The Church and the Cracked Kettle

My parish’s associate pastor comes from the Phillipines. At Sunday Mass, I sit only about one-third of the way back, and church acoustics are topnotch. Nevertheless, when Father takes the pulpit, I count myself lucky if I can catch one word in three. Even these often reflect his cultural displacement. Recently, he compared faith to an umbrella in a rainstorm, which in Phoenix makes about as much sense as comparing it to a Jeepney that can take any pothole.

This being the case, I could sort of relate yesterday when Mary de Turris Poust wrote about being underwhelmed by the homilies in her parish. De Turris Poust doesn’t say where her priest is from, but he tends “to drone on for 20 minutes about temperance and prudence and fortitude and justice in a disjointed, monotone, utterly incomprehensible way.” From the distracted air of her fellow parishioners, she concludes, “Obviously they want SOMETHING, but it’s not this. I can assure you.”

What Mary de Turris Poust wants is what she understood Pope Francis to promise in his recent exclusive interview with America Magazine, namely, “a shepherd, for someone who wants to meet me in my darkness and walk with me spiritually, for someone who gets up there and tries to meet people where they are – in the real world, struggling with real problems, in a way that actually has some meaning in their lives.”

Fair enough — we’d all like that. But I think it’s a little unfair of de Turris Poust to find the root of its absence in a bad homily, or even in a tradition of bad homilies. Maybe because my own little apostolate deals in words, I’m acutely aware of their limitations — indeed, that they have the power to distort or conceal as well as illuminate. In my corner of the Church, everyone wants to be G.K. Chesterton (except a few who’d rather be H.L. Mencken). An awful lot of these people, me included, are neurotic messes. When Jesse Jackson had his game on, he could turn a zinger of a phrase — I doubt the Curé of Ars ever did more with three words than Jesse did with “Keep hope alive.” Yet somehow I’m not eager to see him in a Roman collar.

But, even as I write this, it occurs to me that I’m ignoring certain social realities. Just like everyone else does these days, Catholics live fragmented lives, separated from each other — and even, in some sense, from their own selves — by geographic distance, and by extravagant, competing demands on their time. Because words can be broadcast worldwide instantly — and saved, and re-experienced on demand — their catechetical and pastoral value is spiking. Facta, non verba might have made sense when your parish priest could be counted on to show up in person at such-and-such watch of the night to bless your sheep or rid your village of its left-handed, red-headed witches. Now, when his Sunday homily might be his best chance to exercise moral leadership, he’d better cough up a good one.

Here it smacks me square in the face: this new demand for words is the whole reason I have this part-time job. And I’m just the midget of the family. It’s because of the related demand for moral leadership that even more flamboyant media personalities, a few of them Jesse Jackson-caliber scalawags, have built up cult followings. Culture war, of the type Fr. Paul Scalia recently condemned for building a “Church Belligerent,” is really just somebody’s clumsy, if earnest, attempt at meeting both demands. Flaubert once called language a “cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to.” Between Scalia’s complaint and de Turris Poust’s, we see that kettle producing tunes that are bad in a dizzying variety of ways.

Pope Francis would appear to be an exception. His words are electrifying. But too often, they’ve had that effect by being easy to misinterpret — take the word of a blogger in the 1,000-man spin corps fighting to contain the category-5 scatstorms they unleash. Good thing Francis is always careful to underscore his words with gestures, like hugging kids, calling stricken believers, and hearing confessions from those Port-O-John 20:22-23s on the beach. Still, unless he undertakes to do something whose effects will be guaranteed a longer shelf life, then the “mess” he’s spoken of making will start to look like just that — a mess.

And so, I suppose I can sympathize with everyone — Mary de Turris Poust for demanding inspiration, and the priests of her parish (who, after all, lack Francis’ experience and independence) for declining to add to the cacophony by swinging for the fences. When Katrina Fernandez wrote of starving for glitz, I advised her to take it where she could get it, but otherwise to make do. When it comes to spiritual fodder, that’s always been the sole tenable policy, even when Church leadership was at its best. Paul wrote of becoming all things to all men — well, someone must have gone begging, or else one letter to the Corinthians would have been enough.

A few weeks ago, feeling depressed, I stuck around after Mass to meditate in front of the tabernacle. After about half an hour, I sensed someone hovering beside me. It was the Filipino associate pastor, who asked, “Mxyzptlk nipa hut?” Naturally, I told him what had been bothering me, and asked for his prayers. In his manner, I’d managed to discern a little of the love that keeps a cracked kettle from becoming a clanging cymbal.

  • Melody

    I think you hit the nail on the head, Max. I get a little impatient with the armchair homily critiquers who demand more perfection than they’re getting. My bar for homilies is actually set pretty low. They shouldn’t be rants or tirades. They should have something to do with the Scripture readings for the day. They should be less than 15 minutes; 10 would actually be ideal; anything over 20 is just discourteous. If a homily meets those standards, I’m good to go. My grandma used to say that one can learn something even from a poor homily. She was right.
    I’ve known a couple of priests who were brilliant homilists; but if you had to actually interact with them in person, they were pretty much jerks. Like you, I’ve also met some who were very pastoral, but whose homilies left a lot to be desired. I’ll take the good shepherds any day over the golden-tongued orators who are difficult to deal with. Of course it’s nice when they are both pastoral and good homilists. As you said, take it when you can get it, but otherwise, make do. I think it’s possible to learn to be an acceptable homilist; but we shouldn’t expect every priest or deacon to be St. John Chrysostom. Ask people in 3rd world, mission situations who get Mass maybe twice a year if they’re lucky; if so-so homiletics are a show-stopper for them.

