Asking for Better Homilies: A How-To Guide

Some of us were dismayed and disappointed at the preaching we heard this weekend, which expounded on the Beatitudes without making even a veiled reference to the Muslim ban (aka executive order prohibiting entry to citizens from seven majority-Muslim countries, even refugees).  I generally try to engage with clergy when something like this happens, privately after the service is over.

Glad you asked, Kevin! So here’s a little how-to guide.

(Note: This post is written from my Catholic perspective, but much of it will be applicable for readers of other traditions as well. In most cases, Catholics hear homilies/sermons at Mass from priests, who are male, although deacons (also male) may also preach and sometimes do.)

First of all, the standard guidelines for giving constructive criticism apply: do it in private, do it respectfully and calmly. (If you’re not calm enough immediately afterwards, maybe go home and write an email later instead.) Talk about the thing, not the person, and talk about this specific instance.

Good: I was troubled by the homily today

Bad: I can’t believe you didn’t even mention refugees – you never talk about what’s happening in the world when you preach!

Always lead with praise for what you can. Was there anything in the homily that you liked, or made you think? Was there anything else during the service that you can comment on appreciatively?

Then, especially if your feedback has to do with anything that is remotely political or controversial in your congregation, be sure to express sympathy for the difficult position that he’s in. It’s hard to preach to a large congregation of people that need or want different things from the preaching they hear, especially in parishes with diverse political views.

I think the best approach to the actual feedback is to frame it as a pastoral matter. Most clergy take pastoral care seriously, so share the spiritual needs you had that were not met by the homily that you got.

Good: With everything in the news and the Muslim ban this weekend, I’ve been very distressed and afraid about what is going on in the country. I came to church hoping for some clear guidance and encouragement to do the right thing [especially after I heard X in the readings], because it’s not always easy to put my faith into action. Even when I’m pretty sure what the right thing is, it helps to hear it from the pulpit, and to see others in the congregation nod in agreement — it helps me realize I’m not alone.

Bad: This text is so clearly applicable to the current situation, I can’t believe you didn’t preach on it. You should have said X, Y, Z, and tied in this element of the first reading, too.

Pro Tip: Do not, repeat, do not engage in exegetical or hermeneutical critique. Resist the urge to describe the sermon you would rather have heard. Go home and write it on your blog instead.

Regardless of how he responds to you, be sure to end by thanking him for his ministry and all his hard work. Priests work hard, and as the priest shortage worsens and parishes get larger, they work harder and harder. People are often quick to criticize and rarely praise, so this can go a long way.

For the same reason, make a point of always thanking the priest after mass for things that really helped you, or spoke to what you needed, or that you really liked. Do it every time – it only takes a minute. Not only is this worth doing for its own sake: it builds up evidence of good will over time and establishes a basically positive relationship, so when you do offer criticism, he’ll be more likely to be able to hear and consider it, instead of going instantly on the defensive, or immediately dismissing it on the grounds that you can’t please everyone.

In fact, if you’ve never given feedback to this priest before, don’t start by bringing up something negative. Wait until you’ve been able to say something positive a few times first — and then wait for the next negative thing, don’t rehash this one.

So, to recap:

  • Be calm, respectful, and specific
  • Lead with praise for what you can
  • Sympathize with his difficulties
  • Frame your concern in terms of your own spiritual needs
  • Sincerely thank him for his ministry
  • Take every opportunity to express appreciation and develop a basically positive relationship

And one last thing — don’t forget to pray for your priests. As we depend on them for pastoral and spiritual care, so they should be able to depend on us for intercessory prayer. Pray that God will strengthen and sustain them in their ministry, console them in their difficulties, enlighten them with wisdom to discern how best to care for their flock, and fortify them with whatever graces they may need.

Readers, do you have any additional advice to share, or stories about how giving feedback worked out well for you? Would any preachers among you like to weigh in? Please share!

