Taking Off The Mask

I admit I had fun writing the usual homily and some reactions to it. However since a few took it seriously - and some others got an overly perverse pleasure from it, I had better take off the mask and try to clear up some misunderstandings.

Before explaining my more serious purpose, let me say that it was easy, perhaps too easy, to write the usual homily. It was a simple matter of piecing together things I have heard over and over in homilies, as well as in our mass media. Certain "magic words" (tolerance, diversity, lifestyle, self-esteem, non-judgmental, comfortable, compassion, etc.) are repeated like mantras. The words have a soothing quality - everything is all right, I'm OK, you're OK. By repetition they have taken on an almost sacred status. To question or analyze them can appear rude, even obnoxious.

Moreover, the homilist who uses those "magic words" is well protected from criticism. First, our whole popular culture is behind him. He can find his message reinforced in newspaper and magazine articles as well as TV talk shows like Oprah. His congregation is also immersed in that culture so the usual homily is reassuring to them. But if someone does question him, he has a ready response, "not everyone agreed with Jesus." Criticism confirms his "prophetic stance." Those who dissent from his teaching are lumped in with the scribes and Pharisees. Other dismissive categories are reactionaries, pre-Vatican II, or simply conservatives.

So how does one respond to the usual homily? For the reasons mentioned above, direct criticism is futile. A more profound response is indicated, one that requires personal conversion. After all, we are not talking about some remote, long forgotten culture. It is the one you and I are immersed in every day. And it is not all bad - tolerance, diversity, self-esteem, all have something good about them. Otherwise these words would not be so seductive. And who of us has not found them suspiciously convenient? Isn't it a lot easier to have a lifestyle than a duty? For example, I can spend my money as I please because that is my "lifestyle." Our culture constantly entices us to define ourselves by what we produce and consume (the "rich fool" Jesus referred to). Freedom means being unrestrained rather than becoming someone. And the possibility that you or I could become a creature of eternal revulsion (hell) is not a polite topic.

The culture we live and breathe is sometimes called secular humanism. The term may have its limitations but all in all is accurate enough. Pope John Paul II, however, has given it a more evocative epitaph: the culture of death. As we come to the end of the twentieth century, we see the triumph of Nietzsche's morality of the superman. The claims of the weak must give way to those of the more powerful. This culture of death is most evident in the acceptance of abortion and the manipulation of human embryos. The puzzle is why we Catholics have been so timid in opposing it. We have been so easily intimidated. I mean, who wants to be identified with those people, the "Christian right"? But our pusillanimity has a more melancholy explanation - we have been lulled into thinking nothing in particular is at stake. For that reason our homilies tend more to soothe than to challenge.

A priest friend of mine (whom no one would characterize as a "conservative") put it this way, "We have to help people understand that these issues are a matter of life and death." Many people want to reduce all this to a contest between liberals and conservatives, one more side-show to keep the public entertained. And as Pascal pointed out, people want diversion so they (we) can avoid ultimate questions. So while acknowledging an element of truth in the liberal-conservative categories, it hardly applies when we are talking about the message of Jesus. Life and death are more accurate words.

This is hard because we have grown accustomed to a culture which, when asked what it is about, will reply, "Nothing in particular." The homilist has the task of saying, "au contraire , something serious, something very concrete is at stake, namely the eternal fate of each person who hears these words." The problem with the usual homily is that it ducks that issue, the only one that matters in the long run.

People have characterized me as "conservative." Some have even called me "pre-Vatican II" and have gone so far as to charge that I do not accept the teachings of Vatican II. My response is to ask if they have actually read the documents of that Council. Most have only read excerpts and heard lectures about the "spirit of Vatican II." As someone who has read all the Vatican II documents (excuse my boasting) and often uses them for meditation, I have to say I find most of this talk about the spirit of Vatican II to be free floating and seldom anchored in the actual texts of the Council.

If asked to characterize myself, the only word I choose is Catholic. The reason for this can be found in my mission statement. But included in that word is one other which cannot be avoided. That word is sinner. I do not want to be melodramatic and I know it would be simple to avoid it by comparing myself to others. By lowering the standards (or by finding excuses) I can seem good enough. But when I compare myself to genuine goodness, I recognize how far I have fallen short. Let me explain.

While on this vacation in Peru I have been reading Witness to Hope, George Weigel's biography of Pope John Paul II. What comes across is such a deep goodness and pastoral intensity that I could not help reflect on how compromised my own priestly ministry has been. It's not just that I have received far fewer gifts that Karol Wojtyla. The truth is, by comparison, I have buried mine in the ground. Ironically I did not find that realization depressing. Rather it lead me to ask for deep repentance and to glimpse the only real joy, the knowledge that Jesus does forgive.

This brings me to the most serious problem with the usual homily. It is not Good News. The Good News is forgiveness of sins. The usual homily fails because it offers excuses rather than forgiveness. Only the person who knows that by his own free choice he has sinned can receive the Good News. In the past that awareness was immediate and personal. Today it has been clouded over. Part of the task of today's homilist is to remove some of the fog which keeps us from seeing ourselves as we are. Only then can we receive Jesus' forgiveness as very Good News.


Less Usual Homilies