Q: Dear Father John, I have recently come back to the Church and am looking for a deepening of my faith. Although I have fallen in love with the Mass, I have found that the priests are not as engaging as the ministers I found in evangelical churches. I don’t know what to do about that; I can only think to draw nearer to Christ and find people of the same mind. I would appreciate any suggestions.
A: I know exactly what you mean! As a fellow convert, I too have experienced the dynamic, courageous, real, and relevant presentation of Scripture so common in the newer evangelical churches. And I too experienced some disappointment when I discovered that many Catholic homilies don’t have the same sparkle. I am glad you asked the question – for a bunch of reasons. And I do have some suggestions. Four suggestions, actually.
Don’t Stop Eating
First, search in other places (besides homilies) for spiritual nourishment. Evangelicals are trained to expect the main spiritual meal to come from the Sunday sermon. It is the centerpiece of Protestant worship, after all. It is not the same for us Catholics – but that doesn’t mean we have to go without! You can feed your soul with profound, enriching, exciting, and transforming Catholic teaching from many sources besides the Sunday homily. In fact, once you begin to discover the richness within the Catholic heritage, you really won’t miss the rousing evangelical sermons much at all.
We all need to keep seeking a deeper knowledge of our faith. So I would encourage you to do so, but don’t expect to find as much of a resource for that in the Sunday homilies as you used to in the Sunday sermons. Supplement what you hear on Sundays with other sources. If you like to read, you can discover an entire universe of Catholic books (anything at Ignatius Press is solid, so you may want to start by browsing there, or look through this great online Catholic store). If you learn better by listening, I highly recommend that vast collection of inspiring recordings put together by Lighthouse Catholic Media, or by St. Joseph Communications. The latter organization also produces multimedia resources, as does Ascension Press. And there are many, many more sources that can keep your mind and heart engaged as you continue this new season in your spiritual journey (check out www.wordonfire.org, for example). And if you can engage in this ongoing formation in the company of likeminded folks, all the better!
Homilies from God’s Perspective
Second, don’t tune out the homilies, just adjust your expectations. Remember, the homily is actually part of the sacred liturgy. Only an ordained minister can preach a homily. It’s connected to the sacrament of holy orders. If you approach it from this supernatural perspective, you can be CERTAIN that the Holy Spirit will give you SOMETHING in the homily, even if the priest or deacon didn’t have time to do their homework or don’t have a natural flare for preaching. On her deathbed, St. Elizabeth of Hungary replayed and talked about all the spiritual insights she had received through listening to homilies (there were far fewer books available to a young noblewoman back in the fourteenth century than then there are today). I am sure the preachers were not all at the A+ level. Yet, she had approached the homilies knowing that God wanted to communicate something to her soul through them, and so she focused more on listening to the Holy Spirit than on identifying the rhetorical weaknesses. We all need to do the same. It’s a powerful way to exercise our faith in the Church and the sacraments.
Third, curb your frustration through exercising patience. The enemy of your soul would love for you to become so disgusted with this issue that it turns into a constant, looming distraction. You don’t have to let that happen. Remember: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7). Exercise mercy towards the homilist. Trust that God can make him a saint regardless of his homiletic performance. Trust that God loves him, and that he loves God (why else would he continue on as a priest in today’s world?). Trust that God can work miracles through broken instruments. You don’t have to pretend that a bad homily is a good homily. But why focus your attention more on how you can serve and support the parish than on aspects of parish life that you can hardly influence at all? After all, there is no such thing as the perfect parish. And God knows that. And that’s okay. But he also knows that he has given each one of us unique talents and gifts, and he is hoping for us to generously put these at the service of building his Kingdom. In short, we all need to learn to “let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts” (Colossians 3:5), even in the face of negligence, imperfections, and problems. Striving for that ideal gives great glory to God, because it requires the exercise of supernatural trust. (Of course, if the homilies you hear are blatantly heretical and truly destructive, you need to take action. Talk directly to your priest/deacon about your concerns. If that doesn’t help, you may need to inform your bishop, through his diocesan assistant for priestly life.)
Seek Balanced Growth as a Catholic
Fourth, remember that our intellectual formation is only a part of integral spiritual growth. Prayer, active love, faithfulness to God’s will, and character development are also essential aspects along the path to spiritual maturity. Perhaps in this season of your journey, our Lord is inviting you to focus more on those (or one of those), than on the intellectual part. I am not advocating ignorant Catholicism, but I am advocating integral formation, becoming a fully mature Catholic. As Thomas á Kempis put it so wonderfully five hundred years ago, “I would rather feel contrition than know how to define it…”
I am sure you are not alone in facing this difficulty. And so, I would like to ask our readers to feel free to make their suggestions too, and maybe even share their own experiences. We have to stick together along this journey of faith!