A New Generation of Conservative Thought

Milk-toast homilies denigrate the Mass

By Dr. Grace Vuoto
November 16, 2010

The Catholic Church has become lukewarm in the practice and expression of its cardinal principles. This is most clearly evident in contemporary homilies.

In the Catholic tradition, it is understood that the homily is not the centerpiece of the Mass; rather, the Eucharist is. In addition, the purpose of the Mass is not to hear a priest give a good lecture; instead it is to worship God in communion with the faithful. However, the homily nonetheless has an important role in the Mass: it is the moment in which the priest translates texts that were written centuries ago to a 21st-century audience. In other words, it is the unique time every Sunday when the flock can be connected—emotionally, intellectually and spiritually—to the struggles and the wisdom of the Early Church. The priest is the bridge between two worlds. His role is to transmit the wealth of the Catholic truth to us—and to inspire us to apply these principles in our daily lives.

Sadly, the homily has become the most lackluster part of the Mass. The word homily is derived from the Greek term omilia, meaning to have communion with or hold intercourse with a person: It means to connect the Scripture to the listener; it means to connect the Gospel reading to major contemporary vices and virtues. Instead, this has become one of the most disconnected moments in the Mass: the priest, almost deliberately, seeks to avoid discussing the Biblical readings in any manner that might truly be relevant to the audience’s most basic needs. Rather than being in communion with the flock, most priests are structuring the homily so that it is irrelevant to the audience. If politics is the art of saying nothing, as the common saying goes, then so too are many contemporary homilies.

Most Catholic priests seek first and foremost to avoid being offensive. The only part of the creed they wish to transmit is that we must have faith and we must love one another. While this is good, it is a cowardly way of leading the flock to the full meaning of Christianity. The Ten Commandments consist of “Thou Shalt Not” as well as “Thou Shall.” To attempt to distill Christianity merely into the most benign and lovable “Thou Shall” is to strip it of its power: it is to emasculate God and render the Mass merely like one fuzzy warm blanket. It is akin to removing the disciplinary arm of the father from the family and leaving only the nurturing warmth of the mother. In fact, we cannot understand “the good,” without understanding evil; we cannot know why “we should” if we are also not told why “we should not.” And, because our human nature is drawn toward sin, we cannot love God and our neighbor without, to some extent, being compelled to do so because we are taught to fear evil.

For example, as all parents know, the will of a child must be compelled toward good deeds with a combination of love, discipline and punishment. “If you do not go to bed early, you will be tired tomorrow and will not do well in school,” is the first, gentle approach. When action does not follow, the pressure escalates: “If you do not go to bed, you will not be allowed to watch television tomorrow.” When still there is no result, greater fear is used to compel good action: “Go to bed right now otherwise I will drag you there myself—and I am getting really angry now and you won’t like it if you keep pushing me in this direction: Got it?” This is followed by a menacing stare. In essence, the road to virtue requires the carrot and the stick; it requires being told what is good and also being compelled toward what is good.

Evidently, coercion should never violate free will when we are discussing adults rather than children. Yet, for centuries, it was understood that adults require coercion of some sort to help them in the battle to restrain their demons. This coercion consists of grasping the nature of evil: the fear of evil is necessary to do what is good.

Instead, contemporary homilies are bland. There is little reference to heaven and hell; even more benign words like “good” and “evil” are seldom used. Homilies are delivered with little passion or emotion. There is no clear opponent—as in, which sin or vice, which treacherous social practice—that is identified. And perhaps worst of all, none of the most obvious vital social issues are addressed: divorce, licentiousness, pornography, abortion, homosexuality, materialism and apathy. In essence, if it is a major controversy or an issue we are likely to face in our daily lives, you can be sure our priests will avoid mentioning it on Sunday.

Let us note how far we have fallen from the example of Jesus and his apostles. Jesus was simple, clear and direct in his teachings. He was passionate in evangelizing as well as in explaining the basic precepts of the faith. Moreover, he engaged in direct, heated dialogue about the contemporary social ills and controversies of the day. Jesus was in a death-battle with the major authorities of his time: That is precisely why he was crucified. He was not crucified because he sought to be as inoffensive as possible.

This mindset also typified the apostles and the Church Fathers. They not only battled the political authorities of their day but they were also at loggerheads with the social norms of the time. They chastised their audience for embracing the pagan rituals of the Roman Empire such as participating in the barbarous activities at the Roman Coliseum. They also assaulted the hallowed Jewish rituals. Furthermore, they took on the leading intellectual orthodoxies of their time, challenging both Jewish doctrine and the classical Greek heritage. In a nutshell, they stared down Pontius Pilate, the Roman Emperor, the Jewish high priests, as well as Plato and Aristotle. They said unequivocally “We Shall Not.” They thus erected a formidable Church which converted millions. This was not the work of the mealy-mouthed.

Catholic priests ought to return to the example of one of the greatest Christian orators of all time, St. John Chrysostom (347-407). He was known as the “golden-mouthed” preacher. St. Chrysostom brought his tremendous intellectual gifts and erudition to his explanation of the Gospel: yet he did so in a manner that could be easily understood and appealed to the poor and illiterate. He addressed the major social ills of the day with bravery and clarity; he referenced the mystical and supernatural aspects of the faith. He expounded moral lessons in a manner that highlighted the pitfalls of vice as much as the glories of virtue. He thus not only explained the truth of Christianity but inspired devotion and a desire to serve the Church.

We must return to the Church of conviction. We need fire from the pulpit—intellectual, emotional and spiritual fire that complements the light that radiates from the Tabernacle. The Church must become whole again on Sundays: its homilies ought to be commensurate with the vigor and sacrifices made by our Christian forefathers and in line with the persecution, death and resurrection of Christ that we are celebrating. In essence, the homilies must be worthy of the Mass.

-Dr. Grace Vuoto is the Executive Director of The Edmund Burke Institute for American Renewal.