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Today, Christ is born!
Today, Salvation appears!
Today, on earth, angels sing,
archangels rejoice,
the just exult,
Glory to God in the Highest,

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Phrases and Shapes in Two Languages: Hail Mary, Ave Maria

maria_gravida_or_mary_at_the_spinning_wheel_from_nemetujvar_c-1410_hungarian_galleryThe other night, I got to praying/playing around with the Hail Mary in both English and Latin, and found some interesting differences in shape.

Here’s the traditional text, as every English-speaking Catholic child learns it:

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou amongst women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death,

The line breaks represent the typical phrasing when it is recited.

Most Catholic children learn this prayer when they are very young. It may not be until later that we learn to recognize the scriptural origin of the first half of the prayer.

The angel appeared to Mary, and said to her:saint_gabriel_-_stained_glass_window_in_the_cloisters_of_chester_cathedral

Hail Mary, full of grace: the LORD is with you.

Her cousin Elizabeth, who was great with child in her old age as the angel had foretold, greeted her and said:

Blessed are you among all women,
and blessed is the fruit of your womb.

Because of the last phrase of the prayer, many Catholics say a Hail Mary when they hear a siren or see an ambulance; and of course it is traditional to pray at the bedside of someone who is dying.

Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death,

So I’m starting to see this shape, here: downward (angel from God), parallel (Elizabeth to Mary), upward (soul to heaven).

And then I decided to start praying it in Latin.

I had a couple of years of Latin in high school. It gave me enough background in the language that the Latin texts I sang in choir are reasonably comprehensible to me, so I’m actually reading the Latin, not just sounding it out. Here’s how it reads in Latin, with line breaks again indicating the phrasing that is natural to me when I recite it.

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Advent, Day 9: How can God bear to look at us.

Word: God(Damn)It*
Verse: Isaiah 23:5

Note that Isaiah 23 is not included in the Catholic Sunday lectionary. Since Catholics mostly hear the bible at mass, most of us don’t know this text.

*I said I’d put profanity behind the jump, but I’m reading this as religious discourse, not cursing.

People and priest shall fare alike:
servant and master,
Maid and mistress,
buyer and seller,
Lender and borrower,
creditor and debtor.

Water protector and pipeline constructor,
black victim and white police officer,
Immigrant and ICE agent,
landlord and renter,
Politician and constituent,
vigilante and victim.

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Advent, Day 7: Questions, Questions, Questions

You know that thing where you read a story from scripture and ask yourself, who in this story do I identify with? I did that thing. This is what happened.

Word and verse below the jump.

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Advent, Day Five: She Who Is

Word: Bloody
Verse: Isaiah 4:5

What if we read the LORD in Isaiah 4:2-6 through a womanly metaphor? as She Who Is, the one who writhed in labor to birth creation?

On that day,
The branch of  She Who Is will be beauty and glory,
and the fruit of the land will be honor and splendor
for the survivors of Israel.

Read that through the lens of abuse and rape and war and violence.

Everyone who remains in Zion,
everyone left in Jerusalem
Will be called holy:
everyone inscribed for life in Jerusalem.

Every one of the survivors will be called holy, and written into the book of life.

When She Who Is washes away
the filth of the daughters of Zion,
And purges Jerusalem’s blood from her midst
with a blast of judgment, a searing blast,

How would She wash the filth and the blood from those who have survived such things?
Gently. Lovingly. Tenderly. Carefully, so as not to hurt the bruised and broken flesh of her precious daughters any more than it had already been hurt.
Fiercely: with a fierce protective love that repudiates any possible blame or shame, that cleanses and purifies.

Then will She Who Is create,
over the whole site of Mount Zion
and over her place of assembly,

A smoking cloud by day
and a light of flaming fire by night.

Oh, then! The Holy Presence that abides and accompanies and protects, that led the people out of slavery, hid them from their pursuers, and journeyed with them in astonishing intimate immanence!

For over all, Her glory will be shelter and protection:
shade from the parching heat of day,
refuge and cover from storm and rain.

