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.

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