After having just spent a few days with my brother friars on the Jersey Shore I have been thinking about the many people who have mentioned to me how much they appreciate the Franciscans’ homilies when they are in town. It is clear that there is something that shines through in the way that the friars preside at the Eucharist and preach during the week and on weekends, which speaks to the hearts of the people in the pews. I continue to be inspired by such comments, before and after my talks I was privileged to hear parishioners and vacationers say just these sorts of things to me.
Upon some reflection I was reminded of something I once read that was said by the martyred Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero. I went back to look it up and found this:
We not only read the Bible, we analyze it, we celebrate it, we incarnate it in our reality, we want to make it our life. This is the meaning of the homily: to incarnate the Word of God in our people. This is not politics. When we point out the political, social, and economic sins in the homily, this is the Word of God incarnate in our reality, a reality that often does not reflect the reign of God but rather sin. We proclaim the Gospel to point out to people the paths of redemption.
What he describes here highlights well what it is that, in many cases although perhaps not all, captures what is unique about some of the friars’ homilies versus those of many other preachers. Following the instruction of the Second Vatican Council in its document Gaudium et Spes, we are to interpret the signs of our time in light of the Gospel. This is what the homily at Mass is all about.
Far too often, when I am visiting local parishes, traveling or visiting family, I am struck by the vacuous and contextless remarks that are delivered during the period between the proclamation of the Gospel and the community’s profession of faith. It is upsetting how infrequently I hear the Scripture referenced in so many Roman Catholic homilies. Yet, this is what is the central purpose of the homily, to answer the question: “What is God saying to us through Scripture today?” The only way that can be done is to actually look at issues of the day.
Before I gave my second talk yesterday morning, I had the joy of joining the Catholic community at Long Beach Island for daily mass (a very large crowd, I should add). They were lucky to have Fr. Jim Scullion, OFM, as their presider and homilist. In addition to being an excellent friar, he happens to be a retired Scripture professor who had taught at a graduate school of theology for nearly twenty years. Few know the New Testament quite like Jim. He was able, in a brief daily-mass-sized homily, open up the meaning of the Gospel while commenting on the current quagmire in Washington, DC, as lawmakers continue to foolishly stand in legislative gridlock. At one point asking what Jesus would do if he were a congressman, Jim reminded the congregation of Matthew’s Gospel and Jesus’s very clear imperative about how people will be judged by God: not for what tax cuts one gives to the wealthy, not for how many times someone goes to Mass or says the Rosary (as good as those things are), but for how you and I treat the least among us (see Matthew 25).
Some call this political, but I agree with (St.) Romero (Bishop and Martyr): this is simply the Gospel and the purpose of the homily. Do not shy away from doing what is right.