By Fr. Warner D’Souza –
The news of two families, both dear friends, leaving the Catholic Church sent me into a tizzy. Do I need to hit the spiritual alarm bells? The ‘migration’ from one Church to the other is nothing new; the methods though are always reinvented to sound urgent for one’s salvation.
There are two comments I wish to limit myself to. There are those, including some among the Catholic clergy who play down the issue simply as a matter of ‘merely two swallows’. I suspect that their fear of admitting to this ‘trickling exodus’ would expose their own lack of dealing with the spiritual needs of their congregation. Secondly, there is the congregation who demand for quick, short and perhaps entertaining homilies who fallaciously believe they will get something meaty in ten minutes when in reality all that they get is bones stewed in a pot whose meat has long fallen off leading them to be vulnerable to anti- catholic propaganda.
Let me begin with my ilk; all is certainly not well at home. The window of faith to the Church for most Catholics is the Sunday homily which has become the primary point of communicating the faith and the demand is often that that window be shut in ten minutes. The maxim goes that if you should be brief, be bright and be gone.
Even the Holy Father, Pope Francis has once (to be read in context of his entire homily) thrown his weight behind what he called “short and not boring homilies”. While agreeing with the intention of the Holy Father, I respectfully disagree with his words lest some clergyman use them selectively to their advantage.
It is insulting to the congregation to assume that what they truly desire on a Sunday is faith ‘in short’. The reality behind the growing demand for brief homilies stems from boredom that sets in thanks to those members of the clergy who do not prepare themselves. The truth is that a great homilist can be heard for hours on an end even on a busy Sunday.
What adds to the complexity of this issue is that the content of the homily is catechetical, preachy and moralistic. This is not the intention of the Catholic Church. The failure to ‘break the word of God’ and explain the scriptures is what ails the spiritual nourishment of the faithful. Jokes and anecdotes help but they can’t be a substitute for God’s word which clearly needs to be explained by the homilist.
This lack of Biblical explanation is a point of advantage used by sheep stealing, Bible misquoting Pentecostal groups who brandish ‘their version of Biblical truth’ while in truth know little of the Word themselves. While they conveniently quote scripture to be taken in its literal word, they themselves will permit exemptions for their right hand to be cut off and their right eye to be plucked off m, when they sin. Why is it that these literal reading, Bible wielding Pentecostals not walk about with hands and limbs and eyes plucked and cut off (Matthew 5: 30)? Or are they without sin (I John 1: 8- 10)?
In their defence, at this point, they will claim that scripture should be understood in its context, and not merely literal text. But the same principles are not applied when they quote references to idol worship out of context encouraging Catholics to tear down their home altars and destroy their rosaries and reject the Catholic Church. Perhaps then the reading of the Lord’s very words are thrown to the winds when He prayed, “that they may all be one”. (John 17:21) Oh yes, in which case the Pentecostal will lay claim to the ‘fact’ that they are ‘saving the soul’ of the Catholic from the ‘damnation’ that the Catholic Church has brought upon them (sic).
It is fundamental then, that our homilies be scripture based. Reflecting on his own role as a homilist Pope Francis said, “As a young priest, I found preaching a real challenge. I never liked public speaking and was never good at it in school. I can’t even tell a joke or a story without flubbing it. Standing in front of a church full of people is scary. They are all waiting for me to say something profound and inspiring, and I am not sure I have anything worth saying. I am not a holy man; my faith is not without lots of doubts. “What am I doing here?” I have asked myself more than once.
I never pray harder than when right before reading the Gospel. I bow before the altar and pray, “God, help somebody get something out of this. They need your help because my words won’t do it.” But as one of my teachers said, “God can even use the jawbone of an ass” (Judges 15:16).
One of the things drilled into us in the seminary was that our homilies should be on the Scripture readings of the day. Prior to the Second Vatican Council, the priest might preach on the catechism or other topics not connected to the readings, but that is discouraged today. “Homilies should be the transmission of God’s grace. Simple, so that everyone can understand them and everyone will want to become a better person”
This brings me to the ‘faithful’. The reality is that our faithful are as complicit in the ‘crises’ that we find ourselves in. Surely every individual strives to gather as many degrees of education under their belt, yet the same does not hold for spiritual learning. Beyond catechism class and ‘compulsory’ classes for the preparation of the sacrament of confirmation, Catholics barely show any desire to learn the faith. In fact the very parents who promise at baptism to bring up the children “in the faith” seek at the time of confirmation, exemption for their child so that the candidate may not be deprived from attending secular competitive coaching classes that would give their child an edge in the business world.
Value and faith based education is as crucial to learning as secular education. Surely a great mind with a superb scientific bend could build a super bomb; only a person who has also received faith and value based teaching will know the importance of not using it. Parents must learn to acknowledge that teenagers are not gung-ho about spiritual learning, especially when they are teenagers and must not readily join in the chorus of loose party chatter that quickly condemns the apparent inadequacies of a priest. By doing so you give your child the ‘excuse’ they so badly were looking for. Parents must put up a spirited defence by the manner of their own personal living. You can’t insist on your child frequenting the confessional if they have never seen you do the same.
In the Archdiocese of Bombay there are several scripture based courses. I myself teach scripture to the laity at the ‘Ministry of the Word’ programme, a two year Bible course that equips Sunday school teachers, prayer group leaders and community organizers. It is through the initiative of a lay man, Mr Joaquim Reis, that the ‘Deepen your faith’ course has been operative for twenty five years. Fr Vincent Barboza has well organized courses in Apologetics (defence of the faith), and parishes across Mumbai have excellent Bible classes. The reality is that only a miniscule number of Catholics make a concerted option for faith based learning.
This lack of the Word of God has left the laity themselves vulnerable to those who prey on Catholics, confusing their already ill prepared spiritual minds. It is for every Catholic then, to desire to learn God’s Word by setting aside time for Biblical Study and Catechetical instruction. This cannot be met entirely by a ten minute homily on a Sunday, even if you had the best preacher in the world. It is unfair, to say the least, for those who leave the Catholic Church to blame the institution for not nourishing their faith, when in reality they never desired to nourish it themselves.
And yes, my final word is to those Pentecostals who wilfully deceive Catholics by presenting ‘their versions of Biblical truth’; stop sheep stealing. If you truly believe that God is calling you to draw all men and women to salvation then knock hard at the doors of those who have never heard the name of Jesus before (I guess you’re too scared to do that and don’t trust in the words of scripture). What credit does it do to your congregation when all you do is spread hate and division among those already saved? Catholics are saved; you don’t need to save the saved.
Fr. Warner D’Souza is a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Bombay. He has served in the parishes of St Michael’s, Mahim, St Paul’s, Dadar East, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Bandra and at present is the priest in charge of St Jude Church, Malad East. He is a lecturer of Medieval and Local Church History at St. Pius X Seminary, Mumbai. He is also the Director of the Archdiocesan Heritage Museum and is the co-ordinator of the Committee for the Promotion and Preservation of the Artistic and Historic Patrimony of the Church.
Also, do read Fr. Warner’s immensely loveable blog: Pottypadre