Monday, August 22, 2011

[UPDATED] Reflections on a homily: Positive emotion versus the clashing gong

One of the things that I love about the Catholic Church is how different the personality of each parish is. In Chicago, St. Peter's, Old St. Mary's, and the Cathedral are very different, even though they are all relatively close to each other. In Texas it would be difficult to find two more different communities than St. Francis of Assisi in San Antonio and our St. Thomas Aquinas parish in Dallas.

Likewise, Église de Saint-German-des-Prés in Paris, Basilique du Sacré-Cœur (also in Paris), and Cathédrale Marie-Reine-du-Monde in Montreal are nothing alike.

Each time I visited one of these I wound up being either interested at some reflections of that parish's community which was different from my own. It added a certain spice to Mass.

At the same time, every single one of those churches is just alike. Like beads on a rosary, they are bound into one by the common thread of the liturgy.

I'll never forget being in Saint-German-des-Pres looking at the shrines when the Mass began and realizing that, despite the French, I knew just what point the Mass was at because they used the very same tunes for everything. Or being at a tiny African-American church near Mobile, Alabama, on the bay where the children's choir sang along with a cassette recorder, leading us in familiar hymns from the 1800s but with a subtle gospel swing that gave the songs a new zest.

Each church I have visited has its own special memory for me of the huge diversity of the Church that still gathers us in together as one Body of Christ.

To put it differently, I appreciate what a big tent the Church provides for very different groups of people. I loved the fact that Jesus met us where he found us and had the same attitude to everyone else. That lesson is one that I have reflected upon often and is a good reminder when I find myself among those with different customs.

I haven't ever thought before about what a visitor from Paris or Canada or Alabama would find at my church, but I now realize they would find Gregorian chant from the men's acapella choir at the Saturday vigil, some of the most beautifully arranged modern hymns in the country at our nine o'clock Sunday family Mass, and a full choir singing some of the most glorious songs by Handel or Bach at the eleven o'clock Mass. Every Mass would show them a congregation who kneels at the altar rail for communion and who give some responses in Latin.

It is a nice thought that we, too, reflect the beautiful diversity of the Church.

In fact, this was pointed up to me by working on the Beyond Cana marriage enrichment retreat when it was just getting started in our parish. The originating parish was in San Antonio and from a church that was just about as different from ours as an American Catholic church could be. Our needs to adapt the program for our parish's different style and needs meant that there was constant tension between the groups from the two churches as they worked out the kinks. However, it all worked out thanks to unfailing courtesy and the determination to do what we all saw as God's will in helping the retreat come to Dallas.

I came to realize that, as different as some of the other church's practices were, there was a deep love and reverence for the Eucharist to have developed a retreat like Beyond Cana. It helped me to appreciate that "big tent" yet again as I saw our common love for Christ. One of our San Antonio friends shared that he had faced great opposition from his group in working with a church that was "too different." He felt that God had deliberately put our two parishes together in this endeavor to teach us that underneath all our differences we were the same. Amen to that! It was through face-to-face work toward a common goal that we were able to come to that appreciation of each other's diversity.
I think that positive emotion trumps negative emotion every time.
Cobb, Inception
The question of diversity in the Church, especially in our parish, was a topic of conversation around our house after the Sunday Mass.

The homily was given by a deacon who is not around much, but took the opportunity to scold us for not being more diverse like him (which is to say, we are a white/Hispanic, conservative parish). I won't drag you through it except to say that he wound up by speculating that if we were asked who Jesus was, we might give the "proper" answer copying what Peter said, but would need to look deep in our hearts to see what our "real" answer was because we might discover we were making God in our own image. He made it clear that he didn't think much of us on practically every level.

If this homily had been given by our pastor or regular deacon, I would have gone home full of doubt and examined my conscience. They are highly involved in the parish, don't bring the hammer down on us usually, and ... they love us. They are our shepherds and we know it.
If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal.

And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing.

If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, (love) is not pompous, it is not inflated,
it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the Truth.

It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
1 Corinthians 13:1-7
However, this particular deacon is rarely seen around the parish as he has a full-time job as a teacher and must be out of town a great deal when school is out. He's a nice enough guy, but the only time he has to show us any love is during his homilies. Needless to say, we weren't feeling the love on Sunday.

What he did, though, is spark us to look at our parish with new eyes. For one thing, we talked about the many wonderful churches we've attended which I mentioned above. We also talked about all the ways that our parish is diverse among our members. We saw ourselves for who we really are. Some rich, some poor, some jerks, some nice ... all struggling with life the way that everyone does. Trying to do our best for the most part and hoping to recognize that the guy who doesn't agree with us also is trying to do his best; he just has a different way of going about it. It made me love our parish even more because I know so many face-to-face and have gone through hard times and good ones with them.

It also made me very sad for that deacon who has lived among us for so long and still looks at us as a demographic of which he disapproves. Sad that he has not gotten to know enough of us person-to-person, face-to-face, which is how any real change is effected ... and how any real love is shown. God put him among us so that he could learn to know us and love us and we could do the same back. For whatever reason, that didn't happen. He can't show that love because he doesn't know us. He just knows a stereotype.

Or so it seems to me.

So I pity him. And I pray for him. And, as surprising as I found it this morning when I was walking and praying, I love him. I imagine he left that pulpit feeling that he had delivered a blow for much needed social justice. Instead, he delivered a blow that felt like an absent father showing up to slap an unsuspecting child in the face. No one wants to be that person. I know he doesn't either.

I've tripped over my own misconceptions many a time. I know how hard that fall is. So I love him, because he is just like all of us. Trying his hardest. Sometimes falling hard too ...

Lord have mercy on me and bless that deacon. Help us both to be the people you created us to be. And thank you for opening my eyes more to what I have taken for granted for a long time.

UPDATE -- speaking of tripping over my own misconceptions ...

A kind friend from our parish wrote to gently point out that, although I don't know this deacon well, many parishioners do know this deacon well ... and I'm selling him short to make it sound as if he is disconnected. He pointed out that those who know and love the deacon may well have walked away feeling as thoughtful as I described I would have if others had delivered that message.

I definitely thank my friend for that because, once it was pointed out, I could see it's a fair cop guv'nor!

I really appreciated the time and care that my friend put into the email. He cared enough to do the difficult task of correcting me so he put in the necessary work to make sure I understood his perspective first. And to be sure I understood that this fraternal correction was being done because my friend cared. How lucky I am!

Honestly, now that I think of it, if the deacon who gave that homily had taken similar care, I'd never have written this post in the first place. Which is kind of funny, when you think about it (at least it made me laugh). And also telling.

Thank you, my friend!


  1. Thank you for these thoughts, Julie.

  2. Beautifully expressed....disagreeing with grace! m

  3. Thanks for this post, Julie. When I'm ordained, I'm going to remember this reflection. While it's sometimes necessary to provide fraternal correction, it should always be given with love.

  4. I never thought about it, but it's true. Each parish has its own personality. I've gone to a couple of different churches in my neighborhood the last few weeks and though those two churches are probably less than a mile away they are different. But in a good way.

  5. what a beautiful post. i love that about the church, the diversity coupled with the unity. I love that I can go to any church in the world and it's mine, but they're all different, too.