole cast of characters on one of those daytime tell-all television programs. Add to this what comes next, Sarai getting pregnant and having her own son and one might imagine Montel offering a DNA test to be shared on the next show. No doubt there would be a cat-fight between the ladies, too.

All this hardly sounds respectable or how providence should proceed. It is messy and scandalous. But why should the beginning of the story be any different from the ending. The world Jesus entered was also filled with obscenity and oppression. Such is the reality of the human lot. The real miracle is that God should lower himself so much to care about us at all. The eventual pregnancy of Sarai was highly improbable. In the Gospels, the pregnancy of Elizabeth was also unlikely. But, as we see especially in the Virgin Mary, God can make the impossible possible. As the Psalm relates, “Who can tell the mighty deeds of the LORD, or proclaim his praises?”

Abram, later renamed Abraham, is the ancient father of faith. Jesus tells us that genuine faith must be more than either mouth service or deeds to be seen by others. He says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” Notice that he gives voice to the lost souls. They call him Lord and even admit to performing prophesy, exorcism and other “mighty deeds”. It may be that God did manifest his power through them. The Church tells us that even a priest in mortal sin can absolve the sins of others and offer the sacrifice of the Mass, even if he is personally guilty of sacrilege in doing so. God takes care of his people, even with the most unworthy of instruments. Truly obeying God means to surrender ourselves to him. Our words and actions should emerge from a living faith or internal disposition of obedience and humility. God knows who we really are, past the fancy rhetoric, sensational works and possible self-deception. Our Lord knows who we are under the skin. If we belong to him, we will weather all the storms of life and find ourselves safely with him when our pilgrimage is over.

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Hosea 11:1, 3-4, 8c-9 / Psalm 12 / Ephesians 3:8-12, 14-19 / John 19:31-37

frjoepul

Although Paul humbly called himself the least of the saints or the children of God, he felt privileged to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles. All that was hidden and yet prophesied was realized in Christ. Revelation was given, not to one nation only or to a disconnected few, but was “made known through the church”. The Church remains the guardian of the deposit of faith. Open to all people with faith, she is both the interpreter and dispenser of this truth or wisdom. Because of Jesus, we can truly approach and know God as “Our Father” and be strengthened by his Spirit. Jesus lives in us and in our discipleship. Our Lord showers grace upon his people of faith. He fills us with the divine presence. As the revelation of the Father, Jesus enables us to better know and to love God. It is staggering what Jesus has done for us.

Israel or the People of God were looked upon as God’s child. (Verse two is missing where reference is made to Israel’s infidelity and flirting with false worship.) God would not disown his own, no matter how terribly they forgot him. Ephraim was the strongest of the tribes of Israel. God sought to draw him to himself, not like a slave or an animal, but with bands of love. God had every reason to send down fire as he did upon Sodom and Gomorrah, but he would not. No matter how confused and disobedient, the Father showed compassion and gentleness to his infant child, his people. He would forgive them and send them one who would show them the way by his example and by taking upon himself the price of their rebellion.

Men would not judge us as mercifully as does the Almighty. God could have left us in our sins, but in the course of time, he sent his Son to save us. Our elder brother Christ has suffered all things for our sakes. The Psalm exhorts the great truth that was realized in Jesus: “God indeed is my savior; I am confident and unafraid. My strength and my courage is the LORD, and he has been my savior.”

The Gospel gives us the scene where Jesus is found dead on the cross. A soldier pierces his side with a lance. Blood and water immediately flowed out. This scene is connected with the sacraments, poured out so that we might have a share in Christ’s life. Jesus is the water of eternal life. His is the saving blood of the new Lamb. Jesus dies once-and-for-all. He can never suffer or die again. But the sacraments draw us into the paschal mystery. The mystery of the Sacred Heart is intricately connected to the sacraments, particularly the Mass which makes both Jesus and his saving activity, i.e. his sacrifice, present.

As the Council of Trent taught, and Vatican II reaffirmed, Jesus suffered and died at our hands. The accumulative sins of men from all times and places targeted the Sacred Heart of Jesus. His was and is the love which would not stop loving the very ones who betrayed and murdered him.

The only way that we can make reparation for our forgetfulness and wrongs is to offer ourselves with him. We may not be perfect, but we offer all that we are and will be. Jesus is the sin offering. He is the one who makes true satisfaction for sin. He turns our act of rebellion into his saving oblation. Will we ever really understand the incredible mercy of God?

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June 18, 2009 – Thursday, Week 11

2 Corinthians 11:1-11 / Psalm 111 / Matthew 6:7-15

frjoepul

Paul pokes a little fun at the way that the Corinthians tolerate others by asking them to put up with him. If belief in the Lord, his resurrection and his desire for our unity with him can be reckoned as foolishness, then Paul views himself as the chief fool for Christ. Paul was a Jew and a Pharisee, he knew well the commandments and the first among them was our obedience and worship of the one true God. It was such from the very beginning: “You shall not have other gods besides me. You shall not carve idols for yourselves in the shape of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth; you shall not bow down before them or worship them. For I, the LORD, your God, am a jealous God… (Exodus 20:3-5). Here he translates this relationship to that of the Christian believer and Jesus. The economy of images (pictures and statues) changes because of the incarnation; there is no conflict with monotheism because while Christ is the divine Second Person of the Trinity, God is still ONE (nature). Paul loves and cares for them from the perspective of God. God will not share them. Paul sowed the Word among them and he feels a continuing responsibility for them. He draws upon the marriage analogy with Christ as the groom and the Church as his bride. They need to remain faithful to the covenant that God has made with them. He would have them face the Lord unblemished by idolatry or scandal. Indeed, Paul regards such things as spiritual adultery. Citing Eve and the serpent, he is concerned that the devil has corrupted some of the Corinthians and their notions of faith. Today, we must still be alert to false prophets, counterfeit gospels and fake depictions of Christ. He contends that he gave his preaching without cost. His needs were answered by another community who sent him to be among them. This is also a modern concern, where some ministers become rich by their ministry and avoid saying things which might empty out the collection plate. Like Paul, our boast should only be in the truth of Christ. Paul says he may not be the greatest speaker, but he is in full possession of the truth. He preaches not for gain but because, as he says, he loves them. As a priest who has sometimes seen members of the flock drawn away by mega-churches and evangelical churches, I can well relate to Paul. We might not always have the best music, or much in the way of entertainment and dancers, and even our preaching can become either boring or upsetting to listeners; but the Catholic Church, apart from all the accidentals, has the true and complete Gospel and the Eucharist. The substance alone should suffice to keep believers within the house that Jesus directly established and for which Paul preached so long ago. There really is nowhere else to go. As the Psalmist relates, so too we can sing, “I will give thanks to the LORD with all my heart in the company and assembly of the just.”

Turning to today’s Gospel, Jesus would have us be mindful of our words at prayer. He does two things in the reading: he gives us his own formal prayer as our own and he gives us a model for prayer. Indeed, the Our Father has within itself all the various types of prayer: adoration or praise, contrition or sorrow, thanksgiving, and supplication or petition.

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