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Before you criticize the homily, try giving one.

It happened at an old friend's dinner party, when the amusing man in an argyle sweater on my right turned out to be the pastor of my friend's parish. After the rice pudding, he asked me to give the homily at the Sunday Mass in his church.

I felt I had received a call. After years of sitting grumpily dissecting bad sermons, here was my chance!

I had given sermons twice before, but they were special occasions. One was for Mother's Day, where the well-intentioned pastor introduced me as "Mrs. Joseph Cunnenn." This time, I was being asked to interpret the liturgical readings as part of the church's regular public worship.

As responsibility began to hit me, a healthy awareness of my limitations set in. I remembered that Sunday churchgoers were not as sweet as they seemed; they were a tough audience, even if most were not as supercritical as I was. After all, I at least listened carefully and made a serious effort to follow the homilist's train of thought.

But I had lots of evidence that many in attendance -- sometimes because of workday preoccupations or concern about keeping fidgety children under control, more often because they'd heard too many pious cliches that didn't seem to connect with their lives -- had simply stopped listening.

It was time to call on the Holy Spirit. But I know the Spirit works mostly in a mundane, everyday manner. By now I had come to recognize my own ignorance; I'd better repair it.

Although the pastor wasn't looking for a biblical authority, I could at least do my homework. A teacher of religion at a nearby college and a friendly nun sent me photocopies of material like Carroll Stuhlmueller and Gerald Sloyan.

Long experience in the pews warned me not to confuse a homily with a lecture. A good homily should provide insight into what the assigned readings are saying today. I read them again, realizing the church brought them together because there was a connection between them.

It took a while, but it was an exhilarating experience. Those words had inspired Christians almost 2,000 years ago. Suddenly, I had a strong sense of the careful sequence developed for the liturgical year through which the Spirit was speaking to us today.

Since these texts provided a powerful manifestation of God's mercy, I would be the agent of a message that I myself wanted to hear. Spiritual excitement lay in the fresh reminder that the Good News was up to date. That moment of inspired connection was probably the high point of my experience.

I even had cold feet driving to the church, but I remembered the breathing exercises my opera-singing Aunt Geraldine brought me years before. The pastor was reassuring, and it was great to be introduced to the congregation as an integral part of this public liturgy.

Speaking to a sea of unknown faces, however, made my actual delivery more formal than I would have liked, more a performance than a sharing. But my classroom experience kept me going, and it was great to recognize two friends from my parish who had come to cheer me on. My voice grew stronger because I wanted to make sure everyone heard the message -- at least no one was snoring or making faces.

It was a wonderful experience to give that homily. Discovering the thread of meaning in the liturgical readings deepened my sense of connection to all who have worshiped and lived by them over the centuries. It was also a good lesson in humility. At an after-Mass conversation, it became obvious I hadn't provided enough examples or done enough to bring the message down to earth.

Ironically, my moment of glory left me far more sympathetic to priests who have the job of preaching every week. Standing behind the lectern during Mass gave me a sense of how isolated from the congregation they must feel.

Maybe that's the reason the homily is often stiff, not really aimed at those in the pews. If we want to help and not just grouse, we'll have to work out a practical way of giving priests regular feedback, a better sense of what they are or are not communicating.

For this to work, parishes would have to offer opportunities for input from the pews. Some pastors would stonewall the idea, but if the parish bulletin highlighted the texts and solicited comments, a beginning might be made. After-Mass discussion would also be fruitful.

I realized now the problems attached to preaching would not be automatically solved by turning the job over to laypeople. Church leaders could use me as exhibit A for the proposition that giving a sermon is a chastening experience for any layman or woman who is impatient for a more democratic, participatory Catholic practice.

Sally Cunneen, teacher and author, lives in West Nyack, N.Y.
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Author:Cunneen, Sally
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Dec 11, 1992
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