Sunday, my pastor and I were sitting in the sacristy, listening to a visiting priest preaching on the 7th Sunday of Easter. Evidently, he was keeping the congregation in stitches.
This priest was a goldmine of winsome stories and wry observations — a few of his jokes were threadbare, and I’d heard them before, but that didn’t seem to matter to the people in the pews — and he seemed to have the church in the palm of his hand.
My pastor shifted uncomfortably in his seat and cleared his throat. “You know what you never do in your homilies, deacon?,” he said to me. “What?,” I replied. He arched his eyebrow and narrowed his eyes with that “I’m-about-to-criticize-you” look I know so well.
“You never tell jokes.”
I smiled. “There’s a reason for that.”
“Yeah. I suck at it.”
That may not have been the answer he expected. He nodded, as if he didn’t quite know what to say. And we returned to listening to the side-splitting homily going on outside the sacristy door.
All of which made me wonder: how important is humor in preaching? Or is it? I’m generally not a big fan of preachers who turn the homily into a Tonight Show monologue — complete with everything but the band and a periodic rimshot. But I have to admit: I admire the guys who can effortlessly toss off a funny observation or tell a story that results in hoots and thigh-slapping, all the while somehow finding a kernel of spiritual and theological truth. (Yes, Cardinal Dolan, I’m looking at you.)
My efforts at humor in the pulpit are usually met with the chirping of crickets. At best, a few people might politely chortle. But that’s about it. So I save the yucks for my wife, who loves me anyway and thinks almost everything I say — including “Did you get your hair cut?” — is a scream. Go figure.
But it also seems to me, and always has seemed to me, that the Word of God is serious business, that we live in a markedly serious age, and that some of the best anecdotes and stories that I use to illustrate my homilies are ones that provoke some measure of serious, sober thought. I think we need that today. And I think it does help keep those seven minutes in the ambo from being boring. But maybe I overdo it. A woman who was a leader of song in our parish recently moved to Florida and sent me an e-mail saying “I miss your homilies and having a good cry.” And just the other week my pastor asked me before Mass, “How is your homily? Let me guess: someone dies.”
Har har. Okay. Point taken.
But what do you think about humor in homilies? I’m curious to hear how often preachers out there employ it.
Pope Benedict, it should be noted, isn’t exactly Chuckles the Clown, and no one will ever confuse him with Jay Leno. Then again, his job is a little different from mine, and a little different from anybody else who has to compel a restless congregation to stop worrying about the cell phone going off and the baby who needs changing and the strange mole on the neck of the woman sitting in front of you. Every preacher, every speaker, has to remember his audience.
But what do you think?