October 29, 2015

Father Philip Neri Powell's "Put down the missalette! Hearing a Homily"

Homily of St. Peter in the presence of St. Mark (detail), Fra Angelico, 15th century 

The following article by Father Philip Neri Powell, O.P., Ph.D.,"Put Down the Missalette! Listening to a Homily" was originally posted on Big C Catholics in installments. Visit Fr. Powell's excellent website for more.
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I’ve written about some of the artsy elements of writing a homily and about some definitions of preaching. I’ve been challenged to write about how one should go about listening to a homily and getting the most out of it.

So, here’s my shot at answering the question: how do I listen to a homily for maximum benefit? The very first thing I want to say is that listening to a homily is and is not like listening to any other sort of performed text. All the skills you use to listen to a speech, an academic lecture, or a conversation are used in listening to a homily. However, the difference that makes the difference in listening to a homily is that in a homily, especially one preached in a liturgical context, you are listening to an extension of the Word proclaimed.

1. Put down the missalette, or as I prefer to call them Those Paper Destroyers of the Liturgy, or Those Menaces to the Word Proclaimed. Put them down. No, tear them in half, stick them in your pocket, and bury them near a soggy marsh. Do you take your Riverside Shakespeare with you when you go to see Hamlet? Ask yourself this question: if we were meant to read along with the lectionary readings, why do we bother training and appointing a Lector to proclaim the readings for us? Why don’t we just say, “OK. Let us take out our missalettes, turn to page forty-three, and spend a few minutes reading the Old Testament passage, etc.”? We don’t do this because we are called upon in the liturgy to LISTEN to the Word proclaimed. Not to read along, not to check the Lector for errors, not to fiddle with a little book during the Boring Parts When We Read the Bible Out Loud. Can you listen and read along? No. You can’t. Sorry, you can’t. The whole point of the proclamation is that the Word is sent out, projected, given a voice, made alive. You can’t get this if you’re fumbling with a missalette or fussing over a mispronounced word or a lame translation. Hear the Word Proclaimed. Don’t follow along with another text. And, yes, this means we need VERY well-prepared and trained Lectors who understand what they do as a ministry of the Church.

2. Pay attention to key words, images, phrases, ideas. If you can’t “hear” the whole homily, listen for prominent words or ideas that get repeated or emphasized. A good preacher will ask a question or make a statement or in some way call your attention to his point(s). When you hear this point, cling to it and then listen to the rest of the homily “through” this point, paying careful attention to how it is developed or used. So, for example, if the preacher starts by defining “conversion” or asking a question about conversion, then listen for images or words or some kind of repetition of conversion themes in the rest of the homily. He might preach about other things, but you’ve picked up on “conversion.” Now, of course, you can pick up on multiple points and follow them all. But you can’t do any of this while reading the bulletin, the missalette (Hack! Pooey!) or fiddling with your cell phone.

3. Repeat every word in your head. Yup, that’s what I said: repeat every word. I do this all the time. I have what the Buddhists call “Monkey Mind.” Just about the only way I can pay attention to a homily is to close my eyes (no visual distraction) and then repeat every word of the homily in my head. This is how I am able to stay on track, follow the homily’s “argument,” and not end up daydreaming about bread pudding, Battlestar Galactica, and the Pope’s new encyclical all at the same time.

4. Listen now, argue later. OK. Fr. Oprah is on and on and on about his latest trip to the therapist and he’s boring the snot out of you with tales of his evolving consciousness and how close he is to exploding into Cosmic Oneness with the Womb of Universal Is-ness. First, put down the missalette. Just put it down. Pay attention to key words and image and repeat every word in your head. Why? Because for better or worse, ugly or pretty, he’s the preacher and (however hard it is for us to understand why) the Church has seen fit to make him a priest. He has something you need to hear. Even if you need to hear in order to reject it. Listen now, argue later. If you start arguing when he launches into a description of his Naked Rebirthing Sweat Lodge Ritual with Richard Rohr and you tune out because you need to argue, then you can’t hear what it is you need to hear from him. You’re spending your homily time arguing with someone who can’t hear you argue and couldn’t care less if he could. So, don’t waste your homily time arguing with your version of Fr. Oprah’s homily. Hear him out and argue on his time later.

5. Pray! The proclamation and preaching of the Word is an extension of the Word into this time and this place. When we hear the Word proclaimed and preached, we are made larger to better receive God’s blessing; we are strengthened to labor in holiness; we are deepened to be fresher sources of living water for others; and we are excited, electrified to be bearers of the Word, apostles to our world. Pray constantly for our preachers. Ask God to set them on fire for His truth, to open their hearts and minds to His Word, to loosen their tongues, to free their gifts, and make them true workers in sowing the seed of faith. Since we know from the Tradition that the first beneficiary of prayer is the Prayer himself, praying for our preachers grows the capacity of the Prayer to hear, bear, and spread the Word he/she hears in a homily. Ears settled charitably in prayer will hear clearly the voice of God spoken by the preacher.

Well, those are my (somewhat cranky) suggestions for listening to and benefiting from a liturgical homily. ...

1 comment :

Joseph Kalwinski said...

All of these suggestions are great and would be workable IF lectors and preachers were articulate . . . ALAS, how rare this truly is. My Magnificat booklet saves the liturgy for me.