  • Robster

    When i was momentarily inspired to become a Catholic blogger, I had this for a column idea; The Blessing of Bad Liturgy. Whatever the limitation: Bad music choice/perfromance; Incomprehensible homilies due to poor quality, presentation, or vocal comprehensibilty; Lousy acoustice/ineptness at using PA system; etc.
    Despite all these difficulties, people still show up for Mass. Why? What draws them?

  • Mom2Teens

    I agree with Melody. There are very few homilies I remember, but I remember the care our pastor took over my mom when my brother died. He ministered to her for YEARS. If someone needs a homily to justify their Mass attendance, what does that say about their belief in the True Presence of Christ in the Eucharist? Like one of the commenters said under de Turris Poust’s blog post, if you need the scripture opened up, take to the internet and get it from Fr. Barron, or the Irish Jesuits at Sacred Space, or get a copy of the Magnificat and read the meditations before Mass. It’s only at Mass, however, that we can follow Jesus’ command to “do this in memory of me.” In my opinion, no matter what anyone says, it’s not going to get better any time soon. We are becoming a nation so culturally diverse that there are upwards of 5 different languages and cultures in one parish where I live, with only one priest to meet their needs. If you really want to talk about awful, bi-lingual and tri-lingual Masses are my personal purgatory experience, especially when everyone is instructed to pray the Our Father in their native language — out loud and all at the same time. It’s enough to make me pray for the N.O. to be said in Latin!

  • Almario Javier

    For many, the Eucharist. The Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of our Lord. The priest might be a scoundrel, he might keep mistresses at the side, he might be merely an utter idiot. But no matter what he does, at the time he says the words of institution, something happens that makes all that completely, utterly irrelevant, even for a moment.

  • Manny

    I don’t understand. Catholics complain when we have dynamic priests giving great homilies like Fr. Corapi because supposedly we have raised him to some sort of idol, and they complain when the homilists is boring. Catholics complain when priests don’t emphasize abortion and traditional moral rectitude in their homilies and now they complain that there’s too much emphasis on them. In the words of my Jewish relatives, oh vey, stop the kvetching. Perhaps Mary’s problem is something that’s she’s doing wrong. If you want more from being Catholic, the initiative has to start with oneself.
    That comment isn’t intended toward your issue, Max, with a priest who’s English is very poor. That’s a separate issue, and a legit one. I’ve been at a Mass with I assume a priest from Africa, or another time a priest from India, and I couldn’t understand a word they said. It felt like a waste of time, except for receiving the Eucharest. By the way, I too have a priest from the Philipines at my parish but his English is excellent, just a hint of an accident.

  • lindenman

    The funny thing is, because I taught English in China, because my best friend’s wife is Korean, and because I went to Stuyvesant High School, a big share of whose student body came from various points on the Pacific Rim, I’d always thought of myself as an expert in deciphering Far Eastern perversions of our native tongue. By stumping me, this guy has won my respect.

    But I’d disagree that his English is poor. His pronunciation is way off, but his vocabulary is huge.

  • Melody

    “If you want more from being Catholic, the initiative has to start with oneself.”
    I think Manny is right. At a certain point it becomes like college kids who are always griping about the cafeteria food. A little bit entitled, a little bit spoiled.

  • Howard

    I understand that he has only been Pope for a few months, but so far, Francis has not impressed me the way he has you. Yes, he creates messes, but he never cleans up after himself. It’s beginning to look like the charitable interpretation is that he is just not very smart — certainly not on par with the last two Popes.

    There are less charitable interpretations, particularly regarding his reputation for humility. After all, if a US president went to a G-8 summit wearing cutoff jeans and a t-shirt, no one would think he was humble — they would wonder why he was drawing attention to himself by audaciously showing contempt for custom, and why he was showing such contempt for the other participants. Heck, does ANYONE think that young people wearing ripped jeans are doing so because they are HUMBLE? Pride does not desire finery, it desires attention.

    In the end Francis will probably turn out to be a very average Pope. It’s naked egotism to think that any Pope in our lifetimes, to say nothing of every Pope of our lifetimes, must be on the shortest of short lists of all-time great Popes.

  • cybergrace

    Well, I must disagree. When I see a priest wearing gold threading clothes or drinking out of crystal glasses I have a difficult time seeing Jesus through the bling. I do not think Francis wore anything like a teenager’s ripped jeans crying out for attention. I believe a priest should dress only a slight step above their parishioners. In my opinion, we should make sure we dress like the majority of God’s children–instead of like a Pharisee.

  • cybergrace

    Not to me, not at all. You cannot separate a person from how they act, IF they are not sincere, do not try to act in love.

    If I make use of the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, I am like sounding brass, or a loud-tongued bell.
    - Basic English Bible

    First Corinthians 1:13

  • Almario Javier

    But is not the Eucharist an act of love, a manifestation of the sacrifice made by our Lord?