Can you believe it has been a year since Fr. Victor and I were first assigned to our parish? In my first homily to you last July, I told you that I was a widower, and that I knew what it feels like to “fall in love.” I am in love and growing more in love with you, this parish.
In that first sermon, I told you, that as we are learning to fall in love with one another, we would gradually lose our fear and hesitancy to have those conversations which lovers must have as we grow in intimacy and common purpose. I promised to speak earnestly with you about how to inherit eternal life. And that we would speak about fidelity and obedience to Holy Mother Church and to one another, chastity and the way we will respect life and one another, and about the simplicity of life with which we will live our lives together, sharing our gifts for the common good.
There are only a few ways for us to have that conversation: By my preaching, teaching, and in the confessional, but I hope I have kept my promise, especially in preaching.
My first professor for preaching told us he was going to teach us strictly according to official Church theology as taught in the great Council of Vatican II from the 1960’s, but he said he would use a “baseball analogy”.
He told us to imagine the preacher like a pitcher in baseball. The big game is coming when the pitcher will pitch the game. Like a pitcher, the preacher also prepares. He should pray. He should read the scriptures and study them carefully; and then, pray some more. Good preaching comes out of scripture and prayer and reflection.
Imagine a pitcher working on his fastball. Throughout the week he prepares, and throws a lot of practice pitches. He works on delivery, speed and accuracy. Gradually his fast ball gets faster and straighter and more accurate. On game day he pitches his best; and when it leaves his hand he knows it was a fastball, the way he had practiced it.
The Preacher prepares in a similar way, as he works out the message he will deliver at Mass. It usually takes me hours of study, prayer, reflection and practice to prepare a Sunday homily. You only deserve my best.
Prior to the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), most Catholic theologians and seminary professors accepted and taught that the Holy Spirit inspires and works on the preacher. In the preacher’s prayer and meditation, and in his study of Scripture, the Word and the Holy Spirit are working in and through him. That was always the teaching. And it is generally true.
However, leading up to and during Vatican II, there was a renewed awareness throughout the Church that the Holy Spirit didn’t just work on the pitcher. The pitcher isn’t alone!
There is also a “catcher”. The catcher is the Lay people, the congregation, people of God attending Mass. Throughout the Church there was a renewed awareness that the Holy Spirit was also loving, inspiring and working on the catcher, and in equal measure.
“And that is why”, our professor taught us, “that as a preacher, after you have pitched your ‘message’ to the people of God, you must shut up and listen. You don’t have the right, when you are greeting people at the door of the Church after Mass,… you do not have the right to respond to someone who just told you, ‘Preacher, that was a wonderful “Curve ball” or “Slider” you delivered today’…, you do not have the right to say to them that you only pitched a “fast ball”. You have finished preaching. The ball has left your hand. So shut up, and listen to them and find out what the Holy Spirit pitched to each of them who care to share.
“Chances are,” he said, “the Holy Spirit was pitching to them exactly the pitch they needed to hear. There is a pitcher, but there is also a catcher. And the Holy Spirit loves and works on and through both.
I have found that lesson to be profoundly true. I know that I struggle with it. The Holy Spirit is working on you, just as He is on me, or any other Church member. And often the thoughtful, prayerful responses astound me and enrich my spiritual life. I love to hear from my people after I have preached.
That doesn’t mean we don’t need good preaching, or good preparation. We do. Sometimes there is bad preaching, probably because the preacher got lazy or didn’t spend enough time in preparation for one reason or another.
But preaching is not meant to happen in an empty Church, or to empty heads. Preaching is not mind control, or intended to be entertainment. Preaching is intended to help us to open ourselves to the Holy Spirit, to understand the Word of God for our own spiritual lives here, and for our eternal life.
It is important for the “catcher” to know his or her job, and to be open to the Word of God and the work of the Holy Spirit. All too often there is also “poor catching”, lazy catching. Good “catching” takes work, too, and good catching habits, like reading the scriptures and praying before coming to Mass. Preachers can see when the catcher has not prepared to come to Mass or receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and it makes us sad.
When the front rows are empty and the back rows are full, it is often an indication that people didn’t come prepared to participate in the game, but just to watch it like entertainment, without any personal commitment. If you want to participate, come on down close to the altar where the catching is better. One father shared with me that when he moved his family closer to the altar he and his children began to understand the Mass better.
The words, “I didn’t get anything out of it,” that people often say about a sermon or Mass may indicate they weren’t working. Perhaps they didn’t put any effort into it, or they are probably not preparing for Mass in prayer. Attending Mass is spiritual work. Mass is a team sport; it is not theater. You are not watching the game. You are in it! You are the game!
In today’s scriptures St. Paul reminds us that,
“… by your baptism you are not in the flesh; on the contrary, you are in the spirit, if only the Spirit of God dwells in you. Whoever does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.”
If you haven’t noticed we all are in a battle for our eternal souls. The world wants to dominate and control you through the flesh. Look around at the number of people who cheapen their flesh in so many ways. They give themselves intimately in sexual encounters with too little consideration for long-term commitments and responsibilities. They tattoo and pierce their flesh as if the world can make their bodies more beautiful than God has done.
Jesus uses the image of a yoke, which is used as a collar on oxen or horses to harness them to do the will of their owners. We are all yoked in one way or another. The truth is we generally enslave ourselves and choose our own yokes. We choose our morals and our friends. We choose to become more pleasing to some, more than to those we love or to God.
We avoid going to Confession and accept flimsy excuses. When we don’t make a commitment to attend Mass regularly, we allow the world to win. If you come to Mass and Communion and can’t even fast for one hour before the start of Mass, who wins? You? No. The world? Yes, we allow the world to win when we exercise little control or discipline over the desires of the flesh.
Jesus tells us to take a good look at the yokes we have allowed to enslave us and compare them to his.
“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened,
and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,
for I am meek and humble of heart;
and you will find rest for yourselves.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”
I hope we can continue having our love conversations. Come share with me the pitch that you caught from today’s experience at Mass.