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First: I love priests. Love them. They work so hard, and they have to be good at so many different things, and they, you know, forgive our sins and feed us God. Priests are the best. Love priests.
That being said, That sermon, Father, again? That exact same sermon that you’ve given ten billion times before, using exactly the same phrases, the same timing, the same mild little joke, the same expectation that we’ll be surprised, edified, and transformed? That we’ve heard ten billion times?
Granted, sometimes there’s a good reason for the repetition — or at least an understandable reason. One summer, I worked in a little tourist town in Maine, where the population swelled about 5000% during July and August. Most of the people in the pews were only there once a year, so the priest would always turn the homily time over to the head of the restoration committee, who would give us a dour, down-home harangue about how expensive it is to keep things looking so quaint. Apparently the improperly-applied varnish had been removed and painstakingly restored to the pews, and that cost a pretty penny. “You’ll notice you ladies don’t stick to the seats anymoah,” Old Man Baggypants would intone, wiggling his picturesque eyebrows at us. Most people only heard it once, while they were on vacation, but we who lived there heard it at least fourteen times in a row. We never did figure out why only the ladies stuck to the seats, but the phrase sure stuck in my head.
Better or worse than the priests who just wing it, casually weaving a brand new amusing anecdote with a brand new heresy, so you have to glance down the pew to your kids and grimly shake your head, mouthing, “WE WILL TALK ABOUT THIS AFTER”?
Then there are priests who have tons of experience and are thoroughly orthodox, but they have put in their time over the decades, and they just aren’t going to write any new sermons. They’re just not. Not gonna do it. What’s the bishop going to do, fire them? They already retired once, and got dragged back up for service, “filling in” indefinitely, and half the congregation is just openly hunting for Clefairies or goodness knows what else during the sermon anyway.
Ideally, the homily is supposed to “extend the proclamation” of the word of God that we just heard in the readings and the Psalms, but I can’t find it in my heart to blame the old guys who are just plain done coming up with stuff. John Herreid told me,
We used to go to a parish where the very elderly retired priest who said Mass every once and a while had three sermons. That was it. And they all drew on pop culture from fifty years ago. One was based on “What a Wonderful World”, one based on an episode of the Andy Griffith Show, and one based on “Laughing on the Outside (Crying on the Inside)”. They got the job done.
Our own elderly, supposedly retired priest speaks on a variety of topics, but within five minutes he always circles back to the wooden chest set out by Vincent de Paul for food collection. Father pauses, looks us in the eye, and suggests, his white head wobbling with affectionate sincerity, ” . . . How about a can of tomato soup.” I always wonder if the food pantry workers sigh and mentally prepare for another onslaught of soup.
But really, still, how hard could it be to come up with something new, some little tidbit or insight or scrap?
Sheila Connolly recalled,
We had an elderly priest for years who had a total of one homily. Every single Sunday, same thing. Love your neighbor. Some people didn’t like it, but I thought, heck, in a few years of Sundays we might actually get the message!
It’s hard to argue with that. How many homilies have I heard in my life? Conservatively, at least two thousand, probably closer to three thousand. How many times has the message been “love more?” Is there any evidence (aside from the occasional can of tomato soup) that I’ve received the message and don’t need to hear it again?
Don’t answer that.