Glory as protection and shelter from shame.
Glory as refuge and sanctuary.

She Who Is takes the bruised and broken and bloody survivors of violence, washes their wounds with Her own hands, abides among them, and dresses them in Her holy glory!

Glory, glory, glory…

…sings Hope.

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Advent, Day Four: Trumpet Blast

This year, I’m following along with an unusual Advent devotional that renders the anger and outrage of the prophets into contemporary colloquial language. Each day, there’s a word and a bible verse. On days when the word is an expletive, like today, I’ll put it behind the jump.

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Advent, Day One: Prepared? Yeah, No.

This year, I’m following along with an unusual Advent devotional that renders the anger and outrage of the prophets into contemporary colloquial language: #FuckThisShit. For those who just can’t pray with expletives, there’s a toned-down version: #RendtheHeavens . For an introduction from one of the devotional’s co-creators, check out To Convey a Visceral Gospel, We Must Sometimes Use Visceral Language.

Each day, there’s a word and a bible verse. On days when the word is an expletive, like today, I’ll put it behind the jump.

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But since we are of the day, let us be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love and the helmet that is hope for salvation.

– 1 Thess 5:8

Hope, if we define it as holding to the eventual good outcome of justice and the reign of God, anchors our present situation to an eschatological framework. It therefore and thereby places our current circumstances, however distressing they may be, in the context of the ongoing story of salvation history. It weaves our stories into God’s story. Christian hope is not simply a feeling and it is not the same as optimism: it is a theological virtue that is cultivated and practiced. It is profoundly eschatological, rooted in the deep conviction of God’s justice, God’s mercy, and God’s promised reign.

Weeping, Lamentation, and Hope

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Hear the Text, but Hear it Slant: Liturgy Notes

1. Beatitudes (Mt 5:1-12)

What if this isn’t a list of instructions? What if it’s a list of who you should suck up to? ie, a list of the really important people. What if it’s Jesus doing here what he did when he washed the disciples’ feet, and inverting/subverting/recreating hierarchy?

  • the possessors of the kingdom of heaven: the poor [in spirit]
  • those who God will console: the mourners
  • the heirs to the land: the meek
  • those who God will satisfy: the hungry and thirsty [for righteousness]
  • those to whom God will show mercy: the merciful
  • those who will see God: the clean of heart
  • the children of God: the peacemakers
  • the possessors of the kingdom of heaven: the persecuted [for righteousness’ sake]
  • those whose reward will be great in heaven: the insulted and persecuted and slandered for Jesus’ sake

Written this way, with the last phrases first, I see a chiasm (envelope form) from verses 3-10, with mercy in the central, most important location. Happy Jubilee Year of Mercy!

2. Who comes in the name of the Lord?

The setting of the Sanctus that we’re singing has an echo, sung by the choir:

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord (who comes in the name of the Lord)

But this week, I didn’t hear it as an echo: I heard it as a challenge: Who comes in the name of the Lord? You??
You sure about that? You up to that?
You wear that name Christian, you come in that name: would you pass that challenge?

3. Under Whose Roof

Happy are those who are called to the supper of the Lamb.
Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof

Called to the supper of the Lamb — read eschatologically, that’s a future invitation to a feast: come into the home of the Lamb, enter under Jesus’ roof, and share a feast.

Our response? We tell Jesus, with the Roman centurion, we’re not worthy for you to come into our home, to enter under our roof.

That’s weirdly reciprocal, but inverted.
If we’re not worthy for Jesus to enter under our roof, how much less worthy are we to enter under his?

To us, also, your servants, who, though sinners, hope in your abundant mercies, graciously grant some share and fellowship with your holy Apostles and Martyrs: with John the Baptist, Stephen, Matthias, Barnabas, Ignatius, Alexander, Marcellinus, Peter, Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia, and all your Saints: admit us, we beseech you, into their company, not weighing our merits, but granting us your pardon, through Christ our Lord.                  — Eucharistic Prayer I

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