From John Allen:
Flannery O’Connor, probably the greatest Southern Catholic novelist of the 20th century, liked to tell a story about a relative who converted to Catholicism, which was a highly counter-cultural move to make in the “Baptist belt” of the American South in the 1950s. Pressed to explain the choice, the relative allegedly said, “Well, the preaching was so bad I figured there must be something else to keep folks coming back.” That’s a bit of a caricature, but it captures something real about how Catholics and Protestants have been seen, at least at the level of stereotypes, in the United States over the years: Catholics are great at liturgy, at art, at “smells and bells,” but when it comes to preaching, Protestants, especially Evangelicals and Pentecostals, usually run the table. Those perceptions are, of course, over-generalized. Still, there’s at least a grain of truth captured in this stereotype, which is the idea that on the scale of priorities for Catholic clergy over the years, preaching sometimes just hasn’t rated that high. All this comes to mind in light of an experience I had this week in Key West, Florida, while attending a couple of morning daily Masses at the Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea celebrated by Father Arthur Dennison. Several members of the Cruxteam were gathered in Key West for meetings. Although Key West in reality is a culture all to itself, it is technically part of the American South too – indeed, literally as far south in the United States as the public can go, with only roughly 90 miles separating its southern tip from Cuba. Thursday’s Gospel was drawn from Luke 7, in which Jesus speaks of John the Baptist, the key line from which is the following: “Among those born of women, no one is greater than John; yet the least in the Kingdom of God is greater than he.” In all, the Gospel reading that morning ran to 171 words, featuring the typically crisp language for which the public utterances of Christ are justifiably renowned. After the Gospel, Dennison paused to deliver his homily. There were the usual signs of people settling in, getting comfortable, perhaps trying to sneak in a quick check of messages or a peek at the bulletin, that usually precede an experience people expect will stretch on for a least a few minutes. Here’s Dennison’s entire homily, word-for-word, which was immediately burned into my memory…
Read it for yourself. Preachers, take note!